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09.22.10

China's Chekhov

Yiyun Li’s new book of short stories beautifully captures her native country in transition. She spoke to Jane Ciabattari about her work and influences.

Yiyun Li is a phenomenal writer whose rapid if convoluted rise to literary prominence seems both accidental and fated. Li was born in 1972, grew up in Beijing, and spent the mandatory year in an army camp in central China in the early 1990s. She came to the U.S. in 1996 to study for a Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Iowa. Within a matter of years, hearing that Iowa City was a writers’ town, she dumped her science career. She enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2002, after taking a workshop with James McPherson in 2000 and falling in love with English and with telling stories in this new language. Her remarkable first story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the 2005 PEN/Hemingway award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and The Guardian first book award. This year she was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40.

“Kindness,” the novella that leads off her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl begins quietly: “I’m a 41-year-old woman living in the same apartment where I have always lived….”

The narrator’s mother, a beautiful woman with a “cherry petal mouth,” was forced into a choice at age 20—marriage to a man 30 years older or an insane asylum for “nymphomania.” The narrator learns these details from an older professor/neighbor in Beijing who teaches her English by reading David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Return of the Native, and, when she is 16, the novels and stories of D.H. Lawrence. Li weaves these threads together, including the narrator’s experience of her obligatory army duty, to a poignant conclusion.  

“Kindness” was inspired by William Trevor’s novella “Nights at the Alexandria.” I asked Li to explain.  

"’Nights at the Alexandra’ is narrated by an older Irish man in a provincial town who had never married,” she said. “’Kindness’ is narrated by a middle-aged woman in Beijing who had chosen not only to stay single but also not to love anyone.  It's one of my most favorite books by Trevor, so I wrote ‘Kindness’ as an homage to the book. I opened the novella with three sentences that echoed the opening sentences of ‘Nights at the Alexandra’ and while writing it, I imagined my narrator speaking to the narrator in Trevor's novella—both characters stoically lead a solitary life, yet both are capable, and are proofs, of love and affection and loyalty. Their conversation would not have happened in reality, but I hope that by speaking to one person in mind, my narrator, in the end, speaks to many.”

“I like to write about characters who are quite far from my life, and being on the youngish side, I like to imagine older people and their worlds.”

She lists Trevor in the acknowledgments of the new book. What draws her to his work? “I like to imagine many of my stories having conversations with his stories (and many stories in the collection were written in that way, with a specific story of Trevor's in mind).

book-cover---ciabattari-china
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories. By Yiyun Li. 240 pages. Random House. $25. ()

“I have a list of writers with whom I often carry on one-way conversations in my mind,” she added. “Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dickens, Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, Elizabeth Bowen, John McGahern, to name a few. And luckily I don't feel self-conscious of being inexperienced and silly, as none of them answers me or laughs at me.” As a reader, she adds, her earliest influence came from translations of Hemingway and Chekhov.

In her new collection, many of the protagonists are in their sixties, not her own generation. Why is she drawn to that age group?

“Colm Toibin once joked that my new collection should be titled ‘Senior Citizens,’ so it must be true that I am drawn to older characters—partly because I write fiction, especially short stories, to look at how time passes, and with older characters you have decades of their memories and secrets to work with. Another reason is that I like to write about characters who are quite far from my life, and being on the youngish side, I like to imagine older people and their worlds.”

The seeds of many stories in the new collection came from newspapers, she told me. “But oftentimes news reports either don't give you enough, or give you the wrong things, and when that happens I feel compelled to write a story to understand the situations better. ‘House Fire’ was inspired by a brief report of six retired women setting up a business of private investigators, but who the women really were seemed not to be the journalist's concern, so I set out to create six women to understand their past and present. ‘The Proprietress’ started when I read reports about a woman who asked to have a baby with a husband on the death row, though the reports, like the journalist in the story, focused on things that were less fascinating to me, so I started writing to understand the woman, but the story took on a new direction and the woman became a minor character.”

In "Prison," Li describes the grieving immigrant parents of an only daughter killed in a car accident going back to China to hire a surrogate mother to give them a new chance at family (a practice banned in China since 2001, but possible by bending the rules). “What moved me to write the story was that a friend once forwarded me a picture of a mother with her twin children, who had been carried by a surrogate mother in China. I was fascinated by the situation.”

Much of Li’s work is set in China, yet she lives in Oakland, with her husband, who works in the IT industry, and two young sons. How is that affecting her work? “More and more America has come into my writing,” she says. “The two newest stories I have written in the past year are both set in America—not in California, but one in Idaho, and one in the Midwest.”

Recently Yi, who has her family, her writing (she also is working on a second novel), and a teaching job at the University of California at Davis, experimented with disconnecting from the Internet, trying to keep her time under 15 minutes a day.

“The five or seven minutes that had been spent reading some publishing gossip or an acquaintance's acquaintance re-Twittering a joke turned out to be just the right time for a chapter of War and Peace or an or an intense battle in the Iliad,” she wrote in an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle.

He advises, “Being disconnected (as best I can manage without jeopardizing everyday life) is the best thing I would recommend to any writer or reader!”

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Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.