Author Interviews
8:04 am
Sun February 23, 2014

In 'Kinder Than Solitude,' History Always Haunts

Originally published on Sun February 23, 2014 11:57 am

Kinder Than Solitude, the latest novel from Chinese-American author Yiyun Li, examines the impact of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on a generation of youth. Following three friends, the novel alternates between 1990s Beijing and present-day America, where two of the friends immigrated. At the heart of the story is the mysterious murder that brought the three friends together over 20 years ago, and what they're only now learning about it. Li spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about the universality of loneliness, the impact of Tiananmen on a generation of youth in China, and her decision to immigrate to the U.S.


Interview Highlights

On the nature of solitude

I think Moran, one of the women who left China, she always cited solitude as her best companion. But at the end of the book she said she realized she did not have solitude, all she had was a life-long quarantine against love and life. And that's one thing I learned, or I was trying to make clear through the character, is you know, solitude is important, but sometimes solitude also has a deceptive surface. People use solitude as an excuse not to connect to other people. So in the end I actually changed my view of solitude a little bit, and I think that's why the title is Kinder Than Solitude, because solitude can be kind, but there has to be something more than solitude.

On deciding to emigrate from China

I knew from very early on I wanted to leave China. I was about 10, so this was in the early 1980s, when Chinese people could first leave China. And I think the reason I wanted to leave China was the same reason, you know, all children, when they grow up, they want to leave the house, they want to leave their parents. But America had this attraction to me because it was such a strange place, I knew nothing about it. And I think I really wanted to leave a familiar life for nothing.

On the shaping of generations by politics

If you look at the older generations of characters in the book, they are very attached to Chinese history. They talk about history, they talk about the famine, they talk about the cultural revolution. But this generation of the three friends, they're a younger generation. You realize they want to detach from history. You know, 1989 happened when they were 16. Tiananmen Square, the massacre there happened during their lifetime. But none of them would admit it played a huge role in their life. So that, I think, really is what has been happening in the past 20 years in China. I think the country's becoming richer and people are less attached to memories, these certain parts of memories, historical memories.

On the universality of loneliness

I would say it's a very universal theme. I think situations can be different if you look at different countries, you know, maybe it's famine, maybe it's lack of material richness, but if you look at even in this country, in Western countries, I think young people suffer for the same reason, that they have to make their transition from young people to adulthood and there's so much unknown in the wide world.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The new novel by the Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, called "Kinder than Solitude," is a kind of slow-burning whodunit. Three friends who grew up together in Beijing get the news that a childhood friend has died. She'd been the victim of a mysterious chemical poisoning over 20 years earlier that had left her incapacitated. In the book, her death is the end of a 20-year-old mystery, but it also marks the beginning of a period of self-evaluation for the book's three protagonists. Two of the friends have moved from China to America; the other stayed behind - and as they each take a deeper look into their lives, it's their disconnection, their loneliness that comes into greatest relief. I asked Yiyun Li what she learned about solitude as she wrote the stories of these characters.

YIYUN LI: I think Moran, one of the women who left China, she always cited solitude as her best companion. But at the end of the book she said she realized she did not have solitude. All she had was a life-long quarantine against love and life. And that's one thing I learned, solitude is important, but sometimes solitude also has a, you know, deceptive surface. And people use solitude as an excuse not to connect to other people. And I think that's why the title is "Kinder than Solitude," because solitude can be kind, but there has to be something more than solitude.

MARTIN: It is a story about life as an expatriate to some degree, which is something that you know intimately. You yourself came here from China more than 15 years ago - is that right?

LI: I think it will be 18 years ago.

MARTIN: May I ask you a little bit about that decision, when did you know you wanted to leave, why?

LI: I knew from very early on I wanted to leave China. I was about 10, and so this was in early 1980s. And I think the reason I wanted to leave China was the same reason, you know, all children, when they grow up, they want to leave the house, they want to leave their parents. But America had this attraction to me because it was such a strange place. I knew nothing about it. And I think I really wanted to leave a familiar life or, nothing.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about the China that is happening at the margins of this story. What is happening for this particular generation of Chinese, and how do the politics of that moment affect who they are and how they live?

LI: If you look at the older generations of characters in the book, they are very attached to Chinese history. You know, they talk about history, they talk about the famine, they talk about, you know, cultural revolution. But this generation, those three friends, they're a younger generation. You realize they want to detach from history. You know, Tiananmen Square, the massacre there happened during their, you know, lifetime. But none of them would admit, you know, it played a huge role in their life. So that, I think, really is what's been happening in the past 20 years in China. I think the country's becoming richer and people are less attached to memories, at least, you know, certain parts of memories, historical memories.

MARTIN: Besides their deep loneliness, one thing these characters seem to have in common is a sense of powerlessness. Is this something you set out with intention to write about?

LI: Yes. You know, I think this murder, or half-murder, happened when they were younger. There was something about the human nature that was beyond their understanding at that moment. And once a murder or, you know, a poisoning happens, they were never free. They were never innocent again. I think once you lost that innocence and lost in such a violent way, it's very hard for them to recover.

MARTIN: Is that sense of powerlessness a universal human condition or is that something that is particularly Chinese?

LI: I would say it's a very universal theme. You know, I think situations can be different. If you look at different countries, you know, maybe it's famine, maybe it's lack of material richness. But if you look at even in this country or in Western country, I think young people suffer for the same reason, that they have to make their transition from young people to adulthood and there's so much unknown in the wide world.

MARTIN: The book is called "Kinder than Solitude." The author is Yiyun Li. Thank you so much for talking with us about your book. We really appreciate it.

LI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.