Pe­riph­eral vi­sion

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Jill Batt­son For The New Mex­i­can

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.”

Yiyun Li

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