Author Yiyun Li poses for a portrait.

Oakland-based writer Yiyun Li has a resume that many writers would covet: she’s just published her sixth book and was awarded a 2010 MacArthur Foundation Award. Less enviable, however, is her struggle with suicidal depression, a battle which she explores in her new memoir, “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.” Li joins us today to talk about confronting her two essential questions: Why write? And why live?

Guests:
Yiyun Li, professor, UC Davis; author, "Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life," "The Vagrants" and "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl"

  • Kevin Skipper

    KQED Forum’s comment board. My doctor, hospital, medicine and psycho-therapy couch, all in one.

  • Gee Whiz

    I realized in my 20s I was probably depressed since childhood when I use to try to will myself into nonexistance. When I was challenged to make a choice of life or death, my curiosity won out. What might happen tomorrow that would be interesting?

  • Kevin Skipper

    As literature is so closely related to culture, is there any connection between given attitudes about birth and life that affect approaches to death, suicide in particular. When I think of the cultures with higher incidences of suicide, the first thing think of is eugenics.
    Seems that it’s not the experience of pain or depression that promotes certain behaviors but the place that these realities hold in collective consciousness.

    Leads me to wonder, from where do these realities come? What makes the difference between cultures and even racial identities?

    Anyone?

    One might think that depression and suicide occur most often in groups and communities that suffer from the most pronounced poverty, oppression marginalization or inequality. Turns out, this is pretty much the opposite of the truth.

  • Jason Engelund

    Thanks for all of your work to both of you. I am especially interested in your thoughts on Time. I work in abstracting photography to investigate how we make meaning through visual perception and use the metaphor of the picture frame as metaphor for our psychological frameworks. Shifting our frame as a way to change our mental culture is a basis for how I make compositions. I like the simple pleasure you mention of the scent of lavender. I’m sorry I don’t really have a question but could you talk more about Time, or creating habits like smelling lavender or, creating new patterns of mind like you mentioned? How might the creative practice relate, writing or reading or painting, or walking?

  • Kristian Aclan

    Hi, you just made a comment quoting a philosppher. “Why don’t you kill yourself?” This comment and question is inappropriate and by no means should be said. Imagine if somone who was suffering from severe depression and on the verge of killing thenselves while listening to this segment. Your comment may trigger their final push to end their life. Please be mindful of the things you say on air. This comment is coming from a Registered Nurse and future Nurse Practitioner. Kind Regards, Kristian, RN

  • Amy

    As far as books that have helped me with depression, I highly recommend “Being Happy!” by Andrew Matthews. It’s very simply written and includes humorous illustrations, so it’s great for any age. When you’re really depressed, it can seem daunting to tackle a long, complex book for help… so I always turn to this one when I’m at my worst.

  • Kevin Skipper

    Genetics and depression, the basics:

    Melatonin=feel-good. Seratonin=sleep-good Melanin=convert solar-energy good. Chlorophyll-rich diet=cleanse-good. Purposeful reduction or limitations of any of these factors (Western ‘culture’, diet, ‘life’style) increases incidence of depression, malaise, violence and suicide. Women=abundance + creativity which means you NEED TO EAT which means stop starving yourselves to make scrawny nerds feel comfortable with their ‘masculinity’ or adequate in their paleness. Seriously.

    I’ll leave it there.

  • Paul

    Doesn’t depression often stem from having false beliefs that underpin ones life?
    For instance believing that there is an invisible man in the sky is a false belief that when people finally reject it brings great relief and not depression.
    Similarly when people suffer from the believing the lie that 19 magical Muslims perpetrated 911, when they review the evidence and realize there is no chance at all that that is true, this too brings great relief and not depression.

    • William – SF

      No.

      • Paul

        Perhaps you are someone who gains strength from false beliefs … like a leftist who was radicalized online to hate atheists, men or whites.

        • William – SF

          No.

          • Paul

            Do you ever consider that you might be wrong?

          • William – SF

            Regularly. Questioning my understanding helps me learn what is true.

          • Paul

            What a pleasant surprise

          • William – SF

            I’m not angry, and thank you for caring.

          • Paul

            You seemed angry the other day regarding “Trump”. Tell me. How do you feel when someone says that word?

          • William – SF

            His surname is irrelevant. Trump neither has the skills nor integrity to be President, nor a true understanding of the issues he claims to want to fix. He maligns, he lies, he refuses to educate himself or read/hear or surround himself with those that counter his shallow understandings. I have no tolerance for someone in power that is so detached from reality. The damage he will cause will last decades. I bristle at bold face lies, and sycophants that promote them. I wish him well as a human.

          • Paul

            Bernie would’ve won
            But the Dems blocked him
            Corruption has consequences

          • William – SF

            I disagree that Bernie would have won. I don’t see any evidence that the DNC (I’ll assume you mean them when you write ‘the Dems’) changed any Bernie voter to a Hillary voter – more likely the opposite happened – and Bernie still lost the Primary. If you’re implying the Democratic Party is corrupt, I disagree.
            Have you read many non-fiction books by authors that write about depression?

        • Kevin Skipper

          Tell me, what online outlets have you seen that promote hate of atheists, or white men!?!?! Seems the net, by definition, is the actual assurance against these ideas ever being spread, disseminated or distributed. “Justice=Just US, not y’all.”

          • Paul

            Many are bigoted against atheists and/or whites. Not just online. Just look at anything that social justice wawwiors say. The embrace of Islamist by the left encourages hate against atheists.

          • Kevin Skipper

            Where? Tell me and I’ll do to them exactly what I do to KQED and UC Berkeley’s Palatinate.

          • Paul

            Everywhere? Look around you. YouTube is a starting place.

          • Kevin Skipper

            Names, Paul.

            If I say that there are anti-black interests and fail to point out the police, HUD, UC Berkeley, the EU, NATO, the KKK, The DNC, the Clintons, Newport cigarettes, Big Malt Liquor, Kaiser (Permanente AND Aluminum), Blackwater, Chevron, DeBeers and the ADL, you’d have questions, right?

            I want names.

          • Paul

            I guess you live in a bubble.
            But most of what groups like BLM say is racist. Try googling SJW

          • Kevin Skipper

            I just said that BLM is racist but racist against Blacks, not Whites so perhaps we live in the same bubble but one of us likes the look and feel of blinders. Ignorance is a key part of privilege, you know, as is irrational and unfounded fear of annihilation.

            Are you saying that SJW’s are racist or that they fight against a racism that, according to you doesn’t exist?

          • Paul

            SJW’s are typically precious snowflakes who are racist, sexist, & anti-atheist.
            They have an irrational and unfounded fear that hearing conflicting ideas will cause annihilation.

          • Kevin Skipper

            I’m familiar with the term. Basically, you’re talking about Centrists. Most are white, male, and religiously ambiguous. A lack of identity means that they are their own worse enemy.

          • Kevin Skipper

            Most BLM groups in Oakland are exclusively white. Same for the “Black Block” vandals who frequently sabotage theirs and other legitimate protests. Learned that during Occupy Oakland. remember that?

          • Paul

            Yes, those are the same nutty illiberal leftists who defend conservative Islamists who hate women and gays.
            Likely they’re paid agitators.
            BLM videos I’ve seen show black agitators.

            Youtube:
            https://youtu.be/0WYAM90zSFo

          • Kevin Skipper

            Those black protestors aren’t agitators. They’re real protestors who have yet to realize that they are giving their passion and energy to a contrived production.

          • Kevin Skipper

            are you asking or telling? YouTube requires a keyword search. By what secret password are you accessing this alleged anti-white material? Thought I’d found some with some guys in Brooklyn shouting Bible verses at passers-by but it turned out to be a ruse.

            Share the wealth, Man!

          • Kevin Skipper

            The left doesn’t embrace Islam or “Islamists.” Liberal Americans, like most privileged cultures, embrace a racially compatible immigrant group to put more distance between them and their despised domestic minorities.

            The lighter of two evils.

          • Paul

            I guess I don’t understand what you mean by privileged. Sounds like a code word epithet like “cracker”. Are you saying that wealthy blacks like Eric Holder aren’t privileged?

          • Kevin Skipper

            Eric Holder is a public servant. He has no privilege that is afforded by anything other than his job and its function. Wealthy blacks are privileged by money. Not race. The desire to equate one with the other is an old-school approach by resentful, feeble-minded and poor whites (not necessarily you, Paul, but definitely your teachers and social programmers) who know that without a significant crutch, they cannot compete, even in racially-slanted Ameri(KKK)a.

          • Paul

            Nonsense. You’re talking like a puppet of the 1%, made to spout racist nonsense about privilege to divide and conquer the 99%.
            No one but the rich have privilege.
            At best, whites have limited “problem avoidance” but not everyone and not everywhere.
            Watch this:

          • Kevin Skipper

            I’m not going to ingest your propaganda. I already stooped to quoting Karl Marx. What more do you want from me?

          • Kevin Skipper

            Cracker is not code. It’s a reference to the violent behaviors of the KKK and other vigilante groups that allowed white citizens to terrorize people of color and anyone who sought to assist us with our causes of liberation and freedom. Racists, fearful of the loss of their ‘place’ are quick to pin their own polarities onto anyone who seeks to clarify that historically, racism has been a one way deal.

          • Paul

            No non-black person knows or cares what cracker means.
            It was probably invented by COINTELPRO stooges to help make blacks more racist, which keeps them down.

          • Kevin Skipper

            Only non-literate, irrationally hurt people of non-color would refuse to simply net-search the word.

            Actually, like I said, it’s a job description. Cracker is short for whip-cracker. You do the math.

            I don’t have to be racist to tell you that your system is a piece of feces. That’s a crutch created by and for the weak and undignified. All I need are basic historical facts and a command of English.

          • Paul

            Also the key problem is specifically that the left internationally does embrace and protect islamists. That is why Germany and Sweden are overrun with muslims.

          • Kevin Skipper

            Germany and Sweden claim to have been displaced by Muslims because that’s how they refer to the Caucasians for whom they have reserved the privilege of assimilation into the mainstreams of the two racially exclusive social definitions. Germany and Sweden have exhausted their gene-pools and have effectively stopped producing the viable offspring necessary to maintain ‘traditional’ European racial balances.
            They decimated their gene pools nearly a century ago.

            The chickens, they do come home to roost.

          • Paul

            Now that sounds like a racist conspiracy theory.

          • Kevin Skipper

            It is a racist conspiracy theory known as Scandinavia.

    • Kevin Skipper

      Similarly when people identify themselves with cultures and historical models that are themselves mere derivations of the older mindsets of which they are, at best, an offshoot.

      That 9/11 was a bummer. Didn’t have to be that way but people don’t want to read between the lines. Killing themselves.

      • Paul

        You mean like when African Americans connect themselves to Africa? I recall how woopi Goldberg went back there and was told she’s not a real African.

        • Kevin Skipper

          Just like that, in fact.
          If we were African, then why would Africans avoid us as they are placed in line ahead of us for American educational and professional opportunities?

          Whoopi was right. First off, Whoopi knows history. Second, she’s Jewish. Third, Knowing both of those, she knows that the campaign to unilaterally connect Americas captive Colored Peoples with Africa is a function of racist, anti-Semitic pseudo-history.

          Black Americans don’t connect OURSELVES to Africa. Racist education connects us without being willing to tell the intermediate details and too few of us argue with it.

          • Truth Hurts

            @Paul and @KevinSkipper, as entertaining as you guys are, how did you guys end up so far off the subject? It seems as though you guys went off on a tangent and never circled back. Isn’t there another venue or forum for this debate?

          • Kevin Skipper

            Ethnic, social and racial roots of depression and suicide. Touches on a few different topics covered on this and related shows.

          • Paul
          • Kevin Skipper

            If that’s what you regularly watch, I can see why you’re so confused Paul. I said it before. You have a good mind. You weaken it with a poor informational diet.

            Have you ever tried meditation? It could help straighten out some of these crossed messages.

  • Kevin Skipper

    Depression is ‘darkness’ yet the condition is experienced primarily by those who lack it physically and genetically. Ironic?

    • William – SF

      Depression isn’t a racist, but it is a monster.

      • Kevin Skipper

        Depression and suicide have definite racial markers, especially when you take away the structural crutches that hide the truth about the most vulnerable groups. Go back to the UCSF interview last week about genetic memory and telomere repair. The two female guests, both paid by UC, almost make it through the hour with their chicanery until Jay Belsky calls and ruins the party by forcing them to acknowledge ‘variable susceptibility’ and its connection to the POC’s ability to repair our genes and cells in ways that western ‘science’ would like to better ‘understand.’

        • William – SF

          I think there’s a distinction to be made between depression mostly caused by environment (externally) and one mostly from genes (internally), and of course there’s a crossover. Do you know races that exhibit greater or less depression than other races?

          • Kevin Skipper

            Did you go back to the talk on telomeres?

            There is NO distinction. In fact, much of what Western, Christian and Racist social ‘thought’ has been able to gain has been predicated on the FACT that genetics and environment are inextricable.

            Read my comment that has magically migrated to the bottom of the board? Melanin and melatonin are pretty much the same carbon-based pigment AND neuro-transmitter. Same with chlorophyll. A lack of either, whether natural or deliberate, is a lack of happiness. Period.

            Look at the poorest, blackest, hungriest, least privileged people. Invariably the happiest and kindest. Best musicians, cooks, dancers, parents and lovers. Most spiritual too.

            Now, look at the richest and whitest (and the minorities who like to serve their needs). Most violent, selfish, self-loathing, violent and depressed people you, or the planet Earth, has ever seen. Spiritual awareness? Please.

          • William – SF

            Yes, I acknowledge the environmental and genetic connections.

            Well, whereas there is some truth to your observations, I’d hazard to say they are also generalizations.

            However, I’m not talking about that. When you see depression transform someone in a way that ignores considerations of money, status, skin color, education, location, hairdo, …, and appears otherworldly, you’ll know what I mean.

          • Kevin Skipper

            I know what you mean. I’ve dealt with depression and other emotional challenges all my life. Family, community and class history all have to do with these.

            I should add that while the causes and amplifiers of these markers are related to race, it doesn’t mean that their solutions will present themselves as such.

            As I said, racial markers for depression include not only our own spiritual condition but that of those whom we seek to serve or gain the approval of.

            Interestingly, I never realized that I suffered from depression until I went to Hawaii. No white majority, lack of sun or weird tech bubble to blame it on. Realized that it all starts and ends with me. Didn’t stop me from admitting that “who” and “what” I am, in relation to common understanding, contributed to what and how I saw things. Turns out, it’s all under my control.

            Also taught me that being Colored and Native American pretty much establish my alcohol tolerance as ‘low’ and my cannabis tolerances as of course, ‘HIGH!’ (yes-I!). I try to act accordingly.

          • William – SF

            Okay. Go outside.

          • Kevin Skipper

            What the- calm down! I will after I finish this coffee and spliff. Also, Terry Gross is getting down with Anthony Michael Key on Fresh Air. Funny to me. Honestly, I don’t see Key as being into women, white or otherwise, yet black folks are supposed to take his interracial dating horror story without a grain of salt.

            Simple. Overly so.

          • William – SF

            Don’t scrap off the shine of the mystery of the black man least you become …
            I know. It’s cringe worthy.

          • Kevin Skipper

            What was that quote?

          • William – SF

            I don’t know that it is one – just riffing.

          • Kevin Skipper

            Key just mentioned Ira Levin and his influence on his style of storytelling. Pretty deep.

    • Fay Nissenbaum

      And you know this how??

  • Judy Bertelsen

    Thank you, Yiyun Li. I’m remembering hearing your (joyful, upbeat, charmingly funny) talk at a writing workshop last summer and how you (as I recall) read “War and Peace” every year. I bought a nice used copy on the basis of your enthusiasm. Thanks again. I’m planning to read this new book of yours, too. Thank you.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Regarding anti-depressant drugs – I hate them and I believe that effects os SSRIs have not been studied over the long term. Robin Williams
    was taking a combination of Mirtazapine and Seroquel. That’s the exact
    same combination 2 people I know were taking and they tried to commit suicide. One friend
    described the feeling to suicide as knowing what those people felt on 9/11 when they were on a ledge 100 stories above the ground with a raging fire behind — Escaping from that ‘fire’
    becomes all consuming and jumping rational. Robin Williams did the only thing he could with those feelings at the moment.
    How can answer that question at work “How are you” honestly? Most simply say “fine” to get out of disclosure…

    • William – SF

      It boils down to finding something that mitigates the monster at the gate.

      • Fay Nissenbaum

        Ah yes, but suggested remedies can seem so inadequate to the sufferer…

        • William – SF

          Agree wholeheartedly. There is no silver bullet. (Bad metaphor.)

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    How do Yiyun answer the common greeting “How are you?”
    An honest answer can mark one as a nut (sad to say)….

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Hey Michael Krasny – I love that you said to your students that much in literature is depressing–and to not overly identify” (or close to that).

  • lindamat2001ca

    Years ago I had a housemate who committed suicide. A day or two before she did this (she jumped off a bridge), she gave me a gift. It was a broken musical instrument, and she knew I loved music. We didn’t have a friendly relationship because she wasn’t friendly, so this felt really awkward to me. I wonder if this was a symptom of impending suicide.

    • Kevin Skipper

      Those with suicidal plans are said to give away all of their belongings. Guess that takes hoarders off the at-risk list.

  • De Blo

    Moving and insightful guest.

  • It’s difficult to grasp depression for anyone who hasn’t suffered from it. I can only applaud Yiyun Li for opening the door slightly to this conversation, especially as it pertains to her own experience. We have private lives because we want them to be private, however, in sharing her experience their is the potential for helping. I SO look forward to reading another of her wonderful books.

Host

Michael Krasny

Michael Krasny, PhD, has been in broadcast journalism since 1983. He was with ABC in both radio and television and migrated to public broadcasting in 1993. He has been Professor of English at San Francisco State University and also taught at Stanford, the University of San Francisco and the University of California, as well as in the Fulbright International Institutes. A veteran interviewer for the nationally broadcast City Arts and Lectures, he is the author of a number of books, including “Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life” (Stanford University Press) “Spiritual Envy” (New World); “Sound Ideas” (with M.E. Sokolik/ McGraw-Hill); “Let There Be Laughter” (Harper-Collins) as well as the twenty-four lecture series in DVD, audio and book, “Short Story Masterpieces” (The Teaching Company). He has interviewed many of the world’s leading political, cultural, literary, science and technology figures, as well as major figures from the world of entertainment. He is the recipient of many awards and honors including the S.Y. Agnon Medal for Intellectual Achievement; The Eugene Block Award for Human Rights Journalism; the James Madison Freedom of Information Award; the Excellence in Journalism Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association; Career Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists and an award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association. He holds a B.A. (cum laude) and M.A. from Ohio University and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin.

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