May 18, 2010

AWRF 2010: An hour with Yiyun Li

When I first heard of Yiyun Li, it was as a young Chinese woman living in Oakland, California, writing stories unpublishable in China, described with words like horrifying and brilliant. I imagined her looking a bit like Lucy Liu in "Kill Bill", with a zap of electrifying politics of the kind Oakland is famous for (cf Huey P Newton).

Yiyun Li. So it was a real surprise when my copy of The vagrants arrived from Harper Collins and the author photo revealed her to be round-cheeked and womanly, someone who would bake. The round-cheeked and womanly were still there when I got to see her in person, but there was something more, a quizzical turn of mind which made her seem both more worldly than that, but also more impractical. I decided she probably isn’t a baker.
It turns out that she was not a firebrand a la Beijing Coma, exiled to America in the wake of Tiananmen. The year of Tiananmen Square, she was only 16. Her father was a nuclear physicist, her mother a school teacher; she studied at Peking University and went to America to study immunology. But the school she chose happened to be the University of Iowa, home of the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop frequented by greats like Raymond Carver and John Cheever, and also some who were usually sober, like Michael Cunningham and T. Coraghessan Boyle. And one day she thought, I might...

At the Festival she was interviewed by John Freeman, the young and shiny editor of Granta. Last arrived as always, I ducked into a seat in the third row and discovered next to me the excellent librarian, now retired, Jennifer Wiseman, who inspired me no end when I was just starting out by talking both Vincent O’Sullivan and an All-Black with an Irish bloodline (Sean Fitzpatrick?) into coming into the library and reading out loud from Ulysses for our Bloomsday Centenary celebration in 2004. It was she who whispered to me that the somewhat ghostly figure on my other side was James Wallace.

John Freeman’s sprightly questioning (“essentialise” ? I looked it up, yes, it does exist, a perfectly good word I have never heard anyone use) opened a window on Li's formative years in Beijing.

“Fiction was the most dangerous thing in the world. Where I grew up, having anything to do with art was dangerous.”

“The public library was not open to the public, just to a select few.”

“But in the early ‘80s the newspapers printed stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev…”

“And then in my middle school library, we had Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jack London, An American Tragedy (the most terrible book I’ve ever read, so long and boring) and Sister Carrie…”

This intrigues me. Check for Hemingway, Jack London and Theodore Dreiser, anti-fascists the first two and social realist the third, but how did DH Lawrence sneak in? Are we talking Sons and Lovers and the horrible dark dirty coalmining Midlands (thousands of Chinese dying every year in coal mine explosions) or Women in Love, Western decadence, smart women, Gudrun and Ursula in coloured stockings? Or was it simply the whim of some high-up Party official with a secret stash of Glenfiddich and an obsession with DH Lawrence?

“My first pieces of fiction were falsified school notes I wrote to skip school…”

“Chinese families don’t talk about people who aren’t there – only about real things. I made up a story about my grandmother, whom I had never met. That was my first story.”

“The writer Elizabeth Bowen said ninety percent of writers don’t move beyond writing to be felt. I started writing not to be felt but to feel other people…”

“I say I am not a political writer. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t know what’s good or bad. I think the different shades of gray between the black and white is where fiction lives.”

“I grew up in a culture where goodness is more important than happiness. Best of all is to be a martyr. I could ask is this Chinese or Communist Chinese culture? It’s very difficult for Westerners to understand.”
"I am a sad person in the closet."

The final question was "Are you a Chinese writer? An American writer?"

The firm answer: “I like to think I’m an international writer.”

Coming up, some good reasons you should read Yiyun Li's The vagrants, from Claire at Central 3.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30
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