One Book, One Chicago: writer Yiyun Li wrestles with concepts of darkness

by Jorgen Rehn correspondent

Twice yearly the Chicago Public Library system and various sponsors host a citywide event known as “One Book, One Chicago” (OBOC). According to http://www.chipublib.org/, this event, now in its eleventh year, was created “as an opportunity to engage and enlighten our residents, foster a sense of community and create a culture of reading in our city.” Every April and November a book is chosen and events are held to discuss the content and themes therein.

This spring the OBOC choice was “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by writer Yiyun Li. This book, published in 2010, is the author’s third book and consists of a collection of nine short stories based in the author’s native China. One of the events held for this OBOC was a question and answer seminar with Li on April 19 at the Harold Washington Library Center. At this event, Li was very open about how her past shaped the tone of these stories.

What the reader will notice right away is that all of these stories have dark undertones that truly reach into the depth of human emotion and brokenness. When asked by the questioner, Chicago author Achy Obejas, about this aspect, Li replied, “Literature looks beyond the surface.” She went on to say that she sees no value in painting an unrealistically cheery image of a world that is dark and painful.

Li, who currently lives in California with her husband and two children, attributes this perspective to growing up in China. Her mother was a communist schoolteacher, but like many she had her fears. “‘There are eyes behind every door,’ my mother would tell me,” remembered Li. In regards to her desire to become a writer, she had to keep it secret and instead follow her parents’ wish for her to become a scientist. “My parents disapproved of reading fiction,” she said. This suppression made Li a very private person who learned to quietly observe everything she saw and internalize her feelings.

When Li was in her 20s she immigrated to the United States and found freedom in the cornfields of Iowa. “What did America mean to you at the time?” Obejas asked. “Nothing,” Li quickly replied. She then added, “It meant away from home.” Out of this milieu emerged a writer who is keenly aware of how badly humans can treat each other, and who is also skilled at showing that brokenness through the written word. Li said she strives to not be a Chinese writer or an American writer, but an international writer whose words transcend cultural divides.

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