From Beijing to Oakland

Writer Yiyun Li explores the language of creation and the memory of violence


LIT In 2005, after dropping out of a PhD program in immunology, Chinese writer Yiyun Li debuted her first book of fiction, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. A collection of stories exploring the aftershock of the Cultural Revolution on mainland and overseas Chinese, it won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award. Li's story "Immorality" won the Paris Review Plimpton Prize.

Afterward, Li's green card application was rejected by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — twice. Her "extraordinary ability" as an artist (Title 8, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 204.5) could not be proven until she won, on top of those accolades, a Pulitzer Prize.

Fortunately for the status of fiction in America, Li's extraordinary ability was finally recognized in 2007, 11 years after her arrival to the United States. In a journey that has taken her from Beijing to Iowa, Li now resides in Oakland with her family. Li left China in 1996 to pursue a doctorate in immunology at the University of Iowa. Living in China, she had no interest in writing fiction, and her natural affinity and aptitude for telling stories in English took her by surprise. Her second language in speaking, she discovered, was really a "first language in creating and thinking."

Li has a scientist's eye toward precision and a gifted storyteller's ability to extract meaning from the mad fracas of human circumstance. Last year, she published a well-received first novel called The Vagrants. Set in China during 1979, in a fictional provincial city called Muddy River, the novel provides an unflinching view into the era's brutality and violence. The novel also reveals, carefully and without sentiment, the unexpected moments of transcendence that result when love, empathy, and human emotions bloom in the harshest of environments.

Li spoke with the SFBG about The Vagrants, released in paperback by Random House a few weeks ago.

SFBG You write in English, which you learned as an adult. Does this have to do with any innate differences linguistic between English and Chinese? Does it have anything to do with your associations with China?

YIYUN LI I wasn't trained as a writer in China, and even though I widely read Chinese literature when I was in China, I never had the urge to write in Chinese until I came to America, picked up English, and felt it a natural way to express myself. I think it is a more personal decision than I may have indicated, though honestly I myself sometimes feel mystified by this switch of languages too. I feel much more like myself when I write in English, which is to say English is really my first language in creating and thinking. In a way I do censor myself less when I write in English — again, that censoring is not from others, but from myself.

SFBG Do you think in Chinese?

YL I no longer think in Chinese. Of course as my mother tongue, Chinese is still used in my everyday life — I still count and do my math in Chinese, but when I think about literature, art and philosophy I think in English.

SFBG As an international student, your decision to forgo a promising medical career and become a writer was extremely brave. During the process of writing your first book, did you experience great anxiety or doubt? Were you ever tempted to give up and go back to medicine?

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