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 twelve-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 page¹ 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 twenty 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…
Terry Hong: 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?
Yiyun Li: 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!
TH: 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?
YL: 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!
TH: 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?
YL: 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!
TH: 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?
YL: 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.
TH: 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?
YL: 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.
TH: 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?
YL: 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.
TH: Backing up a bit here about “exploring characters”: “My major motivation to become a writer…so I can learn about other people”—a quote from your MacArthur Fellow page. So what are some of the things you’ve “learned” about other people through your writing?
YL: That’s a good question. I want to quote Henry James: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” What I’ve learned about other people is that there is no final word, there is only approximate knowing and understanding them; you can never say you do know or understand a person. Characters are like real people, they lie to you all the time (research shows that an average person tells two to three lies every 10 minutes!). Characters have secrets that they don’t want to reveal even to themselves! What else: mostly people are so complex that they underestimate themselves, and my hope is that by writing I could allow my characters some of the complexity.
TH: Does this mean that if you were to rewrite a story/a character’s narrative, you might tell a whole different story?
YL: Ah, that’s interesting. Yes and no. I think possibly, yes: a character’s story is not static, and my understanding of a character may change, too, so it could be a different story. But it would still be this character, and fundamentally that character is the same. To give you an example, I wrote a story [“Science of Flight”] set in an English B&B, about a Chinese woman staying there by herself. The editor who worked with me on the story (who happens to be an Englishwoman) found the whole setting in England very “boring”—that’s her word, boring—and she said, “I want you to get rid of this setting.” I was shocked and thought if I took England out of the story, there would be no story, and she said, no, there would be and to set the story in Iowa. That was what I did eventually. And it’s a much better story—different, but about the same character.
TH: Your books have always been written in English. I understand you had to take a writing class at Iowa Writers’ Workshop to improve your language skills—and now you’re one of the foremost authors writing in English worldwide. Just how much English did you know when you arrived in the States? And how long before you felt completely comfortable writing in your adopted tongue?
YL: My English was okay when I came to this country—I could read and write scientifically—but listening and speaking were quite inadequate. When I first started writing in English, I think partly I was just blindly brave without thinking too much about language or anything. I think it was in the Workshop when I started to pay more attention to the language, and I felt comfortable, though never too comfortable. I still think I’m missing something—the intimacy with the language you grow up with—when I write in English, though that seems not too much of a bother.
TH: If English had been your birth language, do you think you might be a different kind of writer now? On the flip side of that, how do you think having Chinese as your mother tongue affects your writing in English? While I don’t speak Mandarin, I know that syntax and structure between English and Korean and Japanese, for example, are quite different. I imagine structure-wise, Mandarin might be quite different from English, as well…
YL: I’ve been thinking about this question of language, and I wonder if in my case, English just happened to be the language I use to write. I could imagine—had I landed in another country—that I might have picked up another language, French or German, to write. So not using the mother tongue seems important to me. Perhaps I would’ve given up English (no, not Beckett) for another language to write had English been my mother tongue, but this is a bit hypothetical.
The syntax of Chinese is so different from English—and I think that is one reason that there is limited translation going on because there is no way to translate a thought from Chinese into English and maintain the same meaning and clarity. I notice this is a little different, say, between French and English—more direct, clearer translation seems possible between those languages.
TH: Do you read Chinese writers in translation? Have you ever compared original/translated versions? Howard Goldblatt, for example, is one of the “leading” translators working today. Julia Lovell is another name that often appears on translated Chinese book covers. Are they any “good”?—I ask knowing that’s probably an unfair question. I guess the better questions to ask are—Are they accurate? Do they capture the originally intended meaning?
YL: I do read both original and translation, especially sometimes because I review these books for English-speaking media. To back up, I did a little translation myself from Chinese to English and I thought it was an impossible task. With Goldblatt’s and Lovell’s translations—I would say, maybe this is hard to explain, that their translations often bring something into focus much sharper than the original texts. I say this as a good thing, as Chinese can be a blurry and inaccurate language, and there are, for instance, many ways to say “time,” but in English we have to use time no matter what the original text is. So oddly, I think the translation often reads with better clarity than the original; on the other hand, there are flavors that get lost because of the language issue.
TH: You’re now professor-ing in the English department of UC Davis, teaching creative writing, since 2008. Do you think that teaching writing has changed you as a writer?
YL: I think so: teaching really forces me to articulate things that I know by intuition. Writing on my own doesn’t require me to explain things. I remember when I was in the Workshop, I would make very vague comments, and a teacher would always ask what I meant. I think that kind of experience made me understand that you could read and by intuition know what needs more work, but it’s a different set of skills to articulate. However, when I write, I try to tune out these articulations and explanations, as they are the last thing a writer needs when writing!
TH: Your parents were strongly discouraging of your writing as child, even your diaries. What happened to those diaries? Have you reread them? What might you have told your younger self then about being a writer now?
YL: I think I might have burned most of the diaries before I left China. One or two I may still have, but have never checked to see where they are! I would say to my younger self that any experience—good or bad—is a good experience to understand people and the world.
TH: Your parents must have read your books by now? And surely they know that you’re considered a “genius” writer…what have been their reactions to your novelist career? And your books?
YL: My books are not translated into Chinese (by my choice) so my parents don’t know a lot about my books. My father reads English so he probably has read some of my books. They are proud, of course, and I think also slightly baffled, as this is not the person whom they’ve raised! In any case, I try to minimize me as a writer when I talk with my parents, so in a way it feels as though I’m still hiding this thing a little!
TH: Do you think you will ever allow your books to be translated into Chinese?
YL: I wouldn’t say never, so when the time feels right (and when the book/s feel right) I would say yes. At the moment, I don’t think I’m ready. I don’t think China is ready, either. Though when I say this, I know people will get mad at me.
TH: I’ve read that you don’t consider yourself a “political writer,” but you also add that you can’t not be political when you write about China. Could you talk more about being in that in-between of political/not political?
YL: I think when people think about being political, they mean there is an agenda, or a belief, or at least something to achieve. I don’t like to think of myself as being that kind of a political writer. Being deeply human and being against any politics—those stands also seem political to me, and in that sense, I’m with my characters, that I want them (and for myself too) to live really seriously and consciously, knowing what’s going on in the outside world, knowing what to think, but never in a hurry to come to a conclusion.
TH: Do you ever think about what your life might be like had you stayed in China? Have you possibly written your alter-ego into some of your characters?
YL: I do. I think I would possibly have become one of my characters—they are oftentimes quiet and they refuse center stage or drama, but live a secret life of emotions and motivations. Though I wouldn’t say the characters are my alter-egos; I like to think they are much more interesting than I am!
TH: If one were to use a few words to describe many—even the majority of your characters—one might come up with powerless, isolated, resigned, tragic. How much of yourself, or those you know/have known, do you put into your fictional characters? If someone who knows you well were to choose a few words to describe you, what would those be?
YL: Interesting question! I think they might have thought of me as “isolated” though I think it is not true, if I look at all the books around me. (I do live a bit like a hermit.) I don’t feel those other adjectives are close to my experience. What part of myself I put into my characters: mostly my bafflement about the world; and sometimes my stubbornness. Most of my characters are stubborn, and I’m told by many that I’m very stubborn, too.
TH: You’re a “gregarious hermit”!—or so I’ve read…
YL: Very much so!
TH: You certainly weren’t a hermit, though, when you chose to leave China for the other side of the world…and then stayed! You were twenty-four when you arrived in 1996 in the U.S. as a graduate student. Almost twenty years later, you’ve lived just about half your life stateside. You have a Chinese American husband and two American-born sons. Do you feel like an American? Or do you still think of yourself as Chinese? Someone in between?
YL: I was just thinking about this today as I have a talk tonight about China and America. I don’t often think of myself as being an American or a Chinese. The best way to say this is: when a person gets up in the morning and looks at herself or himself in the mirror, the first thought is not—I’m an American, or Chinese, or Chinese American. Sometimes not even I’m a wife or husband or a parent. Mostly, here I am, my old self. So in that sense, I think about what it means to be a self more than being American or Chinese. Though if I talk to my parents, they often comment how Americanized I am, and that is one time when I feel like an American.
TH: How often do you go back to China? Does it still feel like “home”? Your parents are still in Beijing, yes? And your older sister and her family?
YL: We haven’t been back for a while but are going this summer. My older sister and her family just moved back to Shanghai for a few years, and my parents live in Beijing. There was a moment I realized that we started to talk about, instead of “going home to China,” just “going to China for a visit”—which is the moment I realized America was becoming home for us.
TH: That’s the sort of nuance that might get lost in translation…
TH: Have you ever considered writing nonfiction? I understand your MFA is in both nonfiction and fiction, yes?
YL: Yes. In fact, I’m working on some essays. I like to say that I write fiction when I know what I am doing, and I write nonfiction when I don’t know what I am doing—meaning that writing nonfiction is a way to think through things about my own life, while fiction is all about others.
TH: Would you ever consider writing a story in Mandarin?
YL: No, I don’t think so. I may translate something into Mandarin (either someone’s work, or perhaps mine) but I don’t think of the language as my natural writing language.
TH: Because you would have only become a novelist in America? In English?
YL: In a foreign language and in another country, yes. I think it is a mental hermit-ness.
TH: Having been recognized as a mental hermit “genius,” is life—especially your writing life—different since you were named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow?
YL: Ha. Not at all. Nobody here (meaning in the house) cares about having a genius around!
TH: Speaking of fiction, ahem…you were a 2011 National Book Award fiction judge—for which you read over three hundred titles. Did that saturation in fiction affect your writing? Did any of those narratives end up unconsciously lodged in details of Kinder Than Solitude—which you must have been at least trying to write during that year of reading endlessly?
YL: I didn’t write at all because you got all these books speaking in your head. I think there are only a handful of writers that I read before I write, for instance, William Trevor. I sometimes read him to cleanse my mental palate.
TH: And of course then, I have to ask…since Kinder is now out …what are youworking on now? Besides the essays—are those getting collected for a book? Stories? Next novel?
YL: The next novel is always a secret. Well, I am working on some stories, as I have half a collection finished, and thought I would write the other half. The essays—yes, I hope at some point they can get together to become a book. There is a little seed of a novel that can’t be called a novel but a “thing”!
TH: Secret—that inscrutable Asian thing, haha! Okay fine. We’ll just make things up and wait for more lies? How’s that?
YL: Sounds good!
TH: So back in 2010, you publicly announced that you were limiting your internet time to thirty minutes a day. How’s your virtual usage these days?
YL: Improved a little, meaning a bit more time online, though not much more. I dallied with social media for a little bit and then left because I thought it was too much time spent!
TH: And speaking of the web—I just compiled a seventy-one-page document of “background” on you…ever worry that there is toooo much of your life so easily, publicly available out there?
YL: Ha. That is scary, isn’t it—the whole web thing. That is one thing that makes me feel like a hermit. But you can’t control that!