MacArthur Fellow Author Pens Stories Of Struggle

Fiction writer Yiyun Li was awarded a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. She was cited for her spare and quietly understated style of storytelling that draws readers into powerful and emotionally compelling explorations of her characters' struggles, set both in China and the United States. Li moved to the United States in 1996, and focused on fiction writing in English. Host Michel Martin speaks with Li about the award.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The MacArthur Fellowship continues to be one of the standout awards in this country for scholarship and creativity. It is after all nicknamed the Genius Grant and it is given to some of the brightest people in this country whose work demonstrates exceptional originality. They are as diverse in background as the disciplines for which they are being recognized.

Today in our Wisdom Watch conversation we're bringing you the latest in a series of conversations we are having with some of those who have been awarded a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. It comes with a $500,000 prize to be used any way the recipients choose.

With us now is Yiyun Li. She is a fiction writer, an assistant professor of English at the University of California-Davis. She came to the U.S. from China in 1996 to earn a graduate degree in immunology. But a funny thing happened on the way to that degree. She took up fiction writing in English. Her writing was recognized for a, quote, "spare and quietly understated style of storytelling". Set both in China and the U.S., her story collection includes, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" and "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers".

And Yiyun Li is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations to you.

Ms. YIYUN LI (Author, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl"): Thank you and thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I just have to ask what you were doing when you got the call and what went through your mind?

Ms. LI: They called me many times but I have a very good habit of screening my calls so I did not pick up the stranger's call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh no, who did you think it was, a creditor? I don't know.

Ms. LI: You know, I never pick up strangers' calls so in the end I believe I probably was the only one this year who did not pick up their phone call.

MARTIN: So how did they finally reach you?

Ms. LI: It was after two or three days they had to leave a message. This is the MacArthur Foundation you know if you could call back.

MARTIN: Did you save the e-mail, I'm sorry the voicemail by the way?

Ms. LI: I deleted right away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LI: I'm bad at record keeping apparently.

MARTIN: Well that's too bad. Of course as we mentioned that your writing has been recognized both for the beauty of the stories as well as the beauty of the writing. And I think it is worth noting that English is your second language.

Ms. LI: Yes

MARTIN: And so how did you start writing in English? In fact you've always written your fiction in English.

Ms. LI: That's right. Because when I was in China I was trying to be a scientist so I had never written anything in Chinese. It just happened when I got to America and I wanted to try writing. And I picked up English and everything just turned out to be really right for me. I fell in love with both English language and storytelling in English.

MARTIN: I understand that your parents thought writing was, quoting now, "the most dangerous thing in the world." Why did they think that?

Ms. LI: You know, where they grew up and how they went through all these different revolutions and my parents did not trust words, did not trust language. And in turn they did not want us to put any thoughts into words and of course, you know, when your parents told you to do something or not to do something you would always do the opposite.

MARTIN: Have they made their peace with your being a writer?

Ms. LI: At first my mother actually told me that I wasted all the education she'd given me, which was about true, but when I published my first book you know they reconciled and then they became very happy about my success.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about your work. It's been described as both political and personal.

Ms. LI: My stories are oftentimes set in China and when you write about China, in the past 50 years, not a single character could escape history or politics. So in a way I think I'm interested in both how a character or a set of characters lived through, you know, a historical moment but also how their individual decisions have changed their own fate.

MARTIN: Now your fourth book and second novel, set in both China and the U.S., looks at the last 20 years when people in China have actually gained some mobility, when it is possible to leave China and return, for example, you. I don't - have you been back since you...

Ms. LI: I have been back, yeah, I've been visiting.

MARTIN: How do you think that's changing your work? Are you headed more toward work based here in the U.S.?

Ms. LI: You know, the world is becoming smaller or more intimate because now people travel all the time. There's the internet, you know, telephones and Skypes. And in a way, I think the world are getting closer to understand each other but we're also getting closer to misunderstanding each other. So I think my interest, you know, it still is, you know, how people communicate or miscommunicate(ph) or choose not communicate. But these things would be happening in a more contemporary setting.

MARTIN: Do you feel any special calling in your fiction to lift up the stories of any particular group of people?

Ms. LI: I don't think I feel any calling except, you know, the only person I wanted to write is my character so oftentimes I'm drawn to, you know, either isolated characters or characters who, I mean, most of my characters are very stubborn. You know, they don't give in to history or politics or even their, you know, own little problems. They choose to fight in a very quiet way.

MARTIN: What do you think you'll do with your award?

Ms. LI: You know, it will allow me a little bit more freedom just to pursue the writing.

MARTIN: Now I know that you are quite young but you have already accomplished so much, and I did want to ask if you had some wisdom to share now that you are a genius...

Ms. LI: I need to find that hat quickly.

MARTIN: Your genius hat?

Ms. LI: Yes. I guess the only thing I could say is, you know, you really have to follow your, you know, your heart, to do something you really love. And that is more important than anything else, at least for me. You know writing is the thing that I love so much.

MARTIN: Yiyun Li is a fiction writer and assistant professor of English at the University of California-Davis. She is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, a genius, and she was kind enough to join us from Berkeley, California. Thank you so much for speaking with us and once again, our deepest congratulations to you on this wonderful award.

Ms. LI: Thank you for having me.

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