Author Q&A:
Yiyun Li

Must I Go
(Hamish Hamilton)

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At 81 Lilia Lisk had shrewdly outlived three husbands, raised five children and seen the arrival of 17 grandchildren but she is obsessed with one detail of her personal history – Roland Bourley, whose published diary she annotates, providing the framework to this original new novel from the Chinese US-based author who herself has a fascinating and novel-worthy personal history. 

Must I Go is published only a year after your last novel, Where Reasons End. What’s the relationship between the two – were they written in parallel?
I started Must I Go before Where Reasons End. A little more than half way into the first draft of Must I Go, my life followed the footprint of that novel. By then Lucy [Lilia’s daughter in the novel] already died by suicide, and Lilia was 44 when that happened. [Then] I lost my older son to suicide when I was 44. I left Must I Go to write Where Reasons End, and then came back with some new understanding to finish Must I Go.

The novel is written as an annotated diary. What did that structure allow you to achieve?
The two first-person narrators in the novel – Roland and Lilia – are not great collaborators for an author. One is too eager, the other too unwilling. Roland’s personality does not change much throughout his life, and he likes to embellish and exaggerate his stories. A diary is the best form to preserve those traits, almost in an in vivo mode. Lilia is a reluctant narrator of her own life. She evades truth and withholds information, and Roland’s diary offers a structure for her to at least narrate some parts of her life.

Lilia is no nonsense and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Why does she allow herself to dwell on Roland and his diaries?
Lilia wonders, at one moment in her narration, about her relationship with Roland, or if there would’ve been a relationship of any kind had Lucy lived on, and she suspects that she might’ve forgotten Roland all together. Roland and Roland’s diaries are what partially link her to Lucy, whom she loved but did not understand. In reading and annotating Roland’s diaries, Lilia is really trying to sort out who Lucy was, and what Lucy meant to herself and to others in her shortened life.

Lilia offers her wisdom on survival to her granddaughter Katherine. Do you see your books as a survival guide of sorts?
Imagine Lilia writing a “how to” self-help book! In fact, it would be fun to imagine that book. I would get lots of joy reading her version, but no publisher would publish her! She is too blunt. Too unhelpful in her lack of sentiment.

 You were a scientist before you became a writer. The differences are obvious. Are there any similarities?
In science you never can say you know something with 100 per cent certainty. What you have are tools and knowledge to form a good hypothesis and to test it. I believe it is the same with fiction writing. An author can never say she knows a character inside out. Writing a book is to test out all the hypotheses, and in the end, if a book works well, one gets to know the characters better.

Many people thought China’s increasingly capitalist economy would bring more political freedom but the regime seems to be doubling down on surveillance and repression. Did you expect it to go that way?
I am a pessimist, so I don’t find the current regime surprising. However, I do like to keep a long view of history.

Can China and the US rescue their relationship from the trade war?
I don’t think I know the answer. I don’t feel qualified. If what China and the US have found themselves in, for the past 30 years, can be compared to a contentious marriage, I don’t think either party has found a way to exit the marriage without self-sabotaging. No prospect of clean severance of amicable divorce, I am afraid.

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