Friday, December 26, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

New land, new tongue, new fame: Yiyun Li’s ‘Kinder Than Solitude’ echoes a Beijing childhood

yiyun liW

Yiyun Li at home in Oakland. After coming to America as a scientist, she found her calling as a fiction writer. Now, she's a professor at UC Davis. Drew Kelly/New York Times photo

Meet the authors

Who: Yiyun Li (“Kinder Than Solitude”) and Lucy Corin (“One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses”), both in the English department at UC Davis, presenting and signing their new books

When: Noon-1 p.m. Wednesday, March 12

Where: Lounge in the Memorial Union Store at UCD

Admission: Free

By Larry Rohter
OAKLAND — Growing up in Beijing as the daughter of a physicist, the writer Yiyun Li seemed destined for a career in science. But she would surreptitiously read from “this big book of Tang dynasty poetry,” she said, while “pretending to do math.”

Years later, studying for a Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Iowa, she adopted a similar strategy, reading short stories clipped from The New Yorker as she did lab work.

“My parents were very much against writing and even very much against me reading literature, which they thought put wrong thoughts in your head,” she recalled recently at her home in a leafy hillside neighborhood here. “I don’t think they liked me reading anything but science. But I enjoyed literature always, from the beginning.”

Li finally heeded that siren call about a dozen years ago, abandoning medicine and enrolling in the renowned writing program at Iowa. Since then, she has published two highly praised short-story collections, written a pair of novels, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and been named to various lists of “best young American writers,” feats made all the more remarkable by her history: When she arrived in the United States, in 1996, she had written nothing in either Chinese or English, a language she could speak, if not yet colloquially.

“She’s an interesting case for a writer writing in a second language,” said John Freeman, a former editor of Granta, which named Li, now 41 and a professor of writing at UC Davis, to its best young novelist list. “There’s an elegance and smoothness to her writing that is actually disguising the quite passionate and intense feelings of equivocation and loss that her characters feel. She’s almost a 19th-century writer: You can feel tradition speaking through her work in a way that doesn’t exist today.”

Li’s latest novel, “Kinder Than Solitude,” out this week from Random House, shifts between China and the United States. Its four main characters start out as adolescent friends growing up around a Beijing courtyard in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. After the oldest is poisoned, perhaps by one of the others, the survivors drift apart: One becomes a prosperous but soulless businessman riding China’s economic boom, while the other two flee to America, settling in college towns like Berkeley, Madison and Cambridge but never quite learning how to fit in.

Because of these immigrant touches, Li is often grouped with novelists like Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart and her friend Daniel Alarcón as a first-generation “new American” writer. But she is quick to point out that her circumstances are rather different: She came to the United States as an adult, not a child, and did not grow up bilingual.

“I actually don’t know what an immigrant writer should be writing about,” she said, “and if you look at my characters, they don’t struggle as immigrants. They actually do fairly well. If they want, they can have a good life. It’s more that they have to deal with their internal struggles” and the problems they bring with them from China.

Li, however, seems to have adapted smoothly to the American suburbs. She teaches at UCD, and described a routine of ferrying her sons, Vincent and James, to music lessons and sports; her husband, Dapeng Li, who was her college sweetheart back in China, is a software engineer at the Pandora music service.

“Every time I go to the orthodontist’s office, I say, ‘This is my American life,’ ” she said with a laugh.

Her friend Brigid Hughes, who, as editor of The Paris Review, was the first to publish one of Li’s stories, said, “She’s very stubborn about wanting to be defined on her own terms, to be an individual and not be defined by society, history or even her native language.”

“Kinder Than Solitude” signals a departure for Li, by also including American characters. Her first novel, “The Vagrants,” published in 2009, was set in an entirely Chinese universe, a bleak provincial city called Muddy River (modeled after her husband’s hometown), shortly after the death of Chairman Mao. In The New York Times Book Review, Pico Iyer described the book as “grieving and unremitting,” peopled by “victims of a crippled society that has effectively outlawed humanity and made innocence a crime.”

Though Li is wary of being labeled a political writer, the great upheavals of modern Chinese history loom in the background of her work. Civil war, wars with Japan, the starvation years of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre: These events are rarely in the foreground of her books, but they limit and often blight her characters’ lives, preventing them from marrying whom they wish, living where they want or pursuing the professions they’d like.

“Her writing comes from a very personal place, but I think of it as particularly political, even though it may not be explicitly so,” said the San Francisco-based film director Wayne Wang, who has twice made movies from short stories by Li (“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska”). “Chinese history in the last 100 years has been so suppressed and ignored in different ways that any character will be political, and if you don’t deal with that, you’re not dealing with a complete Chinese person. But I like the way she does it, indirectly, with craft and creativity.”

Li was born in the full heat of the Cultural Revolution, but by the time she was learning to read, some foreign literature was again becoming available. In China, she read politically palatable novelists like Dickens, Theodore Dreiser and Jack London, but it wasn’t until she arrived in the United States that she discovered the writers she now cites as influences and inspirations, many of them specialists in the short-story form she especially likes: her mentor William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen, V.S. Pritchett, Elizabeth McCracken, Amy Bloom. Russians are another big influence, especially Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov.

Li said that when she lived in China, she did not write anything in Chinese, except a journal she kept as a teenager. “Just because you know a language doesn’t mean you can it express it well,” she said. Even now, though most of her characters are Chinese, when she hears them talking in her head, they are speaking English, a mystery she cannot explain.

Writing in English “felt very natural to me very fast,” she said. “I think in English, I dream in English. I came to English as a grown-up, which is probably to my advantage. The disadvantage is that you don’t have that intimacy with the language, there are things you just miss with the language.”

The writer Amy Leach, a classmate at Iowa and still a close friend, said, “We’ve talked about how it can be an advantage not to have all those ready-made clichés springing to your mind and precluding more original thinking and wording.”

Li said, “You miss a lot of idioms, cultural things,” if you don’t go to middle school or high school in the language. “On the other hand, I think if you do approach a language as a grown-up and then use it to write, you also bypass a lot of silliness.”

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