Like most Chinese who came of age after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, Beijing-born writer Yiyun Li spent a year in the army, undergoing “re-education.” During the day she studied communist ideology, but after lights-out, Li, then 19, pursued a different kind of learning: Hiding in a storage room, she devoured English novels.
Those furtive hours served her well. The now 36-year-old’s haunting short stories have nabbed some of the literary world’s top honors, including the Whiting Award for emerging writers and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. In February Random House will publish Li’s first novel, The Vagrants, which centers on the execution of a counterrevolutionary in 1970s China. “It was too big to be contained in a short story,” she says of the plot.
Li, who lives in Oakland, California, came to the U.S. in 1996 to study immunology but soon found her true calling in a writing class. The Paris Review was the first to publish her work, in 2003, and her debut collection of stories, 2005’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won raves. “She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle,” says New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has run four of her pieces.
Though set in China, Li’s fiction—which she writes in English—grapples with universal dilemmas: a mother’s overbearing concern for her son; an illicit love affair between two youths. “I often start writing about situations that I don’t quite understand,” says Li.
Until recently Li herself was in a hard-to-understand situation: Under immigration law, to stay in the U.S. she had to prove she was an artist of “extraordinary ability.” Her application was rejected twice, despite the critical acclaim and letters of support from such writers as Salman Rushdie. Finally, in 2007 Li and her husband were granted green cards. Quandary resolved, she now has more time for writing and for her two sons, both born here. Parenting helps keep her grounded: “Your children don’t care what kind of writer you are,” Li says, laughing.