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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)

Novelist Elinor Lipman, who unknowingly touched on the skeptical lawyer's criterion for success. Lipman wrote that, although she had never met Li, "reading her rsum is like getting a glimpse of an early F. Scott Fitzgerald or a young Hemingway." She also wrote that, for a fiction writer, the New Yorker was "the pinnacle, a no-man's land, and, for 99.9 percent of the world's writers, only a dream."

None of this helped.

Li's submission, according to the decision from USCIS's Nebraska Service Center, was "not persuasive" that she had "risen to the very top of the field of endeavor." The decision also denied that "any specific works by the petitioner are particularly renowned as significant contemporary writing."

The problem, Li's supporters think, may be a failure to understand the intensely competitive world of literary publishing.

"Yiyun Li is a huge success in literary fiction," Medina says. "But how does that read," she wonders, to someone unfamiliar with the context for her accomplishments?

Asked about this, USCIS senior public affairs officer Christopher Bentley said it would be "premature for us as an organization" to comment on Li's case now. "Everything is working exactly the way it should," Bentley said. "A decision was made, the decision was disagreed with, the customer took advantage of her right to appeal that decision."

In late September, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, which carries a prize of 50,000 euros. The award came too late to be included in Li's appeal.

Li doesn't know what she'll do if the appeal is denied. She has a temporary visa that will permit her to keep working in the United States for several more years, after which she might try again for permanent residency status.

If she can't be an American, it is not clear who she will become.


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