Yiyun Li, 'When We Were Happy We Had Other Names'
by Martina Hysi
Mario De Carli via Flickr.com
“Remembering was not like walking along a tree-lined path with wooden posts marking the years. Memory was a haystack. Search for any one story and you’d get a hundred stories, none of them complete.”
Yiyun Li has death at her fingertips. Having suffered from mental illness and recovered from two suicide attempts herself, she seems to have an intimate knowledge of the subject. Her language is woven into a style that slowly unfolds before us, in a string of ineffable, but meticulous metaphors. She understands the essence of grief, of mourning the departure of others, and the pieces of us they take away. This is an excellent story about death. Li’s discourse about this topic is metaphysically profound but her language remains simple and to the point.
She brings grief out of the confines of the mind and makes it tangible. The routines we acquire in our path to recovery from the death of a loved one are significant. As we fall into a haystack of memories, searching to resuscitate the one we need, we realize that the process of mourning is not straightforward. That is, what Li is trying to explain as she steers the protagonist Jiyau toward the recollection of seemingly unrelated stories of departure. Trying to understand the suicide of her young son, Evan, Jiyau begins with simple concepts, the feelings she experiences:
“Grief, I don’t know who you are, so don’t pretend you know who I am.” She is a stranger to this idea, and all ideas that lie in concentric circles around it. She goes as far as comparing her predicament to the set of a play, as if her story is playing out as the opening number before an epilogue. This changes quickly when she decides to visit her memories of other deceased people, in an effort to prevent her dead from becoming generically dead. Her teenage son was her son, not yet another teenage suicide. Soon, her reminiscences fall into a circular pattern as one death leads her to the next, almost like travelling from one airport departure lounge to the other.
Do we really know the people we love? Do we always know why they do the things they do? We do not, this is the simplest answer. Every time we scour our memories to find them, we will find that we never looked at them properly. We will find, perhaps, that like Jiayu’s grandfather, their secrets hidden in plain sight. We will find that we could not understand them. Maybe we were too young, maybe we were too stubborn. One thing is worth understanding from this: “if life was an antechamber to death, death was an antechamber, too — to other lives.” Better places lie beyond the disbelief and disillusion that death leaves behind.
Yiyun Li’s short story appears in The New Yorker, October 1st, 2018 issue.