PEN/Hemingway Award winner Yiyun Li says fiction is a journey into character and fate

Yinyum Li Photo by Randi Lynn Beach

That Yiyun Li is an astonishing writer and that the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl are stunning is a given. What exactly sets her apart from other writers is harder to put my finger on. Like Vladimir Nabokov, she writes in a language she was not raised speaking. No small feat. But there are others who’ve done the same, and masterfully. It may be that she is capable of locating a story firmly in a present moment that is infused with the past. Not just the individual past, but also the collective.

“Fiction,” she says, “is all about how time passes in a person’s life or generation or ten generations. I’m fascinated by how to deal with that. Novels make it easier to write about time. In short stories, time is condensed. I don’t know if it’s the challenge, but I love stories.

“When you write a novel—it’s a very long journey you can only make once—you have to write into the character's fate.

“When I write a story, I am so intensely with those people for four or six weeks, my life in that time seems to be standing still. My characters matter to me more than my life. In writing a novel, I learn how to live and write at the same time. 

“There are stories that no matter how hard I try, I cannot get them into a story. And so I have to have a novel, in a way. I would like to spend some more time with the characters. Of course editors always want you to have a novel, so that’s part of it.

“After I’ve finished a novel, I never want to read it again. My stories are always alive for me.”

Elsewhere, Li has talked about how she cannot write her fiction in Chinese and how grateful she is to have found English. When I ask her if she ever feels that she's putting herself in danger by expressing certain truths about China, she says, “I’m speaking my truth—sometimes I forget my characters live in China; that’s how much I love them. I just want to write about their lives. Of course history and politics come in. You don’t avoid those things, yet those are never really on my mind.

“China has changed a lot, of course. I grew up in Beijing—it looks different—facelifts and prosperity are on the surface. People haven’t changed much, and that’s comforting for a writer. Humans evolve slowly.”

“Do you think it’s safer to speak out?” I ask.

“Yes I think so—yes. Unless you cross a line.”

“What is the line?”

“Good question,” she says. “I’m not sure. It changes from moment to moment. In an election—it’s tighter. It’s like the weather. People talk about it and get used to it. Bad politics is like bad weather.”

One of her favourite writers is William Trevor, whom she cites as an influence.

“On the surface,” she says, “we have nothing in common. He’s Irish, writing about Ireland and England. It’s the way he’s curious about characters and the depth of his characters. Many of them are not people you’d pay attention to on the street.”

Another favorite is Elizabeth Bowen.

“I think she is hugely underappreciated. If you look at her novels, she always posed difficult questions to herself, and you get a feeling she’s writing those books to figure out about those questions. She never finds life boring. She’s sharp and funny and ruthless. Trevor loves his characters; you can feel that love. With Bowen you have to read into the lines. I like that she stuttered. She was probably not a very articulate person, but she’s extremely articulate in her fiction.”

Li also reads a lot of letters and recommends those of Graham Greene, V. S. Pritchett, E. B. White, and Robert Lowell.

“That’s where their natural voice is,” she says. “It’s a lost art. A lot of people don’t lie in their letters.”

She herself writes letters—by hand and in English—to some of her friends.

“It’s my secret pleasure,” she says. A piece of paper and a pen is more than enough to make me happy.”

In addition to her teaching job at the University of California, Li is one of the editors of a Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space. When I ask her about the compatibility of her roles of writer and editor, she describes her editorial role as “being in the contemporary world. 

“When I write, I can choose to stay in my own world. So after a while, you have to have a connection to your peers and contemporaries—to see what the dialogues are in today’s world.”

And what does Li have to say in those dialogues?

“One thing,” she says, laughing. “I disagree with the noisy thing about how literature has to be relevant. I am an advocate of irrelevance. I want to be an observer. At this moment, my role as editor is part of my effort to join the conversation, though most of what I have to say is in my work.”

Yiyun Li will be appearing tonight in 46. The Literary Cabaret and tomorrow at 2 pm. in 55. American Splendour.

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