The PEN Pod: Staying Connected and Collected with Yiyun Li
On this episode of The PEN Pod, we spoke with author and former MacArthur Fellow Yiyun Li, winner of this year’s PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for her novel Where Reasons End. She has won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and she is also a professor of creative writing at Princeton University and an editor at A Public Space, where she is now leading a virtual book club called #TolstoyTogether. We spoke with Yiyun about Russian literature, how reading and writing can provide structure during an uncertain time, and how to stay connected when we’re all apart.
I want to ask you about the book club. How did you decide to do this, and why War and Peace?
I love reading, and just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my friend at A Public Space, and I thought, “Well, everybody’s home now. What can we do to make people feel less isolated?” So I thought maybe I could read War and Peace with people, and it turned out to be a very good idea. Everybody loved it, so we started doing it. Why War and Peace? It’s a long novel, but it has a very solid structure. It’s war and peace, alternating, and the chapters are relatively short, so I think it’s a novel that can give people a good structure. Every day, we read 12 to 15 pages. It doesn’t take more than 30 minutes, but it doesn’t add stress. So that’s my main goal.
“There’s that feeling that everybody’s looking at the same thing, everybody’s offering his or her observations. Sometimes I miss something, sometimes this person notices something. I just find that it is really like a book club—we’re just sitting there talking, except spread all over the world.”
How are people responding?
I was surprised. When I first started, I thought maybe I would have five to ten people reading with me. But at this moment, we have readers from every continent except Antarctica, and in multiple languages: French, German, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Bulgarian, Korean, Japanese. So I was surprised by how people reacted and how people liked to do this together, from all over the world. It’s a tiny thing that keeps people feeling connected.
Speaking of connection, how are you finding ways to build a literary community otherwise these days?
I think at this moment, the main thing that I have is just to read with this group of people. You would be surprised how connected people are. I think part of it is because we’re all reading the same 15 pages every day. There’s no rush. We’re not talking about tomorrow’s pages. So there’s that slow pacing—reading and looking at things closely. There’s that feeling that everybody’s looking at the same thing, everybody’s offering his or her observations. Sometimes I miss something, sometimes this person notices something. I just find that it is really like a book club—we’re just sitting there talking, except spread all over the world.
“I thought every day I would write some words that give my life a structure. Again, I think it’s like reading Tolstoy. Writing words also structures my life.”
You have a background in immunology. As both a writer and someone with a science background, how are you taking this public health crisis in?
I did read some of the original papers ever since it started, because I feel like there is some overloading of information on social media or on news channels. For me, I feel that I have to go to the original research by Chinese, American, English, and British scientists and see those data. I don’t want those data to be interpreted for me. So in that sense, I think my research background was helpful. Also, I feel like there’s just less agitation in me. I think to treat this thing, one has to have common sense, and one cannot panic. I think those are the two things I want to stay with.
Are you able to write right now? Some people have said they’re able to focus really well, and others say absolutely not.
I am writing right now. Because this pandemic will pass at some point, I don’t want—three weeks or three months down the line—to look back at this moment and say, “Oh, I achieved nothing but anxiety.” So for that reason, I thought every day I would write some words that give my life a structure. Again, I think it’s like reading Tolstoy. Writing words also structures my life. I know it’s such a strange time and you cannot avoid looking at news, so the only thing I do is I start writing before I look at the news. Otherwise, I would just get anxious.
Besides reading War and Peace and working on your own writing, what else are you reading right now?
Well, it’s actually a little hilarious—I am reading Anna Karenina. I’m way more into Anna Karenina than War and Peace; we’re reading War and Peace together, rather slowly. But this is like my sixth rereading of Anna Karenina, and I started it before War and Peace. So I’m almost done with Anna Karenina.
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