Yiyun Li and Victor LaValle on Giving Life to Characters

Yiyun Li and Victor LaValle. Photo by Nick Doll.
Yiyun Li and Victor LaValle. Photo by Nick Doll.

Midmorning on Saturday, Yiyun Li and Victor LaValle took the stage for “Immune to Folly: Character and Self,” a joint reading and conversation. The talk’s title made reference to a concept from one of Li’s essays, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life.

Li had arrived in the Unites States “an aspiring immunologist,” and on the subject of the immune system, she read, “its memories can go awry, selectively or worse, indiscriminatingly, leading the system to mistake self as foreign, as something to eliminate.” Immunity, she said, is “a trait that I have desired for my characters and myself, knowing all the same the futility of such a wish: Only the lifeless can be immune to life.”

Li also read two passages from her 2015 novel Kinder Than Solitude, both to resounding applause from the San Carlos audience. About the first, a lyrical passage highlighting the pleasures of a solitary life, Li shared that a trusted friend and reader had bracketed it with the curt annotation: “B.S.” The second passage, appearing later in her novel, contained the character’s realization that her belief in solitude was a delusion: “The crowdedness of family life and the faithfulness of solitude…make little dent…on the profound and perplexing loneliness in which every human heart dwells.”

LaValle admitted to a similar desire to “innoculate his characters against some of the pains in the world.” He spoke openly about addressing the mental illness in his family through his fiction. At times, he has rendered the affliction as a monster, and in other stories, he has shielded his characters from it, once “to give adventure to his sister, who would be unable to manage it in real life.” Li added, “I write in English so that my mother doesn’t read it!”

LaValle prefaced a reading from his forthcoming novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, by explaining that it was conceived as a response to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. LaValle described an ambivalent relationship to Lovecraft—a love and admiration for the work since youth, as well as an abhorrence for the racism within it. His reading centered around the physical description of his character, Charles Thomas Tester, as he dresses and leaves the Harlem apartment he shares with an ailing father.

LaValle read: “Walking through Harlem first thing in the morning was like being a single drop of blood inside an enormous body that was waking up. Brick and mortar, elevated train tracks, and miles of underground pipe, this city lived; day and night it thrived.” As he moves through the streets, Tester’s trained appearance belies an interior identity at odds with it. The character remains conscious of race and adjusts his persona accordingly as he moves further into white neighborhoods.

When asked about his move toward horror, LaValle explained, “In writing horror, I’m coming back to the first thing I loved,” recalling cheap paperbacks his mother bought for him, as long as the covers weren’t too lurid.

Li was asked to respond to Gish Jen’s Friday afternoon talk about the individualism of the West in contrast to the collective, interdependent quality of Eastern thinking. While she had not arrived in Key West in time to hear Gen’s talk, she shared an anecdote from a reading in Croatia, where her readers insisted, “You’re not writing about the Chinese; you’re writing about Croatians. These are our stories.” Li said she suspected her characters would not say, “I’m Chinese,” but would say instead, “I’m me.”

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