by Anneli Rufus
Oakland author Yiyun Li has just been named a recipient of the 2010 MacArthur "Genius" Grant.
She was one of 23 recipients who received a phone call out of the blue last week from the foundation, announcing that she had won what the MacArthur website calls "$500,000 in 'no strings attached' support over the next five years."
Having grown up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, Li came to the United States to study immunology at the University of Iowa in 1996. Taking a course in English to improve her language skills, she changed her course of study and began writing fiction in English. She has done this so beautifully, providing the English-speaking world with such vivid, psychologically wrenching images of the Cultural Revolution's horrors and their continuing effects on Chinese society that her work has garnered oodles of honors, including fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation and Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction and was shortlisted for Kiriyama Prize and Orange Prize for New Writers. Her novel, The Vagrants, won a gold medal in the California Book Award for fiction. And now this.
Among this year's other MacArthur winners are Australian biomedical animator Drew Berry, UCSD sign-language linguist Carol Padden, and Santa Barbara-area high-school physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer.
Li's latest book is the short-story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Here's an excerpt, and you can read more here:
"I am a forty-one-year-old woman living by myself, in the same one- bedroom flat where I have always lived, in a derelict building on the outskirts of Beijing that is threatened to be demolished. ...
"I have not married, and naturally have no children. I have few friends, though as I have never left the neighborhood, I have enough acquaintances, most of them a generation or two older. Being around them is comforting; never is there a day when I feel that I am alone in aging.
"I teach mathematics in a third-tier middle school. I do not love my job or my students, but I have noticed that even the most meager attention I give to the students is returned by a few of them with respect and gratitude and sometimes inexplicable infatuation. I pity those children more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives. It is a terrible thing, even for an indifferent person like me, to see the bleakness lurking in someone else's life."