Novelist and short-story writer Yiyun Li discusses her two homelands––the China she left when she came to the University of Iowa to study immunology, and America, which has been her home for almost 20 years. Li is winner of the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, a MacArthur Genius Grant and numerous honours. In novels like Kinder than Solitude and The Vagrants, and short story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, she has been impressing critics and fellow writers with the grace and subtlety of her writing, even as she tells stories so truthful and critical that she won’t publish her books in China. Michel Faber, writing for The Guardian, said “Yiyun has the talent, the vision and the respect for life’s insoluble mysteries...[she] is the real deal.”

In the US she discovered her love for literature and studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson, who she credits with teaching her to read deeply, but the writers which Li says have been a deeper influence on her are William Trevor, Elisabeth Bowen, Tolstoy and Turgenev.

I met Li in Paris during the Festival des Écrivains du Monde and reconnected a few months later for this phone interview. It was early in the morning in Oakland, where she lives, and in the background I could hear the sound of her two sons and Li’s pet dog walking around.
 

This in an abridgement of a 10,000 word interview which will be published across a network of university and national literary magazines in the coming months.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I was wondering––since you came to America, got married and had children––how do you feel your writing has changed over the years?

 

YIYUN LI

It's interesting because I actually became a writer after I had my first child, so I've always been a mother, I suppose. I've been a mother longer than I have been a writer. I think for me at one point, you know, you're writing in this vacuum and all of a sudden you realise your children are growing up and you realise that one day they're going to read your writing. That's a little different. That's always at the back of my mind, so I wouldn't say my fiction has changed greatly, except I think–how do I put this?–I would think twice before putting a child through suffering. 

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Yes, this is something you were talking about before, about your mother not reading your fiction. And now you have this other element of responsibility for your own children, I can understand how that’s an issue. But I feel your writing is so delicate that even when you write about something shocking, like a poisoning, murder, or infidelity, it's done with such lightness of touch that I think you needn't worry about sharing it with your children.

 

LI

I don't actually worry so much because I know they have read some of my work. So I think it's just interesting, you know, you may have a fiction world and you think this world has nothing to do with your life, but it's not true. The fiction world and real life, they actually overlap sometimes.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

This is interesting because it's something that immigrants possibly think more about because immigration is an act of reinvention, right?

 

LI

Yes, absolutely.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

So you come to America and you begin telling your story a lot because people are asking you, and so you begin to think of your life with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's seems like a great advantage––for a writer to be able to draw on two languages, to have many stages of your life…

I think I might be an old-fashioned writer. People often comment that I'm a 19th-century writer. And I think maybe it's true. I think there are different ways to look at the world.

LI

Yes, I think it's especially interesting, as you say, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. And I think for those of us who have crossed borders–the artificial beginning is interesting to me. There is a clear-cut: old life, that's old country, and here's there's new life, new country. It is an advantage. You are looking at life through an old pair of eyes and a new pair of eyes. And there's always that ambivalence––Where do you belong? And how do you belong? And I do think these are advantages of immigrant writers or writers with two languages or who have two worlds.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

In the title story of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yilan says that she grew up in a language where she never learned to express her feelings, which she only learned to do when she found herself in a new language––English.

 

LI

And it's interesting because that line is often quoted, you know for better or for worse people quote that line. And I hate to say it, but that's my feeling. I don't want to align myself with that character, but I do think that's true when you have a new language, especially this language you have gained. Other than is given to you by your mother tongue, you have gained this new language. You have gained a lot of new skills with the language. You have gained a vocabulary you don't have in your mother tongue and those things are important.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Especially that moment when you're not proficient at it, you can be more honest because you don't have the choice of being so elegant and diplomatic. You can't hide yourself so much.

 

LI

Yes, and you have to be to the point sometimes, right?

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It's almost like an actor. You are yourself, but you are also embodying a role. The way an actor becomes himself even though he is playing a role who is not him. You have a freedom to express a different part of yourself?

 

LI

I agree with you and I think, especially if you take the script away from the actors, just give them minimum words. Yes, they have to find the exact words to say the exact things that they need to say.  And I think all immigrants went through that stage.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

One of the reasons why I enjoy your novels and stories is that they explore old-fashioned themes like duty, shame, honour, loss of face, suppressed emotion, collective responsibility... and this is not addressed by a lot of writers because of the way society is now.

 

LI

I think I might be an old-fashioned writer. (Li laughs.) People often comment that I'm a 19th-century writer. And I think maybe it's true. I think there are different ways to look at the world.

 

With special thanks to Amelia Goodman (Flux magazine) for editorial assistance.