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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)

After her outburst, Li became terrified of reprisals. She was lucky. The squad leader reported her, but the officer who got the report chose not to pass it on.

'I Couldn't Write in Chinese'

Out of the army, studying biology, Li focused on one goal: to get into an American graduate school. She got into four and chose the University of Iowa, in part because she could do immunology there.

Li had a boyfriend in China, to whom she is now married, but for the time being he stayed behind. Lonely, she signed up for an adult-education writing class, the kind mainly populated by middle-aged women at loose ends. The teacher singled her out for encouragement. For years that remained her only contact with other writers.

"I wrote by myself," she says.

In the fall of 2000, about to turn 28 and closing in on her immunology PhD, she started to panic -- because she'd realized that she really wanted to be a writer. She talked to her adviser and arranged to leave the program with a master's degree. The next summer, she signed up for a class taught by short-story virtuoso James Alan McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

McPherson's Southern accent flummoxed her -- "I couldn't understand most of what he said" -- but one particular point he made got through. In the Western world, and especially in America, he told the class, the focus is so much on the individual that "we have lost the community voice." But that voice is still present in writing from countries such as China and Japan.

Something clicked. Before long, Li was showing McPherson a story called "Immortality." Written from the point of view of an entire town, using the first person plural, its first sentence reads: "This story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born."

McPherson thought it was wonderful. "It's what a teacher lives for," he says.

Li says she was still so timid that "it blew my mind that a great writer -- a great human being -- even noticed me."

She and her writing, however, soon were getting noticed more and more.

Admitted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop -- widely viewed as the best graduate writing program in the country -- she wound up earning two additional master's degrees, one in fiction and one in creative nonfiction. Long before she finished them, she sold "Immortality" to the Paris Review. She sold another story to the New Yorker. Random House's Medina came to speak at Iowa in November 2003, and at some point was given both stories to read. She thinks she read "Immortality" on the flight back to New York.

"I remember just starting to shake, it was so good," Medina says. "I've been an editor for 150 years, and I don't jump off planes and buy books based on one story" -- but that's essentially what she did, signing Li to her two-book deal in a matter of weeks.

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