Yiyun Li to discuss the book and talk a little about her writing process. Here are a few of the highlights from our interview, which is featured in the current issue of Fourteen Hills:
14H: In your short stories and in The Vagrants, parents of girls born with physical or mental handicaps, like the parents of Beibei and Nini, often wish aloud that their children were dead or had never been born. Here, wishing away children is certainly taboo. Do you take such cultural disparities into account when you are writing?
YL: Well, I think people here, probably some of them, do wish. It’s just that they don’t speak. And I think it’s more of a cultural thing, where at that time people would make those comments, but they were only meant half-heartedly. A mother would say to a child, “I wish I’d never given birth to you. You are such a trouble.” But it didn’t mean she hated her child so much. Although I think Nini’s parents did wish, in a moment, that they didn’t have her.
But I was just reading Lydia Davis, her latest book, and there was one part about a teenage boy and a teenage girl who had a baby together. The baby was prematurely born, and the grandparents, especially the boy’s mother, wished that the baby would die in the ICU. It would be so much better for everybody. Those are the kinds of things people don’t talk about in their everyday lives. Those are the things I think writers should push to know. People do have those moments of doubt. It’s important to portray. Deep inside, it’s within human nature. I don’t think we should run away from those things.
14H: The fate of girls and women in Communist China plays an important role in your work. Your female characters are martyrs, caretakers, mother heroes, and orphans, yet you often choose not to portray your female characters sympathetically. Most of the time, you do the opposite. Why?
YL: That is a very interesting observation. And I don’t mean I hate women, and of course I can’t hate women because I’m one of them. But I do think, consistently, that communism turned Chinese women into less feminine, less loving, less gentle creatures, and I’ll always believe that. Because I’ve grown up with all these women. My mother, aunties, all these people. I feel that some traditional, beautiful things they didn’t keep.
14H: A New York Times book reviewer suggested your novel was comprised of a series of horror stories, and indeed, no thread leaves your reader without a palpable sense of despair. Has your work achieved a desired effect, leaving us feeling haunted?
YL: I think that feeling haunted is one thing, and despair is another. I notice that people always talk about the horrors. I think there is a lot of humor as well, but not all the reviewers talk about those moments. To me, they are a very important part of the work, and they were very important for me to write. Because otherwise, I would have just been writing a dark, dark novel without any hope. There are actually some very funny moments. I was laughing, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Some of the reviewers picked up on the lightness. I’d say about one-sixth of reviewers picked that up, and I was very happy for them.
You can read the full interview in the most recent issue of our literary magazine, plus many wonderful stories and poems. The journal is available through Small Press Distribution, and look for it in a bookstore near you.
-Amy Glasenapp, Fourteen Hills fiction editor