North America seems to have focused its collective gaze on the contemporary art of China. In the past decade film enthusiasts have discovered Chinese directors, opera-goers have been wowed by Chinese composers, and works by Chinese choreographers have been danced to capacity audiences all over the continent. Museum and gallery curators might be considered out of touch if their exhibition rosters didn’t include at least one Chinese artist’s show.
And a new wave of Chinese writers is bringing its culture to us. On Wednesday, May 12, one of the most accomplished of these writers, Yiyun Li, reads at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Readings and Conversations Series.
Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996 to study for a graduate degree in immunology at the University of Iowa. Realizing her English needed improvement, she decided to take a writing course. The facilitator, preeminent short-story writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson, immediately recognized her talent. He singled out “Immortality” — which tells the story of a village using the collective voice — for special attention.
Shortly afterward, Li realized that writing was her calling. She jettisoned her Ph.D. studies, accepting a master’s degree instead, and switched programs to enroll in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since its inception, the workshop has been acknowledged as one of the best graduate writing programs in the country. Alumni from the school, including Philip Roth and Michael Cunningham, have won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes. Before long, Li was selling her stories to The Paris Review and The New Yorker. When Random House executive editor Kate Medina went to the workshop to lecture, she took several of Li’s stories and read them on her flight back to New York. A few weeks later, she offered Li a publishing contract.
In 2003, “Immortality” won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and was included in Li’s debut short-story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The stories that make up the book are testament to the languishing results of China’s Cultural Revolution and the effects of capitalism on ordinary people.
The award-winning A Thousand Years of Good Prayers offers the reader the contemporary Chinese experience — whether the subjects live in China or as immigrants in America — and the stories are at once surprising, disturbing, and strange. These finely crafted narratives focus on relationships and allow the reader a glimpse into the world in which Li grew up (she was born in 1972, six years after the Cultural Revolution began). Many are poignant portraits of an older generation finding its way in a world where newfound freedoms often bring disappointment.
From her home in Oakland, California, Li said she is more interested in writing about people on the edge of society. “I’m interested in the extras of anybody’s stories,” she said. “In a way, [these peripheral characters] are not self-conscious of their stories, and so they live in a more — to me — interesting way. Their lives are more real to me than someone who takes center stage.”
Li has been compared to the Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, who also writes short stories about the immigrant experience in the United States, with a similar sense of restraint and subtlety. But unlike Lahiri, Li is often looked at as a political writer. “I don’t have a political agenda in my mind when I’m writing,” Li said. “That’s why I don’t call myself a political writer. But if you look at China in the past century, it’s been a very political country. ... I don’t want to be oblivious of the fact that there are politics, but if people find political comment, it’s from the work, not from me.” She uses an example from one of her writing heroes, Graham Greene. “His stories were written in this war or that war,” she said. “But nobody would say, ‘ Oh, he is so political.’ I don’t find politics relevant to what I’m doing.”
As a little girl, Li’s everyday experiences included attending public executions, so it’s not surprising that this theme opens Li’s first novel, The Vagrants. The story is set in a small Chinese industrial town in 1979 during a brief period of liberalism that occurred after the death of Mao Zedong and before the rise of Deng Xiaoping’s regime. A Democracy Wall had been set up in Beijing so people could air their political grievances, but this brief enlightenment failed to reach Muddy River, and the novel is filled with upsetting images from the grim struggles of its residents. Again, Li populates the story with those on the fringes and uses their multiple perspectives to tell the story of an execution — and its consequences — of an imprisoned woman caught writing counterrevolutionary statements in her diary.
Li has just finished work on her new shortstory collection, to be published in September. Li said that in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, she feels she has matured as a writer. She is also about to embark on a new novel. “I like working on a novel and a bunch of short stories at the same time,” she said. “Most of the new stories were written when I was working on The Vagrants.” In Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Li continues her examination of the people of contemporary China. “Their stories are what I’m curious about,” she said. “I read in the newspaper about six old women who got really mad about extramarital affairs in China, so they started a private investigative agency to help cheated wives find the mistresses.” Her subsequent story using these women as inspiration is the result, as many others are, of Li keeping her finger on the Chinese pulse. “I keep track of things,” she said. “I read the newspapers, and I talk to people in China.”
North America’s current fascination with China may be due in part to its increasing economic importance. “China is coming onto the radar of most Western countries,” Li said. “I’m certainly aware that some of my success has something to do with people in the West becoming more interested in China. But even if they’re not interested in China, I’m still writing my stories.”