In ‘Where Reasons End,’ conversations about life and death, and the danger of perfectionism

Yiyun Li, a celebrated Chinese American author and MacArthur “Genius” fellow, has thought a lot about how depression and suicide affects a family. Could the pull toward suicide get passed down from one generation to the next? Does someone’s relationship with their family members influence their decision to take their own life?

Li has struggled with depression. In 2012, she tried to kill herself twice. Then she wrote about it in her memoir, “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.”

The book was published in 2017. Months later, her 16-year-old son Vincent killed himself.

Now in her new novel “Where Reasons End,” Li writes about a mother’s imagined conversations with her dead son, Nikolai.

Li tells Press Play that she wrote the book to ask questions she wouldn’t be able to ask in real life, and accept that most of those questions would remain unanswered.

The novel is unconventional, according to Li. There’s no plot, and the setting is not bound by time or space. And the two characters frequently discuss writing. They debate the meaning of words, and whether or not use adverbs, for example.

“Now they only have words left. Or words are the only thing they could use to communicate with each other. But words are sometimes the most helpless possessions. We can have a lot of words, but they can be meaningless,” Li says. “This is a conversation across life and death, and they have to push themselves hard to make sure every word counts. So they scrutinize each other.”  

The characters also discuss time, and what it means for the living and the dead.

“There are a lot of things we do just to go from one day to the next. But here, Nikolai is saying, ‘I don't have days, and you have to live up to my standards to go without time. Even though the mother talks about seasons, and weather, and holidays, he would not engage with that,” says Li.

The relationship between parents and children

As mother and son talk in the book, no anger or accusations come up. The mother does not demand to know why her son killed himself.

Li writes:

“Had I been your age and had I been your friend, I would have been bright and sharp with you. And I truly wish we had been friends. I love you so much but I can only love you as your mother. Sometimes a mother becomes the worst enemy because she can’t be the best friend.
I love you so much too, he said. I wish I didn’t hurt you.
Oh, I said. I wouldn’t say that at all. What’s hurtful is life.”

And later:

I wish you had made me an enemy, I said, rather than yourself.
Mothers I thought would be perfect for that role.
You can’t be that for me mommy, Nikolai said. I found the perfect enemy in myself.”

Li says it is tragic that that parents and children are not contemporaries; no matter how close they are, they can’t be best friends.

“So there are certain things that parents cannot experience with children. And here I think the mother of course had the wishful thinking that if only she could be his friend, or because she cannot be the friend, if only she could be the enemy. Sometimes I think with teenage children, if they could have something to push against, that would also take some sort of energy out of the destruction. You know there has to be some sort of destruction done to grow up.”

The destructiveness of perfectionism

In the book, Nikolai is a perfectionist. It might have something to do with why he killed himself too, the author suggests.

Li calls perfectionism a disease. “I think some people probably were born with that desire to be perfect. Some people outgrew it. I look at the mother -- she’s not a perfectionist. Even as a writer, she accepts that she cannot find the perfect words. So where did this come from? I don't know.”

Li says she has struggled with perfectionism in her own life too, and it’s a pressure many writers feel.  

“We want to find that [perfect] word. We want to get as close to something as we can, but we always have to accept we'll never get there.”

The cover of "Where Reasons End." Credit: Random House.

Processing the tragedy through writing

“Writing the book pushed me to think about things, rather than just to feel about things. And I think when a tragedy happens… you can be overwhelmed with feelings, and you can be drowned in feelings. Feelings to me are important. But I think more important to me is thinking. So writing the book helped me think through things,” she says.

Also by now, does she understand why her son killed himself?

Li acknowledges she will never fully understand what brought him to suicide. But she can’t say she doesn’t understand either. “Everybody who has gone through depression would have their own story. But there’s also something in common. So I don't want to make a general statement,” she says.

There are no answers in " Where Reasons End." “Answers end something. And you don't want answers because they are the end. And mostly, I think it's important to ask questions. And if the questions are not answerable, there’s never an end to that.”

--Written and produced by Amy Ta