When Yiyun Li was a child in Beijing, in the late 1970s, she watched political prisoners paraded through the streets and marveled at the elaborate execution notices posted on the walls. Twice, she and her schoolmates, along with thousands of workers, attended a ceremony at a stadium denouncing a dissident that ended in a spectacle of chants, songs and frenzied joy. There is a denunciation ceremony at the center of Li's first novel, "The Vagrants," too: a fervent communist turned counterrevolutionary is sentenced to die for unrepentant defiance, and on the day of her death she is presented onstage, her neck bloody where her vocal cords had been cut. Li may have known from experience what the scene looked like, but "The Vagrants" is by no means autobiographical. She is less interested in her own past than in the experience of outsiders, people who watch the main event from a distance and respond in ways that are sometimes perfectly sensible—motivated by hunger, loneliness, anger and love—and sometimes completely inscrutable. "I'm fascinated by people I can't understand," she told NEWSWEEK.
In some sense, Li's refusal to rely on her own experience isn't surprising. For her, writing is bound up in distance—a strange country, a foreign language, a complex relationship to her characters. She writes fiction only in English, not Chinese—and in fact only tried fiction to improve her language skills after moving to the United States in 1996 to study immunology at the University of Iowa. By the time she earned her master's degree, Li was not only fluent in English but had been accepted to two programs at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Random House executive editor Kate Medina visited the workshop in the fall of 2003 and read Li's story "Extra" on the flight home. "I couldn't wait to get off the plane to the phone," Medina said. "It was just such an extraordinary story." On the basis of that story and another, Medina signed her to a two-book deal. For the first one, a story collection called "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," Li won a heap of awards: the Whiting Writers' Award for emerging authors, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian first book award. Granta chose her as one of the best young American novelists under 35—before she had ever published a novel.
For most writers, the accolades would be a matter of pride (and money). But for Li there was something bigger at stake. After earning two creative-writing degrees, her student visa ran out, and Li's application for a green card, made on the grounds of "extraordinary ability" in the arts, was rejected, as was her appeal. By then Li's husband had joined her from China and she had given birth to two sons. Li finally was granted her green card in 2007 and is now an assistant professor of English at University of California, Davis, but for a long time the possibility of having to return home haunted her. "I just can't live in China," Li said. "Not because I don't love the country. I just can't write in China. I can't explain it. It's like, you can't live with your mother. No matter how much you love your mother, you have to live away."
With China—as with mothers—distance offers the space to cultivate a real intimacy with difficult characters. None of the outsiders featured in "The Vagrants" is a hero, and empathy is hard-earned. Bashi, a horny 19-year-old, searches for abandoned infants on the riverbank and inspects a corpse in order to understand the female anatomy—and falls in love with a 12-year-old girl in the process. The town's news announcer, Kai, is so passionate that she'll sacrifice her own family for her ideals. A child betrays his father. Another kicks dogs. These characters, and a half dozen others whose perspectives Li adeptly adopts, share little in the way of psychology or background—or even the instinct to survive. What unites them is the warping pressure under which each of them lives, and which bends their lives toward each other. A novel offered a new challenge for Li. "When I write stories, I'm taking a very thin slice, a glimpse," she says. "In a sense I can't imagine the characters in my stories. So much of their lives are not known to me. But for a novel you have to study the characters so well that in the end they truly belong to you." And that, in the end, is what novels can offer—they help you understand people you can't understand.