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Yiyun Li: ‘I’m not that nice friendly Chinese lady who writes… Being subversive is important to me’ | fiction

In 2005, a new literary star emerged with a collection of short stories that immediately began to win awards. Yiyun Li was a 33-year-old science graduate of Peking University, a former maths prodigy who had emigrated from China to the US to study immunology and had taken up creative writing in an effort to improve her English. Within two years, she had been listed as one of Granta’s 21 best young American novelists, without actually having published a novel, and two of the stories from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers had been made into films by the Chinese American director Wayne Wang.

In two novels and a second short story collection published over the next decade she continued to focus on Chinese lives, observed through a long-distance telescope, but then suddenly everything changed. She began to write about herself, she embraced the first person for the first time in her fiction, and she began to range beyond China. “At the beginning,” says Li, from her home in Princeton, New Jersey, where she has a day job as a professor of creative writing, “people thought: ‘Here is a very nice Chinese lady who could write in English’ – but I’m not that kind of nice, friendly lady who can also just write a little. Being subversive is important to me. And part of being subversive is not to follow the narratives that are most convenient.”

The Book of Goose.

Her fifth novel is a case in point: The Book of Goose is a deeply strange story of a passionate friendship between two farm girls in rural France shortly after the second world war. Narrator Agnès is a good pupil neglected by her parents, who are distracted by the lingering death of her older brother from tuberculosis he brought back from a German prisoner of war camp. Fabienne, a goatherd, is a gifted storyteller but unable to write because her mother has died, so she has been taken out of school to keep house for her father and brothers. Together they start concocting stories of comic-book violence: a young mother who feeds her newborn to the pigs; a madman who has sex with a cow. The stories are picked up by a widowed postmaster who, for reasons that are not entirely honorable, passes them on to a Parisian publisher. Before long, Agnès is feted as a peasant prodigy, while Fabienne sticks stubbornly with her goats.

In lesser hands it might become a cautionary tale about the role played in child abuse by the adult exploitation of childhood fantasy, but Li is too smart and subtle a writer to allow her characters to become ciphers. She deploys tone, syntax and vocabulary to hold her reader firmly within the bounds of a 13-year-old imagination shaped by the blood, shit and repetition of farming life. Agnès thinks of herself as the whetstone to Fabienne’s knife. “Who is harder and sharper in the end?” Li giggles. “It’s shocking, right, because they are so passionate and cannot separate violence from love.”

Li, 49, admits she is only an occasional visitor to France herself, having spent her first 23 years in China and the rest in the US. She ran the novel past the Francophile writer Edmund White, a good friend, with whom she has attended a daily online book group of two since the start of the pandemic. “But, you know, I grew up with pigs running around,” she says. “And the good thing about teenage girls is that it doesn’t matter if they’re in France, or England, or China or Japan – they all have that intensity, that purity and also that sense that the entire world is made by their close connection to another girl.”

The change that brought Li to this novel was detailed in an autobiographical essay collection, published in 2017, that was deeply shocking for those who had been following her career. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life was obsessively concerned with suicide, of friends and of literary heroes. She described her life growing up on a compound for workers in the nuclear industry (her father was a nuclear physicist), where she and her sister were bullied by a “despotic and vulnerable” mother; and where she was singled out at school to solve maths equations at the front of the class, while her fellow pupils were punished for their stupidity. She described her escape into books, including her love affair, at the age of 12, with the prose poems of Ivan Turgenev. “I did not know anything about Turgenev other than that he was Russian. There were only his words, about conversing skulls, meditative mountains, friends stabbing each other in the back.”

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

She also revealed that, by the time she left school, she had made the first of three attempts to kill herself; the other two were during a breakdown she suffered in 2012 – a time when, to the outside world, she appeared to be a successful writer and a happily married mother of two young sons. A few months after the memoir was published, her elder son, Vincent, took his own life at the age of 16.

Her response was to fire out a couple of novels in quick succession. Where Reason Ends was about a grieving Chinese American writer conversing with her dead son who killed himself (“I was almost you once,” she says, “and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you”). The second, Must I Go – partially written, but abandoned, at the time of Vincent’s death – was about an American octogenarian who despises the “memoir class” and is unable to face the question of why her daughter killed herself years earlier, leaving the protagonist with the responsibility of bringing up her granddaughter.

It’s early morning in the US when we speak and Li has blocked out any opportunity to have a snoop around her room by sitting herself in front of an avenue of silver birches. It’s a photograph of the Russian woods where Tolstoy used to take his morning walks, she says. It’s tempting to think of it as another example of hiding herself in literature – as she did as a young girl – except that it’s also through literature that she has found a way to reveal herself. “One lives more feelingly in a borrowed life,” she wrote in an afterword to her memoir.

However distant The Book of Goose seems from her own life, it is full of vividly refracted sense-memories. The girls are entranced by the color and taste of oranges, which were a rarity in wartime. Li links the intensity of this experience to one she had aged nine or 10, when she saw an American student skating along the road near her home with a neon green backpack. “China just started opening the door to Westerners,” she explains. “To see a man zooming past was already like a fairytale. But the most interesting thing was the backpack, because neon green was just not a color we had in our daily life.”

For such a writerly writer, who talked of hiding herself in fiction, perhaps the biggest breakthrough was into the first person, both in fiction and in deeply personal essays, usually for the New Yorker. “You know what Edgar says in King Lear: ‘To be worst,/ The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,/ Stands still in hope, lives not in fear’,” she says. “After what happened in my life, I think there’s less fear. I used to think hiding things, or hiding myself, was a priority in life, right? I believed I could do that in fiction. But once more monumental things happened, those fears became much smaller. I don’t know if I’m less private, but I’m less prone to this running into privacy motion. Does that make sense?”

Until now, Li has always refused to allow her work to be translated into Chinese, not least to prevent her mother from reading it. “My private salvation,” she wrote in her memoir, “… is that I disowned my native language”, although later in the same essay she went on to say that the absoluteness of the abandonment, and her determination to pursue it, “was a sort of suicide”. Just recently she has retired, and her two most recent novels are in the process of being translated.

The Book of Goose is not kind to mothers: one is dead and the other is almost invisible. More tellingly perhaps – and revealed too early on to be a plot spoiler – Fabienne dies in childbirth and Agnès is looking back from a childless marriage. These two perverse, dangerous, glorious girls are their own creation and their own destiny, captured in the high noon of their lives. How does she feel about her mother reading it? “Well, the funny thing is, you know, even if my mother hasn’t changed, I have changed. My life has changed,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I don’t care about family opinions but maybe I have gained some immunity.”

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99). To support the guardian and observe order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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