Editor’s Note: This week’s “Five Questions” is with author and UC Davis English professor Yiyun Li, whose first novel The Vagrants was released in February.
1. What series of events (past and/or present) inspired you to write The Vagrants?
The novel was loosely based on two executions – both young women executed for political reasons – in late 1978 or early 1979 in a provincial city in China. After the first execution, the community began a protest on the executed woman’s behalf, which led to the second execution of one of the organizers of the protest.
2. How (if at all) have you weaved your personal experiences into the novel?
I don’t think I am an autobiographical author – my fiction reflects very little of my personal experience. However, I would quote my literary hero William Trevor on this: “All fiction has its autobiographical roots in the sense that as a person you are your characters‘ litmus paper, their single link to reality. They taste what you taste, they hear what you hear. The blue they see is your blue, the pain they experience is your pain, their physical pleasure is what you know yourself. And the workings of memory you cull from yourself too.” I don’t think I can say it better than Mr. Trevor, but if I try, I would say this: I think it is true that when I write, my memories (and memories of other people I know) become the characters‘ memories, but I am not any one of those characters, nor are any of the real people in my life from whom I have borrowed memories.
3. What are some of the most important political and social issues that occurred during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and how do you think they have transcended through time?
This is a very big question and I don’t think I can answer it without doing a huge amount of research and then writing a long paper. But one topic that fascinates me as a writer, which I think not only applies to Cultural Revolution or China but to many countries in many historical periods, is “bystanders‘ sin,” which I borrowed from Samantha Power and her marvelous book on genocides (A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide).
In other words, I am interested in how people who are on the edge of a society or a community contribute, in the end, as much to history as those who are at the center of actions.
4. Can you briefly describe your creative writing process?
I look for interesting and fascinating situations from life (from newspapers, or stories people tell me, or lines I pick up by eavesdropping). Once I decide on a situation, I would make up characters and put them into those situations, and let them live a little, follow them around a little and then write their stories.
5. Autobots or Decepticons?
The fact that I had to Google both of these terms means that I have no idea which one to choose!
– Simone Wahng