Volume 29 · Number 2 · Winter 2012
The author of The Vagrants joins the likes of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov in writing in English as a second language. Yiyun Li's haunting tales about social outcasts are drawing similar acclaim.
English professor Yiyun Li sits in the dining room of her spacious family home in the Oakland hills, and smiles as she talks about her fiction writing. A small reproduction of Van Gogh's bedroom painting adorns the wall above her. The clutter generated by her two young sons, Vincent and James, dominates the living room off to the side.
"If you look at the world as a stage, a movie, I'm not interested in the main characters, the heroes," Li says. "I'm more interested in the extras. They occupy that space that I'm very curious about. These are the characters I feel very drawn to. They don't usually have a voice, or they have a voice but they don't use it. They don't seek to tell their stories."
For an author who has made a career out of giving voice to those misfits and marginal people, she is now in a strange position — in the limelight of the literary world.
Thirty-nine-year-old Li, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 2008, has received wide critical acclaim for her two short story collections — A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl — as well as her stunningly evocative, dystopian novel, The Vagrants, set in late-1970s China. She was named one of the nation's best young fiction writers by editors of The New Yorker and selected for a 2010 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award.
Her stories and essays have also been published in journals such as the Paris Review and The New Yorker, as well as anthologies Best American Short Stories and O Henry Prize Stories. Two of the stories from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers have been adapted into films.
Her characters are sexual, social, emotional, political outcasts trying to navigate life either in an authoritarian China or as migrants in the United States. Homosexuals hide their sexual identity from matchmaking mothers; men lie to their wives and children about what jobs they do; middle-aged spinsters pine for the unrequited love of their teenage years; lonely widowers haunt online chat forums; emotionally scarred fathers and daughters struggle over dinner to find anything to say to each other; beggars create faux-families by scavenging for abandoned baby girls and raising them as their own; victims of the Cultural Revolution learn to anticipate political winds and survive through adaptation; a starving cripple, who ravenously eats flour paste intended for sticking posters onto walls, falls in love with an idiot savant; senile elderly people emit occasional verbal pearls of wisdom through the fog of their confusion.
With her eye for emotional detail, and her ability to mine social angst and obsession for fictional material, Li has been compared to Dickens.
Her talent isn't to create shocking plotlines or spectacular denouements, but rather to capture the interior lives of her characters as they navigate their destinies. In doing so, she makes the insignificant significant.
In The Vagrants, about the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary, Li writes about a crippled 12-year old girl, Nini, whose abusive parents have starved her to the point where she is desperate for the taste of the glue used on town posters: "The paste was cold but sweet. She scraped more of it off the announcement. She was sucking her fingers when a feral cat pounced off a wall and stopped a few feet away, examining her with a silent menace." There's no follow-up to this, no physical battle between the feral cat and girl; just a sense of sadness.
In the title story of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a widowed father and his recently divorced daughter try to connect emotionally and end up either not talking or hurting each other when they do talk. For the film version, Li wrote the screenplay to include a prolonged dinner scene that takes place in total silence between the two protagonists, a disconcerting quietude only occasionally broken by the sounds of a child in a nearby apartment practicing the piano. In the story itself, Li pens: "Imagine he's traveled half a world to his daughter, to make up for all the talks he denied her when she was younger, but only to find her uninterested in his words." It's low-key writing, but it packs a devastating punch.
"She's writing about basic human ironies, and human relationships," says San Francisco-based filmmaker Wayne Wang, who produced the award-winning A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, as well as the film of another of her stories, The Princess of Nebraska. "They are at the same time uniquely Chinese but also quite universal."
Scott Simmon, chair of the UC Davis English department, says: "Her books are as deeply, darkly comic as any literature I know. They're really quite savage, but you find yourself laughing along."
Li's one-time student Lauren Norton, M.A. '11, who hails from Dublin originally, considers her "almost as an Irish writer." She practices, says Norton, a style more akin to "storytelling, not story showing. . . . That's a very Irish device — listening to a story, rather than giving a blow-by-blow account."
In September 2010, Li started getting phone calls from a number that she didn't recognize. Unwilling to answer what might be a marketing call, Li ignored it. The phone calls kept coming. Eventually, the caller left a message, asking her to phone the MacArthur Foundation. When she returned the call, she was told that she had been selected for a MacArthur "genius" award, one of the most prestigious fellowships in the country. Previous awardees include authors Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace and two other UC Davis professors — neuroscientist Leah Krubitzer and geologist Geerat Vermeij.
Since winning the $500,000, five-year grant, Li has become one of UC Davis' most high-profile faculty members.
Naomi Williams, a former student who secured a writing residency at the Hedgebrook retreat with Li's help, says Li is uncomfortable with her fame. "After she won the MacArthur genius grant," recalls Williams, M.A. '07, "I was invited to a little reception the English department held for her and her students. She turned up, wasn't dressed for the event, asked people to stop clapping. She really didn't want to be the center of attention; she seemed embarrassed by it."
After all, Li says that her guiding philosophy is about "stripping falseness" from her existence. She's interested in the essentials rather than what's peripheral in life. Li's friend Brigid Hughes, who published the young Yiyun while editing at the Paris Review, and who now co-edits with Li a New York-based journal titled Public Space, says that Li's writing is about discovering "an essential truth of what it means to be alive at this moment."
Growing up in Beijing, Li learned from a young age to hedge her bets. Born in 1972, she grew up during the tail end of Mao Zedong's brutal rule and the chaotic years following his death. Lives could be, and frequently were, destroyed on a whim. This was, after all, a time when people were executed for such trivial offenses as dancing to Western music or criticizing the government in a diary. As a child, Li often saw public announcements of executions pasted to walls, and was required to attend denunciation ceremonies of convicted criminals. In such circumstances, simply surviving was a feat.
Li's father was a scientist working for China's secretive nuclear industry; her mother was a schoolteacher. "I was brought up as a very Chinese child," she says. "Early on, you'd know you would be cautious in the world. You don't want to be the center of attention, because that's a dangerous spot." In The Vagrants, Li has the mother of a 6-year old boy tell her son, "If you stay in line you'll never be in the wrong place."
In real life, Li's parents were "very aware that knowledge could be dangerous," she remarks matter-of-factly. Her mother's family was anti-communist and lost everything after the revolution, and her father's parents were extremely poor. "Neither of them really believed in the revolution — which meant they had to lie. What [my mother] taught the school children and what she taught us were different. I was always aware there was the outside world and the family world."
When Li's father was away working at the nuclear facility in the Gobi desert, snooping members of the Neighborhood Association would knock on the family's door in the middle of the night, barging in to check under the beds for foreign spies.
By the time Li was 10 years old, she had decided that one day she would emigrate to the United States. The only way to do so at that time was to be admitted to graduate school there; and so, Li made it her mission to excel academically. From middle school onward, getting good grades became an imperative.
When the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in spring 1989, Li and her high school classmates were largely passive onlookers. They were, she says, slightly too young to get involved; moreover, at the height of the protests, their school locked down, so that they couldn't sneak out and join the demonstrators. After high school, she served her one year of national service in the army — she excelled in writing her squad's required weekly propaganda scripts for their ideological training sessions, she remembers wryly. Her silence and service allowed her to smooth her way into Peking University in the early 1990s as a biology major, and then, in the mid-1990s to apply for graduate school in America.
In 1996, Yiyun Li was admitted to the University of Iowa to study for a doctorate in immunology. With her father a nuclear scientist, she was expected to become a scientist.
There was nothing in her academic background to suggest that she was a writer-in-the-rough. Apart from the propaganda essays, her only other writing efforts had been entries in a teenage diary — "I knew my mother would read it," she says, laughing. "It was actually a mask, the journal."
Once in Iowa, Yiyun felt liberated from her past. She could already read English fluently — English-language editions of Dickens, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Hardy, Sartre, Nietzsche and other Western writers had made the rounds in her circles in Beijing in the mid-to-late 1980s. She began working hard to bring herself up to speed both at speaking and writing English.
While she studied immunology for a few monthsm she quickly realized that she wasn't cut out for that world. Instead, Li enrolled in her first writing class in the spring of 1997. She joined the fabled Iowa Writing Workshop in 2003 and from then on writing — always in English — became the dominant passion of her life.
"Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings," the daughter in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers tells her father, "it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language. It makes you a new person."
Fourteen years later, Li, crowned as one of America's top fiction writers, still writes her stories only in English.
"For me," Li explains, "the concept of writing is completely connected to writing in English. Part of the reason was my parents wanted me to be a scientist. And I have this ambiguous relationship with China, with the home country. I did not feel the urge to say anything in Chinese."
Her work isn't officially available in China — not surprising, given the unsympathetic way in which she portrays Chinese society and its politics. While pirated Chinese translations are known to be circulating, Li herself hasn't translated any of her work into her mother tongue.
Before winning the MacArthur grant, Li was responsible for two UC Davis fiction-writing courses per quarter, two quarters per year. In the past, the four courses have been divided between a graduate-student workshop — always oversubscribed — two undergraduate workshops and a large lecture class on short story writing.
In the classroom, she would introduce students to works by past masters such as Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, V.S. Pritchett, Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, and Hemingway, as well as a handful of more recent scribes like Frank O'Connor and William Trevor. "She frequently advocates looking to masters of the past in order to solve our present problems in fiction," recalls David Owen '06, M.A. '10, who took her graduate workshop while completing his master's degree in creative writing. "I recall her saying something in workshop once to the effect of 'for every new book you read, you must read two by a dead person.'"
Shy of the spotlight, Li hasn't mentioned her prestigious award to her students, and, respectful of her privacy, her students don't tend to bring the topic up either. Perhaps, she explains hopefully, her undergraduates aren't even aware that a MacArthur fellow is teaching them.
It's unlikely. After all, in the past year, Li has become something of a poster child for the creative writing program within the English department. "She's been surprisingly good about being displayed as our achiever," says Simmon, the English department chair, laughing. "But she'd really rather not be."
Yiyun Li is on leave from UC Davis for the 2011–12 academic year, working on a new novel. After that, for the four remaining years of her fellowship, she will be working half time at the university. Her colleagues and students look forward to her return.
Former student Owen said Li's "great strength as a teacher is, I suspect, also one of the talents that makes her such a wonderful writer: that is her curiosity. She is simply the most inquisitive person I've ever met.
"Stories get bigger in her hands. It is, I suppose, why in her own work she can so frequently offer small, quiet narratives of everyday life whose ambition is nevertheless immense and profound."