Friday, January 23, 2009

Interview with Yiyun Li -- the personal and political

Yesterday I interviewed author Yiyun Li, whose new novel The Vagrants is the best literary novel I've read in a long time. Get used to me mentioning it, because it's one of those books you feel everyone who appreciates great writing should read.

One of the questions I addressed in the interview has to do with her intention in depicting the lives of people living in a provincial Chinese town in 1979, a few years after the close of the Cultural Revolution. She depicts those lives as very grim, filled with brutality and violence. Some of the details on the smaller scale strike one as particularly heartless, as when she talks about a family where the parents, disappointed after having six female children, don't even bother to give names to the youngest three, who are referred to as Little Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. Other details, about the way the government treats political prisoners, are violent in a more physical way -- for example, they stage a "denunciation ceremony" for a political prisoner, and cut her vocal cords before the rally so she can't shout any counter-revolutionary slogans in front of a crowd.

Given this cruel picture, I asked the author if she intended the book to be an indictment of Chinese society, and she answered very forcefully:
I don't have any intention for the novel to be an indictment of anything. That is a big NO. NO. NO. The situation may seem Chinese and specific to this era, but if you look at history, horrible things happen all the time. Brutality and violence happen all the time. On all scales. I can't shy away from that if I am writing a book.... My story happens to be set in China, and the characters happen to be Chinese. But if you read, say, Toni Morrison's novels, would you say she is depicting an unfairly negative picture of America?
I replied, "Certainly negative, but I would not say unfairly so." But there's more to say. Most Americans are secure enough in their views of their country that they don't object to negative, yet fair, criticism. I don't think China is yet secure enough in its reputation to feel the same way. You'll remember how sensitive they were last year to criticism of their human rights record, and how they took pains to ensure that the picture of China -- during the Olympics, at least -- was a positive one.

Regardless of her intention, I wouldn't be surprised if some people see Li's book as an indictment of Chinese society. But she went on to say:
I think that is a very narrow way of looking at literature... a very soviet, socialist view of how literature should represent certain things. I feel that as a writer the only people I feel responsible to are my characters. And I would need to treat them very fairly.
Of course, that's the right approach for any artist to take. But what strikes me is that, as far as the content of her book is concerned, she feels her first allegiance is not to either the country of her birth or her adopted one -- one she had to struggle to stay in, as I mentioned yesterday -- but to her book's characters.

I admire that very much, and I found much else to admire in the book itself, as I state in the interview.

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