Writer Yiyun Li explores the language of creation and the memory of violence
YL I didn't feel self-doubt — I think by the time I gave up my immunology career, I was certain I wouldn't go back. There was a certain level of anxiety but I would say at the time it was minimal. I probably just lived with a tunnel vision and all I thought about was to write, and write well. I was certain that I needed some time to improve myself, so it did not occur to me to give up.
SFBG When you write, do you find you draw any lessons from your experiences studying medicine?
YL Medical knowledge, like any kind of knowledge, is helpful and useful for a fiction writer. I think my training perhaps helps me look at the world and its many violences without being sentimental.
SFBG In The Vagrants, even small children in Muddy River are completely unmoved by public executions. This strikes me as devastating and true. My mother told me that when she was growing up in China during the early 1970s, she saw a man bleed to death on the side of the road. The real horror of the experience didn't dawn on her until decades later. You were seven years old in 1979, the year in which The Vagrants takes place. Writing about violence from the perspective of children, do you recall events from your own childhood in China?
YL Your mother's experience was quite close to my own experience, and indeed for most children, empathy and sympathy come not naturally, but with some help from grownups and education. When violence is prevalent, as one sometimes finds in life, not only children but adults too stop questioning the injustice. I did draw from my own memories of the time, but like your mother, I had to look back as a different person to understand the tie.
SFBG Have you gone back to China since you've left? How are you received?
YL Yes, I have been back visiting. I keep a very low profile when I visit China. so there is not much trouble for me.
SFBG You've mentioned that your biggest literary influence is William Trevor. You've named Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Greene as influences, too. Do you draw any influences from Chinese literature?
YL My favorite Chinese author — Shen Congwen — influenced me a lot, not in the way of how he wrote stories and how he used language but how he looked at the world as a storyteller.
SFBG Speaking of Chinese novels, some of your characters in The Vagrants, like Teacher Gu, are quite literary. I enjoyed that Kai and Kialin hold their clandestine meetings in the library. I also liked that Jialin's mother steals books for him from the shelves she's supposed to guard. What books are these characters reading? If you could pick a book for each Gu, Kai, and Jialin, what might be a book that affected the way each viewed the world at that time?
YL This is a great question. For Jialin and Kai, I imagine they would be reading Gadfly, a little-known novel in the West but a hugely popular novel in China (and Soviet Union) written by the Irish author Ethel Voynich. I also thought Jialin might be interested in reading French authors. For Teacher Gu, I would imagine he would read Tolstoy.