On a recent Sunday, I was blown away yet again by CBC’s Writers & Company program. This time, Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Chinese American writer Yiyun Li, winner of many awards and writer of several acclaimed novels. I’ve now discovered a writer who is new to me, someone with an intriguing voice. Some of Li’s comments during the interview were so strange and extreme that they almost put the seasoned and appreciative Wachtel at a loss as to how to respond. Yet many of Li’s words struck a chord with me, especially her thoughts about 12- to 14-year-old girls. She led me back to vivid memories of my own early adolescence.
Li’s background and the origins of The Book of Goose
Li’s originality surely comes in part from being born in Communist China in 1972, and growing up in a world where there was no privacy, and no information about the outside world. Li comments about the enormous hunger she felt, not only literally (for food), but for knowledge, books, and a connection to what other people were thinking or feeling. She read the newspapers that fish came wrapped in. She was 13 before she first entered a library. This hunger for knowledge and connection, in a place where most information was propaganda, led to Li’s relying on her imagination to play and to create stories—her “secret life.” Stories were the only way to escape from the boredom and deprivation of real life.
Early in the interview with Wachtel, Li gives the interviewer pause when she asserts that she believes 12- to 14-year-old girls have the same “capacities of feeling and thinking as an adult,” and are not taken as seriously as they deserve. Li believes she is the same person today as she was when she was 12—“my core was formed by then”—though she recognizes that to the world, she looks different. I felt a surge of recognition when I heard these words, because I felt their truth for myself, although I have always thought of my essential “self” as coming into being at a somewhat later age, 15, mainly because by then I had an understanding of my sexuality that did not exist at age 12. Yet intellectually, and as a writer, my core was already there at age 12, too —and I have the diaries to prove it.
Listening to the interview, I was pleased to hear Li quote one of my favourite childhood writers, C. S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books) supporting the idea that a person’s essential intellectual nature exists at this young age: “If anyone does any thinking, he has done enough thinking by age 14. If he hasn’t done enough thinking by age 14, he’s not going to be a thinker.”
The plot of The Book of Goose grew out of a real-life literary hoax perpetrated by a teenaged peasant girl in post-World War II France. In Li’s fictional version, there is not one writer but two. They are young teenaged girls bound by an intimate friendship. This choice to have two fictional writers was based on Li’s fascination with the nature of the friendships that often develop between girls of 12 to 14 years of age—intense relationships that she describes as being “as tragic and dramatic as a Shakespeare play.”
Obviously, this is an extreme statement—one that Wachtel responded to half-jokingly with the question, “Did you mean a Shakespeare tragedy or comedy?”
Li also analyzes the way girls can be precocious, expert manipulators: some girls are natural manipulators, and other girls this age are natural “manipulatees,” who are happy to submit to the leadership of the manipulative personality.
Me as a young adolescent
Well, I clearly remember my own experiences during those critical years for young girls, and I had my own “tragic and dramatic” relationships. In retrospect, I believe that “love” is not too strong a word to apply to the friendships that can develop between young girls before all their passion turns obsessively to boys.
I also agree with Li that some 12- to 14-year-old girls are anything but naive and innocent. In fact, it’s almost hard to believe the awareness of their own power that some girls can have at such a young age.
In particular, I remember a girl who became the “leader” of the grade 7s at my junior high school. “Mary Lou” had been a “nobody” in elementary school. She wasn’t one of the bright kids academically, and she wasn’t pretty—in fact, she was plain. But somehow, after the summer holidays, she came back transformed. She had developed a slim, well-proportioned figure, and learned how to use makeup. She still wasn’t a pretty girl—but what she had learned at age 12 (somehow!) were the arts of charm and seduction. Every guy in grade 7 wanted to be her boyfriend. She had the ability to flirt in a fascinating way with any boy, to make him feel good, to make him feel he had a chance without promising anything. Most of the girls in grade 7 wanted to be part of Mary Lou’s entourage, to have some of her popularity (and maybe some leftover boys) come their way.
My German girlfriends
The closest friendships I had between the ages of 10 and 14 were with my “German girlfriends,” two sisters whose family moved into my parents’ cul-de-sac when I was 10. “Annelise” was a year older than me, and “Erika” was the same age. The girls went to a different school than me, because they were Catholics, but during the first three summers they lived on our street we became fast friends. We went for bike rides together, played all kinds of board games, and went to the local pool for the evening “5-cent swim,” where we flirted with our favourite lifeguard. We created our own magazine (banging out articles on my ancient typewriter), and put on a magic show for the kids in our neighbourhood. The girls had their house to themselves during weekday afternoons, because their mother worked regular hours and their father left for his shiftwork at noon. We watched our favourite shows during the hot summer afternoons: “Let’s Make a Deal,” “The Dating Game,” and “The Newlywed Game.” We danced to ‘45s played at full volume.
Best of all were the rare nights when my parents allowed me to pitch a tent in our backyard and have a sleepover with Annelise and Erika. After reading ghost stories aloud to each other by flashlight, we talked most of the night. Darkness and exhaustion allowed inhibitions to disappear—we knew all of each other’s secrets.
Of the two sisters, Annelise was my closest friend for two years. Erika was buddies with another girl on our street. But then Annelise changed. She quickly became a glamourous woman like the girls’ mother, always dressed up, with carefully applied makeup. Erika told me Annelise had fallen in love and she had seen her sister necking with her boyfriend. I was hurt that Annelise had dropped me, seemingly denying all of our former closeness. When she happened to see me in the street she said no more than a curt “Hello.”
Erika and I were even closer friends, though, for the next couple of years. I’ll never forget the evening when we went for a bike ride together, and I crashed on a steep hill and was bleeding heavily from my forehead. A passing motorist took me and my bike home, and my dad took me to Emergency, where I received a few stitches. Later that evening, Erika delivered a sweet note to my house, expressing her worry and care for me. She illustrated her note with cute drawings and also left me her library copy of Flowers For Algernon, which she knew I was dying to read.
We told each other about our crushes. For years she was in love with Toronto jockey Sandy Hawley, and showed me all her newspaper clippings of him. Erika knew about my hopeless Grade 8 crush on Dean, a short, powerfully built guy with piercingly beautiful eyes who sat near me in science class. I was tormented as I watched him eye-flirting constantly with a beautiful, teasing, athletic girl on the opposite side of the room.
But I lost Erika, too, when she became beautiful and sophisticated like her sister and boys became much more important than a childhood friend.
My closest friendships with my school girlfriends ended about the same time. I, who had been a leader in elementary school because of my academic achievements and natural bossiness, became a “loser” for a while in junior high. My former friends changed rapidly in a way that I didn’t appear to. Suddenly they looked sexy in their jeans, miniskirts, and liberally-applied makeup. Their lives revolved around the “in-group,” their boyfriends, and wild parties. Looking cool was all-important. As for me, no brand of jeans fit my tiny, skinny frame, but my legs (those future runners’ legs!) were too long for children’s clothes, so I was still wearing the old-fashioned dresses my mother sewed for me. I was definitely not cool!
My period of being lonely didn’t last long, though. I soon gained not only 10 pounds (which ended the lack of both jeans and boyfriends), but a new group of friends who accepted people who weren’t cool in the ways that the popular kids were. I also accepted that being an obsessive reader and writer would be a permanent part of my identity, and it was something that would bring me employment (at times), and more importantly, lifelong enjoyment, including listening to Writers & Company interviews!
Inside the mind of an obsessive book lover
A good part of my pleasure in listening to Wachtel’s interview of Yiyun Li came from my delight in being exposed to an extraordinary thinker, someone whose obsessions perhaps stretch into a zone many would consider abnormal. Yet I liked her obsessions about favourite writers because I recognize the same obsessions in myself. Li just goes much further than I ever have. For example, Li has read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace 15 times. She ponders the way our personalities are influenced not only by our biological genetics, but by what she calls our literary genetics. For her, the great Russian writers have been a key component of her literary heritage. Li describes War and Peace as her “daily bread.” She has read the novel about fifteen times, at a rate of 15 pages a day, meaning it is part of her daily life for about 6 months at a time. For her, War and Peace acts as a “placeholder” for her own development, because as she changes as a person—as a writer, a thinker, and a human being—the book reveals new insights to her every time she reads it.
This reminds me of writer Rebecca Mead’s obsession with George Elliott’s Middlemarch, which culminated with Mead’s writing the bestselling book My Life in Middlemarch. (See my blog article about Mead’s book here.)
I have my own book obsessions—the books I’ve read too many times to count. For me, these include mainly books that I read as a child or a teenager. I have an emotional attachment to them; they give me comfort, often in the middle of a night of insomnia. These are books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith; The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; and the Narnia series, by C. S. Lewis. But I also reread challenging books, such as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (how did he do it?). I go back again and again to short stories that pack seemingly infinite depth and questions into the constraining form of a short story: “Cathedral,” by Raymond Carver; “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner; the linked stories of A Bird in the House, by Margaret Laurence; and many jewels of the short form by Carol Shields and Alice Munro.
Slow reading and catching a butterfly
I was fascinated by Li’s love of slow reading. She mentioned that she is often reading 10 books at a time. She likes to live in the writer’s mind, to live with the characters—she calls this slow reading “decanting” a book.
Yiyun Li left her audience with a beautiful analogy about writing near the end of the interview. She talked about how there are two ways of catching a butterfly. The first way, you actually catch the butterfly, preserve it, and pin it down in your collection—then you have a beautiful, dead butterfly.
But by writing—
“I like to think writing to me is to catch how it feels if a butterfly flutters by and you can’t really see it clearly, you can only see the shadow, you know, passing by on your page, on the book or on the porch. But that momentary feeling, that fleetness of the moment, I think that is what writing is about. It’s to capture the feeling instead of the real butterfly.”
You can listen to the Writers & Company podcast here.
“I like to think writing to me is to catch how it feels if a butterfly flutters by and you can’t really see it clearly, you can only see the shadow, you know, passing by on your page, on the book or on the porch. But that momentary feeling, that fleetness of the moment, I think that is what writing is about. It’s
It’s easy to have a Happy Birthday
Some of my regular blog fans (few in number, but treasured by me) may have noticed that I haven’t written a post for months. I feel choked by not being able to write. For me, writing is an essential way I express myself, and I’ve continued writing in my two journals and my training log. Why not my blog?
It’s been a landmark year. In the spring, I urgently wanted to write about two ten-year anniversaries that marked huge changes in my life. On March 1, 2022, I celebrated ten years of living alone in my beloved Port Moody apartment, with its spectacular sunset views and its proximity to so many places I’m attached to—Mundy Park, Burrard Inlet, Sasamat Lake, and others. I also remembered George Gluppe, my running coach of 36 years, who passed away ten years ago on April 21, 2022.
I couldn’t write about these anniversaries, significant as they were to me, for two reasons:
For all these reasons, I’ve appeared to have writer’s block. I’m not going to write about those ten-year anniversaries today, either. I’m just going to write a small vignette about why I’m grateful on my birthday; why it’s easy to have a happy birthday.
About three months ago, I started jogging slowly in Mundy Park in preparation for a workout with my sprinter friend Laurie. After about three minutes of this slow jogging, I noticed one leg felt unusually weak, in a way that couldn’t be explained by fatigue. To my dismay, the weakness rapidly turned to muscle cramping, especially in my calf muscle, and after futile limping for a couple more minutes, I was forced to stop jogging. The calf cramping was excruciating, but as I walked slowly back to the park entrance, the cramp went away. I recognized these symptoms only too well. These were the symptoms of a blocked artery in my leg. Having gone through partial and then complete blockage of both my femoral arteries when I was in my thirties, I knew what muscle claudication (lack of oxygen) felt like. I had had bypass surgery done on my left leg in 1992 and my right leg in 1998; without those surgeries, I wouldn’t have been able to continue running.
In the past five to ten years, I’ve experienced symptoms of a partial blockage in my left leg. When I’m cycling uphill, or running fast for more than a few minutes, I get some muscle cramping in my left leg. But so many other things hold me back now, including my right knee arthritis, so I can live with not being able to run at race-pace intensity.
What I was feeling now, though, seemed like a total blockage. With shock, I realized it was my right leg that had cramped up, not my left!
Once my muscles felt normal again, I tried to jog—but again, I was forced to stop after a few minutes because of intense cramping.
At home, I made some frantic phone calls. My vascular surgeon’s office told me to get a referral from my GP. My GP couldn’t see me for a few days, but was able to talk to me on the phone. He reassured me that if I had a clot in a leg artery, it could only travel down, and wouldn’t lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Over the next few days, I did some easy cycling (no hills). I tried to do the Coquitlam Crunch, and was quite amazed that I could do the stair section only 30 seconds slower than my usual time. The difference was that by the time I reached the top, my leg had cramped so badly that I had to rest for two minutes before I could even continue walking. I repeated this workout a couple of times in the next week, with the same result. I even did a running workout on the soccer field. I could sprint for 30 seconds; I then let my leg recover for two minutes while I did pushups and situps. People who are addicted to exercise are very creative in finding ways to get a good workout!
At my GP’s office, the doctor listened to my pulses at various points on my legs and feet. He agreed that it sounded as though I had a blockage somewhere in my lower right leg. He sent in a referral to my vascular surgeon and I was given an appointment to have a treadmill test that would assess my circulation a few weeks later.
Eleven days after this happened, I was at the Crunch for my fourth attempt up since the blockage. Imagine my surprise! my relief! my thanks! as I bounded up the full set of almost 500 stairs and felt no symptoms! And they didn’t come back. I went right back to my normal training routine, with a couple of runs a week, hilly bike rides, and Crunches.
I went for my treadmill test. I only saw a technician; I had no chance to talk to the vascular surgeon. He gave me a call a couple of weeks later, and said, “I’ve got good news. Your circulation is completely normal.”
I wasn’t surprised. I insisted upon having a conversation about what had happened. He said, “These arterial blockages are never temporary. Something else must have caused your symptoms.” I could tell he thought I was crazy, and that he probably attributed my problem to a calf injury. But my calf had been fine. When I stretched it or touched it there was no pain. I could tell this surgeon had no idea of the expert knowledge an athlete has of their own body and how it responds to various levels of physical exertion.
This morning, I was back at the Crunch. I was thankful for so many things! The morning was sunny, contrary to the weather forecast. I usually do the Crunch once or twice a week. It’s not one of my hard workouts, because I don’t run it. It’s a way to get outside and get some breathtaking views when I have only an hour to spare (driving there included). I push just two small portions of it: the stairs and the final 250m uphill from the 2K post to the top. On the way down, I jog only the flatter sections because it’s not worth it to hurt my bad knee.
Today, my “performance” on the stairs, pushing hard, was average for me at 3min30sec.
It was an everyday victory for me. After what happened to my leg in March, I know I can never take my workouts for granted. It’s not just that one “blockage” incident, either. Last fall I had a number of medical tests, and I found out that I have calcium deposits in the arteries of both legs as well as in my aorta. I have a faulty heart valve that isn’t bad enough to require surgery yet. I’ve been put on cholesterol-lowering medication. The stress of my work and other worries has made my sleep worse than ever, so I’m constantly battling my need to take sleeping pills occasionally with the risk of addiction.
Is the machine that has served me so well for 63 years falling apart?
No. It’s just giving me little reminders of that number above. I still have days when I feel 100%, even though I will never again be fast compared to my youthful self.
Today, I’m saying thank you to my body for allowing me to complete another fun Crunch. And I’m saying thank you to all my friends and family who have phoned, sent text messages, emails, or Facebook messages, or sent flowers. And thank you to Keith for coming back from the cabin to share my birthday with me.
I even broke my writer’s block!