Author Lillian Li talks about the need for dictionary disclaimers, capturing the bilingual experience, and her grammar pet peeve (which, incidentally, is people with grammar pet peeves).
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
LL: My first book, "Number One Chinese Restaurant," tries to capture the bilingual experience, even though it’s written entirely in English, and so grammar plays a huge role in expressing the effort and ease that a character has in their native language (versus their second or third language). At the same time, I wanted to make sure that my portrayal of grammar was rooted in reality. That I wasn’t writing dialogue with arbitrary grammar “mistakes” simply to express that a character wasn’t speaking their native tongue.
One of my jobs, outside writing, is working in a Writing Center, where a good portion of my students are international students from China. Through that experience, I learned so much about why native Chinese speakers make a similar pattern of errors when speaking and writing in English. The Chinese language doesn’t have articles, doesn’t have gender-specific pronouns (in speaking), and so, when translating into English, dropped articles and misgendered pronouns are common. I tried to reflect and stay true to these patterns in my novel. Grammar was a way for me not only to portray my characters’ experience of the world, but also to be responsible to their multilingual backgrounds.
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
LL: I took away the formatting of this passage so that it would read more smoothly, but you should definitely check out the original short story to see the author’s stylistic choices.
"A name [is actually] a memorial to the site where an idea once rested, momentarily, before moving on. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in there, but when you look inside, the idea-cage is always empty, and in its place, the concrete, the particular, something formerly alive, now dead and smashed." "The Book of Categories" by Charles Yu
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
LL: I always want to refer to animals and inanimate objects with “who” or “whose” even though gramatically I think I’m supposed to use “that.” But I just read Grammar Girl’s take on that particular issue and found it very helpful, so thank you!
Lillian Li received her BA from Princeton and her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, as well as Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award. Her work has been featured in Guernica, Granta, and Jezebel. She is from the D.C. metro area and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Number One Chinese Restaurant" is her first novel.