Arts Brief: A literary dream

BY DI ARTS STAFF | MARCH 3, 2009 7:20 AM

Yiyun Li is living the dream, as far as most writers are concerned. After publishing only one collection of short stories, 2005’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, she signed a two-book deal with Random House for $200,000. Even after the completion of her first novel, The Vagrants, Li still can’t quite believe her luck.

“I was extremely fortunate,” she said. “[The book deal] wasn’t something I was looking or hoping for. There are things in life you go out and seek, but others you just have to let happen to you.”

Li will read from The Vagrants at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free. The novel, based on real events and set in the ’70s, centers on the execution of a young woman in a small Chinese town and the ensuing effect on the townspeople.

Li has three master’s degrees from the UI, including M.F.A.s from both the fiction and nonfiction workshops. However, when she first came to graduate school at the UI, it was to pursue a doctorate in immunology. But once Li got a sense of the town’s literary culture, full of “good readers” and “fond memories” for her, she dropped out of the doctorate program to begin her career in writing.

“In a way, Iowa City really changed my life,” she said. “If I hadn’t been in Iowa City, I would not have changed my career.”

Although she was born in Beijing, she writes entirely in English and considers it to be her “working language.” Still, her home country plays a large part when it comes to her writing. She said she often draws on the culture and philosophy of China as “a way to look at the world.”

Li is at work finishing up on a second collection of short stories.

— by Brian Dau

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