An Uncomfortable Trick for Honest Writing: Staring at Strangers

Author Yiyun Li doesn't just study people on the subway—she studies her characters, unflinchingly imagining their gaze until she understands them fully.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

Every child knows it’s not polite to stare. But human faces often call out to us with strange urgency—how often do we gaze at someone on a crowded train, hungry for a hint of where they’re going, where they’ve been? When I spoke to Yiyun Li, author of Kinder Than Solitude, she confessed that she stares at strangers all the time, even when it’s uncomfortable, looking for stories in a person’s features. For Li, writing fiction is a kind of staring, too: She watches her characters until their public guises fall away and their inner selves are glimpsed. Using a passage from Elizabeth Bowen’s under-appreciated novel, The Death of the Heart, Li discussed what the eyes conceal and reveal, and how looking is central to her life and work.

Kinder Than Solitude is an apt title for a Yiyun Li novel. Her books are filled with loners and outcasts, wounded people who forsake the messy realm of human interaction—but Li’s subject is the falseness of this remove, the way acts of cruelty and kindness bind people to one another forever. Kinder Than Solitude concerns one such event. When a poisoned cup of tea disfigures and permanently sickens a young woman, her three companions—all suspects—are bound to her for life, across decades and two continents.

Yiyun Li, a MacArthur Foundation Award recipient and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers to watch, is the author of two story collections and an award-winning first novel, The Vagrants. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. Li spoke to me by phone from Oakland, California. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Davis.

Yiyun Li: Though she’s not very well known in the United States, Elizabeth Bowen is a first-rate novelist, a writer at the level of Virginia Woolf and Katharine Mansfield. I’ve always been intrigued that she’s not as widely read as she should be. Her Anglo-Irish heritage may be one reason she’s not better known.

I have read almost all her novels and stories. The Death of the Heart is one of her better-known books, though it’s not Bowen’s favorite—she thought it was overrated among her novels. She did not love the book, and claimed it was more like an inflated short story. I have to say, I disagree: It’s a beautiful novel. To me, it’s about people being afraid of living their real lives, and choosing to live a life more like a game. Several characters in the novel keep saying to themselves and each other: It’s just a game, it’s just a game.

I like to think you write a book to talk to another book. Or write a story to talk to another story. Often, my short stories talk to stories written by William Trevor, another Irish writer. And when I wrote Kinder Than Solitude, I had The Death of the Heart in mind, even though the plot and settings are completely different. Especially important to me was a passage that describes the eyes of one of the main characters, Portia Quayne, a 16-year-old orphan.

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long. She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learn shyness from the alarm they precipitate. Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered …. You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face – what becomes of the child later you do not know.

My book concerns orphans, too, people whose status as “welcome nowhere” is reflected in their eyes. My characters are not orphans in the literal sense of having no parents: They’ve orphaned themselves more than they are orphans. Two of the characters have done so by moving to the United States from China, by leaving the homeland behind (perhaps forever). Another character has not experienced much parental warmth in his life.

This passage describes an averted gaze—eyes we “avoid meeting” because they are so revealing, so full of feeling, and the way these eyes themselves learn to turn away because they cause such alarm. I think it’s a very cutting insight into human nature. How often do we turn away from knowing another person as fully as we could, avoiding even the eyes of the people we’re closest to? And how often do we hide ourselves, afraid of being really looked into and seen?

This passage sums up The Death of the Heart very well—it’s book about looking, after all. It’s about a person, whose orphan status puts her on the margins of society, looking at the world—as the other characters avoid looking back. They choose not to meet her gaze, symbolically (and, in this passage, literally).

I relate to this because I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely. I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know. It does make strangers uncomfortable—which, of course, I understand. I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people. No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity. But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes. You can tell so much just from a person’s face.

When I was studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop years ago, Marilynne Robinson used an example to demonstrate the inexplicableness of human beings. I forget the context, and I’m paraphrasing, but she would say something like this:

Sometimes, when you get home and your mother looks up, her eyes are so unfamiliar, and for a moment it’s as though she’s looking at you as a stranger on the New York subway would do.

I loved that idea—your eyes surprise your mother’s eyes, and for that split second everything is there: a whole emotional world that you don’t know well, so foreign and hidden that she briefly becomes a stranger. Then she transforms, she becomes the mother you know again, and life goes on. But, in that brief instant of eye contact, something is caught. This is what we learn by looking at another person’s face—and also what makes us want to turn away.

When I try to look at my characters, I see mostly their eyes. In Kinder Than Solitude there’s a character—she’s an orphan, too—who is a starer, like Portia Quayne. What strikes me as very specific to her character—more than anyone else I’ve ever written—is how she never turns her eyes away. In any of the scenes with her, I can clearly see her eyes staring at people. She looks and looks. She’s very smart, and she sees through people, and she knows it. Whether she’s taking care of a dying old man, or sitting with a girl her age, or staring at a woman’s ugly, expensive shoes, more than any part of her body I can see her eyes—taking in the world and forming judgments about people.

Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.

In Kinder Than Solitude, one of my characters lied to me from the very beginning about how solitude was best for her. She was articulate about that solitude, and so part of me thought maybe she was right. But as a writer, you shouldn’t believe what your characters say about themselves. When they avoid being looked at, they avoid being studied, you need to push them and push them and until they admit, or relinquish, or confess. I got stuck with this character, with her belief in her solitude so beguiling. My friend Brigid, who is an early reader of my work, marked the passages with fierce comments and many question marks, so I knew I didn’t get close enough. Eventually the character (and I) found out it’s not solitude she has: It’s a never-ending quarantine against life.

That’s why I stare at my characters. Not physically—I can’t really see them physically—but an act of imagination that’s similar to the way I stare at people in real life. It can be harsh, but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away. The writer must never look away. You can feel it in a book when a writer flinches away from seeing too deeply into their characters. I think you have to look beyond the characters. You really have to strip you characters naked, every single layer, to finally understand them.

We see that turning away here, in Bowen’s passage. “What becomes of the child later you do not know,” she writes, but I think she could have written, “you don’t want to know.” The child’s future is written in her eyes, it’s there for us to see: her eyes will get her into trouble, and when she feels too much or looks too long, people will turn away from her. All of that is contained within the passage. So when the “you” of the passage turns away, it’s a decision to not face the painful fact of this, a decision to deflect what can be glimpsed there in the eyes.

That’s why when one writes about young characters—as I do in this book—I think one should know some of the moments in their future. When I write a child character, I have to include a second reference point later, to force myself to reckon with what becomes of him or her. I don’t want to say “what became of the child later you do not know”: I want to say “what become of the child later you must know.” To follow a person beyond a single point in time, to remain with them on the longer course of their life’s path, is a way to continue looking.