Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from Lannan Foundation and Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35. The Vagrants is her debut novel. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.
James Warner: First off, are there any questions you’re particularly tired of being asked in interviews? Just so I know not to ask those.
Yiyun Li: I don’t particularly like to be asked about my views of political situations, both current and historical. As a fiction writer, I believe that what needs to be said about any political situation can not be separated from my fiction, and I feel that I have said enough in my work.
JW: Anything you’re surprised interviewers don’t ask more about?
YL: I believe a writer writes to talk to his/her masters and literary heroes, and I don’t think I have had enough chance to talk about authors I admire, or stories that have moved me.
JW: Tell us more, then, about the writers you have been talking to in your work so far.
YL: This may be a ridiculous ambition, but I have always wanted to talk to Tolstoy and Chekhov–or I always thought it a goal to talk to them in a story or a novel.
William Trevor influences me more than any other writer, so in reality I write stories to talk to his stories. And a story can talk to another story in many ways–a line, a character, a few details, or sometimes it is the mood of the story, the pacing and the music of the story, so on and so forth.
JW: Maybe you could give us a specific example of an instance where one of your works talks to a work that influenced you?
YL: I wrote a story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” last year. I wrote that story to talk to a William Trevor story called “Three People” from his collection The Hill Bachelors. There are three characters in the Trevor story: a woman, a man, and the woman’s father, and much of what has brought them to that moment in the story happened in the past (I can’t give away too much about that story, but it is a beautiful story); so I set out to write a story with a similar setup: a man, and a woman, and the man’s mother, and I set the story at a moment in their lives when their pasts seemed to converge. In the end, it is a different story, but I was aware that the story, at least while I was working on it, talked to “Three People,” and the music I was trying to achieve in my story came from Trevor’s story.
When I was working on my novel The Vagrants, I was reading Graham Greene, and sometimes I tried to write a line or a passage to talk to a passage in Greene’s novels.
JW: I wouldn’t have made that connection! Please specify a place in The Vagrants where you’re talking to Greene.
YL: In The Power and The Glory, there is a scene when the whiskey priest meets his daughter, and the girl studies him in an unsettling way. When I worked on The Vagrants, I was aware that Nini stared at the world in a similar manner as that girl in Greene’s novel.
JW: I can certainly connect The Power and The Glory to The Vagrants. Both novels show provincial communities suffering through political changes imposed from above.
Borges famously said that writers create their own precursors. Looking for commonalities between your works and those of the writers you cite as influences, I note a commitment to writing unflinchingly yet gently about the world’s brutality. I feel I could make a case that Lu Xun is another one of your precursors, and that The Vagrants talks to “The True Story of Ah Q.”
YL: One more thing regarding The Power and The Glory–the scene when the whiskey priest was executed was written in such an unsentimental way that I read it many times before I worked on a few particularly difficult scenes in The Vagrants.
What an insightful observation about Lu Xun. Like any Chinese in my generation, I grew up partially on Lu Xun’s words, as he was the most taught author from elementary school to high school. For a long time I did not consider myself a fan of his work. I had not read him for years until only recently–after I finished The Vagrants–when I was to write an afterward for the Penguin edition of Lu Xun’s stories. I reread his fiction and was shocked to discover how much I must have been influenced by him–certainly by a few stories including “The True Story of Ah Q”–without being aware of the influence; indeed he would be one of those precursors that one could not even de-create. I now consider myself indebted to him, though that could be said of many Chinese writers after Lu Xun.
JW: Your implication that some precursors can be de-created has a somewhat totalitarian quality! Have you any thoughts on Harold Bloom’s theories about writers being compelled to repress the influence of their precursors, and can you think of places in your work where you rebel against your literary masters?
YL: Totalitarian? I hope not!
I do disagree with Lu Xun on a fundamental issue: he viewed literature–his own writing particularly–as soul medicine, and he viewed himself as a savior for China. I have not an agenda nor an ambition that could remotely match his, which is a major reason that I don’t consider him as my literary master.
And an interesting question about rebelling against one’s literary masters. I don’t think I feel compelled to take any action like that, though oddly, I was aware that when I worked on The Vagrants there were passages that moved away from the narrative mode that I was most comfortable with. As you said before, I feel drawn to authors like William Trevor who writes “unflinchingly yet gently about the world’s brutality.” When I revised The Vagrants, I realized I had quite a few passages that were bluntly chilling–those grim scenes when many of the deaths in the novel happened. They felt necessary when I worked on the novel; they felt essential for the novel, too, though now I wonder if you could call that a deviation from, say, Trevor’s influence.
JW: When I heard you talking about The Vagrants the other night, you seemed disappointed that some reviewers disliked the character of Bashi. Maybe you could say something about the inspiration behind this character.
YL: It wasn’t a surprise that Bashi was not loved by all, of course, as he was not a likable character, and he did terrible things to others.
When I was five, I had a playmate who was a fifteen-year-old, the son of my mother’s friend. He was a very sweet boy, and had the patience to play with a young girl, though only later did I realize that my mother was always present to supervise. And of course much later I gathered that he had a slight tendency to (or history of) pedophilia. But the fact that my mother would supervise the play was interesting to me: when your friend’s son is a pedophile, what do you do? You don’t condemn, but you make do with the situation.
That was the seed for Bashi, who came to me as a very inquisitive young man, and of course one of his curiosities was about women’s bodies, or young girls’ bodies, though I don’t think that is the defining quality of his personality (so I was sad that he was called a pedophile). He wanted to love and to be loved, and he wanted to be helpful and useful, and all these could have made him a good person.
JW: No society could approve of Bashi’s relationship with Nini, yet ironically, they seem perfectly matched to each other. Do you have a memory of what the seed for Nini was? Of the characters in The Vagrants, which do you think was your greatest achievement?
YL: There was a girl in our neighborhood who was born with birth defects as Nini was–and the story was that when her mother had been pregnant with her, her father, who had divorced her mother, had provoked a group of red guards to beat the pregnant woman for some grand revolutionary reason. As a child, I did not question the girl’s presence or her misfortune, but that was the seed for Nini when I began the novel.
It is hard to compare your characters as you can’t quite compare your children–you love them for different reasons. I think Bashi and Nini may be the most successful pair in my mind; followed by Teacher Gu.
JW: Was there also a seed for Teacher Gu?
YL: The seed of Teacher Gu would be myself. Teacher Gu is closest to me, many (though not all) of his reactions and actions are close to mine–in other words, I was imagining myself in his position throughout the novel.
JW: Teacher Gu is a kind man who has to eat a terrible amount of bitterness. What key character traits of your own would you say you gave to him?
YL: This is the most difficult question! I don’t know if I am certain what character trains of my own I gave to Teacher Gu, though when I was working on the book, I was aware that he affected me more than the other characters–his sadness, his fatalism, his nostalgia, his confusion, his subdued anger were very close to mine; I felt I lived through the novel with all the characters, but I lived in him through the novel.