If You See Something • Yiyun Li
With Rabih Alameddine, Elizabeth Bowen,2 Mary-Beth Hughes, Samantha Hunt, Peter Orner, Natasha Randall, Marisa Silver, and Corinna Vallianatos
EB Only real, and it may be rare, inspiration warrants taking a chance with the inappropriate. Why are we not ourselves, we wonder, all the time—or at least, more of it?
SH The first inappropriateness that pops to mind involves naked people.
MS I’m working on a novel that touches on a particular person and event in history. I’m using the person as someone upon whom I can elaborate and embroider. In musical terms, I’m sampling her: it’s appropriation. That is somehow inappropriate. This person lived, after all. She thought and felt in specific ways that I have no access to. Yet I feel compelled to invent what I cannot know, to assert my fictional suppositions.
EB We have within us a capacity, a desire, to respond. One of the insufficiencies of routine existence is the triviality of the demands it makes on us.
RA My aunt, may she rest in peace, did not get along too well with funerals. In Lebanon you might be able to bargain with death, maybe a game of chess, or badminton, but not with a funeral or the obsequies. Thou shalt attend. After the first few gaffes when she was a young woman—telling the bereaved, God wanted you close to His bosom; or, instead of May God have mercy on his soul, saying, May God forgive his sins—she developed a funeral phobia.
A family favorite happened in her sixties. She sat next to the widow of a married man who’d had the same mistress for thirty years. For the entire funeral, the open casket viewing, the burial, she kept calling the widow by the mistress’s name. Red colored all the faces attending except my aunt’s. She’d thought her behavior was impeccable until she was told otherwise once the condolences were done.
SH The language barrier between people.
CV Once I had to workshop a poem that consisted of two lines: $%*^%! / You can say that again!
SH Here is a story. Mother, Father, and two grown children were out for a drive on the beach, modestly clad in college sweatshirts, whale pants, Lily Pulitzer capris, and prescription sunglasses. Their Range Rover allowed them to make such journeys in air-conditioned comfort. On a summer island holiday, they had already fished and sailed, swam and shopped. They had cocktailed at lunch and were now out for a drive. Though not one of them would admit it, they were on their way to look at naked people.
A merry band of nudists frolicked on the beach. Father steered precariously close to the sea, keeping the contagion at a distance. Here was disgust. Here was curiosity. Without turning a head, each passenger strained his or her eyes as far shoreward as possible. A woman rubbed sunscreen on her buttocks. Father cleared his throat. Mother pulled hair behind her ears.
EB How is it that people tend to become all-of-a-pattern—and still more, seem content to let it happen?
SH No one was watching where they were going. The jeep suddenly slipped into the sea. To Father, it seemed best to ignore the situation, continue driving though the back end of his vehicle was being swallowed by waves, his tires unable to gain purchase. With the ocean’s stern address finally undeniable, Father placed the vehicle in park and stepped from the car into the water to assess. By now the naked people had noticed. The situation slipped closer to disaster. The naked people lined up on the shore. Father retreated back inside the car. He did not ask for help—the language barrier between people with clothes and people without.
CV I was in a borrowed office once, and a student kept coughing outside the door. When the coughing didn’t stop, I yanked the door open. “Do you need a tissue?” I asked. “Or to maybe do that in the bathroom?”
“No,” she said.
“Then can you—” I made a little scooting motion with my hands.
Later a note slid under my door. It called me vile. It explained that the cougher had cystic fibrosis. Vile: little gem I would’ve underlined in a poem. To read it was to recognize that that was exactly what I’d been, to feel the rightness of the word, and be released from it.
MBH Here’s a little Tolstoy tale just for you. Tolstoy observed that Russian aristocrats could weep over melodrama in the theater and never think of their coachmen waiting outside in the terrible winter snow. He did not mention that he had an illegitimate brother employed by his father as a coachman.
EB We slip into many acceptances unwittingly: do we know when we begin to give away too much? How is one to rid oneself of the idea that the fabric of existence is wearing thin?
MS I would venture to guess that what keeps me coming at it day after day, even when the challenge feels insurmountable, is this strangely moral argument I’m having with myself about what a fictional imagination ought and ought not to do and, more precisely, what is the relationship is between fiction and whatever it is that we perceive to be the truth.
PO Once I’d asked my grandfather Seymour if we’d had any relatives who were in Europe during the war. I didn’t come out and say it but I was fishing. I wanted someone dead in our family. I mean what kind of Jews were we if none of us was killed by Hitler?
Relatives? He says. You want relatives?
And he tells me this: Another story in our long family parade. A bachelor cousin of Seymour’s father, my great-grandfather, an Austrian Jew, a professor of something or other from Vienna, comes to Chicago in the early thirties. Seymour’s father sets him up with some kind of job in his office, accounting, Seymour thinks it was, but again the facts are vague. Seymour was in his late twenties then. Some relative shows up out of nowhere, what did it matter to him? The bachelor cousin professor ends up loathing Chicago, calls it a city of philistines. He never even bothers to learn English. Why should I have to talk to these people at all? I speak the language of Goethe and Schiller! So he goes home to Austria in 1934 and is never heard from again.
EB The filling and furnishing of memory is, undoubtedly, one great means of inner resource.
PO I asked why this cousin came to Chicago in the first place.
“How should I know? He must have seen the writing on the wall and then when he got here the writing didn’t seem so bad so he went back to read more.”
“What was his name? The guy must have had a name.”
“His name? Call him Fredrick the Great, what do I care. Forty-five years ago, the man stayed a month. Be thankful you’re a Chicagoan. They probably sent his body down the Danube. But listen, kid, you think this Professor Forgotten’s the only person missing from the entire world?”
RA My aunt wasn’t able to explain what goes on in her head during funerals. She said that she worried so much about making a mistake that it made her a wreck around people. She’d heard the stories of the married man’s mistress for a long time. She was discreet—never shared the gossip. She got confused. She then began to share—she was in her eighties. Stories poured out of her mouth like butterflies. Who slept with whom; this one was that one’s mistress; why her youngest brother refused to talk to brother number two; how her husband fell in love with her; who stole money; who spent her wedding night locked in the bathroom. The stories of the village she was raised in before she moved to the big city, an orgasm of gossip she’d held for years.
MS I begin and end each writing day with the same feeling of anyone engaged with the inappropriate or illicit.
PO Yet what did I know about anything? I wanted a name. I wanted my own piece of the action. I wanted to add a few more pounds of flesh, my own flesh, to a story didn’t need it, that will never need it. Even so, I’ll take it. There was once a man, a professor of something whose name we’ll never know. He escaped to Chicago and found it wasn’t much of an escape. Went back home to Austria in 1934.
NR Have you heard of the woman who married the Berlin Wall? The animate and inanimate have certain rules of engagement. Grammar usually sees to that. These things do happen, as Vladimimr Mayakovsky can attest:
Violin and a little nervous
The violin, was losing herself, imploring,
and erupted, howling
that the drum could contain himself no more:
“Enough, enough, enough!”
He was exhausted,
didn’t listen to any more violin ranting,
slipped out on to burning Kuznetsky,
The orchestra watched, dispassionate, how
the violin cried herself out
“What is this?”
“What is going on?”
And when the tuba
Wipe it off!”
stumbling, climbing through the notes,
crawling under the scorn of the stands,
for some reason crying out:
I threw myself around the wooden neck:
“Do you know what, violin?
We are terribly alike:
me too, I
but cannot prove a thing!”
The musicians laugh:
He’s come for his wooden betrothed!
But I—I could care less!
I am good.
“Violin, you know,
why don’t we—
let’s live together!
EB Should not art—which means skill and reverence—have its place in our immediate dealing with one another? Art, in so many sense: most, the art of reserve—the sense of when not to ask and what not to say. The art, perhaps, of oblivion.
2. Elizabeth Bowen’s quotes are taken from People, Places, Things: Essays by Elizabeth Bowen. Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
Yiyun Li is the author of seven books, including Where Reasons End, the winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Award; and the novel Must I Go, which will be published by Random House in July. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and Windham-Campbell Prize, among other honors. A contributing editor to A Public Space, she teaches at Princeton University.
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