But who's counting? Math prodigy-turned-fiction writer Yiyun Li, the voice behind the new Wayne Wang feature 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,' lives in Oakland. (Photo by Randi Lynn Beach)

Yiyun Li, The Voice of 'A Thousand'

Judy Stone September 30, 2008

Yiyun Li has earned three Master’s degrees, won the Hemingway/Pen Award for her collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and seen the title story made into a critically acclaimed film by Wayne Wang. But on the day I met her, she was always apologizing for something: being low-key about her new movie fame, about wearing mismatching socks, about admitting she cried after reading galley proofs of her forthcoming novel, The Vagrants. She even confessed with a giggle, "I’m a very apologetic person." She teaches writing at UC Davis, but today, she could be confused for a student, in bright red shirt and ragged jeans fashionably torn at the knee (although I sense she would cringe at the word "fashionably").

Her own words are written in deceptively simple English, not translated from her first language. They are exquisitely chosen and precise—with delicate, almost tender, surprising perceptions about the characters she explores: an elderly woman who discovers love for a troubled little boy, a middle-aged man engaging in adultery, a young woman pondering an abortion, a gay Chinese American nervously greeting his mom. All are set, needle sharp, in a China that is changing as an infant stock market makes a mockery of ideology.

The interview gets off to a funny start when Li is offered some fruit salad with bananas. She hates bananas, she notes—apologetically. She could write a story about all the bananas in her life. Her maternal grandfather, an anti-Communist editor, never ate bananas; her mother doesn’t eat bananas. It’s almost genetic. When she was four years old, a teacher forced her to eat not one, but two bananas as an after-nap snack. "I knew for the first time in my life that someone hated me. That teacher tortured me for two years, making me squat, which was very humiliating and difficult to do. After I grew up, she still remembered me and would ask my mother how I was doing in America."

Her mother is another story. She was a demanding elementary school teacher and a demanding mother for her two daughters. "She’s a very interesting person," Li said with a grin. "She really trained me to write when I was young and didn’t even know how to read. When I was 7, she would give me a topic to write about, like snow. She read it and said, ‘SO bad!’ There was only one line that was good," Li giggled, "It was so quiet you could hear the snowflakes bumping into each other.’ She liked that. She wanted me to have the capacity to write well in Chinese. I love her. You love your mother. This is a typical story of my mother. I got married in America to a man I met in China, a computer engineer, and I called my older sister in Beijing to tell her, but my mother was not happy. The reason was not about him, but because his family was not educated enough for us. She told my sister, ‘Well, at least there’s something like divorce you can hope for!’"

Now that Li is the mother of two boys, ages 3 and 7, she is not a tough mom. "I kind of let my children do whatever they want. I don’t want them to be too controlled." And because she wants to be with them in their waking hours, she writes between midnight and 4 a.m. at her home in Oakland.

However, science, not writing, was supposed to be in her future. She was considered a child prodigy for her mathematical abilities. She started to learn English in middle school, but the teaching was all grammar. Nevertheless, she read Thomas Hardy, Dickens, and Hemingway in English, as well as the Russian novelists, in translation. Turgenev is her favorite. "There were many more translations in China than in America at that time."

Born in 1972, she was too young to have experienced the worst of the ravenous Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and her maternal family’s anti-Communism was mostly ignored. Because her father—who emerged from a peasant background—was a nuclear physicist, the family lived in a well-guarded compound for those scientists. "If my maternal grandfather had not lived with us, he would have been beaten to death. But when my father went to the desert for nuclear testing, people would knock on our door in the middle of the night and say they were looking for Taiwanese or American spies. They’d say, ‘We know you have a bad guy in the house.’ But my mother who is very short-tempered would yell at them to stop bothering that old man!’"

Li chose to study biology in college because it would be easier for her to get a visa to do graduate work in the U.S. In fanciful preparation for America, her sister made her see the whole "BayWatch" TV series about Los Angeles lifeguards—"with all those blonde people on the beach."

While doing immunology research at the University of Iowa, she began to write at night without showing her work to anyone. Although she earned a Master’s degree in immunology for her thesis on cell communication, she had told her advisor that she didn’t want to become a doctor. Later she spent three years in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and eventually won two MFA degrees in writing, as well as a publishing contract after two stories, "Extra" and "After a Life", appeared in The New Yorker and Prospect magazines. They are now in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and that book’s title story has been made into Wang’s new film.

Although she doesn’t believe you can teach writing, she has her own way of guiding graduate students at University of California at Davis. "I explain to them that I can’t speak English well so you need to bear with me. I recommend books in terms of how to read good writing as a writer. A general reader may read a story if it’s good or not good, but as a writer, you have to observe how the writer does things. I tend to teach writers people don’t read very often. I recommend William Trevor. He’s my mentor. He shows fascinating things about human beings and often he cannot even explain because they’re so mysterious. He writes about them in a very gentle and beautiful way. I teach Bernard Malamud. I love him. I teach [Isaac] Babel. Yiddish was his first language and he re-invented himself as a Russian writer. He used to be a Communist believer and then he turned to a non-believer and he was executed. His stories are very sharp but also very funny. He doesn’t spare anyone anything. He doesn’t give extra hope. "

Li has refused to translate her stories into Chinese, but she thinks that maybe, maybe, her "dark" novel might be translated. "It starts with the execution of a woman political prisoner who was a counter-revolutionary, and it’s about the reaction of people in the town who knew about her execution and mutilation. When I finished proof reading the novel, I cried because I was just heart broken about the reaction of those people."

She cheerfully admits to being more interested in Jewish and Irish writers than the Chinese. But what about Lu Shun (1881-1936), the founder of modern Chinese literature? Well, she’s reading him now in English because she is writing an introduction for a Penguin Lu Shun collection. She’d rather write her own stories, but when the introduction invitation came, " My mother said, ‘You have to say yes because think of the prestige for your name to be forever linked to Lu Shun.’"

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