UC Davis English professor Yiyun Li is the first woman to win the annual Sunday Times EFG short story prize.
The contest, which awards 30,000 pounds (nearly $46,000) to the winner, is considered the highest monetary prize for a short story and receives entries worldwide. Former winners of this contest include past Pulitzer Prize and Man Booker Prize winners.
Li, who teaches both undergraduate and graduate workshops in Creative Writing as well as a lecture course titled “The Short Story” at UC Davis, said that her agent entered her story in the contest. The judges then selected her as one of six finalists, all of whom were invited to a dinner in London where she was announced as the winner.
The story details the experience of a Chinese-American named Auntie Mei, who works as a live-in nanny for newborn babies. Auntie Mei, who only stays until the baby is one month old before moving on to help a new family, keeps a record in her notebook of all of the babies she has taken care of during her eleven years of work.
Li said she originally got the idea for the story from a notebook she bought at a garage sale.
“I was looking at a little notebook I bought when I first came to America,” Li said. “It was a little tiny notebook that was five cents at a garage sale. I bought it and I didn’t use it. When I was looking at the notebook I [had the idea].”
Li said that she did not write the story in a brief period of time.
“It was interesting because I wrote the beginning a couple of years ago and I read it at a faculty reading for the English department and I [then] put it aside,” Li said. “I didn’t work on it [again] until much later.”
Naomi Williams, a former student of Li, said that she considers Li a role model in the field of short story writing.
“I’m so thrilled for Yiyun that she got this award,” Williams said. “The story for which she won it — I read it when it first came out in The New Yorker and then again more recently, and it’s one of those stories that’s so rich you can dip into it again and again and it feels fresh. She writes about the experience of solitude and solitariness with this often unsettling and always unblinking clarity — I can think of few other writers who compare.”
According to Elise Winn, another former student of Li, Li’s talent in short story writing translates to her teaching.
“She encouraged us to study our characters closely and to wonder what secrets they might be keeping or what memories they’ve got tucked in their hearts — in other words, to think of them as human, because they are,” Winn said.
Elizabeth Miller, chair of the English department, added that Li is greatly deserving of the prize.
“Simply put, she is a phenomenal writer and a master of the short story form,” Miller said. “It requires tremendous economy for a writer to make a strong impact on the reader when working within the confines of a limited number of pages, and this is the skill, above all, that a short story prize is meant to honor.”
Graphic by Jennifer Wu.