Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants

Yiyun Li is a writer who was born in Beijing, and cites William Trevor as her foremost influence. I just interviewed her for Identity Theory. She currently lives in Oakland.

The Vagrants shows a fictional provincial Chinese community enduring interesting times -- the uncertain interlude after the death of Mao and before Deng consolidated his power. Very harsh events, delicately explored. Here's Beverly Parayno's interview with Yiyun Li for the Rumpus.

I wouldn't have spotted the Trevor influence, had Li not pointed it out. I find the influence of Lu Xun on The Vagrants more apparent. Often a writer has the experience of rereading something he or she read long ago, and realizing uneasily how much he or she unconsciously owes to that writer. Yiyun Li appears to have had this experience with Lu Xun, a writer I'm enthusiastic about -- although if I'd been forced to read him in school by the Chinese Communist Party, maybe I wouldn't be. Had Lu Xun lived a few years longer, I believe that he would have wound up being put to death by the Communists, and would not be taught in Chinese schools.

Incidentally, is it only writers who have unconscious influences? It seems to me that musicians are perfectly conscious of who all their influences are. I'll have to think some more about that.

Lu Xun disdained all Chinese influences, claiming all his influences were Western, and so interestingly enough does Yiyun Li. The most sympathetic character in The Vagrants is Teacher Gu. As the novel begins, his daughter, a former Red Guard, is about to be executed as a counter-revolutionary. Of Gu, Li writes, "He tried not to think about what had happened outside his home -- the only way to live on, he had know for most of his adulthood, was to focus on the small patch of life in front of his eyes."

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