Yiyun Li, Now Screening

Galleys for books coming out in 2009 have begun making the rounds, and I’m curious what the response will be to Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, a somber and knotty but very affecting novel about a day in the life of a rural Chinese town during the tail end of Maoism. (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” recently published in the New Yorker, isn’t an excerpt.) Li, a Beijing-born writer now living in Oakland, Calif., has gotten a little more attention lately for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Wayne Wang’s recent adaptation of one of her short stories, though it hasn’t done much business at the box office. A companion film also based on a Li short story, The Princess of Nebraska won’t do business at the box office at all. Wang released it on YouTube earlier this month:

Regardless of how much either film earns, the experience of making them at least exposed how Chinese censorship remains alive and well. Over the summer Li wrote an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle about what happened when a Chinese investor wanted a stake in the film version of Prayers:

Not long after I finished the script, Wayne told me that one of the top entertainment companies in China had expressed interest in partially funding the film. Soon preproduction began, and the film was set to shoot in late September. But everything comes with a price. As the shooting date drew near, the Chinese investors politely requested a line of dialogue about the Tiananmen Square protest be taken out of the script. Thinking we could sneak the idea back in a less explicit way, we obliged. But soon another request arrived, and another, asking for more lines to be cut. By the sixth request we decided that, as independent artists, we could not work like this. A week before shooting was to start, the investors withdrew their money. The last line they had asked to be cut: “Communism is a good thing. Only it has fallen into some bad hands.”

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