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Among the twenty-three people who received MacArthur Fellowships last month was Yiyun Li, a fiction writer based at the University of California, Davis. Born and raised in Beijing before coming to the United States for graduate work (first in immunology, later in creative writing), Li is one member of a growing community of Chinese authors now writing in English. We asked Xujun Eberlein, also part of that group, to reflect on Li’s writing.

By Xujun Eberlein

I first encountered Yiyun Li’s work in the fall of 2003, in the form of “Immortality,” a longish short story published in The Paris Review that was the first piece of writing by her to make a splash in the literary world. It is about the ups and downs of a Chinese man who is born with a face resembling Mao’s. He makes good use of his unusual feature and enjoys a fortunate life when others are suffering during the Cultural Revolution, but becomes a loser in the post-Mao era. Coming from an area that produced many eunuchs for the imperial court, the man castrates himself in the end.

In that story, Li’s English could well be mistaken for a native speaker’s, with only the Chinese content belying that perception. I was impressed by her language, but not the content. The narrative is loaded with knowledge common to Chinese that might be unfamiliar to Americans, and the Chinese clichés overwhelm the story the author is trying to tell. To me, it gave the impression that the story, loud as could be, was relying mainly on foreign oddities — not to mention a gimmicky ending — to appeal to American readers. While there’s nothing wrong with an immigrant writer taking advantage of the information discrepancy between two countries (I do the same), a good literary work must offer insights into the human condition regardless of the reader’s familiarity with cultural backstories. But “Immortality” says nothing new to a Chinese immigrant like me. In all fairness, it is not a bad story, but hardly a great one to my Chinese eye. The writing, though fluent, lacked the natural and unrestrained strokes displayed by some other immigrant writers I was reading at the time, such as the Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Nonetheless, “Immortality” showed promise and it went on to win Li the Plimpton Prize for New Writers, the first in a long string of top literary prizes lining up to crown her works.

Shortly after that, another story of Li’s, “Extra,” appeared in The New Yorker. Its main character, a widowed Chinese woman in her 50s, falls in (sexual) love with a six-year-old boy in the nursery where she works. At first I was glad to see that, unlike the previous story, this one wasn’t overloaded with common Chinese knowledge. However a doubt soon arose in my mind: could the author write without relying so much on gimmicky oddities? Toward the end of “Extra,” the protagonist, fired by the nursery, puts all her money (about 3000 Yuan) in a lunch pail, which she holds in her hand. On her way out of the nursery, she is robbed by a man who grabs her duffel bag and runs away. Shocked to have been mugged yet relieved to still have her small fortune, she “sits on the street and hugs the lunch pail to herself.” Next, this line caught my eye:

“Hungry as people are, it is strange that nobody ever thinks of robbing an old woman of her lunch.”

What a sharp observation! Now that is an insight into human nature. The line sheds a whole new light on the story; it made me thump the table. This writer is up to something, I thought.

During the next a few years I read more of Li’s short stories and personal essays here and there, in magazines and newspapers. While I shook my head at some of her essays, I nodded more often with her fiction. Increasingly in her stories, the role of foreignness (or the use of Chinese information) moved from serving as the main attraction to being an unobtrusive prop, helping mold the characters who, like Li’s language, began to display a subtle complexity. The early loudness in Li’s narration was also fading into dispassionate observation.

One of my favorite pieces of hers is a story titled “The Proprietress,” which was published in a 2005 issue of Zoetrope: All-Story. The protagonist is a private businesswoman in her late sixties who lives next to a county jail and collects hapless wives and children of prisoners into her own house. The contradiction in the character’s personality, the co-existence of kindness and self-righteousness, the simultaneous desires to help and to control, is at the same time unbelievable and true. I was once again impressed by the author’s discerning eye in observing human nature; whether the character is Chinese or not no longer mattered.

As much as I was impressed by Yiyun Li’s writing, however, some public behavior of hers made me wary. The Chinese say, “The writing is like the writer.” I had always believed the wisdom of that saying while in China, but it seemed less true about many writers here (or perhaps just now).

From December 2005 to spring 2006, major papers — the Washington Post, the New York Times, and others — made a big deal of the fact that Yiyun Li’s petition for permanent residency in the United States on the grounds of “extraordinary ability in the arts” had been denied by the Immigration Services, even though Li had requested many big-name authors to provide testimonials to her “extraordinary ability.” Li turned to the press and more writers for further support.

The fuss in the media struck me as over the top. Numerous Chinese students have successfully gone through the normal immigration process after graduation: first find a job, then obtain a green card through that employer. Li certainly had no trouble getting a teaching job. I didn’t know what made her so keen to get the special visa instead of going through the normal process — I’m sure she had her reasons. After all, she has talked more than once about her longing for America since childhood. But to take the matter to the press and — as a writer friend put it — make it sound like she was a victim? And to publicly involve many other writers who hardly knew her? The seeming egoism of the whole matter certainly contradicted Li’s description of herself as an “always shy and private” person. Was gaining too much of a name at a young age going to have a negative impact on Li’s writing as well?

But Li proved to be exceptional as a writer. It seems that her curiosity about human nature, more than anything else, plays a dominant role in the evolution of her writing. I once read an interview with her in the Michigan Quarterly Review, as part of a special issue on China where my own personal essay “On Becoming an American” also appears. When answering a question about her literary influences, Li speaks of William Trevor:

“He doesn’t carry a message in his writing, he’s an observer, and I like that because I know so many writers who are not observers but who have an agenda. He doesn’t have an agenda, he’s just very curious about human beings. I share that curiosity and I share his interest in the mysteries of human nature.”

This deeply resonates with me as a fiction writer: writing without an agenda other than an interest in human nature. I suspect it is William Trevor’s influence that has made Li’s transition from her early ethnic-driven fiction to a more universal exploration of human nature.

Li’s writing is getting more mature in recent years and she goes ever deeper into her characters’ insides, even though some of them no longer sound Chinese to me. That is much less a problem, I think, than a story holding true ethnically but lacking inspiration and universal resonance. A story of Li’s published in a 2008 issue of the New Yorker, for example, portrays a gay man who has lived in the US for two decades before returning to Beijing for good and obeying his widowed mother’s wish for him to marry a female student of hers. Knowing the much less favorable social conditions for homosexuals in China, this character’s behavior does not ring true to me. Nonetheless, the different — yet somehow shared — loneliness of the three characters in the story is rendered in such intimate detail and emotional depth, and in such markedly dispassionate language, that I was practically swallowed by their moods. The characters, though Chinese, seem to have transcended their ethnicity. In comparison, Ha Jin, another heavyweight Chinese immigrant author who writes in English, has repeatedly claimed that loneliness is the biggest burden of an immigrant, yet that remains a claim he has never made me feel intimately in his characters.

Coincidentally, Li’s early literary talent was first celebrated by The Paris Review, the same magazine that first published Ha Jin. Unfortunately, after Ha Jin went on to win the 1999 National Book Award for his excellent novel Waiting, his later works such as The Crazed and A Free Life have disappointed. I don’t know if the fame of a top literary award played a role in this deterioration, but I’m happy to see that Yiyun Li seems to be on a different path. I look forward to reading her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China. Her reviews of China-themed books can be found in Foreign Policy, Women’s Review of Books, The China Beat, and elsewhere.

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Deanna Fei is author of A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, 2010), a novel about three generations of women in a Chinese American family. Here, she talks with recent UC Irvine graduate Mengfei Chen.

Mengfei Chen: What were some of your inspirations in writing the book? How did it begin? What experiences informed your writing?

Deanna Fei: A Thread of Sky is the story of a family of Chinese American women who reunite for a tour of their ancestral home. It was inspired by a trip through China’s “must-sees” that I embarked on ten years ago with my mother, my sisters, my aunt and my grandmother — six strong-willed, complicated women herded together for two weeks on a package tour. I was struck by the dramatic possibilities of this set-up, as well as the questions it raised about home and identity, culture and authenticity, travel and migration, history and memory. The tour took place at the end of a year I’d spent studying Chinese at Beijing Normal University. I’d thought I was ready to move on to the next stage of my life: teaching in New York, studying creative writing. But a few years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that tour. I started scribbling notes, and the characters began taking on lives of their own, completely apart from their real-life counterparts, and soon I was writing a novel.

I knew that in order to write about my characters’ travels through China with the necessary depth and immediacy, I needed to return. This time, I went back on a Fulbright Grant, intending to stay for another year, researching contemporary Chinese history and soaking up modern life in Shanghai while making periodic trips to the cities on my characters’ itinerary. I became so immersed in my research and writing that my stay eventually stretched to three years, during which my understanding of China continually evolved — and I expect it always will.

MC: One of the major themes in the novel is feminism in Chinese history. Why did you want to write about this topic? How did you do your research (sources, etc)? Did you learn anything surprising?

DF: Though they might not call themselves feminists, all six women in the novel are fiercely independent and have strived to make a difference in the world around them. Until this tour take shape, the American-born daughters of this family have always thought of these traits as being tied to their Westernization, but now they begin to trace it back to their grandmother and the story of feminism in China.
Their grandmother was once a leader of the Chinese feminist movement who garnered comparisons to such historical heroines as Hua Mulan and Qiu Jin. In my research, I read accounts of their lives as well as contemporary portraits of female leaders such as those in Wang Zheng’s Women in the Chinese Enlightenment and Xie Bingying’s A Woman Soldier’s Own Story.

What fascinated me was how an entire movement, a brand of feminism that many argue started earlier and spread wider than its American counterpart, had become obscured in history. In China, the conventional narrative is that feminism began with Communist liberation, when in fact a generation of activists had made huge inroads back in the 20s. Meanwhile, Westerners tend to see themselves as the standard-bearers of progress, particularly in terms of women’s rights. I wanted to explore the life story of a woman whose contributions to modern China had been erased, even as she still carries the cause in her bones.

MC: How does history, personal and cultural, playing a role in the lives of your characters?

DF: In various ways, my characters have seen themselves as somewhat untethered to history, whether by dint of being exiles, immigrants, or American-born. Yet they are all haunted by it, in the form of war wounds, family secrets, genetics or simply sensing its shadow. In China, history just is; an ordinary person doesn’t have to study it or return to it in order to feel it. But for the family in my novel, it’s only when they embark on this tour that they begin to comprehend how their lives play out against the intersections of political and family history, Chinese and American history, that have shaped their present.

MC: Much of A Thread of Sky is set in China, yet it’s also about Chinese Americans. What are some of the issues that you consider to be important for Chinese Americans of your generation?

DF: Whereas previous generations tended either to seek acceptance as assimilated Americans or to hold onto their Chinese identity as primary, I think my generation is eager to build a culture of our own. We’re truly Chinese American — not just Chinese or just American — and we don’t feel limited by the category. We might identify more broadly as Asian Americans, Americans of color, transnational Chinese or all of the above. Whatever the case, we seek to gain a lot more representation in “American” arts, politics, media and more.

MC: There is a growing appetite for writing on China. Is there anything that you think fiction about China offers readers that non-fiction or academic writing does not?

DF: That’s an excellent question. I’ve relied on plenty of wonderful nonfiction and academic writing to deepen my own understanding of China, but fiction definitely has its place. China often tempts Westerners to make sweeping, oversimplified statements — for instance, Chinese culture is repressive, or materialistic or all about saving face. Sometimes this happens precisely because China is a place of such vastness and complexity that it’s easier to make such statements than to convey true understanding; sometimes it’s plain ignorance. Either way, when you combine this impulse with the fact that nonfiction and academic writing are often aimed at arriving at a definitive answer, at some inarguable conclusion, there’s considerable potential for misunderstanding.

Fiction, by contrast, is aimed at exploration, not explanation. It’s the province of nuance and contradiction. A good novel gives a sense of expansion, of a broadening and deepening view, but it also acknowledges that some things remain beyond our grasp. In this way, fiction can sometimes offer readers a truer perspective of China than other forms of writing.

That, at least, is my hope.

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Earlier this year, we ran two excerpts from Jonathan Tel’s (then forthcoming) collection of short stories, The Beijing of Possibilities (the excerpts were “Year of the Gorilla” and “Though the Candles Flicker Red“). Author (and occasional China Beat contributor) Xujun Eberlein recently reviewed the collection at her blog, Inside-Out China, and has allowed us to repost her review in full below.

By Xujun Eberlein

Chinese stories can be exotic to foreigners, while a foreigner telling stories about China can be exotic to the natives of the land as well. In recent years, there has been no shortage of nonfiction books set in Beijing written by expats, but fiction in the same category remains sparse. Jonathan Tel’s new story collection, The Beijing of Possibilities, stands out as a notable exception, its twelve stories displaying a gripping juxtaposition of realism and allegory.

The Beijing of PossibilitiesTel’s prose treats serious themes in a romantic, humorous, at times mystical way. He is evidently very familiar with Beijing’s settings, geographically and culturally, having lived in the capital city as early as 1988. The stories, set in places and with characters the author has clearly experienced or observed, present Beijing’s distinctness in an enjoyable combination of realistic detail and imaginative musing. Often a story starts by building up a picture of a very real situation, only to surprise the reader by the sudden twist to parable. Or vice versa.

One familiar with Chinese literature might see traces of influence from the classical novel Journey to the West, a hybrid between a fictionalized historical event (a Tang Dynasty Buddhist’s journey to India to fetch the holy scriptures) and the myth of Monkey King (who helped the monk completing the perilous journey). Tel’s opening story, “Year of the Gorilla,” features an unnamed migrant worker in a Monkey King suit. But that is hardly the only connection.

Among the so-called “four greatest Chinese classics” – A Dream of Red MansionsThree Kingdoms, and Outlaws of the Marsh being the other three – only Journey to the West is a fantasy with a happy ending. In Chinese literature typically filled with great tragic stories, that is a rare presence. In world literature, though written some 350 years earlier, Journey to the West belongs to The Lord of the Rings category. It seems that its fantastic nature makes Journey to the West more easily resonate with Westerners than the other Chinese classics.

It may not be a mere coincidence that The Beijing of Possibilities opens with the line “It’s been a while since the Monkey King set out on his Journey to the West.” In more than one way, many of Tel’s stories apparently continue the literary tradition of Journey to the West, bringing the reader into a fictional dream where reality, parable and fantasy can hardly be told apart.

One of my favorites is “The Three Lives of Little Yu,” which tells the story about a childless country couple’s life-long attempts at adopting a daughter. Each time they name the girl “Little Yu,” and each Little Yu is “as delightful and talented as the previous versions,” but each dies unexpectedly young, until time turns to the mid 1980s. At last, to the reader’s relief and fascination, the third Little Yu grows up, her “health couldn’t have been better,” and she has memory of her previous lives:

She remembers her first childhood: the precious spoonfuls of sorghum gruel and how in her hunger she chewed bark off the trees. She remembers the coughing, the ache in her chest, the fever and the fading away of her body. She remembers her second childhood too: the entire school dancing the Loyalty Dance – left hand up, right hand out, “Loyal loyal loyal / to Chairman Mao! / Boundless boundless boundless / Forever forever forever!” – while the commune secretary kept time, taping a spoon on the desk.”

Thus, in a clever, parable-like structure, the story reflects a three-decade history realistically.

Another amusing story is “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch.” It starts as a time-travel sort of tale, about a relationship across four centuries, between a Ming Dynasty princess and a modern-day young man who works at an advertising agency in Beijing. The cross-century communication between the two is certainly entertaining, but it is the turn at the end that is the drollest yet totally realistic: their dialogue that has been exuding tenderness and love unexpectedly turns into a text message war. Both characters’ personalities change, a common phenomenon we can’t be more familiar with on today’s internet.

Tel’s stories are full of contrasts. The past and the present are comingled in the romance across time. The city and countryside are blended when the two farmers arrive in Beijing to collect baby Yu on the words of a soothsayer. Right and wrong are confused when the man dressed as a monkey is punished for his good deeds. Adventure and duty are probed when a boy tries to collect a cotton-candy machine for his grandfather. The underlying theme in all of this, not surprisingly, is that Beijing offers opportunities both real and imagined for those who come. That the opportunities are fraught with peril, and that the people taking them are both good and bad is as it should be.

Americans are said to be an optimistic people. The Chinese are accustomed to millennia of calamities. Perhaps the biggest contrast between Chinese and American authored stories is pessimism versus optimism. From China’s classical literature to its contemporary counterpart, it is rare that a novel or story has a happy ending. In contrast, none of the stories in The Beijing of Possibilities ends tragically. For those readers who have had their fill of Chinese “scar fiction,” this book should be a pleasant change. On the other hand, while the descriptive details about the Chinese lives usually ring true, the musings and imaginative reality that occupy the stories seem more akin to Western perceptions of China than to the way Chinese people think. A reader should not expect to gain significant insights into Chinese thinking, but he or she will certainly get a good glance at the Beijing life through an observant expat’s eye.