Yiyun Li was born in China in 1972. Her father was a physicist, her mother a school teacher, and she herself was something of a math whiz as a kid. She studied immunology at university in Beijing and always planned to go the United States to further her education. When she was twenty-three, she fulfilled that dream and went to graduate school in Iowa. Her first year there, she was lonely. Her boyfriend, soon to be her husband, was still in China, so she enrolled in a community writing course, figuring she’d improve her English. Her first story was highly praised by her teacher. Yiyun Li was amazed; she’d never written fiction before, in English or Chinese. She continued in science and got a graduate degree before enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received two more M.A.’s—in fiction and creative non-fiction.
Her first book, a masterful collection of stories called A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won four major prizes, including the Hemingway Foundation pen Award and the inaugural 50,000 euro Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was also named by Granta magazine as one of the best American novelists under thirty-five. Yiyun Li’s new novel, The Vagrants, is ambitious, harrowing, and simply extraordinary. The Vagrants takes place in a new small city in China, during the uncertainty and flux of the late 1970s. Yiyun Li was briefly in Toronto as part of the Luminato festival, but I caught up with her from a studio in San Francisco. She lives in Oakland, California.
Eleanor Wachtel: Your grandfather was an important figure in your early life. He lived with you and shared a bedroom with you and your sister. When you think of him now, what images come to mind?
Yiyun Li: He always had a wooden cane, very well carved. He carried it without using it until he was in his late eighties—as a sign of status. That’s the image I remember.
Wachtel: Your grandfather sounds like he had a remarkable life. He lived through three regimes, two world wars, two civil wars, famine, revolution. Can you tell me a bit about his story?
Li: He was born in 1897 in southern China, near Shanghai, and he was sent to a traditional school to learn Asian scrolls and poetry. His parents had the foresight to send him to a Western-style middle school and high school, and after that he took an exam to become an editor. I wasn’t certain how, but at some point in the civil war he became an officer in the Nationalist Army. Both his sons were fighting in the civil war against the Communist Army, and one of my uncles went to Taiwan and the other one stayed in mainland China with my grandfather. And then he went back to his editing career. He was an editor for probably twenty more years and then he retired. Meanwhile, his domestic life was pretty crazy. His first wife, he really, really loved her, and she committed suicide three days after she gave birth to her first baby. So then, about a year later, he married my grandmother, who in her early thirties became psychotic, and she remained that way all her life and died in an asylum. After my grandmother died and my mother married my father, my grandfather pretty much spent the rest of his life with my family.
Wachtel: Did he talk about any of those more personal events with you?
Li: No, he never talked about anything personal with me, or with my sister, or even with my parents. These stories all came out after he had passed away and my mother started to talk about his early life to us.
Wachtel: But he was very talkative with you when you were growing up.
Li: He talked about the world in such a fascinated way. He would tell about someone he met on a walk. And because he always asked questions, he could tell me this man’s whole history. So he was talkative about politics and history and culture; everything but his own life.
Wachtel: And you described how he would get up every day at five in the morning and jog for an hour and write poetry and paint. Did he read his poetry to you?
Li: When I was three or four, he tried to teach Asian poetry—not his own poems, but Asian poetry—to us, and he was an actor. He could act out the poems and it was very much fun. I didn’t know he was a poet until much later. You know, I was a very snoopy child, so I looked at everything on his bookcases, and I found poems that he wrote and just stuck in a book.
Wachtel: Your grandfather was anti-Communist. You say he fought in the war on the Nationalist side, and that was something that had to be kept secret. And then he somehow continued to denounce Chairman Mao. How did he get away with that?
Li: (laughs) He was very outspoken—I think it was in the early fifties—and he had no patience with the new government or new regime, so he said something like, you know, “Chairman Mao was the king of hell, and all the party officials were guardians of this hell,” and he was almost arrested. I don’t know how he got away with it. I think he got an early retirement because of that. And early on in the Cultural Revolution—this was before my mother married my father, so my mother still lived with my grandfather in their house—these Red Guards would come to his house, and because he was an old-style intellectual with all this history, they would try to find faults with him. He was a very fine calligrapher, so he used his best calligraphy to write this banner in his house saying, “Follow the Communist Party. Be the best child of Chairman Mao.” The story was that the Red Guards looked at this banner for a long time and couldn’t find anything wrong with his writing or with his attitude, so they let him go.
Wachtel: As a keen young pioneer, did it bother you that your grandfather would denounce Mao?
Li: From very early on my sister and I were taught by my parents that there were two sides of life. One was lived in school, in public, and we pretty much echoed everything we were taught there, and the second half was at our home, where my parents and my grandfather would talk about things that from early on we knew were the types of things we would not share with the public. I mean, I was probably baffled, but I wasn’t hugely bothered.
Wachtel: Your grandfather was a man of strong habits and beliefs and, as you write, through all that he experienced what didn’t change was his faith in eating. He was a man with a good stomach and extraordinary luck. Why was food so important to him?
Li: Look at his life. He lived almost a hundred years through the whole century with these wars and famines and disasters, and I think food was the only thing that was consistent for him. He loved his wife and then he loved another wife, and then he wanted to marry a woman he loved, but couldn’t, so he had a lot of emotional lives. When I got to know him, he was in his eighties, so he’d let those things go, but what was left for him was this joy in food. It was pretty amazing, I would say, because I don’t enjoy food as much as he did.
Wachtel: You grew up with rationing—flour, rice, sugar, salt, oil, tofu, eggs—I wondered how that affected your relationship to food.
Li: All these rationed foods give me a very strong impression, but eggs in particular. Eggs always represent something very good that I would never get enough of in life. When I first came to America, I loved to scramble eggs, fry eggs, eat eggs all the time. But as I grew older, I removed myself from that eagerness, from that desire for food, so now I eat very simply. I’m always very aware of the possibility of hunger because hunger was one of the experiences that really stayed with me. So I think I look at food in a very practical way: I need to fill my stomach so I don’t feel hungry.
Wachtel: When did you most experience acute hunger?
Li: I was in the Chinese Army for a year, and we didn’t have enough food, or didn’t have enough, you know, sustaining food—it was in central China, so there was no heat where we were in the camp. But there was also that emotional hunger. For a few months, I felt like I’d never be fulfilled. We were always hungry and there was not enough hot water, so we would eat dried milk powder. It was extremely sweet, just nauseatingly sweet, but I guess hunger drove people to do things like that.
Wachtel: Your grandfather experienced the famine between 1958 and 1961, long before you were born. What kinds of stories did he tell you about that?
Li: He would say, for instance, “My neighbour . . .” and then describe the neighbour, a very respected old man or a respected intellectual: “Oh, he would walk in the street and see a little kid with half a bun, and he would be so hungry, he would grab the bun and run.” It was even worse than hunger when you lost your dignity, when you robbed a little child, and that was the kind of story he would tell. And then he would go back through history and tell the stories about, you know, in this-and-this dynasty, there was this famine here and people would have to eat their own children. But it was so hard to eat your own children, so neighbours would switch their children so they could eat other people’s children. That really freaked me out. (laughs) I was three when he first told me this story, and I think my early memory started around that. Because I was a very plump child, I was plumper than my sister, I always had a strong belief that if there was a famine, they would trade me with the child next door, who was also a little fatty child. So that was very scary, I think. But looking back, I find him very funny.
Wachtel: Through your grandfather you grew up with an appreciation of an older traditional Chinese world that had changed so dramatically. Your own world was quite different. I mean, you were born in 1972 in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. Can you tell me about your childhood, where you lived, how you lived?
Li: My father used to work for the core research institute for the nuclear industry in Beijing, so I grew up in this compound. It was very much like a small village: grocery stores, barbershops, school, daycare. And every family’s father or both parents worked for the research institute. My sister and I, my parents, and my grandfather shared a two-bedroom apartment, which at the time was rather a luxury because in many families, three generations would live in one room. So we grew up knowing we were a bit privileged in that way. We had central heating, water, and propane tanks, which were rationed too. People had to be at a certain status to have a propane tank. Our neighbour, who was a janitor for the institute, had to use a coal stove rather than plain fuel.
Wachtel: And were you aware of being privileged?
Li: Yes, because the institute was on the outskirts of Beijing, and across our backyard fence were the village children, who had to raise their pigs and their donkeys and horses. We knew they were much less privileged. So in a way, we were the city kids among the villagers.
Wachtel: You said that you were taught that you lived in a honey jar.
Li: Yes, I think those were the songs we were always taught to sing. You know, We live in a honey jar, we’re so happy. When you first encountered this language as a child, it did have that very concrete meaning for you. I remember I was seven and I came back from school one day, I think in early afternoon. It was spring, the sun was shining, and the whole time I was just bouncing, bouncing, bouncing along the path and singing the song and felt my life was just a blissful life. Very, very happy.
Wachtel: The Tiananmen Square massacre, twenty years ago now, was a turning point for you. You’ve said that’s really when you became an adult. What do you remember?
Li: One thing was the before, the two months leading to that period. My sister was in college then, so on and off she would go to the square to protest or to help with other students who were on a hunger strike. For those two months leading to the massacre, I think there was this gleefulness in the air. Everybody was so hopeful that things would change. I was in high school, and I would go to colleges and universities to listen to people or to look at the flyers, and I remember sometime in May, my best friend and I were riding bicycles to the university, and she said, “You realize, this is the moment of our time, and these are our lives now.” And I was very much impressed when she said that because I hadn’t thought about it, and I realized, yes, if we were two years older, we would be the ones active in the square. She made a point that we had to consciously live through every moment that spring, so we did. My parents apparently had no faith in the government, so early on—when everybody was so hopeful that things would change—my father said this would lead to bloodshed. And my mother disagreed and they would argue. My father was very pessimistic about these things, and when things escalated, my parents locked my sister and me in the house. They didn’t want us to go to the square, and by the night when the bloodshed would start, when the killing would start, I think my parents already knew and they made a point to lock us in. My mother and father took turns going into the street to see what had happened, and they would not let us out. And then immediately after that, there was a time of uncertainty and fear and confusion, and so I felt that was the period of time that I started to live every day very consciously.
Wachtel: And afterwards you and your fellow students were questioned about what had happened?
Li: Pretty much everybody had to go through a period where you had to report what you did and what other people did. I think my parents were more worried about my sister because she was there quite often. My sister was a medical student at the time, and because she had gone to the square to help the people on hunger strikes, my father would instruct her about what to write in her self-report, the self-examination thing. He would say, “Well, you know, you can’t say you just went there. But you could say, ‘Out of humanitarian consideration, I went there to help people who fainted or who were dehydrated.’” So many ways to work around the system. And in high school we did too, but on a less severe scale. This friend of mine, a sixteen-year-old boy, actually went to the square that night and he saw things. He came back, he told whoever he could tell, and a few months later, the police came to get him, and they knew exactly what he’d told people. That, to me, was also part of the life-changing experience. He told things to twenty classmates. Who reported him, we would never know. I felt at the time that I would never be able to prove my own innocence to him because I could have reported him. Somehow you experience these things and you grow up rather dramatically.
Wachtel: So even though you hadn’t reported him, you still started to avoid him?
Li: Right, I just thought—maybe it’s me. I think it partly was my personality. I just felt this shame, not for my own sake, but for some reason I felt ashamed and I could not face him, so I started to remove myself from him and we kind of just drifted away, drifted apart.
Wachtel: And then when you were eighteen in 1991, you were sent to the army for an involuntary gap year, this forced re-education. What was is like for you? How did you get through it?
Li: By then I was rather rebellious and unhappy about my life, and I brought a lot of English-language novels with me. Somehow I felt reading another language secretly, and also just reading literature in general, was helpful for me. I’ve always been a big reader. By then I was just becoming a very bookish person. When you read literature, you kind of live in two places at the same time, and if you suspend a little more imagination, you could stay in that literary world a bit longer than the reality. So I think that was my way of coping with the stress or the unhappiness or all these dramas in the army.
Wachtel: When you left for the army, your mother told you to imagine a zipper on your mouth and zip it tight. It’s a very strong image. But then you didn’t listen. You told your squadmates about some of the details and the truth about the Tiananmen massacre. What was their reaction?
Li: Very interesting because I was the only one from Beijing in our squad. I went into the army thinking all my fellow soldiers would feel the same way about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and it turned out none of them knew what had happened. And I was very shocked and angry. This was at eighteen or nineteen, when you could afford to be angry. Or I could afford to be angry. I was furious, so I couldn’t stop talking. It was almost like my goal to make everyone admit that these things happened. And part of the squad was iffy. I mean, everybody was very cautious around that time, so nobody wanted to talk about these things openly. But I took a stand as an activist in that little space, and I forced people either to listen to me or take a stand, and I was very unhappy.
Wachtel: Were you worried about punishment?
Li: I was. That was the closest feeling I had to someone in my novel. You know, like someone willing to sacrifice her life for a cause. I was worried at night. I remember I had this fear that they would not let me return to Beijing, they would keep me in the army, and that was a nightmare for me. But somehow, and these things might be a little psychological, the more fearful I became, the louder I became. I just couldn’t stop talking.
Wachtel: Your novel, The Vagrants, is set in 1979, two and a half years after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. You were still very young during this time, seven years old or so. What drew you to this particular period in Chinese history?
Li: On a historical level, 1979 was the year when China started to develop technologically and economically and opened the gate to the West. So China became the China we know today because of 1979. Personally, I think that when you’re six or seven, you start to view the world as a little person. You start to process a lot of things. I wanted to write about the time that I started to recognize things and to be baffled by the world, so that led to this decision to write about 1979.
Wachtel: The story takes place over a couple of months and it’s book-ended by two executions, loosely based on actual events. Can you tell me about that, about what you wanted to explore in this story?
Li: In this provincial city in China, a woman had been imprisoned for ten years as a counter-revolutionary because she was against Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Ten years later she got a retrial, and because she did not repent in prison and wrote diaries and letters and essays, she was retried as a counter-revolutionary and sentenced to death. Before she died, her kidneys were taken out for transplant and a lot of horrible things happened to her body afterwards. The city organized a protest on her behalf, and a few weeks later the woman who was the leader of the protest was sentenced to death too. So that was the case I took from history. When I look at that case, the two women were heroines in that situation. They gave up their lives, they sacrificed family life, children, everything, for justice, or for dreams of democracy, or for all these grand themes that come into life. Though my major interest was not with the two women, but with the town, the community; how it happened from one execution to the next, what happened during those six or eight weeks in this community. My goal was to look at every possible angle, so I had old people, young people, people who were active in the protest, and people who were against the protest. I just wanted to understand that period and I wanted to understand that world, which as a seven-year-old I did not understand.
Wachtel: Although you had, as a child, seen denunciations.
Li: Yes, and that part of the novel was taken from my life. I think I was between five and six. There were quite a number of executions at the time, and before they executed people they would send them from community to community for ceremonies. I remember being taken out of daycare and going to these places. As a young child, you don’t understand the consequences of someone being executed. It was a very festive event, and life was interrupted in an exciting way. For instance, one time there were four prisoners and one of them was a woman, and I remembered her hair very well. As a child, you store these images in your memory, but you can’t understand them. My parents wouldn’t talk about these things, So as a grown-up, as a writer, you come back to study these things again to see what did happen at that moment with people.
Wachtel: Did the fact that the executed counter-revolutionaries were women, including a mother, contribute to your fascination with the story?
Li: Yes, I think so. When I started the novel, I knew that the first woman would be executed in chapter one and we would not know her because somehow she’d already transformed from a real person into a legend, so when she died, she died as a legendary figure. But the second woman was a young mother, and I was more fascinated with her because to me she represented something that I really needed to study as a young mother. How could you give up your child for something, even for a higher calling? Where was her fear? Was she ever afraid of death? So these questions led to the second character, who was one of the central characters in the novel, and through her I wanted to better understand why people do things as they do.
Wachtel: Gu Shan, the young woman executed in the opening chapter is, as you say, a legend. She’s a haunting presence, but she’s elusive. Can you tell me about her, how you see her, what you make of her?
Li: For one thing, early on in her life in the novel, she was a very active Red Guard, and she did horrible things. She committed atrocities to older people and she kicked this pregnant lady’s stomach and caused the baby to be born with birth defects. So she was not a saint, she was not a hero in my mind. She was a very real person until the moment that she died, and then she became a heroine. I was adamant not to make her a glorious figure because if you do that, it would become propaganda for the other side, saying, “See, this is a beautiful young woman giving up her life.” No, I think people do things with much more complex motivations. We had to get to know her through all these other characters. And the people she had hurt in her youth would have that resentment or hatred all their lives.
Wachtel: The horrific details of Gu Shan’s imprisonment and execution, abused even after death, are filtered through the very different perspectives of your main characters, but overall the effect is to evoke a society that’s brutal and dehumanized. Death is very graphic and visceral on the pages of The Vagrants. The treatment of the dead even reflects the value placed on human life in the world.
Li: You know, I was very aware of that, and as a writer you can’t avoid it. You can’t turn your eyes away from these details. In the real world, you can say, “I don’t want to think about these things, I don’t want to dwell upon these things.” But if you want to write about that time, about the people, you have to get into that whole picture. I did not spare the readers, nor did I spare myself in that process.
Wachtel: Because even animals die brutally in the novel.
Li: Yes, that was a very conscious decision. There were so many animals. For one thing, in the 1970s in a small town, or in a small provincial city like Muddy River, animals did coexist with human beings and they had their own world. I always feel that how people treat animals is not too far from how people treat each other, especially under stress or under certain circumstances. So there are a lot of animals in the novel, and many of them die, and some of their deaths are even more heartbreaking to me, I guess, than the deaths of characters.
Wachtel: Teacher Gu, the father of Gu Shan, seems to share some of your grandfather’s characteristics, but you’ve said that he’s the character most like you, that you lived in him through the novel. What do you relate to most in him?
Li: My grandfather was much more outspoken. I wasn’t aware of it until I finished the novel, but Teacher Gu was the only character who had access to philosophy and history. He was a knowledgeable person. He was actually in two cultures and two worlds: the small Chinese one and the bigger one. But that didn’t help him because he was trapped in the small world. He was always suppressing his anger, he was nostalgic for all the beauties of the old time. He was a dreamer, but there was nothing for him to dream on, and all these qualities made him rather—people would say a sad character, but a very complex character. When I was writing the novel, I felt very close to him, and when he died I just cried because I felt I really lived through that journey with him or in him, and I saw everything through his eyes. I don’t know. I imagine when you work on a novel with twenty characters you have to put yourself in someone’s shoes just to stay embedded in that world.
Wachtel: At one point Teacher Gu says, “Conscience is not part of what one needs to live.” He’s speaking about saving his daughter, but, I wonder, is that an idea that has larger meaning for you?
Li: In a way he’s very much resigned to history and his fate, and I was aware of that because people would say my other stories always have that fatalism embedded, and I think his philosophy or his fatalism probably came from me as his creator.
Wachtel: You are fatalistic in that way?
Li: Yes, I guess so. (laughs) It’s very disagreeable to hear myself say. Well, I do feel that way.
Wachtel: How does that affect your life and what you do?
Li: Oh, that’s a very good question. I think there are positive influences and negative influences from this fatalism. On the positive side, you never let yourself be deceived by your optimism or your hope, so you’re always studying the world or people with a bit of suspicion, or you want to scrutinize people, yourself, and people around you, and strangers, everybody. That is good for a writer, I think, and that is what I think a fiction writer should be doing, not taking anything for granted. You need to get into that depth of human emotions and motivations. That’s the good part. The negative influence, of course, is that it’s hard to live as a pessimistic person, and it’s especially hard if you’re a mother of young children. I feel that parenting requires a huge amount of optimism, and I try to be an optimistic mother, but that optimism does not come from me. I have to force that onto myself.
Wachtel: I’d like to talk for a moment about The Vagrants, the title characters. The Huas are rubbish collectors, and they’re a truly compassionate and dignified couple. They have so little, but what accounts for their generosity?
Li: A few years ago, I read a very small news report about a couple of rubbish collectors, and through years and years of garbage collecting, they raised thirty-seven deserted babies, all of them girls. And at a certain point, the government would come in and say, “You do not have the birth certificates, so you cannot bring up these girls,” and the girls would be transported to orphanages. But the couple never gave up their hope in the way that they just kept doing these things. And when I started to write The Vagrants, I knew right away I wanted to write these people into the novel. I also knew that even though they were minor in a way, they were the central characters for me. Their story threaded through the novel. It was a little baffling to me because I am a fatalistic person, but I do think that it was hope that sustained them through years and years, through losing one daughter and raising another. I do feel that by writing about the couple, I learned a lot about them or about how to be hopeful, so when it was time to name the novel, I wanted to title it after them.
Wachtel: You’ve said that people ask you why you have to write about the 1970s when China is no longer that country. You know, why can’t you let go of the past and write about the glorious Olympic Games or the strong and wealthy country that China has become? How do you answer that?
Li: Well, I have many answers to that. For one thing, I think literature is literature. Literature should not be propaganda. And if I want to write about the glorious China today or the glorious Olympics, chances are I’m going to see something really dark under that glorious surface, and I think it’s a writer’s job not to believe in any sort of surface and to go under that surface to see what’s really there. The years 1979 and 2009, to me, are not so different, because I think human emotions and human motivations evolve rather slowly. That’s why when we read Dickens or Jane Austen, we still understand their characters, even though they live in a different society. So 1979 is almost just a set-up. It’s something I’m interested in, but you can move these characters to 2009 and they would react very similarly to the characters in 1979. I’m not a journalist, so I feel that’s my freedom as a fiction writer.
Wachtel: Just over a year ago you returned to Beijing for the first time in ten years. What was that like for you?
Li: It was an interesting experience. Before I went, everybody said, “Oh, you will not recognize Beijing. You will not recognize China. It’s a new country now,” which was partly true because the surface of the country has changed so much. Beijing has become a different city on the surface, and I did not recognize my road, I could not find my house. All these things would happen if you are away for ten years. But again, as a fiction writer, I truly believe that’s only on the surface, and then if you talk to people—when I went to my parents’ neighbourhood, when I met my old friends—I realized people did not change that much. Their life situations have changed. And I always say, you know, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, we were waiting in line to get rationed food, and now people are in the stock market trying to make money. But that, to me, is a surface difference. The human emotions of greed, jealousy, and all those things, they have not changed.
Wachtel: So the world of betrayals and shifting loyalties, it’s all still there.
Li: They are all still there. I think people are trapped or determined by their history. So to me, it’s very reassuring to see these things that haven’t changed, because in a way, that’s why we write literature. You have to face that people won’t change that much.
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).