Stopping By

Stopping by with Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li is the author of eleven books, including Wednesday's ChildThe Book of Goose; Where Reasons End; Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; and Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages. Li’s honors and awards include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Windham Campbell Prize, a 2023 International Writer Award from the Royal Society of Literature, the 2021 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Benjamin H. Dank Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Jean Stein Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the Asian American Literary Award for fiction, and others. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, an independent film directed by Wayne Wang and adapted by Li from her short story, was the winner of Golden Shell for best film at the 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival.

What is your first memory of poetry?

I was three, and my maternal grandfather (who was a poet/editor/intellectual in the old, pre-communist style) taught me to memorize a Tang Dynasty poem called “Spring Morning,” by Meng Haoran, which has four lines (twenty characters). He also taught me to act out a subtle sadness (as he explained to me) to go with the last two lines: “With the sound of wind and rain at night, who knows how many flowers have fallen” (translation insufficiently done by me). At three I was hugely impressed with myself for being able to express “subtle sadness.”

What is a poem that changed or greatly influenced your life? 

“Days” by Philip Larkin. The first stanza, particularly, is something that I have been thinking about on and off for many years and nearly every day. “Days” is a poem that makes both time and space make sense to me in a way that it hadn't before I first read the poem. 

What is the last thing you read that moved you?

This is a hard question, as I spend too much time reading and it's hard to think about which thing is the last. Just a few minutes ago I was reading a Graham Greene story called “The News in English.” I was so touched by how, in less than ten pages of space, Greene has written something that might have taken another writer a whole novel to achieve. It's a WWII story, and I really loved this line in it: “We praise heroes as though they are rare, and yet we are always ready to blame another man for lack of heroism.”

What was the first concert you attended?

Real concert? Or many concerts in the old communist childhood?

What's an additional talent you secretly wish you had?

I wish that I could play piano so beautifully that I could spend hours just on the piano. (As it is now, I am just a beginner on the instrument.)

What is your morning routine?

I get up fairly early, have coffee, and then write. If I can get a few decent paragraphs, I then have breakfast. Then I keep writing, and if I can get a few more decent paragraphs, I practice piano.

What is one of your guilty pleasures?

Watching British TV series—cozy crimes mostly—has been a newly gained guilty pleasure since the pandemic started. My favorite is Midsomer Murders. 

Is there a public space you feel particularly attached to?

I always visit a cemetery when I travel to a new place; I also have my favorite cemeteries wherever I live. Lived lives seem to draw me there all the time. 

What do you want people to take away from your work?

To quote myself (from a recent essay in the New Yorker): “There is no such thing as an angry rose or a moping rose or an empowered rose; only a realistic rose, a matter-of-fact rose, a transient rose....A flower, like a thought, a sentence, a book, is but a placeholder.” I feel that may be the best I can say about my work.

Are you working on anything you can tell us about right now?

I'm afraid I have entered 2024 with a bit too much on my plate: a book-length essay (or a collection of essays), a novel, and a script; while I am so eager to work on a short story!

Author photo by Agence Opale.

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