Will Words Fail Her?

Despite being compared to Hemingway, Yiyun Li lost her first bid for permanent residency because an agency says she has not
Despite being compared to Hemingway, Yiyun Li lost her first bid for permanent residency because an agency says she has not "risen to the very top of the field of endeavor." (By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Five years ago, Yiyun Li had a problem: How do you persuade the literary world to take you seriously when you're a 28-year-old native Chinese speaker trying to write in English, you've published exactly nothing and your training consists of a single adult-education class?

Since then, the Beijing-born Li's career arc has been so steep it gives her peers vertigo.

She's had stories published in prestige magazines such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review. She's won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a $200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina calls -- in what qualifies as a serious understatement -- "most unusual" for a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her first book, a story collection called "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," was published this fall to wide praise.

Now she has another problem: How do you explain to the federal immigration bureaucracy what the word "extraordinary" means?

In the summer of 2004, Li petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to become a permanent resident of the United States. To approve her application for a green card, USCIS would need to agree that she was an artist of "extraordinary ability," defined in Title 8, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 204.5(h)(2) as "a level of expertise indicating that the individual is one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor."

To the upper echelons of literary publishing, Li looks like a slam-dunk to meet this definition. Not to the USCIS, however. A year after she filed it, her petition was rejected.

She has appealed. A USCIS spokesman says she is likely to get her answer in a few weeks.

"Things change a lot," as a character in one of Li's stories says. "Within a blink a mountain flattens and a river dries up. Nobody knows who he'll become tomorrow."

'A Zipper on Your Mouth'

No matter what happens with her immigration petition, the mountain has already flattened for Yiyun Li: The changes she's lived through in her 33 years are remarkable. When she talks about her childhood and how she came to leave China for the United States, some memories -- such as her sister's suggestion that she watch "Baywatch" to learn how Americans dress -- cause her to burst into infectious laughter.

Most do not.

There's this memory, for example, from when she was 5: Police with a loudspeaker tell everyone in her Beijing neighborhood to gather in a field. They lead four men, bound with ropes, onto a temporary stage. An officer announces that the men are to be executed soon, after being displayed to similar gatherings in nearby neighborhoods.

"Death to the counterrevolutionary hooligans!" the officer shouts, fist raised.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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