Poison and intrigue in past and present China

When Yiyun Li left China, at the age of 24, she couldn’t speak English. Now, nearly two decades later, she is recognised as one of its most perceptive contemporary writers

There is no prerequisite for becoming a writer, but in many ways Yiyun Li had the odds stacked against her.

Born in Beijing in 1972, Li grew up in a house where her parents disapproved of literature, preferring her to read only science, with a view to a medical career. Until she moved to the US, when she was 24, Li did not speak English, so it’s even more remarkable that she picked the job of writer – of grappling daily with words – in a language that’s not her mother tongue.

“I’m also baffled,” she says. “Because it doesn’t make sense, right? English gives me not just linguistic space but also psychological space. I can explore thoughts and feelings that I can’t do in my native tongue. I think in English, and my characters speak to me in English. Once we pass a certain point in language it doesn’t matter what we want to say.”

Moving to the US and immersing herself in English was the first step in Li's transition to being a writer. Her location turned out to be serendipitous. She studied medicine and applied to take a PhD in immunology at the University of Iowa, which happens to have an acclaimed postgraduate creative-writing course ("a fluke", she says). Li ditched science for words and began to write, submitting stories to the New Yorker and the Paris Review .

Her first short-story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and Guardian First Book Award. She followed this with her first novel, The Vagrants , which was shortlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and another collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl , in 2010.

Her new novel, Kinder T han Solitude , tells the story of four friends, one of whom, Shaoai, has just died. Two decades previously she was the victim of thallium poisoning, and her three friends were the main suspects. It takes more than two decades for Shaoai to die a long, painful death, and the narrative is, at its most basic, a whodunnit: who poisoned her, and why?

Tiananmen Square
Set in the present, the story moves back to the weeks after the Tiananmen Square massacres. Many Chinese writers avoid politics; not so Yiyun Li. The Vagrants engaged more directly and was set in the late-1970s pro-democracy wave that was later suppressed. Kinder Than Solitude references one of China's most totemic moments of recent years, but it acts as a backdrop rather than a catalytic plot point.

"Shaoai was very connected to the Tiananmen Square protests, and all of the main characters refuse to acknowledge that it happened. My generation has an urge to move on and not feel trapped by this one moment in history, a moment that shows China in a very bad light on the world stage, and young Chinese people negate that history, consciously or otherwise. That's really interesting to me, because any time there is a negation of history there's usually something huge there."

The story moves between present-day Beijing and the US today and in 1989. Two characters of the original quartet, both women, move to the US in an attempt to flee what has happened. Boyang, the sole male character, never leaves the city and becomes incredibly rich, coasting a wave of economic and entrepreneurial success.

Li returned to Beijing in 2008 with her husband and sons, and she hardly recognised the city. “The Beijing of the past in the book comes directly from memory, because the Beijing I grew up in is completely gone. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the economy developed so quickly that the city was redone. All the old alleys were remodelled. It was as if Beijing . . . do you know that feeling of sadness when you get a glimpse of an old part of a city that has been erased from history?”

Li keeps a close eye on Chinese news and keeps in touch with friends and family there. She was living in Beijing in 1995 during the Zhu Ling case, when a young woman suffered the same kind of poisoning as Shaoai. "There were a lot of those cases, and poisoning is such an interesting way to kill someone. It's much more premeditated, cold-hearted, and usually happens between people who are intimately related. It's such a passive-aggressive crime."

As well as Kinder T han Solitude , Li has just written a children's version of the classic Gilgamesh . She has lived in the US for almost two decades, and is uncomfortable with the term "immigrant writer". Her characters have always been predominantly Chinese, but Americans feature in the new book. American writers don't dominate her influences, though: Li has avowed her devotion to Irish writers such as William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen.

“I’m always surprised when writers start with short stories, then move on to the novel, and never go back to stories. For me they offer different joy. When you write a novel it’s two to three years with the same set of characters. In a story, within 20 pages you have to make the same emotional impact on a reader as a 300-page novel. I learned writing by reading William Trevor, so I feel like I’m forever indebted to him.”

Kinder T han Solitude is published by 4th Estate. Gilgamesh is published by Pushkin Children's Books