My introduction to Yiyun Li was only partly through her fiction. In September 2012, I stood in the crowded, sold-out Elbo Room in San Francisco to witness another edition of Literary Death Match, a game show-like reading series where four competitors square off, in front of a panel of judges, to see who can bring the most taut and engaging writing to the table. Before reading an electrifying story about a boy’s discovery of a girl’s body, Li, all smiles, took the stage and leaned into the microphone. “Before I begin,” she said, “I just wanted to say, today is a very happy day for me, because earlier I became a U.S. citizen!” The audience erupted into cheers and applause, and though Li didn’t beat out her opponents, the energy from her announcement remained palpable.
There’s a similar current that runs throughout Li’s latest novel, Kinder Than Solitude, the haunting story of a trio of estranged friends who must contend with the death of a woman they knew as teenagers. That the woman may have been murdered by one of the three is at the crux of the book, which musters equal parts mystery and heartbreak, and shines a light on Li’s prowess as a storyteller—a powerhouse to be reckoned with. The narrative is made all the more affecting by the delicacy and elegance of Li’s language, and the estranged, Ruyu, Moran and Boyang, drive the story into territory that explores the weight of emotional violence and manipulation, and how place builds identity.
Kinder Than Solitude begins in China in the late 1980s, during the same tumultuous period when Li grew up in Beijing. The book is not, however, meant to be political; while the Tiananmen Square massacre does take place, it’s meant, Li insists, to serve as a backdrop against the greater psychological damage the characters inflict upon one another. Even as Ruyu and Moran flee to the U.S., leaving Boyang behind, they find themselves tethered to their memories, living in both the past and present simultaneously. “A place puts something on you and then it holds you,” Li says, of her characters’ inabilities to fully shed themselves of their younger, tormented selves. “It’s like a gravity.”
Though Li likes to write “about things you feel very far away from,” the proximity of Kinder Than Solitude feels closer and more personal, especially when you take into account the idea for the novel was sparked by a poisoning case that occurred during Li’s college years. She became intrigued by the implications of what it meant to poison and sentence someone to a slow death. “This is my theory,” she says. “I think whoever does the poisoning, at least he or she wants to get away with it.”
What’s more, Ruyu, Moran and Boyang must live with their involvement in the murder, whether or not they played a direct part. “The characters always have to struggle with things,” Li says. “Otherwise, there’s no reason to write about them.”
After studying biology at Peking University, Li herself moved to the U.S. in 1996, where she earned a master’s in immunology at the University of Iowa. She was partway through a Ph.D. there, when, by chance, she enrolled in a writing course and realized she wanted to take the craft seriously. “It sounds so cheesy, right?” she says of her decision to abandon science altogether, in favor of receiving an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “But I really did fall in love with writing.”
“I came into writing really late,” Li adds. Though she grew up as a serious reader, devouring Tolstoy and The Arabian Nights between the ripe ages of eight and nine, Li never considered writing as a career. And while she learned a small amount of English in high school, she only began to write in the language in Iowa. She considers the location a form of luck: “Had I not landed in Iowa City, I probably would not have even thought about writing. It’s a town where everybody writes.”
Over the past decade, Li has penned two short story collections, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, as well as a novel, The Vagrants. She has also collected a slew of awards and accolades, including a MacArthur Genius grant, the PEN/Hemingway Award and a “20 Under 40” mention by The New Yorker in 2010. Now, Li is a contributing editor for the esteemed Brooklyn-based literary magazine A Public Space, and lives in Oakland, California, where she spends most of the year teaching in the Department of English at UC–Davis.
Having spent so much time moving from place to place, Li is adamant about the ways in which where we come from and where we’ve been affect us, much like her characters, for life. “What we remember is framed by space,” she says. “I don’t think we can ever leave a place behind.”