48: Lillian Li - writer

photos by Graham Cotten

Lillian Li is a writer, bookseller, and university lecturer whose novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant (Henry Holt), came out in July 2019. Her work has been published in Guernica, Granta, Glimmer Train, Bon Appetit, and Jezebel. Originally from the D.C. metro area, she lives in Ann Arbor.

Graham Cotten is an MFA student at the University of Michigan.

This interview was conducted by Vivian Ludford over the phone on September 14, 2018. Graham Cotten photographed Lillian in her Ann Arbor home.

[Editor’s note: Vivian and Lillian went to college together. We’re including some of their pre-interview chatter, because it’s just as good as the real thing.]

VIVIAN: What are you working on now?

LILLIAN: Nothing that’s a solid project, but, somebody was telling me recently that they don’t think authorial intent exists. That most of what happens in writing is totally coincidental and the result of whatever the author happens to be thinking or seeing or experiencing that day.

I was thinking about that as something I can agree with, except I feel like the author does have some control, in that the author is kind of a prism that the light of experience shines through, and then is turned into something different. If that’s the model I believe in, then it’s important for me to be writing something every day that I can, to shoot something through that prism, so I can at least capture what I did that day, what I was thinking that day. So even though I don’t have an actual novel I’m working on right now, I have a setting, some characters, and a situation. I’m trying to see if I can shove my ridiculous daily theories into the narrative, to see where it takes me. At the very least, I’ll have a fossil record of what I was thinking that day.

VIVIAN: I love that. I like what you said about the prism, like a filter. It kind of reminds me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

LILLIAN: I haven’t read that yet, but I’m very excited by the idea. It’s basically a woman who regurgitates narrative, and that sounds like me.


LILLIAN: Did you like the first book?

VIVIAN: I loved it. I need to read the other ones. It’s like, men are so… they don’t even try to be horrible or funny, but they just end up being horrible and funny in ways they don’t even pick up on, because they’ve never had to act in any other way. That’s a central part of her book, I think; or it comes up a lot.

LILLIAN: Totally. I think a lot about how society operates as a mirror for yourself—but we as a society don’t actually put a mirror up for men. And so they have only their self-image to inform them, and of course that’s distorted. They have no perception and understanding of how they’re actually affecting a room, because they’re not able to see themselves in the room in the way that I think women are called to—women are constantly being told how to see themselves and see how they affect others. All I can do is see myself in a room, and not actually be in the room.

VIVIAN: That’s my main concern in the world—who’s seeing me, how, and does it look good from every angle [laughs]

LILLIAN: Yeah. My big obsession for the past couple years has been: how can I get to a one-to-one articulation of how I see myself and how the world sees me? How can I get that to be as perfect as possible? How can I control, basically, how people see me? That’s basically all it boils down to—there’s nothing really more intricate than that, which is kind of startling. I start out thinking all of my obsessions are super complex and interesting, but they end up being a really simple, common desire at the end of the day.

VIVIAN: I feel the exact same way. That’s almost why I write I think—I want other people to feel how weird it has been for me to be alive and moving through the world, and I want other people to experience the same alienation or weirdness that I’ve been feeling.

LILLIAN: Absolutely.


[Beginning of formal interview]

VIVIAN: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.

LILLIAN: The two things that jump out to me most are really closely tied to my Chinese heritage.

The first one is that, I think, for as long as I can remember, part of my family’s myth has been that it would have been better if I’d been born a boy, and my brother had been born a girl. My brother is two years younger than me. In so many ways, we are physical and maybe even emotional opposites. We’re very close, but very different.

The reasoning [for that myth] was very straightforward. Basically, I was a really robust child—I still am. I never got sick. I was tall from the beginning. I had thick bones. I ate a lot, had a huge appetite, was strong. My brother, on the other hand, had these beautiful thin wrists, this gorgeous symmetrical face, these fragile tiny teeth. He was sick all the time, but he was very charming and sweet. I was very ambitious, very competitive, very cutthroat, for a child. And I think also very selfish. And I think those were all attributes that made me seem male to my parents. Or rather, those things would help me succeed as a boy, but wouldn’t necessarily help me succeed as a girl.

It wasn’t exactly like I felt wrong, because I don’t think it was ever pitched in a negative light—it was just, this is not going to be as easy for you, to have these attributes, because that’s not what society thinks a girl should be.

The other thing—I remember watching this movie, when I was six or seven, it was a Chinese movie, about this man who specializes in acrobatics with masks—

VIVIAN: The King of Masks!


VIVIAN: I watched that movie when I was really young, too. There’s that child who’s dressed up as a boy, but she’s a girl?

LILLIAN: Yes. She’s sold as a boy, and then it’s revealed that she’s a girl. And she has to work 1,000 times harder as this man’s child, and learns all these acrobatic tricks, and at the end she jumps off this building to save the man because she loves this father figure so much, and I think he kind of starts to get over the fact that she’s not a boy.

I remember being actually furious after watching that movie. It was the first time I’d learned about the cultural baggage of being Chinese and female, and how daughters were essentially useless—I was a daughter, and I made that connection. I remember being so angry, especially at my mother.

But because my mother is a Chinese woman—and also as a daughter herself in a family of all daughters—she’d grown up with that same baggage. So she kind of was like, “Get over it. You have no right to be angry, even if it is unfair. You’re not really helping anyone.”

So it was kind of this moment of being told that my anger for the state of how women were treated under men wasn’t actually useful, and, in some ways, I think that’s not untrue. Me being really upset, even though that was valid, was not going to change anything in that moment. And I wondered what to do with that anger, instead.

In that movie, that girl does 1,000% more than she would have done if she’d been a boy. She’s so much stronger, more talented; she loves so much harder. It’s almost…I wonder if those are the things that stayed with me. Rather than that part about how she was considered less than, what you actually do when people tell you that you’re less than.

I wonder if those are the things that stayed with me. Rather than that part about how she was considered less than, what you actually do when people tell you that you’re less than.

VIVIAN: Has your idea of the productivity—the usefulness—of this kind of anger changed for you over the years? I feel like I used to be so angry all the time, and instead of directing the rage at the world, I directed it at myself—I don’t even think I recognized it as rage. I don't think I even knew what I was mad at.

LILLIAN: Like, what the purpose of your anger and rage is?

VIVIAN: Yeah, and how you deal with it.

LILLIAN: I think I had a similar path as you: not being able to recognize it for a while. Maybe because of this early thought—or early inherited philosophy—that there’s no purpose for anger. In a lot of ways, I thought of anger as an emotion that was like a scarf; you can wear it, or you can take it off. You could move through the world without ever choosing to wear that scarf.

What ended up happening was that that anger found other ways of expressing itself. So rather than being angry for myself, I might be angry on behalf of someone who was going through something similar to what I’d gone through. And then I’d be incredibly angry. I’d be willing to break up loyalties, draw lines in the sand, at that level of anger, which is very outsized, considering that these were usually people that weren’t like my best friends. They were friends, certainly, but not to the extent that I should be willing to mess up ties—

VIVIAN: —To go to war.

LILLIAN: To go to war! And I think it was because I was ignoring that it was actually my own anger, because it felt indulgent to be angry on behalf of myself.

Now, I try hard to recognize when I’m angry on my own behalf, because it will come out in a disguised way even if you try to suppress it. I’m trying now to recognize when I’m angry on behalf of me, and not trying to shift that into anger on behalf of other people.

VIVIAN: You’ve spoken in past interviews about how you were working in this Chinese restaurant in Maryland right after college. How hard it was, and how you started to imagine all the things you have to give up; you have to take off the human parts of your identity off for 12 hours a day, and put them away.

You ended up writing a whole book about the inner lives of the people who have to do that. It almost feels like a way to say to all the people eating there, “Hey, you’re going to have to look at them, to look at their lives!” I feel like there’s something about that, being angry on their behalf.

LILLIAN: [laughs]


VIVIAN: You’ve also spoken in the past about the sense of stagnation you felt working in that kind of environment. Can you talk more about tapping into the sense of stagnation? What about this particular kind of Chinese restaurant was compelling to you?

LILLIAN: I realize that a lot of my earlier work (a lot of the earlier work that never lead anywhere and ended up in my scrap pile), featured characters that had stagnated, or were stuck. I was always drawn toward the stuck character: ones who had no ties outside of themselves; somehow had made no friends; ones who had spent decades doing nothing. And it didn’t actually work because I didn’t know why they were stuck; they just existed for me as already stuck—I was never able to actually figure out the context of that stagnation. And of course there always is a context.

I think why I’m so drawn towards stagnation, and articulating and writing it in a realistic way, is because I have a huge fear of stagnation in myself. You know how a shark, if it doesn’t keep swimming, drowns.

[both laugh]

LILLIAN: I think my greatest fear is letting my life pass by without noticing it and not consistently growing, producing. Settling too early. All of those things.

In a lot of ways, I feel like that fear stems from being raised by immigrants. Immigrants have an identity of constant movement. Even after you’ve done that first literal move to the new country or space, you still keep moving, because you have to keep learning new languages, new cultures, and you can’t stop, because there’s no safety net. This is not your country. There’s no one here who cares about you.

That’s the fear – that if I don’t keep succeeding, keep growing, that I’ll get stuck with no safety net.

What I realized with that Chinese restaurant were two things: First, I finally found a real context for being stuck. Working in that restaurant, I was stuck. I ended up quitting [a month later], but when I was working there, I did nothing. I talked to no one. I slept on my day off, and that was it. I didn’t live my life in any way except in that restaurant. I was doing so much in the restaurant; I was exhausted, but externally, nothing was happening.

The second thing was realizing that my idea of immigrant identity only being about movement was incomplete. That there’s also an immigrant identity of stagnation. And that both are rooted in the same fear.

That fear of failing—of not having a safety net that makes one person go mad from movement—also makes another dig in their heels. There’s security in always moving, and there’s security in finding one place, one job, and never letting go. That’s what I was thinking about with the Chinese restaurant.


VIVIAN: I love what you’ve said in other interviews about how you want to expand what we view as the immigrant narrative in America. In your interview with Nicole Chung in Shondaland, you say, “But what about the narrative where the Chinese American immigrant kind of fucks up his own life? Why can’t we have those narratives as well, where it’s not poverty or overt racism, but hubris or spite?”

Can you talk about that a little more? Did you feel any kind of responsibility or weight to write these characters in a certain way?

LILLIAN: When I first started writing this book, I definitely had thoughts about responsibility and weight, but I’ve come to understand those thoughts as stemming from a hidden brattiness that I’d felt toward my literary elders in the Asian American canon. That was a period of time when all I could focus on was things in Asian American literature I didn’t like, what I found reductive, over-explanatory, clichéd, etc. I felt I had the responsibility to write over the existing literature.

Very luckily, I realized that, in fact, I had been shaped by all that work, and that I owed a lot to it for paving an easier path for me. And also that literature itself is not interested in shutting down the discussion; this isn’t a frozen landscape where each book is attempting to be the last word on anything.

So now, I don’t think I would label what I feel as responsibility, weight, duty. I don’t think that I have to counteract all these generations of writers before. Because that’s what a brat would think.

[both laugh]

LILLIAN: I wanted to expand the landscape of Asian American writing—the landscape that they had given me. I think writing the book was actually a much more freeing and fun process as a result; I was just thinking of how to build my own expansion.

VIVIAN: I feel like it’s changed so much for POC writers, even in the last five years.


VIVIAN: This year alone—you, R.O. Kwon, Lucy Tan

LILLIAN: It’s amazing!

VIVIAN: It is amazing!

LILLIAN: And I love that we’re getting more narratives that aren’t the dominant Asian-American narratives: Chinese, Korean, etc. One of my favorite books this year is Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, which looks at the Filipino community in San Francisco. I had so much awe for how Castillo pulls off that story. That’s something I’m also excited by.


VIVIAN: You write so much about food—in your newsletters, you had that great article in Bon Appétit… Tell me about what food in general—especially Chinese food—has meant to you.

LILLIAN: Food was one of the biggest contradictions in my family life in terms of what was expected of me. I was probably 20 pounds overweight when I was a child—that’s what the doctors said. But my parents were classically Chinese in that they really wanted to feed me good food and worried if I didn’t eat enough.

At the same time, when they grew up in China, everybody was underweight. I don’t think they’d ever seen an overweight child before.

[both laugh]

LILLIAN: It was outside of the realm of their experience of what a child could be. So every dinner, I didn’t know if I was going to be told to eat more or to eat less. I think that…this normal, everyday thing became really fraught for me. And I think that’s why I’m trying to explore how everyday things have really complicated relationships attached to them—this hidden baggage. That’s definitely one of the reasons why I write about food.

I think also that, just at that age, I was paying a lot of attention to it. And so it’s easy for me to come up with food scenes and descriptions. Whereas any other kind of description…like I don’t know how to describe the weather ever, or how the sky looks at any hour of the day.

[both laugh]

VIVIAN: Me too. I can do like rain, or nothing.

LILLIAN: Yeah. For scenes, it’s always easier to use food to set the tone, as opposed to weather.

VIVIAN: It’s a natural gathering point.

LILLIAN: Yeah. I was also really appreciative of how Chinese cuisine doesn’t try to disguise what you’re eating, or the violence of cooking. Like we serve fish with the head still on, because that’s how you know it’s fresh—normally if you buy fish at a Chinese grocery, they kill it in front of you. It’s not like frozen fish fillets.

My dad grew up kind of adjacent to the countryside. He eats every kind of animal, and he’s done this since he was a child. Recently, we made frog legs. We went to the Chinese grocery, and they let you pick out the live frogs, and they butchered them in front of us. My dad is just making chit-chat, and guts are spewing out of these frogs in front of us.

So there’s a lot of casual violence in Chinese food that’s more behind-the-scenes with other kinds of cuisine, and that’s interesting to capture and force other people to look at.

VIVIAN: Yes. What do you believe women need or can do for each other presently?

[both laugh]

LILLIAN: You know that question reminds me of another question that I’ll sometimes ask myself, almost as like a thought experiment. If I could only choose one, would I align myself with a white woman or a Chinese-American man? And I always answer, Chinese-American man.

I was wondering why that is. I think it’s tied to my family. I’ve grown up loving and trusting Chinese-American men. But I have not grown up loving and trusting white women. So there are, undeniably, these caught alliances and loyalties that are really difficult to talk about.

It’s really difficult to talk about, I think, because to talk about it maybe breaks up this solidarity of women supporting women always.

But the different degrees of alliance I feel toward those who share parts of my identity, toward someone who’s female versus someone who’s Chinese-American and so on, and the way those intersect and contradict—I want those discussions to happen. Women are already pulled in so many different ways and directions that we were not, until recently, allowed to talk about. I want more discussion about the other kinds of loyalties we face, and what that means.

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