Yiyun Li’s powerful new novel "The Vagrants"
The Vagrants, the first novel by Chinese-American author Yiyun Li — who lives in Oakland and teaches at UC-Davis, and whose 2005 debut story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, garnered much critical praise — is set in 1979 in a provincial Chinese town, where a former Red Guard is being executed as a counter-revolutionary. The novel looks at how this event affects a wide range of people in the town, from poor ragpickers to a powerful, popular radio announcer who knew the condemned as a girl.
As the townspeople witness the condemnation of Gu Shan and its aftermath, each reacts differently. Those who knew her suffer breakdowns or plot to overturn her condemnation; others scheme to take advantage of the situation; still others are preoccupied with the barest details of survival. Li’s large cast of characters are drawn with great precision and insight, and she employs a sweeping, omniscient point of view to illuminate their fears, desires, and crushed hopes. Along the way, the lives of all the characters are touched by the brutality of poverty or of the Chinese police state.
The Vagrants is the best literary novel I’ve read in a long time, and I was excited to be able to interview the author, after the jump.
Li will be appearing around the Bay Area in February to promote the book. See her listing of tour events.
I think one of the first questions people will have about your novel is, how true to history is it? I assumed the town of Muddy River is a fictional pastiche of provincial towns. Is the character of the counter-reveolutionary, who is executed at the beginning of the novel, based on a particular person?
The novel is very loosely based on a real case in the late 1970s, when two women were executed in a provincial town, but that is about it. Muddy River is a fictional creation, and so are all the characters. The Democratic Wall movement in Beijing was a true event in history, though that functions more as a background for the big picture.
Could you describe how you decided to write the story of that time, in a place like Muddy River?
As a writer I am fascinated by small people in community, who are not always in the center of actions, yet who in the end, as onlookers, contribute perhaps as much to history as those who hold key roles. In other words, Hitler did not start his war by himself, nor did Chairman Mao start Cultural Revolution by himself. Those who participate are what I am interested in writing. And Muddy River, as a provincial town, seems a perfect place to investigate the people far from the center of the actions (Beijing, for instance).
Yes, I was interested in that choice — showing the action in the provinces rather than in the capital, where events around the Democracy Wall must also have been very dramatic.
When you choose to write the center of the action — say, the movement in Beijing — it tends to become more political and historical, while my interest always stays with the people — the characters, how they live through certain events; how much their action (or inaction) define not only their own fates but other people’s fates too.
It would seem that your choice of perspective is related to that. You use an omniscient third-person narrative voice which is, at times, very intimate with the characters, and at other times, seems to see characters only from afar. The narrator dips into the lives and thoughts of not only the ten or so main characters in the book, but also of characters who appear only for moments, as if glimpsed in passing. It’s a very rich, flexible technique. How did you develop this enormously flexible narrative voice for the novel?
I always love [works with an] omniscient narrator, and for a novel like this one, where each character experiences a small part of history, it seems one has to have the freedom to move from one character to the next to give a whole picture of the community. And a novelist has that freedom… It’s the narrative voice some of the masters of literature use (Tolstoy, for instance).
Did you experiment a lot in developing this perspective?
In the very beginning, I had each sections told in very close third-person narrative, though I realized quickly that even by going from one character to the next, I still couldn’t achieve what I really wanted, so I began to read some of my favorite authors — Graham Greene and William Trevor in particular — throughout working on the manuscript, to learn how to write in that voice.
There are ten or so main characters, and yet the person who might be termed the central character, the counter-revolutionary Gu Shan, is only seen through the eyes of other characters. How did you make that decision?
That was a decision I made right away when I began the novel. I think her absence from the narrative is important for the novel, because she becomes less of a real person than a legend when she becomes a cause for the town’s people. In that sense, she can only be real if I can have different characters reflect on who she really is, and when the different pieces of puzzles are pieced together, Gu Shan becomes real — neither a martyr nor a villain.
In terms of the many characters, was it difficult to keep track of them all, and their interactions?
Yes, for the first draft, as I sometimes forgot a character’s name or profession (especially minor characters associated with the ten main characters), so I kept a list of how old they were, what they did for a living–their superficial resumes.
According to your biography, you were born and grew up in Beijing. How were you able to understand in such detail the daily lives of people in a provincial town — for example, your very detailed descriptions of their diet, their clothes, and so on?
Beijing was a huge provincial town when I grew up in the late 1970s — a metropolis of villages. People’s lives in Beijing were not much different from those from a provincial town. My husband grew up in a provincial town, and I have traveled outside Beijing, and these all helped.
I see. So much of that detail is what you observed first-hand.
Yes. And I also looked at photos from around the time.
Were there things you didn’t know that you had to research?
I did some research on execution; organ transplant and its history, but the most important research to me is to make up that town. And I based Muddy River on my husband’s hometown (which was called Muddy River until they changed the name into a more beautiful one: White Mountain), so he made a map for me, with detailed, block to block, street to street details. And I placed all the characters’ houses on the maps so I could get a sense of how they could run into each other. I also researched on hedgehogs and turtles, etc.
Ah, the poor hedgehog!
Frankly that was the one part of the book where I skipped a page or two.
About the hedgehog?
Yes… I wanted to turn away.
For me, at least, it seems easier to watch violence done to a human, but animals seem so defenseless that I recoil from witnessing violence done to animals. Maybe that’s just my reaction.
I see. And I know there is a lot of violence done to the animals in that book. And I can’t turn away (as its creator, sadly) as that is part of the cruelty.
That brings me to a question which I think will concern many readers. The book contains a lot of brutality and cruelty. At one point, a character expresses the sentiment that life is mainly a matter of people trying to step on the neck of someone else, and thereby get ahead. And judging from the actions of many of the characters in the book, that seems to describe many of them, from the most depraved characters to even the more innocent ones, like the child Tong, whose action in writing down his father’s name on the petition leads to suffering for his father but promotion for himself. This seems to me to be one of the main themes of the book — the way people exploit each other, sometimes without meaning to.
Yes. If you look at it, there are apparent things/characters you could call evil — the system, the old janitor –but in real life, it is very hard to define someone as purely evil, as it is hard to call someone a hero. And much of the violence and brutality is intertwined with goodwill, or at least good intention. And I think that is how I view the world, and I write to reflect that view. Also just to explore how complex the situation is.
That complexity is what makes your description of that society a humane one. Still, I think people will wonder at the amount of brutality and cruelty you depict, and ask whether you feel it’s a realistic depiction of the time, or of Chinese society, or whether you feel that this is actually a depiction of our own society in general. Just to take one example — Nini’s parents don’t even bother to give names to their younger girl children. That seems particularly heartless. Is it realistic?
It might seem cruel by Western standards, but their nicknames were their names, and it was not considered outrageous at the time.
So would people be wrong to read your novel as an indictment of Chinese society — or, again, do you feel it’s an unfortunate description of our own society too?
I don’t have any intention for the novel to be an indictment of anything. That is a big NO. The situation may seem Chinese and specific to this era, but if you look at history, horrible things happen all the time. Brutality and violence happen all the time. On all scales. I can’t shy away from that if I am writing a book. However, that is not my interest.
I ask partly because I know that many Chinese people feel Western people have an unfair view of China. And some might say a picture like the one you’ve painted will only encourage that negative view.
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. And to be honest, I think that is a very narrow way of looking at literature. My story happens to be set in China, and the characters happen to be Chinese. But if you read, say, Toni Morrison’s novels, would you say she is depicting an unfairly negative picture of America?
Certainly negative, but I would not say unfairly so.
Yes. I agree. I think there is unease about how China is “represented,” but that is a very Soviet, socialist view of how literature should represent certain things. I feel that, as a writer, the only people I feel responsible to are my characters. And I would need to treat them very fairly.
As a teacher of writing, is this an issue you work with, with your students? Do you have to fight to get them to be honest about the whole range of human behavior?
Never give a character a tag, I would tell my students. They would say, this character is an alcoholic, and I would say no, you can’t start writing a story about an alcoholic because then that one thing takes over the character. I think that a writer should at first acknowledge that any character is complex and sometimes mysterious.
Li will be appearing around the Bay Area in February to promote the book. See her listing of tour events.