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.