Author Yiyun Li witnessed a ‘denunciation ceremony’, at which a group of counter revolutionaries were publicly reprimanded, while living in Beijing in 1977. The event, which was held near then-six-year-old Li’s house, in a makeshift outdoor amphitheatre that normally hosted propaganda film screenings, made an indelible imprint on the young girl’s memory. ‘That experience always fascinated me,’ Li says from her home in Oakland, California, adding that it elicited strong and complicated emotions that have yet to fade. ‘It really seems more like a grown-up’s memory than a child’s memory.’
That event now serves as the loose inspiration for Li’s debut novel, The Vagrants. Set in the provincial city of Muddy River, the book opens on the spring equinox of 1979, the day that a rebellious young woman named Gu Shan is scheduled to be executed for renouncing her belief in communism. The spectacle of her death is disturbing, to be sure. But the remainder of the novel is no less haunting, as it reveals how the execution affects the lives of disparate citizens.
Following myriad characters in the wake of Shan’s death, Li creates an absorbing, multi-faceted look at post-Cultural Revolution China’s political climate and the art of survival, an art that the author has some experience with herself. For years Li, who originally moved to the US temporarily to study immunology, had been applying to stay in the country (with support from writers such as Salman Rushdie). She was granted a green card in 2007.
But China continues to loom in her imagination. While many contemporary novelists delight in creating untrustworthy storytellers, Li instead aims to convey a truth about life in Muddy River, and she does this by representing a number of perspectives on the horrific events that take place there. ‘We all tell lies about ourselves, even to ourselves,’ Li explains.
‘No single person can tell the true story; you really have to have everybody’s perspective.’ Li’s witnesses observe the debacle with varying degrees of proximity and comprehension: Bashi, a 19-year-old ne’er-do-well, ventures out to the execution site and becomes haunted by the young woman’s brutalised body; Tong, a solemn seven-year-old boy, attends Shan’s denunciation ceremony with his class. (Li wrote herself as a child into that scene).
In the wake of Shan’s death, Mrs Gu, Shan’s mother, and Kai, a beautiful young radio announcer, organise a protest rally that draws hundreds of citizens from Muddy River. Together, these characters – called vagrants because they feel like strangers in their own country – begin to counteract the propaganda that has remained the official word on those who were executed.
The danger of contradicting a totalitarian regime, of course, remains. ‘My characters range from the very wise to the very unwise,’ Li reflects. ‘Sometimes they confess to the wrong people; other times by intuition they find real friends.’
Although she grew up in and writes about China, Li has always written fiction in English. She began dabbling in writing in 1997, taking a class in the University of Iowa’s creative writing department while she was pursuing her scientific graduate work. ‘I always say that if I didn’t end up in Iowa City, I probably wouldn’t be writing at all,’ says Li, who now teaches creative writing at UC Davis, close to San Francisco Bay. Her first book, story collection A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Significantly, Li’s novel is very much a meditation on the power and implications of literacy. Characters’ fates hinge on what they read and write. At one point, Shan’s father, a teacher, begins to question the value of his life’s work, noting: ‘Shan would never have… become a prisoner, by spelling out her doubts, had he never taught her to think for herself, rather than to follow the reasoning of invisible masses.’
The Vagrants deftly investigates the dangers of ‘groupthink’, but it’s also highly suspicious of heroes and martyrs. ‘Heroes are like villains: black and white, and very flat,’ the author says. They are also easily manipulated to serve grand narratives – of nationalism and of resistance. ‘That’s a huge reason why I wrote this novel – to question the things that I had grown up with.’
That questioning, Li finds, is easier done from afar. ‘To be able to write about China, I need distance from China and its language,’ she says. Like her vagrants, Li’s insight comes when she steps outside of her native country’s official story line.
The Vagrants is published by Random House and is available to order from Magrudy’s for Dhs85