Author Interview: Yiyun Li [in Asian American Literary Review]
To become a writer, Yiyun Li left behind everything familiar: her birth country (China), her first language (Mandarin), her family (parents and sister), her scientific training (immunology), and her PhD degree (University of Iowa). On the other side of the world, she switched into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and began writing in English. In the same year she earned her MFA – 2005 – she published her first book, the story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Immediately she began winning Very Important Awards, starting with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Wayne Wang would translate two of those first stories onto celluloid, the eponymous A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (for which Li herself wrote the screenplay after Wang allegedly presented her with screenwriting software and directed her to a few notable scripts) and The Princess of Nebraska.
Such the prodigious debut proved not to be beginner’s luck.
Li’s first novel, The Vagrants – one of the most heartbreaking books you need to read – followed in 2009, and was shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award (in case you’re wondering, that’s the world’s most lucrative prize for an English-language novel). A young woman – a political victim of post-Mao China – is about to die. While her voice remains missing throughout, the many residents of remote Muddy River affected by her ensuing death are vividly brought to tragic life: her suffering mother, her resigned father, a pitifully crippled 12-year-old girl, a wandering older couple who have rescued, loved, then lost seven abandoned baby girls, a privileged government news announcer, and so many more. The arresting novel is a brilliant, wrenching reminder of the far-reaching, inseparable consequences of even our smallest actions.
One year later, Li’s second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, hit shelves and, of course, landed on various prize lists. In a world crowded with so many billions, loneliness is the one somber detail exquisitely, painstakingly woven through these nine resonating stories. Everyday lives continue, connections fray and disappear, individuals are ignored and become lost … little by little, distance and isolation become the absolute norm. From the old man who never married to the couple who lost one daughter and devise an elaborate plan to have another to an older woman who shelters suffering younger women and girls to a group of six older women who ferret out cheating husbands, Li’s stories haunt and elucidate, giving permanent space to the overlooked, the forgotten who, in their own longing ways, try again and again to connect.
This triumvirate of titles – two collections and the novel – was enough to deem Li a bonafide “Genius” when she was named to the Class of 2010 MacArthur Fellows Program: “Yiyun Li is a fiction writer whose spare and quietly understated style of storytelling draws readers into powerful and emotionally compelling explorations of her characters’ struggles, set both in China and the United States,” her Fellow page intones. “Her prose in this second language bears the inflections of her mother tongue and culture, lending a vivid and arresting quality to the voices and experiences she presents to English-speaking readers.”
In her first title since the “genius”-honor, Li again explores the far-reaching repercussions of a single death in Kinder Than Solitude, which hit shelves in early 2014. While her mesmerizing Vagrants revolved around the execution of a young political victim, here, three childhood friends take the spotlight when a fourth dies after a protracted illness. Ruyu, an orphan raised by elderly “grandaunts,” is sent to live with Aunt, Uncle, and their acerbic daughter, Shaoai, in Beijing. There, she meets Boyang and Moran, who live in the same residential compound. Just four months later, the three children are implicated in Shaoai’s mysterious collapse. Shaoai’s long-expected death after an unexpected, protracted 20 years prompts Boyang – now a wealthy divorcé – to contact Moran, a Massachusetts pharmaceutical tester with a PhD determined to care for her ill Midwestern ex-husband, and Ruyu, who sells chocolates and keeps house for wealthy Californians. Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place – between minutes or decades and across continents – always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy.
The wait is on for what Li releases next – hopefully sooner than later. No impatience here, of course.
Until then, read on: Li quotes, copies, chats, and argues with dead white men (and a few women, also dead), talks non-political politics, refuses translations, explores lying all the time, practices hermit-hood, and (sometimes) turns off the internet …
You confessed in the inaugural piece of the New Yorker’s ongoing series on failed summer-reading projects that Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse may “forever be a great novel I have not finished reading.” Half a dozen years have passed since … so did you ever finish?
Ha. No! I was organizing my bookshelf the other day and saw the book again. Once in a while, I think I should make a good effort finishing it, but distractions come all the time. I wonder also if it is becoming a psychological block for me!
Well, you do mention quite a few other writers in various interviews – so you’re certainly an avid reader. You even talk to the dead ones! Who are the writers who inspire you most, and do they ever help you if/when you get writer’s block?
Yes, starting with the dead ones: Montaigne seems an all-time conversational partner, partly because he likes to talk and he is so smug about himself. I like to think about what he says in his essays and argue with him. Tolstoy, I argue with him often, too. Chekhov, I don’t argue with him, but would write in the margin and say how wonderful he is. The good thing about talking with the dead is that they don’t laugh at me. And I can take my time. Other writers who have inspired me: Graham Greene (it’s interesting to see how/where he succeeds and how/where he fails), Elizabeth Bowen, V.S. Pritchett, and of course William Trevor, who is a real mentor. When I feel blocked, I read these writers. Sometimes I hand-copy Tolstoy’s passages just to see what he is thinking!
I was just reading a novel about a community of ultraorthodox Jews, in which a young woman tries to convince herself of a life-shattering decision by writing out a sacred passage over and over again. She observes how her writing changes as she repeats the same words over and over … how does seeing Tolstoy’s words in your handwriting inspire/alter your own writing?
Well, writing out Tolstoy’s words mostly makes me feel smart. That and I notice little things that might be missed otherwise. Gorky said something about Tolstoy having “a hundred eyes,” and he did see almost everything. So writing out those passages is a way to see what he’d seen that I had missed. Take, for instance, a passage in War and Peace about a cannonball falling into the Russian army. Tolstoy didn’t describe the soldier killed by that cannonball at all, or the explosion, but described the army marching on after the soldier died, and another soldier paused for a beat next to the body before skipping to catch up with the marching. I thought only Tolstoy could do that!
For being initially trained as a scientist before becoming a writer, you’ve also had quite the literary education! Did that happen only after you quit your graduate science degree? Or were you always a reader/student of literature?
No, I’ve always been a reader. Science seemed like a proper training/career when I was a student, and reading was like a secret hideout. Also, I think the lack of books as I grew up up really contributed to a kind of hunger, which is to always read, and read more.
You went from being a scientist to a writer with what almost seems like a simple change of schools – you began as a graduate student in immunology at the University of Iowa and ended up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the same campus. You literally flipped from one side of the brain to the other. How did the transition happen?
I also flipped from one side of Iowa River, where the medical campus is, to the other side of the river!
The transition seemed natural – I was studying science, and was one year short of finishing my PhD, but by then I could see my whole career/life unfold in front of me: doing a couple postdocs and then finding a research or a teaching position, grant, research … and I had a panic attack, thinking that I wanted to try something else. And I loved reading, and wrote a little then by myself, so I thought I would give writing a try.
So when you chose to become a writer (lucky, lucky us!), since so much of your early life had been spent using the right side of the brain, what part of your scientific training do you think you retained?
Discipline – it takes good training and good discipline to be a scientist, and I think it is the same with writing. You cannot sit around and wait for an experiment to finish itself, nor for a book to write itself. I don’t think it is right to sit and wait for inspiration.
Also, curiosity – there is always something unknown, and one can always explore. I like that about science and I like that about characters, too. […click here for more]
Author interview: Asian American Literary Review, December 14, 2015