A conversation with Yiyun Li

Clare Wigfall

Photograph by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Having grown up in Beijing, Yiyun Li travelled to the US in 1996 to pursue a PhD in Immunology at the University of Iowa. In Iowa, she began to write stories of her homeland, told in the language of the nation she found herself now living in. Her first collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers was published in 2005 and won a slew of accolades, including the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award. This was followed by an acclaimed novel, The Vagrants, set in late-1970s China and, most recently, a new story collection entitled Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. She is a contributing editor to A Public Space and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010. Li lives today in Oakland, California with her husband and two sons.

Like Shen Congwen, whose Collected Letters was one of the few books Li brought with her when moving from China, Li's work focuses on characters living in the margins of history, and with its quiet understatement it overtly sidesteps a confrontation with politics. Despite this, as Li herself acknowledges, 'Even when I'm not political, my work can be read as political.' A voracious reader, Li has also cited a number of Western authors as having been influential on her work, including Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, John McGahern, and J.M. Coetzee, but perhaps most notably the Irish author William Trevor from whom she claims to have 'learnt how to write' .

Yiyun Li and I have been friends for some years now, having met in Cork. The following conversation took place on 19 Aug 2012, in Edinburgh, during the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference

—Clare Wigfall

Clare Wigfall
: Your work has been so successful in the Western world, and certainly that's because of your talent, but of course it's also because you are giving this glimpse into an unfamiliar world for a Western reader. When you write, do you feel that you're writing for a Western audience? Or do you not think about your readers—when you're writing?

Yiyun Li: I don't think about my readers. I don't think about them because it's very hard to do so.

CW: But you're aware that you have to explain certain things?

YL: Yes, but that's the limitation of writing about another culture, not just of writing about China. Because if you write about an unfamiliar milieu, you have to do a bit of hand-holding, you know? But I hate hand-holding in writing, so I try not to do too much. You don't want to overwhelm your readers with all these things. If you know the country and know the history really well you will pick up the extra layer. You know, we read Jane Austen in China! [Laughs]

CW: It was interesting what you were saying yesterday, at the talk, that you felt like China was not ready for your work. And then you tempered that by saying, 'Maybe it's me that's not ready to publish there.'

YL: Right, right.

CW: And I think it is quite a dual thing and I can totally understand that. It would probably be a big deal for you to be officially published there.

YL: I think eventually it will happen, but I'm just not ready to go there yet. I'm so entertained that Claire said, 'Isn't that a little patronising?' [Laughs] I was like, right, I can see how it would seem that way to somebody else! No, in fact I don't think it's the country; it's more about me—I have concerns.

CW: Do Chinese translations of your stories exist?

YL: The thing with Chinese is that there is no copyright, so there are translations of my stories. They were published on a website without my permission. I have seen one translation because another magazine wanted to use it so I looked at it.

CW: How was it?

YL: The style was very funny. I think there was one sentence I'd written about clouds which got translated into Chinese using the word 'fluffiness'. I would never describe a cloud as 'fluffy'—either in Chinese or in English.

CW: Would you ever translate yourself?

YL: No.

CW: How does it feel to be a spokesperson for China that many readers in the West look to? It seems to me, knowing you, that that wasn't your intention in going into writing at all. And yet that naturally is going to be an outcome.

YL: I think my intention to go into writing and people's intention to read me are completely different things. For me, writing is such a private thing, you know? You create a story and you create these characters you really feel responsible for; however, you're not responsible for anybody else's feelings.

CW: It was interesting that your editor wanted you to say what your stories were about and you said they were love stories. And of course he wanted you to say political stories. And yet that's what I'd responded to in your work, because for me they were love stories, and they have an incredible intimacy. I love the extract you read yesterday, with the chicks [the opening of "Kindness"]—it was so heartbreaking. You have such an awareness of these tiny incidences of love. Her affection for these chicks that die and she tries to put them back in their shells. And also I was looking back at "The Extra", and the detail with the socks. That's such a particular little detail—so intimate and yet so human.

YL: I just like these very little things in life that are also very profound.

CW: Yes, it's seeing the profundity in little things. But what I think you do so well is that you're so subtle in the way you present them. It doesn't ever feel that you're being heavy-handed. You have this quietness. And it was interesting when you were talking about Hari not turning up for the reading yesterday. I have to admit I've only read one of his books, but it seems what he is doing is very different. It would have been interesting had he been there!

YL: When I got the programme I thought, 'My goodness, that's a very interesting pairing,' because he and I come from very different angles. He's so ubiquitous, you know. He pays so much attention to what's going on every day. I feel that he pays attention to the big things. I mean, I shouldn't say big things. I pay attention to big things too. But I think we pay attention in a different way.

CW: Let's talk about your relationship with William Trevor.

YL: Yes, it's a very special friendship, I would say. A mentorship. His body of work, more than any other, influenced me the most. I feel that his writing makes a space for me. And sort of offers that I can exist in that space as well—and I think that's very special.

CW: Yes. I love that with your most recent collection it felt less a sort of homage to him but more as if you were embarking on a  dialogue in the way your stories answered his. But what's quite unique is that you're from such different places; yet you also have such a strong connection.

YL: I think my way of talking to his stories is to write stories.

CW: Yes, I think that's something I've become aware of since my book's been published—that as a writer, you have no control over how a reader is going to respond to something, and that every reader is going to come at it from a different place with different experiences. Often, someone will say, 'Well, what does this mean? What were you thinking about here?' And I want to say, 'Well, what do you think? Your opinion is just as valid.' Because it's almost like the story becomes a separate thing. And so your response is made not even so much to Trevor but to the story itself. You're responding in a writerly way, and creating a chain.

YL: Yes, that is so well put.

CW: How did he receive these stories?

YL: I sent him one ("Kindness"—speaking to his "Nights at the Alexandra.") and he loved it. He said, 'A story should be like this. It's a flawless story.'

CW: Wow!

YL: [Laughs] Yes, when he says that I am very happy!

CW: Now, I know a lot about your literary influences, but are there other cultural influences?

YL: I realized just recently that I live a very narrow life. The time I'm not writing I'm reading. So, most influences come inevitably from books. But I do think about music a lot. I have to drive to work, and it's a long drive—one hour and fifteen minutes—just perfect for the length of a symphony. So I've been listening to a symphony of Tchaikovsky—not even his most mature work—, and it's so fascinating because after a while I sort of knew exactly what he did and why he did that and how he did it. I appreciated it much more. The structure and the flow of the music—that to me is very much like writing. So I feel that I learn a lot from listening to music.

CW: Do you write about China as a way of assuaging homesickness? Or is it a nostalgic looking back to something you've experienced?

YL: Nostalgia is unavoidable when you're writing about your past—I mean, not just your past but the...

CW: Collective past?

YL: Yes. And there is that moment sometimes, but I try to control it rather carefully. I mean, I think when we experience something and we're in the middle of it, we don't really experience it as fully as in retrospect.

CW: And how much of your personal life goes into it?

YL: Not much. Little details in things you've written come from what you've seen and what you've heard. I don't count those as personal stories. I would say personal memories have come into my stories.

CW: That's very similar I would say for myself as well. Somebody who knows me very well might recognise them, but they're always very veiled.

YL: Yes.

CW: It's interesting because you get so many writers keen to write about their own direct experience but that's never been of interest to me. I live my life so why would I want to write it?

YL: I know!

CW: But it was interesting your talking about having separate lives, in a way.

YL: Right, you do have to separate it. But I think that guy yesterday asked a very good question about how I balanced my interaction with my children while I was writing my bleak stories. There are certain levels of optimism we have to maintain for our children. As mothers.

CW: Yes. I do think it's interesting what you were saying about the fact that you told your son he has to wait until he's fifteen to read The Vagrants.

YL: Right.

CW: I remember when I was teaching, some of my children wanted to read my stories.

YL: Oh!

CW: Yes, it was nice of them, but my stories aren't really meant for children. And I did wonder how it would then change their relationship with me if they then thought, 'Oh, this is what she's writing.' I guess I didn't want to ruin the incarnation they knew of me.

YL: My son, when he was nine, read "Kindness" by himself—he did not tell me he was reading it. Afterward, he came to me and said, 'You're a very good writer.' But that story is very dark and very bleak. And he loved it exactly because it was very bleak.

CW: You said one of the reasons you don't want to be translated is that your mother can't read English.

YL: Right.

CW: So, is this about not wanting immediate family to know everything about you? After all, as you said, you don't have the same conversation with family as you would have with a stranger, and in the same way writing can be very personal.

YL: Yes. I think it's for their sake more than mine. My husband doesn't read my work at my request; all the same, he knows my stories are bleak and dark. He read one story of mine—and it got him upset. I think he was upset because it was a good story, because it affected him. I told him, you have to remember, if it was somebody else's story you'd have liked it very much.

CW: So, you say you don't want your husband to read your writing, and yet you would let your children read it at a later point?

YL: I hope not. I'd prefer them not to. I told my husband that it's not that I forbid him to read my books. I'd prefer him not to and also I'd prefer him to wait. For instance, he could wait until a few books later and then read my earlier books. Just to have a gap! [Laughs]

CW: I've been tasked by the editors at Asymptote to ask you about three writers: Shen Congwen, Wang Meng and Eileen Chang. Could you say something about each of them?

YL: Shen Congwen is my favourite Chinese writer.

CW: Is he translated into English?

YL: Not all his works are translated, but I know some are. He began writing in the 1920s and he rose to fame at a young age, writing about river people in Southern China. He paid a lot of attention to a milieu deemed beneath literature. People on the margins. But more importantly, I think he came to these people without any judgement. To me, he had no issue with the world except he loved his people. I think that's very precious. So I really loved his work. And after communism took over China he stopped writing fiction. He became a scholar. Because that was a very political protest, in my mind, because he was so apolitical in a way that he doesn't look at the world politically but he still had to make this choice.

Oh, Wang Meng! I can say a few things about Wang Meng. I read him a lot when I was younger, because he was one of those Chinese writers who was widely read then. I enjoyed him but I wouldn't consider him even close to my favourite. He was more a writer of his time. When he was younger he wrote a lot about communism, upbeat stories. I think I read a lot of the upbeat stories. Later, he matured and looked at the world differently. In comparison to Shen Congwen who did not cooperate with the system, Weng Meng really tried to conform for the longest time. And that to me is interesting. It's not something I would do or that I admire. [Laughs]

Eileen Chang—she's very interesting. She became a celebrity at a very young age—one in love with her own image. A lot of her essays are about how her books were printed. She would visit the printing factory and then describe the workers, bare-backed, sweating to print her book. I mean, she was a hilarious character. She put on these clothes she designed for herself. Because when she walked out into the street in Shanghai people would look at her! Her persona is very different from mine. But I think she's a very clever writer. She's hugely talented. I've read every single word that she's written. That said, I'm not a fan of her work. If anything, I want to...not write like her.

CW: Why?

YL: Just the way she loved herself more than her characters.

CW: Do you feel that you love your characters more than yourself?

YL: I think I'm transparent in my stories. All that matters in my stories are my characters!

CW: Do you mind the fact that there's so little literature in translation published in the Western world? 2-3% or something. Does it upset you that what is produced by people in China, and other countries as well, isn't shared with the world?

YL: Right! I mean, of course that's why I translated Shen Congwen's letters for A Public Space, just to make a stand as well that he is my favourite writer. As for the translation scene, I think it's getting a little better. I think there's more attention paid to translation these days.

CW: I can imagine that interviewers don't ask you about Chinese authors because they think, 'Oh, I won't know about them anyway.'

YL: That's right.

CW: You've never written in Chinese at all?

YL: That's true.

CW: Never even tried?

YL: It's just that I have no desire to write in Chinese.

CW: Could you imagine writing from an American viewpoint?

YL: I think eventually yes. I mean, I'm close enough to write from inside now. I notice that Americans are coming into my stories and my novels. And there are American characters—they definitely are American!

CW: They're seeping in.

YL: Yes. But I think I need a long incubation time. I just started to write about the Mid-West.

CW: I heard you are involved in the act of "translating" the Epic of Gilgamesh for a young audience. Are you still doing that?

YL: I've finished it. That actually is one piece of writing I have done with an audience in mind, writing for ten-year-olds, although there are a lot of sex scenes in Gilgamesh! [Laughs] I asked my children, you know—I'm very open with them. I asked them what's the extent of, you know, literature at your age that you can deal with. And my son told me that you can have a kiss, that's probably it. [Laughs]