Meet Yiyun Li: A (Baker’s) Dozen of Things Worth Knowing
I heard Yiyun Li (eee-yun), author of The Vagrants and prolific short story writer, read at my neighborhood bookstore on Tuesday evening. (Read her excellent, recent story, Alone, in the New Yorker)
I have had the good fortune of meeting Yiyun before.
She lives in Oakland and is part of my school community.
But never before in her element—her space as a writer.
With only 15 people in the room, it made for an intimate conversation.
Friendly. Humble. Light-hearted. Intense. Authentic.
Here’s what captured me:
- She just returned from 3 weeks in Spain, where her book was translated into Spanish.
- She was born in Beijing and attended college there. She has a sister who today lives in the U.S. and quipped that “I was one of the last generations to have a sibling.”
- She was 16 in 1989, which was the year of the Tianamen Square Massacre.
- She came to Iowa City in 1996 to get her PhD in Immunology. Ironically, she arrived in a town where ‘everyone wrote a novel’ and decided she would like to do that too. Next step: the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
- Her mom cried when she learned Yiyun was going to be a writer because she wasn’t going to make any money. Then, her mom said that “she wasted her education”. Today, her mom makes passes out 500-600 xerox copies of articles about her to everyone she knows-much to Yiyun’s embarrassment.
- She writes all of her books in English, despite first learning English in middle school.
- Her green card was denied. Twice. Despite letters from Salman Rushdie, David Remnick (editor New Yorker) and author Elinor Lipor, the U.S. government told her she didn’t qualify as an ‘extraordinary artist’ unless she won a Pulitzer Prize. They wanted references from authors who didn’t know her personally. So she had to solicit her well-known friends searching for authors who valued her work, but had never met her.
- The title of her book “The Vagrants” Is named for the older couple in the book. The characters were inspired by a story she read where a couple in China raised 28 daughters that they found abandoned over the years. Despite the fact that the daughters were repeatedly taken from them by the government around at age 8 and put in orphanages, she was captivated by their persistence and sense of hope.
- The story of the Vagrants was based on the execution of two different women for counterrevolutionary acts. Yiyun believes her novel is less about the two women and more about what happens to a community when there is fear and dissent—who can you trust?
- Her book is sold at Beijing Bookworm in China. In English only. The British bookseller doesn’t know if it is illegal or not. Nor maybe cares.
- When Time Magazine Asia did a profile on her, her friends in China sent pictures showing copy after copy at newsstands with this page torn out. The Chinese press also cited her book as being about how parents cope with the death of their daughter. She said pointedly: “that’s not what I wrote a book about!!!”
- When she was given her choice of books as a gift from the bookstore, she picked Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned–a book she has meant to read for a while.
- She laughed at the end of the evening when she said “I haven’t let my husband read the book”.
As you know, The Vagrants is one of my 2010 Book selections.
So the timing of all this was just peachy.
Now. Time to try something new.
A virtual book group on The Vagrants.
Reading to begin March 1st. End March 15th.