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?
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.