An Unexpected Calling

By Lum, Lydia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, January 6, 2011 | Go to article overview

An Unexpected Calling


Lum, Lydia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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. …

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