It's 1979, Mao Zedong has been dead for two years, and in a grim industrial Chinese city, a young woman is executed. Arrested and branded a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution, having spent ten years behind bars, Gu Shan undergoes a humiliating public "denunciation ceremony," paraded before crowds that knit, titter, yawn, and chat. Vocal cords severed so that she can't shout, Shan is shot. Her father is billed for the bullet. This is but one glimpse of real-world hell, as agonizing as it is exquisitely rendered, in Yiyun Li's new novel The Vagrants.
Elsewhere in this eagerly anticipated work by the multi-award-winning Oakland author, a Red Guard kicks a nine-months-pregnant woman, damaging her fetus; an old woman is beaten with a nail-studded baton; trash-pickers discover the asphyxiated corpses of newborn baby girls. It's fiction, but fiction born of truth: Born in Beijing in 1972, Li grew up amid the physical, social, and emotional devastation the Cultural Revolution had wrought and was still wreaking. She remembers "a lot of executions" punctuating her childhood — and describes how, strolling the city in those days, she and her mother often paused to read posters announcing who would be executed next, and why. Li was five when she first saw a public denunciation such as Gu Shan's in The Vagrants. Her grandfather liked to call Mao "the king of hell," but he had to be careful where and when he said so. A high-school student during the Tiananmen Square protests, horrified by her parents' tearful eyewitness reports of citizens slain by their own government, Li yearned more fiercely than ever to emigrate. Arriving in the United States as a University of Iowa immunology grad student in 1996, Li watched network news and sitcoms every night to improve her English skills and "to understand America." Lonely for the boyfriend she'd left in China, she enrolled in an adult-education writing course: "I found it made me happy to write stories — so happy that I decided to switch to the writing school."
Applying to the university's prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, Li was accepted, and the rest is history: Her debut short-story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, Whiting Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. It was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize and the Orange Prize for New Writers. Wayne Wang has directed two films based on its stories. Li has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other venues — all in her second language. "I process a lot of everyday life in Chinese," explains Li, who now teaches at UC Davis and will be at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Feb. 6. "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." 7:30 p.m. MrsDalloways.com
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