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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)

The first book was "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers." Its 10 stories are populated by "natives and exiles of post-Mao, post-Tiananmen China," as The Washington Post's reviewer put it: ordinary people who are "victims of tradition and change, of old barbarities and recent upheavals." Each story, the review concluded, "feels fresh, wise and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes away."

In "Extra," an old woman has to figure out how to live after being "honorably retired" with no pension from a bankrupt garment factory. In "The Princess of Nebraska," a young Chinese immigrant is drawn to the strange American concept of "moving on." In "Immortality," a provincial Chinese town watches with reverent fascination as a young man's uncanny resemblance to Chairman Mao leads to a career as an official Mao impersonator -- a career that parallels, oddly and tragically, those of the eunuchs the town used to send to the imperial court.

Short summaries can't capture the complex poignancy of the worlds Li creates. Her style is straightforward, but McPherson thinks she's "reinvigorating the English language with rhythms and ways of speech that are found in Chinese."

More important, perhaps, writing in English has reinvigorated Li.

"Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language," a young woman says to her father in Li's title story. "It makes you a new person."

"I couldn't write in Chinese," Li says, acknowledging the autobiographical component of her character's observation. She held herself back both because she'd grown up in a family reluctant to express emotions directly and because of the oppressive political imperative to keep her lip zipped. In high school, she once ripped up something she'd written about Tiananmen Square just before she was to hand it in to her teacher. While in the army, she kept a journal but wrote only nature descriptions.

"When I wrote in Chinese, I censored myself," she says. "I feel very lucky that I've discovered a language I can use."

'Not Persuasive'

The first immigration lawyer Li consulted was recommended by scientist friends. When he found out she was a writer, she says, he told her she'd have to be "the second coming of Ernest Hemingway" for her petition to succeed.

She found another lawyer and filed for permanent residency in August 2004. She heard nothing for nine months, then USCIS asked for more information. In her original application, she had relied heavily on writers and editors she knew, many of them connected to the Writers' Workshop. The immigration bureau asked, among other things, for evidence that those outside her "circle of colleagues and acquaintances" considered her work significant.

Li and her friends scrambled to get additional testimonials to her "extraordinary ability." They came up with more than 20, among them:

Novelist and PEN American Center President Salman Rushdie, who noted "the exceedingly steep trajectory of her still-young career," reviewed Li's record of publication and prizes, pointed out that the kind of "far-reaching interest and buzz" she has generated is "extremely rare" and concluded that "Yiyun Li is the real thing."

New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who wrote that the magazine he runs is "dedicated to identifying young writers who are destined to become the leading writers of their generation," named Li as one of these and described her as possessing "a remarkable voice that we hadn't heard before and an extraordinary way of writing about characters caught in a rapidly changing society."


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