Lillian Li is a senior at Princeton University, majoring in English with a certificate in creative writing. We interviewed her about her writing, other artistic genres and how places change her perspective on travel.
Where do you think you learned to tell a story?
I don’t think I ever learned how to tell a story in the literal sense. I’m terrible with ad-libbing, timing, and sometimes even pronunciation. I still can’t even tell a proper joke. I always mess up the punchline. It’s a pretty mundane experience to hear me tell a story. Here’s the formula: I start by over-hyping how amazing this story is going to be, I mess up the chronology of events, I introduce a Russian novel-sized cast of characters, I realize towards the end that ‘you kind of had to be there,’ and then I peter out with a ‘so . . . yeah . . .’ It was probably because I’m so inept at storytelling that I started writing them down instead. I swear I made most of my friends in middle school because of how popular instant messaging was. Suddenly, I wasn’t this spluttering chubby girl who would say ‘You too,’ when you wished her a happy birthday. Instead I was funny, quick (having a typing speed of 84 wpm), and incisive, albeit still chubby. I took refuge in the written word, found the miracle in the edits, and even though I still can’t tell a good story, this just makes it all the more important that I write better ones.
Have you ever stolen a book?
I’ve never stolen a book, but I have stolen peeks at a book that wasn’t mine. I used to go to a weekend program to learn Chinese at the local high school and once I got a desk that happened to have a copy of Cold Mountain inside it (don’t ask why I was snooping inside the desk). For the next few weeks, instead of paying attention, I just hid the book in my lap and read bits of it. I probably thought about taking it, but I think the slight danger of reading it during class was more enticing.
Where was the last place you went that changed your perspective on travel?
Probably Beijing. My mother’s side of the family is from there, so I had visited the city four times already before I went last summer. But this was the first time I went with the expectation that I would be living on my own and would get to see the city as something independent from my family. Suddenly Beijing, which always felt vaguely maternal to me when I had stayed with my grandparents, transformed into a city that was more like a bitchy, but fun playmate – a frenemy at once terrible and sexy. I got befriended on subways and swindled in taxis; I walked to a bar at two in the morning to watch the Eurocup and walked into an overflowing ditch by the side of the highway during Beijing’s biggest rainstorm in sixty-one years. It was just amazing to find out that a place I thought I was familiar with could have so many faces. Being in Beijing this summer taught me not to over-praise or dismiss any city or country because I will never really know it and the experiences I have are always variable. That’s why I don’t trust Yelp reviews anymore.
If you were in a band what would it be called?
The Triple Li’s. Just me and two other hair-tossing azn skanks screaming into the microphone. I could never name a band after myself, but it would be cool to have a small Easter egg for fans to find (yes, I’ve already imagined myself a group of hardcore fans for this nonexistent band). Just picture how their minds will be blown when they realize that ‘Lillian Li’ has three Li’s in it.
What’s your favourite bookshop?
There used to be a Borders that sat kitty-corner to my mother’s old office. I went there as often as I could and I would just sit there for hours, reading and not buying a single thing. I’m the reason we no longer have Borders. I am every bookstore’s worst nightmare. Once, in the summer before seventh grade, I brought a packed lunch and made a day of it. I ate my premade mac and cheese at the store café and thumbed through a book I wasn’t going to pay for. It haunts me still.
If you could cross over into another artistic genre, what would it be?
I wish I could draw because sometimes someone will evoke an image that is absolutely ridiculous and I would like nothing better than to illustrate that. For example, after watching the Super Bowl halftime show, a friend of mine commented that she could see Beyoncé’s popularity growing until the singer one day ate the universe. Do you understand how badly I wanted to draw this? Do you understand how badly I want to draw this still? Also I think that people who can draw are just more popular. Because everyone wants to get their portrait drawn. I think caricature artists must be the life of every party they go to.
Do you know why you do it?
No. I’ve never known why. I’ve always been goal-oriented, so the fact that I want to pursue writing, which really has no endpoint, goes against my marrow. Maybe I’m just trying to piss off my parents.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of short stories that are all tangled up together, both character-wise and thematically. I look at the experiences of Chinese immigrants in America and American expatriates in China. I’m exploring this perspective from the viewpoint of multiple characters from multiple generations of one family. A Chinese grad student’s wife is driven by loneliness to a small Asian grocer on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan; a young man moves to Beijing to forget a lost love and instead sees her in the cracks of the city; a girl eulogizes her still-living but culturally-removed father. ‘Blue Jay’ will be a part of this collection.
Image courtesy of Lillian Li