For the Chinese-born American writer Yiyun Li, fiction can be a way to retrieve memory, to escape circumstance, or to reclaim one’s consciousness from the influence of others. Her books, which include five acclaimed novels, two short story collections, and two books of nonfiction, are richly observed, and deeply felt. Her new book, Wednesday’s Child, is a collection of short stories. Kirkus calls it “Quiet, beautiful accounts of journeys through hell.”
Her most recent novel, The Book of Goose, won the 2023 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It tells of two girls raised in the French countryside following WWII. In its starred review, BookPage wrote, “Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls . . . an elegant and disturbing novel about exploitation and acquiescence, notoriety and obscurity, and whether you choose your life or are chosen by it. The New York Times Book Reviews noted: “Li [is] one of our finest living authors: Her elegant metaphysics never elide the blood and maggots.” The Book of Goose was named a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Financial Times, San Francisco Chronicle, TIME, Slate, NPR, Kirkus, Buzzfeed, and others.
Li’s earlier novels have been similarly praised. Gish Jen described Must I Go as “… wisdom literature for our time.” Where Reasons End, winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Award, was also named one of the ten best fiction books of the year by The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, and The Paris Review. Andrew Sean Greer called it, “The most intelligent, insightful, heart-wrenching book of our time.” Li’s earlier novels include Kinder Than Solitude, and The Vagrants. In his New York Times review of The Vagrants, Pico Iyer characterized it as an instance of "American stories that are World stories". Li is currently working on a trilogy, set in late 18th and early 19th century, spanning several continents.
Li came to the United States to study immunology at the University of Iowa, but found herself drawn to the school’s prestigious Writers' Workshop. It was there that she began to write in English. Her first book, a collection of short stories titled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers won several awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award and Guardian First Book Award. One story, "Immortality", was the winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for new writers. Two of its other stories were adapted into films directed by Wayne Wang, The Princess of Nebraska, and the title story. The latter was the winner of Golden Shell for best film at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
LI’s second book of stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, gave readers exquisite stories in which politics and folklore illuminate the human condition. Francine Prose called it “… an example of the treasure an artist can fashion from the raw materials of ordinary existence.” Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House, Granta, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere.
Why write and why live are questions at the heart of her memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, a book of essays described as a journey of recovery through literature, and a letter from a writer to like-minded readers. Marilynne Robinson called it, “A meditation on the fact that literature itself lives and gives life.”
Li grew up under Communist austerity, where she had a fierce appetite for stories and never felt there was enough to read – despite absorbing the works of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and other Russian writers. Since moving to the United States, she has developed close bonds with the books of other English-language writers, from William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield to Rebecca West and Ernest Hemingway.
Li is the primary contributor to Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace, a collective conversation with readers from around the world. The Boston Globe called it “An arrestingly lucid, intellectually vital series of contemplations on art, identity, and depression.”
Li is the recipient of 2021 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Whiting Award, MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Award, and most recently, Princeton University's Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Li is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary journal, A Public Space. She has taught fiction at Mills College and the University of California, Davis, and since 2017, is Professor of Creative Writing at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where she directs the Creative Writing Program.
Photo Denise J. Applewhite/Princeton University