One Under 40

The main thing that interests me about the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” list of young writers is that Yiyun Li is on it. Her first two books, the 2005 collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and last year’s novel The Vagrants, reflect an admirable skill at taking melancholy situations (separations, deaths, family resentments), and mining them for a whole host of emotions; her forthcoming collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, is just as good, and it includes a novella, “Kindness,” that’s among the best things she’s written. I can’t tell what story of Li’s the New Yorker included (it doesn’t appear to be in the magazine proper this week), but a brief Q&A with her is online. Not that it’s especially illuminating:

What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?

I don’t know. This is an unanswerable question for me.

That’s not to say she hasn’t studied the matter though. The “Work” issue of Granta, published earlier this year, includes a essay by Li called “Secrets of the Trade,” in which she describes growing up in China and helping her father copy out articles for his job. She was eight years old at the time, and caught the fiction bug early, smitten with the stories she came across in newspapers while working as an assistant:

[W]hat a world I discovered in those folders. Many newspapers published serialized novels at that time and I indiscriminately devoured everything. A suspense novel, serialized in a provincial paper, began in a town where young girls went to sleep, dreamed of being kissed by a white-cloaked man, and woke up insane…. An evening newspaper carried a ghost story in which the imperial family of the last dynasty recorded the location of their hidden treasure within a young prince’s blood…. A new translation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, too long to be serialized, was nevertheless excerpted for months in a major newspaper, and it agonized me not to be able to find out what happened next when, halfway into the folder, the excerpt was replaced by a historical novel about the Boxer Rebellion.

She wasn’t supposed to copy those fiction stories—her job was to write out the red-circled news stories near them. But she picked up a skill for multitasking, and the essay’s conclusion serves as a sort of mission statement for her fiction: “In time I would learn to copy the articles while reading outside the circles, a secret of my trade, to be at one place and then elsewhere at the same time.”

One thought on “One Under 40

  1. I see this vignette as a validation not only of newspaper but of paper itself. I love the Internet and that’s where my work is, but there’s nothing like holding in your hand an artifact from another era. I remember going to the National Archives and reading actual letters written by farmers to FDR. It felt very unmediated, and made those writers much more real to me. I was touching what they touched.

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