Three Questions: China and Literature


For most people, it is only a dream to be called a genius and handed a big check. But in the United States, 23 people recently received a phone call announcing that dream had come true. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation hands out “genius” fellowships each year to assist people it determines are doing exceptional work. This year’s recipients of the $500,000 “no strings attached” grant include a stone carver, a quantum astrophysicist, a jazz pianist and a high school physics teacher.

One of the winners is Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li, who grew up in Beijing and graduated from Peking University. She then headed to the University of Iowa in the United States to study science, but eventually enrolled in the school’s prestigious creative writing program.  Li has written such critically acclaimed books as the short-story collections “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” as well as the novel “The Vagrants.” Her fiction is set in both China and the United States.  VOA spoke to Yiyun Li in Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Why did you pursue literature rather than science? And do you write in Mandarin, English or both?

I think that decision really came abruptly because just all of sudden I found that I just really loved writing and I wanted to give it a try. So I sort of just gave up my science career to try. And it worked out well. I only write in English, I never write in Chinese. I had never written in Chinese, and so when I started writing, I used English. So English actually is my first language in writing, so there’s just that, I don’t think I can write in Chinese, because I’ve never done that.

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