Li discusses the art of imagination and luck

By Courtney Bottazzi

Staff Writer

Imagination and luck becomes a winning combination when paired with a creative mind.

Fortunately for poet Yiyun Li, she has the creative imagination and luck on her side. On Tuesday, the University had the honor of hosting Li, author of “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” “The Vagrants” and “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” 

Li has earned many prestigious awards including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award. She was also included in The New Yorker’s top 20 writers under 40. 

Li read excerpts from one of her short stories, “Kindness,” and held two question-and-answer sessions. Melanie Santos ’12, a psychology and creative writing major, introduced Li at the reading and praised the writer’s unique style.

“The language is simple, yet elegant. The power comes from the honesty of her characters,” Santos said.

After hearing Li speak about her characters, it’s hard not expect one of them to walk through the door–that is the extent of their resemblance to real life. Li explained that she always ends a story before she knows all of her characters’ secrets.

“With characters, write what you don’t know. Curiosity drives me to know. I don’t know these characters and I want to,” Li said.

It was clear that Li has a remarkable imagination. She was able to thoroughly construct her characters’ identities so that she can hear and hold conversations with her characters.

“Being a writer is like being an actor. You have to ask yourself, how would an old person drink?” Li said.

Similar to an actor’s preparation, Li dives into the roles of her characters. When asked about the beginning of her career, Li explained how she realized she did not to please the masses.

“You’re not looking for everyone to love your story. You’re looking for one right reader; one editor who can read the story right,” Li said.

Li grew up in Beijing and retold stories of how she has been confronted by people of Chinese heritage who disagree with the portrayal of her country. She stated that she would not write propaganda; the China on the pages was her China.

Additionally, Li perceives her stories to be accessible to many different people.

“The stories to me are more universal, they can belong to more than one culture,” Li said.

Li shared her advice for beginning writers with the audience.

“You have to be a reader before you are a writer,” Li said.

Additionally, she suggested, do not become swept away with the writings of authors who are currently labeled as “hot.”

“For every living writer you read, you have to read two dead authors. Always go back to the Russian writers,” Li said.

When praised for her success, Li gracefully laughed and told her audience that sometimes she believes she’s just lucky. It is clear Li’s remarkable skill as a writer is not simply chance and yet, she unintentionally echoes and fulfils Tennessee William’s famous quote, “Luck is believing that you’re lucky.”

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