Interview: Yiyun Li

The Brief


Yiyun Li is a novelist and short story writer. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was the recipient of the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her first novel, The Vagrants, was shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award. Her second story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and latest novel, Kinder Than Solitude, were met with similar acclaim. Li is also a MacArthur Foundation fellow and a contributing editor to A Public Space, a Brooklyn-based literary magazine. Her memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, was published in February 2017.

Which book would you recommend to our readers?
Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. A book written by a questioning mind, which I go to when I have questions – not to look for answers, but to redefine my questions.

Which musical composition would you recommend to our readers?
Symphony No. 7 by Gustav Mahler. One of those compositions that you can listen to for years and still not feel you have come to an end.

Which graphic novel would you recommend to our readers?
Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. Why does it have to be over? Why can’t it go on forever and ever?

Which short story would you recommend to our readers?
‘The Dead’ by James Joyce. A story that everyone interested in living should be reading at least twice a year.


The following questions relate to our Perspectives column, in which two writers respond to an artwork that they are experiencing for the first time.

Are all narrators self-serving?
I suppose a narrator can only be self-serving if he or she has a self.

Are art galleries detached from the real world?
Nothing is detached from the real world.

Are educational curricula a form of violence?
Anything that imposes is a form of violence: giving birth to someone can be as violent as murdering them. Why singling out education then?

Can art help us to understand death?
Yes, the best art does that. The art that fails to do so is ephemeral.

States of the Arts

The following questions relate to our States of the Arts column, for which each article includes four artworks that share an association with a single nation or territory.

Which Albanian artwork would you recommend to our readers?
Broken April by Ismail Kadare. A novel as long-lasting as human history, it turns my blood boiling and cold at the same time.

Which Mongolian artwork would you recommend to our readers?
The folksong 'Gada Meiren', an epic narrative of more than six hundred lines about a Mongolian rebel leader. The song often brings me the wordless experience of both transience and eternity.

The art of discovery

The following questions relate to Silent Frame’s aim to celebrate the art of discovery.

Where do you go to discover new art, and why?
I read diaries and journals and letters of artists and writers long dead for discovery of the old and forgotten, which often turns out new.

What question would you like to ask other Silent Frame interviewees?
Is there a person you’ll never lie to, and who is s/he?

More to discover

Yiyun Li: You can visit Yiyun Li's website here, read her contributions to The New Yorker, and view her essays for Granta Magazine. The following short stories are available online in full: ‘A Man Like Him’, ‘A Sheltered Woman’, ‘A Small Sacrifice’, ‘Alone’, ‘Extra’, ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’‘House Fire’, ‘Kinder Than Solitude’, ‘The Proprietress’‘Sweeping Past’.

You can also read excerpts of Li's books via the following links, given in order of publication: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The VagrantsGold Boy, Emerald Girl, Kinder Than Solitude, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.

Joe Fassler has interviewed the author for The Atlantic, as have Paul Laity for The Guardian, Alicia Oltuski for The Harvard Review, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore for New Statesman, and Cressida Leyshon for The New Yorker.

Today's recommendations: Surprised by Joy (excerpt), Symphony No. 7 (live performance, conducted by Claudio Abbado), Peanuts (Charles M. Schulz Museum website), The Dead (story), Broken April (excerpt), 'Gada Meiren' (song, performed by Tong Tong in Mandarin Chinese).

Also on Silent Frame