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A Conversation With MacArthur Fellow Writer Yiyun Li

By Vanessa Wang

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to America in 1996 to pursue a PhD in immunology. But instead of completing the PhD program, she discovered her love for writing and joined the prestigious Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. “English is not my first language, but it is my first writing language,” Li tells us. “It was partly intuited and partly a willfulness, that I decided to become this new person using this new language.” Li’s two short story collections and two novels have won her the MacAuthur Genius fellowship, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the title of top 20 writers under 40 by The New Yorker, and these are just a few from a long list of accolades.

On October 30, Li, dressed elegantly in black, stands on the podium at the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress to read from her newest book, Kinder Than Solitude, published in February this year. The novel goes back and forth between two time periods: 1989 in China and 2010 in America, and is essentially a murder mystery revolving a case of poisoning. The suspects are the three protagonists in the story. “It took me two years of not writing to figure out the structure of the novel,” says Li. Li struggled to find the perfect storytelling technique that would retain the mystery of who killed whom in 1989, while also illustrating the aftermath of the murder in 2010. Li ultimately decided to write chapters alternating between the two time periods, so that her readers would discover the truth about the murder at the same time her characters did.

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“I’m always curious about people who use poison,” says Li. “Poisoning is a very intimate crime.” Interestingly, Li contends that her character Shaoai, who was fed the lethal chemical in 1989 and ended up in a permanent vegetative state, was actually the least poisoned character—metaphorically speaking that is—in Kinder Than Solitude. The poisoning ends up scarring the three protagonists that emigrate to America in a much profounder way, for they have to live with the memory of the incident. The three friends are also constantly haunted by the aftershock of the Tiananmen Square massacre. “Time becomes the biggest poison in the novel,” says Li.

Kinder Than Solitude, like most of Li’s stories, is very much about China’s political movement, so it is no surprise when the audience asks Li about her role as a political writer. “I do not consider myself a political writer,” Li answers. “I am simply curious about people—common, struggling people and their communities—during these political upheavals.” Li says she has no intention of portraying an “objective” China. “I want to tell ‘human stories’ that don’t appear in newspapers.” Li says she writes to understand her characters. “We never get to know a person a hundred percent—and I think that is why we read and write fiction, to get closer to people.”

Li’s first novel, Vagrant, was set completely in China. Now in Kinder Than Solitude, Li writes about immigrant characters living in America and interacting with American society. Does Li consider herself an immigrant writer?“That is a very difficult question to answer,” she says. “When I wake up in the morning, or when my characters wake up in the morning, we look in the mirror and we don’t think of ourselves as immigrants. We see only ourselves, as a mother, for example, having to cook breakfast. I prefer defining me and my characters by our intimate connections to others.” Li says she still has the mindset of coming from elsewhere, despite having lived in America for eighteen years. “But because I have children growing up here, I am starting to understand what it means to be Chinese American. I am learning a lot through my children’s experience.”

When asked whether she has ever tried writing fiction in her native Chinese language, Li shares an anecdote from her childhood. Growing up in China, Li kept a journal. To counter her mother’s probing on her thoughts, Li adopted the habit of writing around her subject, using what she calls “the negative space.” “If I wanted to write about a bird, I would instead write about the trees and clouds surrounding it.” This circuitous writing style “is not so good in fiction writing,” Li tells us, and so she prefers using English.

Li says her next project will likely be a short story collection, since her most recent publication was a novel. To date, she has written two short story collections and two novels, alternating each time between the two forms she loves. She says she models her writing career after Irish writer William, Trevor, who would always publish a novel after a short story collection, and vice versa. Visit http://www.yiyunli.com/ to learn more about Yiyun Li.

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