World Writers' Festival 2015: Yiyun Li

Chinese-American author Yiyun Li’s conversation with Sylvain Bourmeau on Day Two of the World Writers' Festival 2015 focused on her choice to write in English rather than Chinese, her mother tongue, and how this choice has informed her vision of America and China.

September 28, 2015
Yiyun Li signs autographs
Yiyun Li signs autographs

Li explained how serendipity played a very large role in her decision to become a writer and to write in English. “I could just as easily have written in another language – French, German, Swedish. I just happened to move to the United States. It was a random choice, but getting away from Chinese was a necessity.”

“Growing up I had a journal, and I knew that my mother would read this journal, so I learned to write in Chinese by leaving a negative space that only I could decipher. For example, I would describe the trees and the sky, the clouds in the sky, but I would leave the shape of a bird, the experience that was only for my eyes,” she explained. “The Chinese language was the language in which I encoded everything and I don’t think that’s natural for a writer.”

Her parents had charted out her career path that, as luck would have it, brought her to the University of Iowa, home of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to study immunology.

“When I got to Iowa City someone told me that everyone who lived there was writing a novel. And it was true! I thought I could maybe do that to.” She enrolled in a community college writing class and produced a story that got her accepted into Writers’ Workshop.

Li was soon tracing her own path, publishing stories in the Paris Review and the New Yorker and later being named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010.