Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in the New Yorker, Tin House, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons and teaches in the MFA program at Mills College.
After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Chinese government wanted to ensure that there could be no contact between the dissident students and those who followed them, so generations of teenagers spent involuntary gap years in the army, being forcibly returned to the true Communist path. In 1991, 18-year-old Yiyun Li, precocious and well-educated, was among those students, and was shocked to discover that many of those who marched with her had not heard of the massacre. She took it upon herself to inform them. She sang American Pie, and got caught reading Hemingway in a communist faith class. “I watched both [the lieutenant’s] hands squeeze the book,” she wrote in a memoir for Prospect magazine. “I waited for her to hit me with it. She could do whatever she wanted, but we both knew that I would still win. I was smarter, better educated, with a future that she would have no part in. She ripped the book in half and I did not flinch. In a tired voice she ordered me to leave her room.” Li cannot have known how much better her life was going to be, or how different – or that she would be writing about the incident in a decade’s time, in a language she did not yet speak.
The Guardian First Book Award that she won in 2006 is the latest accolade for a collection of short stories which has so far earned her a $200,000 book deal, a Pushcart Prize, a Plimpton Prize, and, last year, the inaugural €50,000 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award: among the finalists for that prize was the Irish writer William Trevor, whose work, Li insists, taught her everything she knows about writing. Certainly her short stories are, like his, full of social and emotional violence, of implacable events that crush frail lives as a lorry might unknowingly crush an ant; but, as with his, the violence is eyed askance. She understands how cruelty is essentially absurd; that what is interesting is how people respond to it – and that these feelings are complicated, can change from minute to minute, which is where the drama really lies. This very human understanding, delivered in taut, unjudgmental sentences, is why many of the stories are so satisfying.
Li is in London to collect the award but nearly didn’t make it, as she was unsure whether she would be let back into the US. She lives in California now, with her husband and two children, but despite being published in some of the best American periodicals, her $200,000 book deal – almost unheard of for someone who had previously published just two stories – and brandishing supporting letters from everyone from Salman Rushdie to David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, she has already been turned down once for a green card. “I got a long letter explaining why I didn’t get it,” she says, girlish and jetlagged over breakfast at her hotel in London’s Kensington. “They actually said something like, ‘We are not experts in the literary field, but …'” She is gentle, diplomatic, but also, and obviously, very determined. There are few extra words. She answers a question clearly and brightly, then smiles a full stop.
As one begins to suspect from its repeated appearance in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Li grew up on a compound in Beijing devoted to the families of nuclear researchers and scientists; her father was a physicist, her mother a schoolteacher. Because of the importance of nuclear weapons to the government, she wrote in a New Yorker essay two years ago, scientist-intellectuals such her father escaped the purges of the cultural revolution. Which did not mean none of them saw anything – she has written, of a moment when, aged five, she saw four rope-bound men being displayed to a crowd before their execution.
Her family was not wealthy. “When I grew up there was not even a middle class. My parents were intellectuals, but as poor as peasants. There were officials and everybody else. We belonged to the everybody else.” The arrival of a refrigerator when she was 14 was a major punctuation point. Food was rationed, meat a rare treat. They had to keep secret the fact that her grandfather, who lived with them, had fought in the civil war, but on the nationalist side, with the Kuomintang.
Li was an instinctively private child, and “privacy was such a bad thing. If you grow up in China, there is no concept of privacy. You share rooms. People will knock on your door and they’re your guest – I didn’t do well with that. And you’re not supposed to hide anything, even your diary, from anybody.” By the time she was 10, she knew the point of education was escape – preferably to America, like many people she knew.
At the weekends she attended a school for the best child mathematicians culled from all the schools in Beijing; for at least one year she found herself in the top class. As for English, they learned grammar for six years – but did not speak a word. Until she was in the army, she says, the only English book she had read was an abridged version of Anne Frank’s diary; in the army, the girls’ platoon passed around copies of Thomas Hardy, Hemingway, Jack London, DH Lawrence. “The first time I read Gone With the Wind, I read a photocopy this big” – she demonstrates a silly height – “it was, like, pirated? There was a shop near where I went to school that had many English books. And it had a room at the back which said foreigners cannot enter. It was full of pirated books, and photocopied Reader’s Digests.”
Tiananmen Square, for her, as for so many others, was a turning point. “I became an adult, a grown-up, after that.” She was 17. “It was Saturday, and my friend and I went to the mathematics school. When we came back it was 6.30 in the evening and people were already pushing buses into the streets to block the army. I think we all knew it would happen on that day. A lot of people went out on to the street, hoping that if there were enough of them they would not shoot.” Li and her elder sister were locked in the house, with their father standing guard; their mother went to investigate. She did not get as far as the square, but saw a grief-stricken mother being driven around the city displaying her seven-year-old who had been shot by the army, a bloody rallying cry. “My mother saw the body, and she came home crying. After that, people were so scared. It was an incredible week.”
After her year in the army Li went to university in Beijing and became an immunologist whose sole aim was to win a place at graduate school in the US. She chose Iowa, and arrived in 1996, aged 23, and discovered that her sister’s suggestion that she should watch Baywatch to learn about the US was not much use. That first year, surrounded by cornfields and unfamiliar people and trying to get by on English learned from tapes, she missed her family and boyfriend, but “I was actually very happy to be on my own.” There was no one to talk to about books, though, and when she saw an ad in the student newspaper for an eight-week community writing course, she signed up. She’d never produced a single piece of writing in English before, so she was taken aback when the instructor read her first effort, about the grandmother she had never known, and asked if she’d ever thought about being published.
For three years writing remained a hobby. She gained a graduate degree, got married, worked in a lab on allergies, asthma, the behaviour of B- and T-cells. And then she won a place at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the American equivalent to the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia in terms of the calibre of its alumni and teachers, and proceeded to acquire two more graduate degrees, in fiction and creative non-fiction. None of these technically guarantees anything, so she had to persuade her husband, a computer technician, to bear with her for three years while she gave writing a go.
Her parents, who still live in China, took some persuading, too. “My mother said, ‘Can you make money being a writer?’ I said, ‘No, you cannot make money.’ Then I published my book, and they were very proud of me.” They provide observations of contemporary China, have started suggesting what she should write about. “My father will say, ‘I know you’re busy – I can go out and talk to people and get interesting stories for you’.”
Part of the issue is that they find it difficult to talk about feelings within the family. “We never say we love each other. There is no vocabulary for those kinds of things.” And yet her stories are full of unexpected moments of love – often unexpressed, true, but striking for their range, for her understanding of love in old age, of the rewards of loyalty, of the pain of parental love. In the title story, an ageing man goes to see his daughter in the US. She has just been through a divorce, and he is worried for her, but everything he says prompts her to withdraw; after a lifetime of distance, he finds he cannot break through. So he cooks, “but she does not know his cooking has become his praying, and she leaves the prayers unanswered”.
Eventually he discovers that she does communicate, freely and openly, but in English, and not with him. “Baba,” she says to him finally, in exasperation, “if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language. It makes you a new person.” Although Li read a great deal of Chinese poetry growing up, she has found that “I can’t write in Chinese at all. I think it’s more like self-censoring, than other people censoring me. I don’t know – I just feel so much more comfortable writing in English. I think I need a distance with language just to write.”
She is also extremely reluctant to have her work translated into Chinese. She has seen other Chinese writers working in English, such as Ha Jin, come in for storms of criticism at home, and “I’m just not ready.” Some Chinese Americans already disapprove of her; she says they “are very upset because they think I am presenting a wrong picture of China. You know, it’s my interpretation. If they don’t agree, they can write another book.” She’s equally fierce about any expectation that she should feel herself a representative of her country, required to cover certain topics, to take a particular line. “I really hate that. It feels unnatural. Nobody would ask an American to represent America.”
I mention that there is a tendency in publishing to fall gratefully upon the exotic, on multicultural minority value, and that perhaps this is accompanied by lower standards for the writing itself – the classic affirmative-action fear. “I think that happens, and I’m aware of it. But I don’t buy it. I don’t write for that reason. I’m not going to satisfy people’s curiosity about exotic China, or exotic Asians. If I write a story, I write a story. I have to make sure it’s a good story, and that I don’t take any short cuts because it’s about China. I feel I have a lot of Chinese stories I need to tell.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li
Granny Lin walks in the street on a november afternoon with a stainless steel lunch pail in her hand. Inside the lunch pail is an official certificate from her working unit. “Hereby we confirm Comrade Lin Mei is honorably retired from Beijing Red Star Garment Factory,” says the certificate in bright golden characters.It does not say that Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt or that, being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension. Of course it will not provide such information, for these facts are simply not true. “Bankrupt” is the wrong word for a state-owned industry. “Internal reorganization” is what has been kindly omitted in the certificate. And, mind this, Granny Lin’s pension is being withheld only temporarily. For how long, the factory has no further information to offer.
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