Yiyun Li’s Story of Giving Up Her Mother Tongue Evokes the Value of the Personal

Photo by Brooke Lark

Language. Culture. Origins.

These are known quantities.

They’re obvious as money, healthy as kale. Aren’t they?

In our pseudo-psychological society, outright rejecting any of the concepts above may be seen as grounds for pity. The vague and largely unexamined public value placed on these concepts is predicated on the idea that anything linked to one’s identity in an even remotely cultural way should not only be respected by others but also actively desired by oneself.

In “To Speak Is to Blunder,” an autobiographical essay published this week in The New Yorker, author Yiyun Li speaks of personal experiences that don’t line up with said public value. The essay centers around her decision to write in English rather than her mother tongue, Chinese, and the subsequent loss of that language from her usage and memories. One might expect, then, that what unfolds is an explanation of certain emotional, social or political factors that drove her to this path. But this isn’t the case. Instead, Li frames the act of renouncing her native language through a series of memories and reflections.

The reassuring, curiosity-satisfying explanation, the straightforward public justification, is absent.

The essay opens by recounting a dream Li had about being in Beijing years earlier, in which she was looking for a black rotary telephone, the public phone of an apartment complex where she used to live. She explains that in her dream she talked to two women, characters from real life, but that here, they spoke English.

Throughout “To Speak Is to Blunder,” Li evokes several such examples of English “erasing” Chinese in her memory. She compares her own relationship to language with that of other writers, such as Nabokov, and describes the role English has played in her life as a “private” language, the language in which she thinks and writes. She recalls some ways in which this relationship has led to confusion or outright criticism: One professor expressed the opinion that she should “stop writing” (the phrasing implies “altogether”) due to the fact that English would always be foreign for her. After Li became a writer, she was at one point asked to read her work in her native language and had to explain that she didn’t write in Chinese (as an author, she never has).

Jumping as it does between memory, dreams, musings and exposition, “To Speak Is to Blunder” is quite the meander-y piece of writing and may to a more cynical reader seem to be avoiding the point of Li’s deep-down reasons for giving up Chinese in favor of English. However, I think the decision not to engage directly with some of the questions of which she’s obviously aware are being asked reinforces her own point quite firmly: A relationship with a language is highly personal, whether that language is treasured, rejected or simply put to use.

One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others.

It’s tempting to think of words like “personal” or “private” as meaning “hidden,” placing the impetus on the human in question to shed light on whatever the subject may be. But to an extent, maybe something that’s personal by nature can’t be dragged into the light. The values that dictate public acceptance, after all, aren’t based on the reality of the individual but rather the collective societal idea of what is and is not plausible in a human life.

Facing a conflict with this notion of public plausibility is something I believe often leads people to play the game of fiction: By creating “believable” characters whose private lives don’t necessarily conform to expectations, we subvert the illusion that the personal automatically conforms to public ideals. In a way, public and private life is inherently central to fiction writing, which finds a theoretical spot between the two. While this is not the focus of Li’s essay, “To Speak Is to Blunder” stands as an example of how an expository piece can retain some of the same depth of expression that fiction writing can.

In reading it, I gained new respect for an author whose work I already liked a lot.

You can read “To Speak Is to Blunder” on The New Yorker website and find Li’s books on her own website. You can also find more of the writing she’s done for The New Yorker on her contributor page. If you don’t have a subscription, your free online articles reset every month, so this is a great one to start off with for the new year.