In 2005, a new literary star emerged with a collection of short stories that immediately began raking in awards. Yiyun Li was a 33-year-old Peking University science graduate, a former math prodigy who emigrated from China to the United States to study immunology and took up creative writing with the aim of to improve his English. Within two years, she had been listed as one of Granta’s Top 21 Young American Novelists, without having actually published a novel, and two of the stories of A thousand years of good prayers had been made into films by Chinese-American director Wayne Wang.
In two novels and a second collection of short stories published over the next decade, she continued to focus on Chinese life, observed through a long-distance telescope, but suddenly everything changed. She started writing about herself, she embraced the first person for the first time in her fiction, and she started to expand beyond China. “At first,” says Li, from her home in Princeton, New Jersey, where she works as a creative writing teacher, “people thought, ‘Here’s a very nice Chinese lady who could write in English’ — but I’m not not that kind of nice, friendly lady who can also write a little. Being subversive is important to me. And part of being subversive is not following the narratives that fit best.
His fifth novel is a good example: The goose book is a deeply bizarre story of a passionate friendship between two farm girls in rural France shortly after World War II. Narrator Agnès is a good student neglected by her parents, distracted by the prolonged death of her elder brother suffering from tuberculosis, whom he brought back from a German prisoner of war camp. Fabienne, a goatherd, is a gifted storyteller but unable to write because her mother died, so she was taken out of school to take care of her father and brothers’ house. Together, they begin to concoct stories of comic book violence: a young mother who feeds her newborn baby to pigs; a madman who has sex with a cow. The stories are picked up by a widowed postmaster who, for not entirely honorable reasons, passes them on to a Parisian publisher. Soon, Agnès is feted like a prodigy peasant, while Fabienne is stubborn with her goats.
In lesser hands, this could become a cautionary tale about the role played in child abuse by adults’ exploitation of childhood fantasy, but Li is too clever and subtle a writer to allow her characters to become numbers. She deploys tone, syntax and vocabulary to hold her reader firmly within the confines of a 13-year-old imagination shaped by the blood, shit and repetition of farm life. Agnès considers herself the whetstone of Fabienne’s knife. “Who’s the toughest and sharpest in the end?” Li laughs. “It’s shocking, isn’t it, because they’re so passionate and can’t separate violence from love.”
Li, 49, admits that she herself only occasionally visits France, having spent her first 23 years in China and the rest in the United States. She pushed the novel past Francophile writer Edmund White, a good friend, with whom she has been attending a daily online reading group of two since the start of the pandemic. “But, you know, I grew up with pigs running around,” she says. “And the good thing about teenage girls is that it doesn’t matter if they’re in France, England, China or Japan – they all have this intensity, this purity and also this feeling that the whole world is made up by their close bond with another girl.
The change that brought Li to this novel was detailed in a collection of autobiographical essays, published in 2017, which deeply shocked those who had followed his career. Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life was obsessively preoccupied with suicide, friends and literary heroes. She described her life growing up in a complex for nuclear industry workers (her father was a nuclear physicist), where she and her sister were bullied by a “despotic and vulnerable” mother; and where she was picked at school to solve math equations in front of the class, while her classmates were punished for their stupidity. She described her escape in books, including her love affair, at the age of 12, with the prose poems of Ivan Turgenev. “I didn’t know anything about Turgenev except that he was Russian. There were only his words, about talking skulls, meditative mountains, friends stabbing each other in the back.
She also revealed that by the time she left school she had made the first of three suicide attempts; the other two were during a depression she suffered in 2012 – a time when, to the outside world, she seemed like a successful writer and happily married mother of two young sons. A few months after the publication of the memoirs, his eldest son, Vincent, committed suicide at the age of 16.
His response was to launch a few novels in quick succession. where reason ends was about a grieving Chinese-American writer conversing with her dead son who committed suicide (“I was almost you once,” she says, “and that’s why I allowed myself to invent this world to speak with you”). The second, Should I go – partially written, but abandoned, at the time of Vincent’s death – concerned an American octogenarian who despises the “memoir class” and is unable to face the question of why her daughter killed herself years earlier, leaving the protagonist the responsibility of raising his granddaughter.
It’s early morning in the United States when we speak, and Li has blocked out any possibility of snooping around her room by sitting in front of an aisle of silver birch trees. It’s a photograph of the Russian woods where Tolstoy used to take his morning walks, she says. It’s tempting to see this as another example of hiding in literature – as she did in her youth – except that it’s also through literature that she found a way to reveal herself. “We live more sentimentally in a borrowed life,” she wrote in an afterword to her memoir.
However distant The goose book seems from his own life, he is full of vividly refracted sensory memories. The girls are fascinated by the color and taste of oranges, which were rare in wartime. Li connects the intensity of this experience to one she had when she was nine or ten years old, when she saw an American student skating along the road near her home with a neon green backpack. . “China has just started to open the door to Westerners,” she explains. “Seeing a man zoom past was already like a fairy tale. But the most interesting thing was the backpack, because neon green just wasn’t a color we had in our daily lives.
For such a writer, who spoke of hiding in fiction, perhaps the greatest breakthrough was in the first person, both in fiction and in deeply personal essays, usually for the New Yorker. “You know what Edgar says in King Lear: ‘To be the worst, / The lowest and most downcast thing in fortune, / Stand still in hope, live not in fear,’” she says. “After what happened in my life, I think there is less fear. I used to think hiding things, or hiding, was a priority in life, right? I thought I could do that in fiction. But once monumental things happened, those fears became much weaker. I don’t know if I’m less private, but I’m less inclined to have this motion clash with privacy. Does that make sense?”
Until now, Li has always refused to have her work translated into Chinese, in particular to prevent her mother from reading it. “My personal salvation”, she wrote in her memoir, “…is that I have denied my mother tongue”, although later in the same essay she went on to say that the absoluteness of surrender , and her determination to pursue it, “was kind of suicide.” Lately, she’s given in, and her two most recent novels are in translation.
The goose book is not tender with the mothers: one is dead and the other is almost invisible. More telling perhaps – and revealed too soon to be a plot spoiler – Fabienne dies in childbirth and Agnès returns from a childless marriage. These two evil, dangerous and glorious girls are their own creation and their own destiny, captured at the height of their lives. What does she think of her mother reading it? “Well, the funny thing is, you know, even though my mom didn’t change, I did. My life has changed,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I don’t care about the opinions of the family, but I may have acquired some immunity.”