An Interview with Yiyun Li

The Penn Review is honored to be part of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. As part of the exhibition, portraits and interviews with writers and creative thinkers are being published across a network of university and international literary magazines. The Creative Process is including work by faculty and students of University of Pennsyvlania in the projection elements of the traveling exhibition. 

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Yiyun Li Quote

YIYUN LI
Interviewed by Mia Funk

Novelist and short-story writer Yiyun Li discusses her two homelands – the China she left when she came to the University of Iowa to study immunology, and America, which has been her home for almost 20 years. In novels like Kinder than Solitude and The Vagrants, and short story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, she has impressed critics and fellow writers with the grace and subtlety of her writing, even as she tells stories so truthful and critical that she won’t publish her books in China. Michel Faber, writing for The Guardian, said, “Yiyun has the talent, the vision and the respect for life’s insoluble mysteries...[she] is the real deal.”

Li has received numerous awards, including the Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She has served on the jury panel for the Man Booker International Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and other awards. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

In the US, she discovered her love for literature and studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop with Marilynne Robinson, whom she credits for teaching her to read deeply, but the writers whom Li says have been a deeper influence on her are William Trevor, Elisabeth Bowen, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.

I met Li in Paris during the Festival des Écrivains du Monde and reconnected a few months later for this phone interview.

 

LI

. . . Yes, I know, when you think of the way [Ruyu in Kinder Than Solitude] looks at herself, I always imagine, like you turn the telescope the wrong way, and you put your hand in front of the telescope, and your hand becomes further away? And it’s really far and small and boring? And I think the whole life she has lived is that way. Like this reverse telescope, and she can look at her life, and somehow she can say, “That life is so far from me,” but I think there are just only a few moments in that novel where she says, “Well, that’s me.” Most of the time she says, “That’s someone. That someone is interesting.”


THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s strange. In a number of your stories, you have these solitary characters like her. I was wondering where do you think it comes from? Do you think it’s more prominent in China because of the former one-child policy or do you think that sense of solitude comes from somewhere else?

 

LI

Oh no, I don't think it's from that. I don't think Chinese are very good at being solitary, and it's not encouraged, and also it's a crowded place. When I went through college, I would go to a summer cottage by myself, and people would think it's really strange. Why would you go somewhere by yourself? You're supposed to always be with someone. So I think solitude is not encouraged in the culture, and I think probably for that reason solitude is important for me and all my characters too.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

That's interesting. It's true…I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about teaching, your teachers at the University of Iowa. Marilynne Robinson was one of your teachers?

 

LI

Yes, Marilynne Robinson was my teacher, and I really liked her work, and I liked her teaching too. She’s the kind of writer who would not teach you how to write. She would teach you how to read. Really, I think, people always say writing is not teachable. And I agree. Writing is not teachable, but reading is. And if you’re reading the work with Marilynne Robinson, she would teach Moby Dick. She would teach The Bible. She would teach New England poets, and she would teach Faulkner; all these are semester-long reading courses, and I learned so much from her.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

And now, because you’re a teacher as well [at Princeton], what are some of the things you like to impart to your students? What is your curriculum? What are you teaching them at the moment?

 

LI

I like it when I teach short stories. I think partly because I love short stories. I have this record of teaching short stories and writing short stories. And I think–and I also teach writing, with the view that writing is not something you can teach, reading is. Mostly I look at my students, and I think they are not very well-read. Even those who want to become writers. They’re not the most well-read people. So partly I think I just like to read with them and point out the things I see in the book, that I see in Madame Bovary, that I see in War and Peace, I will share with them. My hope is that they can read closer.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’re teaching them to notice.

 

LI

Yes, I feel like that is a good way to say it. I can only say when you’re a writer you notice things. That’s the only thing you can do. You see things other people miss. And when you read, you see things other readers miss. So that’s the thing I teach.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I liked this comment you made before, that your only urgency is to stay “as unintrusive as possible” when you write about characters. Have you always approached writing from that point of view?

 

LI

Yes, I think so. And I think, for me, it feels important. One thing is I agree with myself.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I agree too. It’s part of the a-fish-must-put-its-own-mouth-on-the-hook school of creative writing. But yes, as I look over some of the influences you have–Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen–they have this lightness of touch too. I don’t know if you could talk about some other stories by other writers that you really admire or learned from . . . 

 

LI

It’s interesting because I’m reading–this is so completely different—I’m reading Patricia Highsmith, and if you read her crime novels or her suspense novels, it’s action after action after action. You know, Tom Ripley kills one person, Tom Ripley kills another person. But actually, I started to read her stories. Some of her stories are just masterful because nothing happens. Really, nothing happens and you feel the danger, the threat that something is going to happen, like a death or something, but really nothing happens. And I think that touch– it’s the same touch. It’s to allude the reader rather than to impose something on you.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Oh, exactly. I think she’s very masterful, and she’s fascinating because she strips away what we’re taught, our manners, and she’s writing about psychopaths in the books, mainly psychopaths. But again, I think that you’ve written about characters too who are very understandable. I understand her situation. I’m not judging her. And that’s what Patricia Highsmith does as well. You understand Ripley, why he would do these things.

 

LI

I think not many writers do that. I think Patricia Highsmith is a very good example when you read Tom Ripley. There are certain moments he feels so genuine in his murders. [Laughs] I don’t know how to say it. He’s very genuine, and he’s very sincere. He’s very vulnerable. Except he’s killing someone. You understand his whole logic—that’s illogic. And she writes the book’s illogic much better than most people.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Another one—he’s even harder to read, but I like Jim Thompson, if you’re talking about writing about psychopaths.

 

LI

Oh, I have not. Jim Thompson?

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

He wrote The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters. The Killer Inside Me is even more extreme than Patricia Highsmith. About a psychopath, and yet you understand because he gives a reason, and it’s scary.

 

LI

Yes, I saw The Killer Inside Me. I need to check it out.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

There was a movie made, but read the book before.

 

LI

I probably won’t see the movie in any case. Oh good.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s a good one. You maybe don’t want to read it before going to bed because it’s not like a physical danger kind of frightening–it’s the fact that you are in the head of a psychopath, and it’s uncomfortable to live there. So now I’m curious. Now you’re reading Patricia Highsmith. Are you going to write a thriller? A straightforward thriller?

 

LI

[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. I think that’s the problem with me is that I would like to write someone who’s not that extreme. Maybe I am drawn to these characters. No, I’m not planning to, but you can never say you’re not planning. I didn’t really plan with Kinder than Solitude. I mean, I knew before I started. I knew there was a voice in me, but I didn’t know how it happened and who did it. I didn’t really know who Ruyu was until she became who she is. I don’t know–I can’t plan.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

That’s good because we discovered with you. That’s the most natural way. And that’s nice too because with your novels, even though they are novels they have this sense of–the rhythm has this excitement that I associate with your short stories. Because I love short stories, and I think they’re not championed enough. And in the novel it’s rare because there are usually these dead spaces, even if they’re very good novelists, you feel like, “Oh, they’re just going through the motion and getting to what really is interesting.” But yours, every segment has the compression of a short story.

 

LI

Thank you. I really would love for that to happen.