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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)

"It was like a celebration," Li says now, on the phone from her office at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where she recently accepted a tenure-track teaching job. "I was in a celebrating mood, too." Back then, she didn't know any better.

She learned. She watched her mother close the windows before speaking of certain things. She saw her horrified looks when Li's grandfather, who had been known to call Mao Zedong "the king of Hell," mouthed off about the Communist Party. She absorbed repeated warnings "never to say anything to anyone outside the house."

Li was born in 1972, the year President Richard Nixon shocked the world with his tete-a-tete with Chairman Mao. She came of age just as China was laying the groundwork for its economic boom. She remembers her physicist father traveling abroad and coming home with descriptions of the beauty of Paris -- and, just as important, permission to import the family's first refrigerator. She recalls thinking: "I hope my life won't be like this forever."

She also remembers Tiananmen Square.

In the spring of 1989, as student-led protests began to build in Beijing, Li was in high school, a 15-minute bike ride from the square. Her parents were pessimistic from the beginning -- "They said the government would shoot at people" -- but Li was more hopeful. She found herself particularly moved by a group of middle-aged men she recalls standing quietly by the side of the road. Their sign read: "We have knelt down all our lives. This is our opportunity to stand up as human beings."

On the night the army crushed the protests, Li's parents locked her in her room. Her mother ventured out and came back crying, saying she'd seen the body of an 8-year-old boy. The next morning, her father reported seeing piles of bodies in a hospital bicycle garage. A good friend was picked up for questioning.

"It was like 9/11," she says. "Everybody knew somebody" who'd been in the square that night.

Everybody in Beijing, perhaps. But Chinese television started saying right away that no one had been killed, and many outside the capital believed this.

Two years later, Li found herself in the army. Fearing a repeat of the democracy movement, the government had required all students entering Peking University to go through a year of political reeducation first.

"Imagine a zipper on your mouth," her mother told her as her army year began. "Zip it up tight." But as Li wrote last year in the British magazine Prospect, she couldn't control her anger. One day she found herself telling her squad mates about the massacre.

"Was it true people got killed?" a young woman asked.

"Don't spread rumors," her squad leader said.

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