I made the mistake of googling Yiyun Li after reading her essay on language in last week’s New Yorker. The essay caught me and held me–the way she wrote, the power of her words. I see she has a short story in the current New Yorker and I look forward to tackling it.
But in googling her, coming across her author site, and reading her bio page, the depth of stepping into the essay recedes. Before, the closeness of her, of her pain, of the way she described living in two languages, swallowed me whole. But now she is an actual person, someone much more successful than myself, who has accomplished all the things I would have liked to: teaches at a UC campus, published short story collections that won awards, received best under 35 and then another best under 40. Before, she felt like a secret that I had discovered and couldn’t wait to find out more, because I felt her words reaching out to me over time and distance and identity politics. Reaching me as we were children in a shaded grove, perhaps hiding under a leafy trellis, and she takes me by the hand and will lead me.
But now she’s just another person occupy the obnoxious world just as I am, an adult that figured it out long before I did. Because at 36 (I’m 36), it’s too late for a best under 35. And what you know at this age is what you are, what aren’t and what’s possible. I know I will not produce anything worthy of a “best under 40”. But more to the point: knowing how long it takes me, knowing my abilities, at this age, I’d be amazed by myself if I publish anything with the next 5-10 years. At this age as well, I fear time, not only that it slips away and I’ll never be what I thought I might have been, but rather, I have some fear in thinking about an endeavor over time, because (at this age) I know how hard it is. When I told someone at 20 that I figured I’d be published int he next 2-5 years, I was being breezy, arrogant in a way that is completely possible when you don’t know the obstacles. At 36, at my 36, I know how long things take and how hard it is to sustain a desire and to not succumb to depression.
Persist, was Octavia Butler’s advice. She had a number of [stop to check on crying infant]