Arts, Culture & Media

Chinese writer succeeds with English novel

Most artists who express themselves through language do so exclusively in their native tongue. Not Yiyun Li. She’s a Chinese writer who moved to the United States in the mid-1990s. Now, she’s just published her first novel. It’s called “The Vagrants”. The World’s Carol Hills read the book and spoke to the author about it.

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Carol Hills: There’s no other way to say it. Yiyun Li’s first novel, “The Vagrants”, is bleak – very bleak. It’s set in China in the fictitious provincial city of Muddy River, hundreds of miles and years behind a city like Beijing. It’s 1979, Mao has died, and the Cultural Revolution is officially over. But in Muddy River, loudspeakers continue to blare propaganda and patriotic songs. No one, not even the local party people in power know just how they’re supposed to act, or what is permissible.

Life is a daily gamble, full of small and large humiliations and sometimes unspeakable acts of cruelty. A teenager plans to poison a young boy’s dog. A local party leader steals organs for an ailing government official. He’s rewarded with a TV. As the novel begins, the whole town of Muddy River is gathering to watch as a young woman is publicly denounced as a counter revolutionary and led away to be executed. In the novel, the scene feels almost festive.

Yiyun Li: It was very exciting when I was a child.

Hills: Yiyun Li says she relied on her own childhood memories of attending denunciation ceremonies to create the scene.

li: It was a very festive event in my memory, because you know, children stopped going to school that day. It was a field trip. And grown-ups stopped working all day and we all gathered in this neighborhood gathering spot. So we would just go there and we’d see all these people. I didn’t realize such bleakness behind the scene.

Hills: Yiyun Li has included plenty of bleakness in her novel: couples regret their marriages. Mothers treat their unwanted daughters like dirt. Fathers are often drunk. And innocent children are lured by party officials into denouncing their own family members. Yiyun Li based her characters on people she knew and stories she heard as a child. Yiyun Li says the drone of party songs and the lack of real information in China in the late 1970s turned people into storytellers to share what little they did know. Her parents told stories, the local gossips at the market told stories. Even the posters announcing the latest counter revolutionary to be executed told a story.

Li: I think every week or every other week we would have new announcements posted on the wall in the neighborhood. And my mother and I would take a walk and we would go there and read all the announcements for the executions. And it was very fascinating to read. You know, they always had a name and the gender and the age of the person, and then they had a little paragraph about the person’s crime. It was a narrative that, you know, almost could not understand at the time. I didn’t understand at the time, but I was very fascinated. So I would actually just go back and re-read them just to remember them.

Hills: Yiyun Li’s novel “The Vagrants” is in a way all about words. Those that are spoken, and those that are left unspoken. Words that are lies, like the ones uttered in government news reports. Words that are cruel – and there are lots of them. And words that can cost you your life, like those written in a pro-democracy leaflet. So it’s interesting to note that li writes fiction, words that are creative and are her own, only in English. She says it’s because she didn’t start writing until she came to the US in 1996.

Li: I had never written creatively in Chinese, so English is my first language in writing. So when I think about stories, storytelling, when I think about literature and characters, I think I process things in English.

Hills: But it turns out there’s something more to it. A few minutes later, Li admits she’s just not comfortable writing creatively in Chinese – something about her mother.

Li: I grew up keeping a Chinese journal, and I always worried that my mother would read it. So I developed this habit of writing around things to say things that I did not mean to say, to keep the real thing to myself, which was a horrible habit for a storyteller. And when I pick up English, my mother doesn’t read English. You know, I do feel free to write in English.

Hills: So in a way, it’s as if Yiyun Li has used this novel to give voice to the people she knew in her childhood who weren’t able to express what they really felt -- and that includes her.

Support PRI when you purchase Yiyun Li's book "The Vagrants: A Novel"

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