Top of her field
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 31, 2005 at 10:02 p.m.
Five years ago, Yiyun Li had a problem: How do you persuade the literary world to take you seriously when you're a 28-year-old native Chinese speaker trying to write in English, you've published exactly nothing and your training consists of a single adult-education class?
Since then, the Beijing-born Li's career arc has been so steep it gives her peers vertigo.
She's had stories published in prestige magazines such as the New Yorker and the Paris Review. She's won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a $200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina calls - in what qualifies as a serious understatement - "most unusual" for a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her first book, a story collection called "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," was published this fall to wide praise.
Now she has another problem: How do you explain to the federal immigration bureaucracy what the word "extraordinary" means?
In the summer of 2004, Li petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to become a permanent resident of the United States. To approve her application for a green card, USCIS would need to agree that she was an artist of "extraordinary ability," defined in Title 8, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 204.5(h)(2) as a level of expertise indicating that the individual is one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor."
To the upper echelons of literary publishing, Li looks like a slam-dunk to meet this definition. Not to the USCIS, however. A year after she filed it, her petition was rejected.
She has appealed. A USCIS spokesman says she is likely to get her answer in a few weeks.
"Things change a lot," as a character in one of Li's stories says.
"Within a blink, a mountain flattens and a river dries up. Nobody knows who he'll become tomorrow."
No matter what happens with her immigration petition, the mountain has already flattened for Yiyun Li: The changes she's lived through in her 33 years are remarkable. When she talks about her childhood and how she came to leave China for the United States, some memories - such as her sister's suggestion that she watch "Baywatch" to learn how Americans dress - cause her to burst into infectious laughter.
Most do not.
There's this memory, for example, from when she was 5: Police with a loudspeaker tell everyone in her Beijing neighborhood to gather in a field. They lead four men, bound with ropes, onto a temporary stage. An officer announces that the men are to be executed soon, after being displayed to similar gatherings in nearby neighborhoods.
"Death to the counterrevolutionary hooligans!" the officer shouts, fist raised.
"It was like a celebration," Li says now, on the phone from her office at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where she recently accepted a tenure-track teaching job.
"I was in a celebrating mood, too." Back then, she didn't know any better.
She learned. She watched her mother close the windows before speaking of certain things. She saw her horrified looks when Li's grandfather, who had been known to call Mao Zedong "the king of Hell," mouthed off about the Communist Party. She absorbed repeated warnings never to say anything to anyone outside the house."
Li was born in 1972, the year President Richard Nixon shocked the world with his tete-a-tete with Chairman Mao. She came of age just as China was laying the groundwork for its economic boom. She remembers her physicist father traveling abroad and coming home with descriptions of the beauty of Paris - and, just as important, permission to import the family's first refrigerator. She recalls thinking:
"I hope my life won't be like this forever."
She also remembers Tiananmen Square.
In the spring of 1989, as student-led protests began to build in Beijing, Li was in high school, a 15-minute bike ride from the square. Her parents were pessimistic from the beginning - "They said the government would shoot at people" - but Li was more hopeful. She found herself particularly moved by a group of middle-aged men she recalls standing quietly by the side of the road. Their sign read:
"We have knelt down all our lives. This is our opportunity to stand up as human beings."
On the night the army crushed the protests, Li's parents locked her in her room. Her mother ventured out and came back crying, saying she'd seen the body of an 8-year-old boy. The next morning, her father reported seeing piles of bodies in a hospital bicycle garage. A good friend was picked up for questioning.
"It was like 9/11," she says.
"Everybody knew somebody" who'd been in the square that night.
Everybody in Beijing, perhaps. But Chinese television started saying right away that no one had been killed, and many outside the capital believed this.
Two years later, Li found herself in the army. Fearing a repeat of the democracy movement, the government had required all students entering Peking University to go through a year of political reeducation first.
"Imagine a zipper on your mouth," her mother told her as her army year began.
"Zip it up tight." But as Li wrote last year in the British magazine Prospect, she couldn't control her anger. One day she found herself telling her squad mates about the massacre.
"Was it true people got killed?" a young woman asked.
"Don't spread rumors," her squad leader said.
After her outburst, Li became terrified of reprisals. She was lucky. The squad leader reported her, but the officer who got the report chose not to pass it on.
Out of the army, studying biology, Li focused on one goal: to get into an American graduate school. She got into four and chose the University of Iowa, in part because she could do immunology there.
Li had a boyfriend in China, to whom she is now married, but for the time being he stayed behind. Lonely, she signed up for an adult-education writing class, the kind mainly populated by middle-aged women at loose ends. The teacher singled her out for encouragement. For years that remained her only contact with other writers.
"I wrote by myself," she says.
In the fall of 2000, about to turn 28 and closing in on her immunology Ph.D., she started to panic - because she'd realized that she really wanted to be a writer. She talked to her adviser and arranged to leave the program with a master's degree. The next summer, she signed up for a class taught by short-story virtuoso James Alan McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
McPherson's Southern accent flummoxed her - "I couldn't understand most of what he said" - but one particular point he made got through. In the Western world, and especially in America, he told the class, the focus is so much on the individual that we have lost the "community voice." But that voice is still present in writing from countries such as China and Japan.
Something clicked. Before long, Li was showing McPherson a story called "Immortality." Written from the point of view of an entire town, using the first person plural, its first sentence reads:
"This story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born."
McPherson thought it was wonderful.
"It's what a teacher lives for," he says.
Li says she was still so timid that "it blew my mind that a great writer - a great human being - even noticed me."
She and her writing, however, soon were getting noticed more and more.
Admitted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop - widely viewed as the best graduate writing program in the country - she wound up earning two additional master's degrees, one in fiction and one in creative nonfiction. Long before she finished them, she sold "Immortality" to the Paris Review. She sold another story to the New Yorker. Random House's Medina came to speak at Iowa in November 2003, and at some point was given both stories to read. She thinks she read "Immortality" on the flight back to New York.
"I remember just starting to shake, it was so good," Medina says.
"I've been an editor for 150 years, and I don't jump off planes and buy books based on one story" - but that's essentially what she did, signing Li to her two-book deal in a matter of weeks.
The first book was "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers." Its 10 stories are "populated by natives and exiles of post-Mao, post-Tiananmen China," as The Washington Post's reviewer put it: "ordinary people who are victims of tradition and change, of old barbarities and recent upheavals." Each story, the review concluded, feels fresh, wise and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes away."
"I couldn't write in Chinese," Li says, acknowledging the autobiographical component of her character's observation. She held herself back both because she'd grown up in a family reluctant to express emotions directly and because of the oppressive political imperative to keep her lip zipped. In high school, she once ripped up something she'd written about Tiananmen Square just before she was to hand it in to her teacher. While in the army, she kept a journal but wrote only nature descriptions.
"When I wrote in Chinese, I censored myself," she says. "I feel very lucky that I've discovered a language I can use."
The first immigration lawyer Li consulted was recommended by scientist friends. When he found out she was a writer, she says, he told her she'd have to be "the second coming of Ernest Hemingway" for her petition to succeed.
She found another lawyer and filed for permanent residency in August 2004. She heard nothing for nine months, then USCIS asked for more information. In her original application, she had relied heavily on writers and editors she knew, many of them connected to the Writers' Workshop. The immigration bureau asked, among other things, for evidence that those outside her "circle of colleagues and acquaintances" considered her work significant.
Li and her friends scrambled to get additional testimonials to her "extraordinary ability."
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.
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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