Yiyun Li on Complicated Friendships Real and Imagined
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist and memoirist Yiyun Li joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss frenemies in writing circles, in literature, and in politics (with a tip of the hat to Joe Manchin). Li explains how intention helps her to distinguish between friendship and frenemyship, talks about finding frenemies in literature more interesting than those in politics, and offers examples ranging from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Sweet Days of Discipline. She also reads from her own new novel, The Book of Goose, and reflects on discovering the intense connection between her two central characters, Agnès and Fabienne, young girls growing up together in France.
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From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: Some people have compared your characters in The Book of Goose, Agnès and Fabienne, to Elena and Lila from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Not a bad comparison at least in terms of the talent of the author. I consider those two frenemies, do you? What are other literary models for this kind of relationship or character?
Yiyun Li: You know, it was interesting, because before people made that comparison, it did not occur to me. And when people started to make that comparison all of a sudden… of course you can make that comparison. I think oftentimes, it’s novels about young women, young girls, where you would find those kinds of relationships. One book that came to my mind is Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, the Swiss writer. That book was about two girls in a Swiss boarding school with this close, intense relationship, but also very cold. That book was cold. That whole book gives me a very cold feeling. But then, you know, we have Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. There are six girls in that novel, but I think the six girls are all frenemies to each other, right? They love each other, they are close, but they betray each other, they abandon each other. I think in Miss Jean Brodie, those girls are quintessential frenemies, like in my head.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was thinking about the same kind of question of gender that you brought up, and then I went hunting for ones that were not like that. I thought about The Talented Mr. Ripley.
WT: That’s what I was just going to say. That’s a great example.
VVG: And then I found that our friends at Crime Reads, which is a part of LitHub had actually put out an article about frenemies. Then I wondered, in literature, about the association between frenemy-ship and crime, because one of their other examples was Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.
YL: Oh, my God, okay.
VVG: Or there’s A Separate Peace. There are some interesting examples. I think you’re right that if there’s not a young person on both ends, there’s a young person on at least one end of that relationship, someone who’s struggling for a kind of personal power. And I think in that previous conversation, I was thinking of Elena and Lila as frenemies, and I’m interested in your contention that Agnès and Fabienne are not. You’ve hit on that note that makes a distinction between those two pairs, which is that Lila seems more intentionally cruel than Fabienne.
YL: It’s funny because Fabienne is cruel, but she is who she is. I think part of her cruelty is also just where she is or who she is, like growing up in that environment, but also she does have deep feelings for Agnès. Toward the end of the book, especially the threesome when she made up a boy—she made a boy to carry on the love story with her best friend. It’s all fiction making. It’s all fabrication. I think earlier, maybe one of you mentioned this concept of betrayal and abandonment, and I think that happens often, betrayal, in a frenemy relationship. I don’t think that betrayal is here. I don’t think Agnès and Fabienne betrayed each other. I think what happens is they’re pushed to the point that they can no longer continue their relationship in the same way because of fame, because of the public intervention. Because of the English finishing school, their lives just… They used to be a pair, almost like twins. They describe themselves as the same orange, one side facing the sun, much warmer, the other side facing in the shade, it’s cooler, cool, colder. They’re not the same orange anymore. It’s cut open, it’s become two halves of the same orange, but they’re no longer in the same orange shape. I do think that betrayal comes from the world rather than from within them. That’s probably the distinction I would make for them not being called frenemies.
WT: It has to do with power disparity, I think. In the beginning, there’s a line that I remember Agnès says she hears Fabienne laugh in a certain way that she knows that she’s about to do something that’s dangerous, or this is the kind of laugh she does right before she pushes me into a river or something along those lines. Fabienne has that power of being able to violate social rules. Later, Agnès has the power of wealth, or at least security that Fabienne doesn’t have. Does that seem accurate to say?
YL: Yeah. I think that the power dynamic and who’s in control of what, and who’s manipulating whom to do things that, to me, is always in a close relationship, you know, whether it’s friendship, or frenemy-ship, there’s just something about two people who are so close to each other their contours press into each other, they become porous, in a way. I think their lives bleed into each other’s lives. Why are you laughing with me?
WT: I just was thinking about Pence and Trump.
YL: There’s no way to liberate them from each other in a way. I think they’re pressed together. All that pressure. So yeah, I think in that case, power, control, and manipulation, I think those are the key elements of such a close relationship.
VVG: I wasn’t going to ask you about the boy who Fabienne invents on the theory that that potentially was a spoiler, but you have raised him. One of the things is if you have these two people who are so closely pressed into each other, there’s no room for a third. And at various points in this narrative, there is a third that attempts to intrude, and for one reason or another… I’m thinking of a postmaster who is involved in the early scheme to write the book, and he sort of attempts to insert himself into that relationship, and that doesn’t work. And then later when Agnès goes, as the real inspiration for your character did, to this finishing school, there is a headmistress who kind of attempts the same thing, and then Agnès herself tries to invite a staff member at the school to almost assume a greater importance in her life. That doesn’t work either. At every turn, any attempt to make this a triangle fails, which is so interesting. As a kind of narrative escalation, it’s really fascinating.
YL: Right. You know, that’s exactly right. That triangulation. Sugi, when you and I were in the workshop together, the triangulation of characters… triangles were often talked about in workshop. But sometimes, as you said, when two people are so close, there’s not a third point available or allowed, and I think the narrative continues an introduction of the third point or triangle exactly for that reason that they are so close. They cannot allow a third person, real person, in the relationship. On the other hand, I thought that was also where Fabienne was so imaginative. You know, she knew there was not going to be a real person in their relationship. So she made up a boy, and that boy seemed to have done some harm to both of them in the end.
The Best Frenemies in Fiction (CrimeReads) • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris • The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante • Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy • A Separate Peace by John Knowles • “Harry Styles Has Entered the SpitGate Chat” by Adrienne Westenfeld (Esquire) • Milan Kundera • Chelsea Clinton Talks Candidly About Crumbling of Friendship with Ivanka Trump: ‘She Went to the Dark Side’ • “‘Checked Out’: Trump rebukes Ivanka over Jan. 6 testimony” by Kelly Hooper (Politico) • Column: Bill Barr is telling the truth about Trump. Too bad it’s too little, too late by Jackie Calmes (Los Angeles Times) • F/N/F Season 4 Episode 25: Tolstoy Forever: Brigid Hughes and Yiyun Li on Retweeting a Russian Classic