The Books Interview: Yiyun Li

Your mother tongue is Chinese, but you write in English. Why is that?
I've never written in Chinese and I don't write in Chinese now. I was going to become a scientist, so the possibility of writing fiction in Chinese
just never occurred to me. When I first started writing, it was in English - so, very naturally, English became my first language in writing.

Your debut novel, The Vagrants (2009), explores the brutality of the Cultural Revolution. Are your books banned in China?
I don't think they are banned. It's interesting to be in America and to see all these Chinese writers saying their books are banned. To me, that's ridiculous. Calling your book banned in China will make the book appealing to some [readers] in the west. But actually a lot of books are banned - Harry Potter was banned, too, in certain places.

The Vagrants begins with the execution of a young female "counter-revolutionary". Was this episode inspired by real life?
[As a child] I didn't actually see an execution, but I did witness the denouncing ceremony beforehand. People would gather together to catch the last moments of the criminal before the execution. They were always very festive. I don't think guilt was something that would enter into people's emotions at those moments.

When you were growing up, your grandfather called Mao Zedong the "king of hell". Was that dangerous for the family?
In retrospect, I think it was a little risky to have him around. But as a child I didn't understand that; I just admired his outspokenness. There was nothing really unusual about him - he was just not as cautious as many. That stayed with me.

Did he influence your writing?
Temperament-wise, I am very far from him - the way I write is the opposite to how he talked. He was loud and straightforward, which is certainly not the way my writing is. But he would tell stories: folk tales, or stories he had read in books, or news stories. He didn't differentiate his storytelling, he just told anything that interested him to entertain himself. He did not censor himself in any way.

You were in high school in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened. Can you remember anything about that day?
My parents locked me in my bedroom at home, so I did not see or hear anything. It was obvious what was going to happen, so they were just protecting us. My mother went into the street and saw lots of people running around.

How things were reviewed was what was interesting for me. Everybody was relying on somebody else for information and news. People would say, "That person got shot, and this person died," and you wouldn't be able to see that on the official news.

Were you surprised that there were no reports of the massacre in the Chinese media?
Nobody - not even teenagers - accepted that willingly, but you just had to make do.

Why did you compare Tiananmen to the 11 September 2001 attacks?
What I meant is that everybody has a story about it. Like 9/11, it was a historical event - and if something really important happens in history, everyone has a version.

Your new book - Gold Boy, Emerald Girl - is a collection of short stories. You clearly think the short form is still commercially viable.
The publishing world would argue that short stories are less important than novels, or don't sell as well. I don't ever participate in that conversation, because I love writing stories, I love reading stories, and I know that other people do, too. That conversation is driven by profit, not by the pursuit of art.

And the characters in the stories are all ordinary, flawed people.

Heroism is not interesting to me. It's just a simplified way of looking at life, which is not what fiction is about.

People often ask me why I write sad stories, and why I don't write about happy people. Those things just don't concern me. As a writer, you strip surfaces away and explore what is the real story, what [characters] are really feeling, who they really are. I want to cut open the situation and cut open the characters and see through them.

Yiyun Li's "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99)