So Many Mysteries: Jiayang Fan on Yiyun Li as a World-Class Writer

October 25, 2013   •   By Jiayang Fan

Editors’ Note: Nobel prizes for literature tend to go to authors with at least one big sprawling work to their name, with the first two Chinese winners, Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan, being cases in point. Sometimes, though, the Swedish selectors break from the pattern, as they did in 2013 when they chose Alice Munro, whose work brings to mind Chekhovian miniatures (she's been called "Canada's Chekhov") rather than Tolstoyan sagas (to invoke the names of two famous Russian writers who never got Nobel nods).  Before the 2013 laureate was announced, we had asked Jiayang Fan to reflect on the special qualities of Yiyun Li (a writer sometimes referred to as “China’s Chekhov”), as someone who, though early in her career, might be on track to produce the kind of body of work that might attract the attention of the Nobel Prize committee.  In light of Munro's win, we are especially glad that we have a piece on Li, who has published a novel but whose reputation has been established largely via the quality of her closely observed and elegantly crafted short stories, in this series on China and actual and imagined literary laureates.  

— Megan Shank and Jeffrey Wasserstrom 


LI YIYUN, who publishes as Yiyun Li, with its Western reversal of first and last name, writes exclusively in English, her adopted tongue, rather than in Chinese, her native one.  What about the American-based 39-year-old Beijing native defines her as a Chinese or American writer?  What is it about any writer’s origins, inclinations or subject matter that puts her into one specific category rather than another? Although Li writes frequently of her birthplace, she has made it clear that she does not want to be read as a “China” writer. In a personal essay published in Tin House in 2011, Li recounts an instance in which one of her stories was characterized as a “poignant portrayal of a culture where women were oppressed by the male members of the society.” The comment was meant as unequivocal praise but for her, it signified something else; “I knew I had failed miserably,” she recalls.

Born in 1972, amid the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Li is familiar with failure, even when it is not of her own making. The Great Leap Forward had recently set the country decades back, and the institutional failure of Maoist Marxism, which its founders were loath to acknowledge, quietly reverberated through the authoritarian misrule of cities and villages alike.

Like any born writer, Li culls stories from the chaos of the world she knew most intimately. In the opening story of her first collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayer, Granny Lin, a laid off garment factory worker, finds one unpleasant job after another — from second wife cum nurse in the household of a senile man to cleaning lady at an elite private academy — only to be summarily dismissed by both on unfounded suspicions of her deceit. In another story, a couple tries to distract themselves from the shame of a mentally handicapped daughter and a disintegrating marriage by dabbling in the nascent stock market.  From Li’s swift deft strokes, private worlds emerge and modest lives reveal themselves to be complex portraits of a society reckoning with its own transition.

Unlike much of the writing from and on contemporary China, however, Li’s stories rarely satisfy themselves with easy sermonizing. The revolutionary mayhem of the Mao years and the autocratic capitalism of the Deng era are but backdrops to the human drama, from which Li’s stories derive their power. Even in Immortality, an artfully ambitious tale about a young boy born with the face of a dictator, told from the perspective of villagers who do not hesitate to pass judgment on the boy’s fate, the collective first person narrators reveal as much about the savagery China’s social turbulence inspires as they do about the boy’s likelihood of survival: “The famine has made us angrier each day, and we are relieved to have found someone to vent our nameless rage. Some of us pick up bricks and boulders, ready to knock him out. Some of us bare our teeth, ready to eat him alive.”

Almost all the characters in Li’s fiction are being eaten alive, by gnawing hunger, soul-consuming guilt or the inexorable loneliness of living in society in which secrets perennially sabotage any semblance of community. But her brisk clarity in the telling, coupled with bare pared-down prose, conjures compassion rather than melodrama.

Which is why, I think, Li takes issue with the title of a China writer, a mantle that does not do justice to the varied range of her subjects, the depth of her excavation and the richness of her imagination. For Li, the ultimate failure would be stories that simplify and reduce lives into pat messages that imitate the loud-speaker propaganda of her youth, stories that indoctrinate rather than elucidate, pervert reality rather than reveal it.

In one of Li’s most affecting tales, a middle school teacher becomes obsessed with an online case in which a teenage daughter terrorizes her father for an act of presumed adultery. The case reminds the teacher of his own “crime,” decades earlier, of gazing at a young student and the heavy price he has spent his life paying. At the time, the merciless zealotry of his prosecutors had only baffled the mild-mannered man who did not defend himself against lurid accusations of his intent. How could he explain his interest in a face, the way it “could contain so many mysteries visible only to those who knew what to look for”?

Li is that rare writer who knows what to look for. Her stories startle and astonish with their sensitivity and subtlety. In her fiction, women may be oppressed by men, but sons are also oppressed by mothers, and individuals oppressed by a society upended by its own draconian illogic. None of these realities alone account for why Li creates the worlds that she does, but together they attest to the keen eye of an artist who never fails to capture the shared strangeness and mundane mysteries of life — and the lives of those who tread most quietly among us.


Jiayang Fan is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.