EDITOR'S NOTE: In this ongoing series, The Weekly talks to notable women in the Bay Area arts scene – writers, musicians and artists. This week Elizabeth F. Clayton talked with Yiyun Li, Mills professor and author.
Li grew up in Beijing and came to the U.S. in 1996, with a limited grasp of English. She received both an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa before coming to teach both graduate and undergraduate creative writing at Mills this past fall. Her first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers has won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemmingway/PEN Award for a distinguished first book of fiction, and is a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize, given yearly for books about the Pacific Rim and Sound Asia. One of the stories from the collection, "After a Life," was selected to be included in Best American Short Stories of 2006. The book was also among top picks for 2005 by several major newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and The Christian Science Monitor. Li lives in faculty housing on campus with her husband and two sons.
How does living in the Bay Area affect your work?
I haven't seen much of the influence from the Bay Area. Maybe it's because I haven't been here that long yet, but also I think it has to do with the fact that I've been working on a novel set in China.
Who are the women who have inspired you most?
Flannery O'Connor as a writer.
What kind of effect, if any, do you think being a woman has had on your career?
Being a mother definitely has a very positive influence on my career. For one thing, I feel so much more sympathy and understanding of human conditions after I became a mother; also having children around and asking for time constantly makes me write faster.
What advice do you have for young women who are aspiring to become writers?
Be patient and be ambitious.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The highlight for me was getting a letter from William Trevor (who is my literary hero) saying he enjoyed my book (I sent him a book via a friend in Ireland.)
What about your work are you the most excited about right now?
The novel I am working on.
What are you working on right now?
A novel set in China in 1979. It's dark – it begins with an execution of a young woman and ends with an execution of a young woman.