Yiyun Li on How We Remember the Dead

This week’s story, “Wednesday’s Child,” opens in Amsterdam’s central train station, when the protagonist, Rosalie, is trying to catch a train to Brussels that keeps being cancelled. What kind of mind-set does that put Rosalie—or any traveller—in?

I often imagine that our urge to travel is to strive for a stretch of time that is not entirely connected to the past or the future while we move from one place to another. It’s not the usual setting of life but a suspended time, framed by an ever-changing—and less familiar—physical space. And here Rosalie, stranded at the train station, experiences the opposite: physical movement is momentarily suspended, while the past is brought closer by her reading her notebooks on the platform, and, later, by a chance encounter in the train car.

A railway worker explains that there had been an “incident” on the line. A man has walked in front of a train, he says. We soon learn that Rosalie isn’t just any traveller—her daughter, Marcie, killed herself in a similar manner. Can a train station ever feel like an ordinary place to her?

Later in the story, Rosalie thinks about the passengers on the train that was delayed by her daughter’s death. She then pauses her thought. “Imagined scenarios are no more than a litmus test of the imaginer’s life,” she states. I don’t imagine that the train station feels like an ordinary place for Rosalie, as it may do for most passengers, and yet those passengers may have something else—a cloudless morning sky, a jingle on the radio, or a special brand of fragrant soap—that has been made extraordinary by events in their past. Going through life, we each carry our own litmus tests.

Rosalie is a novelist, and she carries around three notebooks in which she’s been jotting down notes to herself. (“Whoever that self was, she was an unresponsive and irresponsible correspondent,” Rosalie thinks.) If there was ever a logic to the three concurrent notebooks, she’s forgotten it, but can you imagine Rosalie going out into the world without those notebooks?

Like Rosalie, I, too, carry several notebooks around, and I may have worked out a better logic regarding the intentions for the notebooks. As with Dr. Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two, I call the notebooks Placeholder One, Placeholder Two, and Placeholder Three.” And, indeed, they are placeholders—of my thoughts, of phrases and sentences I read, and of the moments that would otherwise pass unnoticed. I suppose the same principle holds for the books one publishes—they are all placeholders of life. And this story is about a specific kind of placeholder: books that Rosalie saw her daughter read, which have become placeholders for memories.

Rosalie maintains that her motto is “Never argue,” yet there’s a sense that she’s in constant debate, both with herself and with her late daughter. That voice is now a voice of Rosalie’s making, of course, but Marcie still feels like such a strong and immediate presence. Do you think she’ll ever fade for Rosalie, or will she always be there, weighing in?

At one point, Rosalie ponders, “Life is held together by imprecise words and inexact thoughts. What’s the point of picking at every single statement persistently until the seam comes undone?” That is an argument, of course, part of the debate she has with herself and with Marcie. There’s a cliché about how we keep the dead alive. I suppose, for a writer like Rosalie, it means to keep that constant and lively debate between herself and Marcie going all the time. Some arguments are happy arguments, even if they come from a deeper pain.

Rosalie thinks about her own mother, who was an overbearing presence when she was a child and who has responded to Marcie’s death with a streak of cruelty. Is Rosalie’s mother aware of the impact of her words?

I do often wonder about that! My guess is that cruelty doesn’t require as much care, thoughtfulness, imagination, and reflection as kindness does. What’s more unfortunate for a child (or anyone, for that matter): pain inflicted intentionally, with calculation, or pain inflicted by an uncalculated, compulsive urge to dominate and hurt?

When a train finally arrives, Rosalie finds herself in the same carriage as a heavily pregnant woman. Did you know from the outset that Rosalie would encounter this woman and that the story would contain both a death and a birth?

I didn’t know she would encounter the woman when I began the story. The story starts with a stranger’s death, but when death happens it often brings back birth as part of the narrative (whereas the story of a birth doesn’t have to—or had better not—bring the future death into the narrative). When Rosalie boards the train, her destination is Ypres, to visit a battlefield where more than a million young people died in the First World War. The death of that mass, the death of Rosalie’s child, and the death of a stranger—all of them were asking for the story of a birth. And that was when the story of the pregnant woman came into the draft, an impending birth of another Wednesday’s child, which echoes Marcie’s birth.

Your latest novel, “The Book of Goose,” is about two girls in postwar France who in many ways are too clever and too headstrong for the rural community into which they were born. Do you think they’d have seen Marcie as a kindred spirit?

I’m so glad you made this connection, Cressida! My colleague Ilya Kaminsky wrote me after he read “The Book of Goose” and mentioned “The Notebook,” a novel by Ágota Kristóf: “Of course your story about Fabienne and Agnès is so different, but there is a wonderful conversation between the two.” And I think he’ll be happy to learn that Ágota Kristóf is featured in an important conversation between Marcie and Rosalie in this story.

Fabienne and Agnès, from “The Book of Goose,” lived in the French countryside after the Second World War, without any education. Marcie lived in America, was a child of the twenty-first century, and had read beyond her age by the time of her death. But I think the girls would’ve found one another to be kindred spirits. After the death of my elder son, my teacher Marilynne Robinson wrote me that she was sure “Vincent had a very profound experience of life.” I think of her words often. I’ve never used the adjective “profound” in my fiction—it’s easily misused—but I believe that Marilynne made perfect sense in that word choice. I think of Fabienne, Agnès, and Marcie as brilliant children with the capacity to feel abysmal, but perhaps there is a little solace in the fact that their capacity to see the abyss comes from a profound experience of life. ♦

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