Monday 22 July 2019

My cultural life: novelist Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li
Grief Lessons
Starry Night
Before the Rain

Award-winning Chinese-American novelist Yiyun Li is the author of the short story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. The book is the focal point of this year's One City, One Book initiative for Cork, and Li will be in conversation with Pat Cotter, director of the Munster Literature Centre, at the launch on Wednesday, October 10 at 7pm in Cork City Libraries on Grand Parade. Li was awarded the first Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in Cork in 2005 for her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

Film: 'Before The Rain'

Before the Rain

I taught freshman composition in Iowa a few years ago, and my students read Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. They complained about the repetitiveness of the narratives. It felt, to their teenage minds, that all genocides followed the same pattern. I showed them Before the Rain (above), set in the Balkan turmoil, covered by Power's book. Some liked it, others found it difficult to understand. This was 2003, and I wish I could watch the film again with those students. They are in their 30s now, and the world seems drastically different from 2003. I'm curious what they would have to say about the film and genocides today.

Music: 'Songs My Mother Taught Me'

Many musicians have played Antonin Dvorak's Songs My Mother Taught Me and many singers have sung it. I often listen to it, with a different set of questions: what are the songs that a mother did not teach a child? What are the stories a mother chose not to tell? For every memory a generation passes to the next, there must be a hundred other moments that are kept unsung, unsaid, and even buried. One always wants to make the effort, even if it's in vain, to write about those moments left out in a song.

Artwork: 'The Starry Night'

Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh's painting, The Starry Night (above), has become such a familiar image - printed on posters, coasters, coffee mugs, umbrellas, rain jackets, so on and so forth. My son Vincent made a duplicate of the painting when he was a young boy, and the painting decorates our dining room now. Some artworks become a part of many individuals' stories. It is comforting to think in other houses, other children's duplicates of The Starry Night also live among the loving gazes of their parents.

Play: 'King Lear'

I saw King Lear recently in New York. "Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms" is one of the most devastating stage directions. A man sitting in front of me wept toward the end. I did too - and I imagine many have done so - hearing Lear howl. I wrote a short story right after I came back from seeing the play. This was one rare incidence when I was moved into writing a story immediately.

Book: 'Grief Lessons'

Grief Lessons

I have been reading and rereading Grief Lessons, Four Plays by Euripides (above), translated by Anne Carson. Having experienced some grief in my personal life, I have found that reading the plays is the closest experience of saying things that can never be adequately put into words.

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