2020 Clark Prize Finalist Spotlight: Yiyun Li
Feb 03 ● BY Mickey May
After winning the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and being named one of the best fiction books of the year by TIME, The New York Times, and others, Yiyun Li’s 2019 novel Where Reasons End is now a finalist for the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize, awarded by Texas State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. This comes as no surprise, considering its widespread acclaim:
“Li has converted the messy and devastating stuff of life into a remarkable work of art.” –The Wall Street Journal
“A stunning exploration of suffering and loss.” –The Atlantic
“Where Reasons End is the rarest of things: a perfect book, a masterpiece of American fiction, and it proves beyond a doubt that Li is one of this country’s greatest writers.” –NPR
Born in Beijing during the Mao regime, Li moved to the US, where she began writing fiction, having published four novels, one memoir, and a collection of short stories, earning her a string of awards and accolades. Yi also teaches in the Creative Writing program at Princeton University.
We first meet the mother and son of Where Reasons End, floating in a place between here and there, somewhere and nowhere, talking about things that mothers and sons talk about. They argue about grammar and adjective usage, bicker about baking, reminisce about silly songs made up during bath time. But these conversations start a few weeks after Nikolai (whose name isn’t really Nikolai) has died by suicide. The conversations stem from the narrator’s need to keep her son alive, at least in some sense of the word. As readers, we get a chance to eavesdrop on the intimate conversations surrounding grief, regret, and the stories unlived by a young life lost. When discussing his death, Nikolai asks his mother, “Would you call it a tragedy?” to which she replies, “I would only say it’s sad. It’s so sad that I have no other adjectives left.” Similarly, I would say this novel is not a tragedy, but an exploration of loss.
While Where Reasons End is a work of fiction, it parallels Yi’s own life. She too lost her eldest son to suicide when she was 44 years old. Joanne O’Leary tells us in the London Review of Books that Yi also struggled with her own mental health, attempting suicide twice while writing Kinder than Solitude. Perhaps for the best (or perhaps because there are no good explanations), Where Reasons End does not try to ask the “whys” of mental illness and suicide. Instead, it sits with them as fact and tries to use fiction as rebirth.