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Mother, writer, award-winning ‘Person to Watch’ makes Mills home

Photo by The Weekly

Elmaz Abinader and Cornelia Nixon looked at each other in knowing confidence while sitting in a classroom in Mills Hall last winter. They had found Mills' newest creative writing professor.

The English department head and the chair of the hiring committee watched awe-struck as Yiyun Li, a young, vibrant, creative writing prodigy from Iowa University delivered a 40-minute mock-class unlike anything they had ever seen, which was part of the grueling, day long interviewing process.

Drawing from an epiphany she had during her flight from Iowa to Oakland for her interview at Mills, Li raced through an intense lecture devoted to the voice of a first person narrator. With a master's degree in science to back her up, she vividly recalled research she would do on dead dogs where she would cut the dog's throat open in order to study the larynx. "It was metaphorical to me because animals don't have a voice. Babies don't have a voice. Babies and animals have one layer of muscle tissue in the larynx." She further explained that it isn't until multiple layers of muscle tissue are developed that humans can communicate using language.

The "students" looked at their eight-months pregnant teacher, who looked more like five months along, with the small frame and big smile, in amazement. "The point is," she said to her "class," which also consisted of a few Mills students, "the first person narrator must have different layers. The monotone narrator voice does not work." To demonstrate her point, for the duration of the class, Li raced with rapid-fire speed through dozens of books to support her idea.

"To maintain that energy and be pregnant," said Abinader. "She had my admiration."

Looking back at the interview from her still sparse corner office on the third floor in Mills Hall, Li laughed with a subtle hint of remaining self-consciousness, "They told me that I went too fast-that they couldn't keep up."

Li is a bona-fide renaissance woman. Not only does she have dual masters degrees in creative writing and a Masters of Science in immunology, she's a prize-winning author who is currently riding the wave of esteemed notoriety in the literary world. All of this and motherhood too, at the youthful age of 32.

For her collection of short stories A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Li was awarded the prestigious Frank O'Connor International Short Story award on Sept. 25, along with the monetary prize of $60,000. She was still reeling only two weeks ago from the shock of receiving the largest short story prize in the world. She would smile each time a student would ask about her award. "I still can't believe it," she laughed in bewilderment while trying to hide her wide smile behind her small hands. "I feel very lucky," she said.

"Now," Li began as she sat comfortably at her office desk-a photo of her smiling children, Vincent, 4, and James, 8 months just within reach, "I feel like I've settled down. I've found my rhythm." Between teaching classes at Mills, spending time with her family and working on her novel, Li's boundless energy enables her to wear her many hats.

In addition to these roles, Li has had plenty of other things to keep her busy lately. From book signings to scouting out works to publish online at, the new literary magazine she helped create, there is never a dull moment. Yet Li is still hungry for new experiences-especially around her new home in the Bay Area. "My life is so children oriented," said Li. "I'm not settled. There are so many things I haven't explored."

Li understands better than most the value in chasing dreams and the importance of being able to adapt to change. Having moved to Iowa nine years ago after graduating from Beijing University with a Bachelor's degree in Science, English was still a language that she had yet to master. And indeed she did.

While pursuing her Ph.D. in immunology at Iowa University, Li decided she was not content. She was compelled to explore a whole new world in creative writing at the University of Iowa, a mecca that attracts and produces some of the world's greatest authors. "I could feel the energy of writing there," she said.

Li's level of success speaks volumes about her ambition and talent. In addition to the Frank O'Connor award, Li has several other accolades under her belt. She has won the Plimpton Prize for New Writers and a Pushcart Prize. The Los Angeles Times named her "a person to watch" in 2005. Li most recently published a non-fiction short story, Passing Through, in The New York Times Magazine. She has also been published in many other magazines, such as the New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Paris Review.

Yet Li still remains grounded in her family and focused on her writing career. "She's very warm and sweet. I think she's a genius," Nixon deadpans. "It's obvious she's going to have huge quantities of success."

Nixon said she has taken a personal interest in Li's tenure at Mills, especially since Li is the first replacement since the tragic death of predecessor Amanda Davis in a plane crash in 2003. Li's home in Faculty Village, as well as her office in Mills Hall, was formerly inhabited by the beloved professor.

Senior Meilan Carter values Li's professional experience. "Because I'm graduating, it's important to me that she's bringing in her professional experience since she's been published," she said.

But Li said she just doesn't see what the big deal is. "I'm just very lucky I guess," she said as the faint "ding" indicating a new e-mail rang from her laptop computer. When asked whether there was any additional news about herself to report, Li checked her e-mail and flashed her trademark smile. "You can say I just won the Editor's Choice award for the New York Times Book Review."