Yiyun Li

By Sebag, Clarissa | New Statesman (1996), November 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Yiyun Li


Sebag, Clarissa, New Statesman (1996)


Your mother tongue is Chinese, but you write in English. Why is that?

I've never written in Chinese and I don't write in Chinese now. I was going to become a scientist, so the possibility of writing fiction in Chinese just never occurred to me. When I first started writing, it was in English--so, very naturally, English became my first language in writing.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Your debut novel, The Vagrants (2009), explores the brutality of the Cultural Revolution. Are your books banned in China?

I don't think they are banned. It's interesting to be in America and to see all these Chinese writers saying their books are banned. To me, that's ridiculous. Calling your book banned in China will make the book appealing to some [readers] in the west. But actually a lot of books are banned--Harry Potter was banned, too, in certain places.

The Vagrants begins with the execution of a young female "counter-revolutionary". Was this episode inspired by real life?

[As a child] I didn't actually see an execution, but I did witness the denouncing ceremony beforehand. People would gather together to catch the last moments of the criminal before the execution. They were always very festive. I don't think guilt was something that would enter into people's emotions at those moments.

When you were growing up, your grandfather called Mao Zedong the "king of hell". Was that dangerous for the family?

In retrospect, I think it was a little risky to have him around. But as a child I didn't understand that; I just admired his outspokenness. There was nothing really unusual about him--he was just not as cautious as many. That stayed with me.

Did he influence your writing?

You were in high school in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened. Can you remember anything about that day?

My parents locked me in my bedroom at home, so I did not see or hear anything. It was obvious what was going to happen, so they were just protecting us. …

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