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Yiyun Li: “I read “War and Peace” every year. Each time I see new things”

Yiyun Li: “I read “War and Peace” every year. Each time I see new things”

The Chinese-American novelist hoards unconventional treasures

The Chinese-American novelist hoards unconventional treasures

April/May 2020

“War and Peace” keeps revealing new things to me
I read it every year. Each time I see new things that I missed before. This copy has been here for 12 or 13 years. I have a lot of sticky notes and tags on the book’s margins. I used to have a system, where on one reading I would use pink tags, on the next I’d use green, and so on. Eventually I ran out of colours and then I ran out of space. I think the system is a little overwhelming even for me. I need to get a fresh copy.

My cleaver has come a long way with me 
My sister bought me this cleaver when I was preparing to leave China for America in 1996. It was one of the most expensive ones available. We didn’t know what I was going to and thought I should take everything I needed for a new life in two suitcases. I even packed sanitary towels. I could certainly get a better meat cleaver in America, but this one is still good. I chop with it every day. I use it for vegetables and tofu even though you don’t need a cleaver for those. I think of myself as a domestic person – cooking means a lot to me. When I was little my father cooked for us, and he trained me to chop vegetables without looking. How to position my fingers. I think that this meat cleaver is going to have a long life with me. You get used to the weight of the knife.


I treasure the owl my son made at elementary school My son was very artistic.
This owl was not one of his prize creations but I discovered it in his closet after he died when he was 16. We have so many paintings by him in our house, but this little thing – it’s a mystery. I get obsessed looking at it. It’s a clay owl, it’s also a Cupid with wings and a bow and arrow on the back. Strangely, the owl has a sombrero on top of his head. Even stranger, he has the most pensive eyes. The sombrero and bow make him seem quite comical but when you look at his eyes he’s sad. I feel like there are a lot of paintings I can tell the story of but I don’t know what this says. It’s just a lovely object. I miss my son bitterly every day, so I have the owl next to my computer. It’s a treasure for me.

This deer antler reminds me of being carefree
When our dog was a puppy, my family would take a hike with him every Sunday out in Oakland, California, and on one of these walks he found the antler. It’s just one of those good memories – the kids were still young, the puppy was young, and my husband and I were a little younger than we are now. I think when children grow up there are so many memories, some are in our heads and some leave an object in our lives. There are lots of things that have left my life, but this one is going to stay.

This photo album is a piece of history
When my parents came to visit ten years ago they brought this photo album, which belonged to my mother, and left it with me. The earliest pictures are from the 1950s. Most of them are from my mother’s childhood in Zhejiang in eastern China. Back then it was unusual to take pictures – you’d do it once a year in a gallery or a studio. Many of the photos are of my mother’s  friends, a group who went to school together, graduated, took a picture, and then spread into different corners of China and never saw each other again. I imagine there are lots of people in that album my mother hasn’t seen since they took the photos. These people don’t know they’ve ended up in my hands.

My younger son captured an enduring image of my family
This drawing is just four figures: sticks, circles and little hands sticking out. It’s five-year-old James’s perception of the family. Something crystallised in that moment – from a child’s eyes I see us as a unit. And that’s important because though we’re three now, we’ll always be a family of four.

As told to Abigail Fielding-Smith