Yiyun Li follows a much-lauded story collection with The Vagrants, a gothic tale of corruption, murder and political paranoia in 1979 China.
You were born in Beijing. What brought you to America and to writing in English?
I was 23 when I came to the University of Iowa to study immunology in the graduate program. I was a fine researcher, but my English needed improvement, so I decided to take a writing course. I found it made me happy to write stories, so happy that I decided to switch to the writing school. This, as you might imagine, didn't make my parents happy.
How does it feel not to write in your first language?
I process a lot of everyday life in Chinese. But when I think about characters or stories, I automatically think in English. English is my language of fiction. I feel free in English. It was my language of choice, and I've never written creatively in Chinese.
What's the fascination with the aftereffects of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, the time period of the late '70s, early '80s?
I take a long time to process things. If you tell me a joke, it might take me 10 minutes to get it. So I'm just starting to process the '70s. I was a child then in Beijing, and there were a lot of executions. Every time people were being executed, they would parade them through the neighborhoods. I remember going to see a denunciation when I was five. And I remember I would walk around the neighborhood with my mother, and we would read all the announcements about who was being executed.
That experience is echoed in the novel.
I grew up in a culture like in the novel. We read about heroes sacrificing their lives for the revolution; sacrifice was always emphasized. When I was a girl, I saw a movie in which this woman had to allow her child to be tortured to death for the revolution. I cried, and then I was ashamed until my mother said it was all right to cry for the child. I was ashamed because the child was a hero for the revolution, and I should have been glad. You see, you don't question heroism until you are older. So for me, this novel is a way of questioning heroism.
Especially since the hero is a pedophile.
Sweet, terrible Bashi. You know, I never thought of him as a pedophile until I was almost through with the book, and one of my readers mentioned it. I was horrified! But at least he and Nini are in love, and they stay true to each other. This is a love story.