I Still Have So Many Chinese Stories to Tell: An Interview with Yiyun Li

By Chin, Vivian | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

I Still Have So Many Chinese Stories to Tell: An Interview with Yiyun Li


Chin, Vivian, Michigan Quarterly Review


After growing up in Beijing, Yiyun Li left China in 1996 in order to study medicine at the University of Iowa. Four years later, Li determined that instead of pursuing a career in science, she wanted to become a writer. She shifted gears and earned an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her stories and essays were soon published in such well-respected venues as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, Glimmer Train, and Prospect. In 2006, a volume of ten short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was published by Random House to much acclaim. Her work has brought her a prodigious number of prestigious grants and prizes, including a grant from the Lannan Foundation, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the Whiting Writers' Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review, a Pushcart Prize, and the PEN/Hemmingway Award. Li's book was also shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize and the Orange Prize. Despite strong evidence that her talents are clearly exceptional, if not phenomenal, Yiyun Li has experienced difficulties in being approved for permanent residency by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as an applicant with "exceptional ability." She currently teaches in the M.F.A. program at Mills College and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two children. Li is at work on a novel, due to be completed in 2008.

Very informally, and with much laughter, this interview took place in the winter of 2007.

VC: Is there a question that you wish you had been asked in an interview that you haven't yet been asked?

YL: That's a clever question! I wish people would ask me about the importance of the imagination. I really believe that one should be able to imagine being somebody else. This is important for writers, but it's also important for readers, and for all human beings to be able to imagine being somebody else.

VC: Who do you consider your literary influences and why?

YL: I always love to talk about William Trevor. He's my biggest influence because he imagines the world; he has a very compassionate imagination, which is very rare. I remember in an interview, and when I met him, he said he likes to write about women because he doesn't know what it is like to be a woman. How beautiful that is because that's a real understanding of human nature-to be able to imagine what it's like to be a seventeen-year-old maid in a big mansion.

He doesn't carry a message in his writing, he's an observer, and I like that because I know so many writers who are not observers but who have an agenda. He doesn't have an agenda, he's just very curious about human beings. I share that curiosity and I share his interest in the mysteries of human nature. That's exactly why I write fiction-because you can't always understand human nature. He says that by nature he's very pessimistic, but that writing is a very optimistic thing. [We spin off into an extended discussion of William Trevor.]

VC: Let's switch tracks here. For whom do you write?

YL: I never know how to answer that question. At different times I answer that differently . . .

VC: If you were to imagine someone, who would you imagine?

YL: I would imagine someone who loves William Trevor. [laughs] I also imagine people who are curious about everything.

VC: People who are not so much curious about what life is like in China, but curious about what it is to be human? But I don't think your work is about what it means to be human in a universal sense, but what it is to be human in a specific context.

YL: Right, my characters just happen to be Chinese because I know Chinese people better. Also, the situations are very Chinese, and there's no running away from that, there's no denying that. …

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