By her own admission, Yiyun Li has an interesting relationship with her mother country – China. She writes (and dreams) in English, has never been published in China, is barely recognised as a writer in her homeland and yet sets all her writing in that country.
This means that she is particularly well placed to compare the two countries that mean so much to her. She summed it up by saying that in America there is always hope for the individual – there is the audacity of hope. Whereas in China this does not exist. People accept that life in China is bleak therefore they are less likely to be devastated by disappointment.
She started writing because her parents were dead set against it and “whatever your parents do not want you to do, you must do.” In fact her parents saw fiction as “the most dangerous thing in the world”. Her first pieces of writing were the fabricated sick notes that she would create for herself in order to get out of school. For such a dimpled, sweet-faced lady, she was an extraordinarily rebellious child.
Her book The Vagrants starts with an execution and ends with one as well. Although this does not sound like a laugh a minute, the novel is really a collection of the love stories of characters who were around at that time. There is sadness, pathos and cruelty, but there is also tenderness and humour and love.
The entire audience was reminded time and again how different life in China was in the 1970’s. It is hard for us to comprehend the cruelty, for example, behind making the family of the executed girl pay for the bullet that was used to kill their only daughter. And that according to Yiyun Li is what really did happen.
I left the room thinking “I will never complain about anything ever again”. Yiyun Lee would have said that was very American of me.