Growing up in China, Yiyun Li devoured the works of American fiction writers. Nowadays, the 2010 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner not only creates her own compelling fictional characters, but her stories have also vaulted her to the top of the heap among critically acclaimed American authors.
Such accomplishments are even more impressive because Li’s career was so unexpected and unlikely. With plans of becoming a researcher, she came to the United States in 1996 to pursue a doctorate in immunology at the University of Iowa. Just for fun, she also took an eight-week, not-for-credit writing class catering primarily to middle-aged and older adults for whom writing was a hobby.
Impressed with Li’s raw talent, the instructor encouraged Li to continue pursuing short stories and novels beyond that single class. As the young woman crept closer to finishing her graduate studies, she realized how badly she wanted to become a writer rather than a scientist and abruptly changed course, eventually enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, arguably the most respected U.S. program that nurtures emerging authors.
Li has gained fame dramatizing the effects of late-20th-century China’s sweeping social changes by exploring the lives of everyday people through suspense, depth and beauty in which history, politics and folklore intersect the human condition. Her fictional characters transcend race and geography, critics say, resonating with Americans who imagine what it might be like to live under an authoritarian regime. One story, for instance, features an elderly widow lacking a pension from her bankrupt garment factory. In another, a young man who resembles Chairman Mao becomes an impersonator of the latter but eventually winds up a self-castrated social outcast.
Li’s 2005 debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award, among others. Her 2009 novel, The Vagrants, and her second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, published last September, also scored high praise among critics.
“Students admire her way, not just of leading them through meanings in fiction, but of revealing to them the ways authors pull off their tricks,” says Dr. Scott Simmon, chairman of the UC Davis English department, where Li is an associate professor. “She treats her (story) characters with great compassion and yet never lets us lose sight of the comedy in their plights. That Yiyun does this in her second language is all the more remarkable.”
Ironically, Li, a married mother of two, has never written fiction in Chinese, having had to, like so many others in China, self-censor her opinions. She lived through the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing; her parents locked her bedroom to keep her safe. But she read English-language authors such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker, sparking her imagination of what storytelling could be like. Li hopes the $500,000 unrestricted MacArthur award allows her to spend more time writing and less time teaching.
“I’m not 24/7,” says Li. “Students send e-mail at midnight and expect replies right away. I make it clear that we have boundaries.”
A UC Davis faculty member since 2008, Li advises new, young faculty to do as much planning as possible prior to the start of a semester while remaining flexible to the prospect of securing a surprise guest speaker or two on short notice.
And like a mother hen, she constantly urges her creative writing students to keep pushing. “What are you going to do from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.? Watch TV or write? I say, ‘Write!’”
Title: Associate professor of English, University of California, Davis
Education: M.F.A.: Creative Fiction Writing, University of Iowa
M.F.A.: Creative Non-Fiction Writing, University of Iowa;
M.S.: Interdisciplinary Study, University of Iowa;
B.S.: Biology, Peking University
Career Mentors: James Alan McPherson (University of Iowa), Marilynne Robinson (University of Iowa)
Words to Live By: If you have a novel inside you, make up your mind to simply write it and make your characters come alive.