It has been a very long, very wonderful day in the City of Roses. So fine that I regret to say: PDX showed its provincialism.
Behind on my New York Times reading earlier in day (one day late) I was carefully perusing the article about the 23 new MacArthur Fellows, known as the "genius grants," in Tuesday's paper. Already had noted, buried on page 2, of yesterday's second section of the Oregonian, that two local women scientists had won awards. (This Portland paper reserves its enthusiasms for a new beer, oddly named music group, or latest police shooting.)
In the Times, I saw that Yiyun Li, the writer we were about to hear tonight at Powell's, had just won a MacArthur. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (NPR review with writing excerpt) is her third book, a collection of stories. Her debut novel, The Vagrants, called "grieving and unremitting" by Pico Iyer when it appeared last year, was much praised.
We'd thought there would be a big crowd now that Li's award had been announced. There was not--only 30 people in this very writer-focused town. I have never heard an introduction of such smallness as the one delivered preceding Yiyun Li's presentation. Who was this desultory woman? She hurried through her few sentences with an odd disinterest and did not mention Li's having received a $500,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation only the day before.
Yiyun Li seemed not to notice, greeted us sweetly and read from "Kindness," one of the stories in her new book. It is an elegaic tale of a solitary woman in today's China--a novella. I could see the spare room of the woman's childhood home, her unhappy mother's pile of Chinese novels. I was reminded of women, friends from the past who never could move beyond their anger with family and the limits their origins seemed to prescribe.
Where did she get her ideas? "I love to eavesdrop!" Her notion of listening in was different from what I'd expected: she reads Chinese newspapers on line. The stories she finds pique her imagination as she writes their endings and beginnings because "I want to know more about them."
She told us about herself, a girl growing up in Beijing, daughter of two scientists. "I was a math prodigy. My life was chosen for me at eight or nine." She came to the U.S. to college at the University of Iowa to study immunology but learned that "everyone else in Iowa City was writing a novel." About to receive her PhD, Yiyun "panicked and instead became a writer," became a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop with all those other novel writers.
Her own story is a wonderful one too, happier than those she writes but wistful too. Her responses to questions were straightforward and thoughtful about the personal price the Chinese people experience from the many changes over the last fifty years. She spoke of her two young boys, eight and nine as "free range chickens," neither Chinese nor American, who will have to sort it all out for themselves in the years ahead.
When we spoke with her at the end, as she signed our Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (which means the "perfect couple"), I was surprised to hear that she had served in the Chinese Army as a young woman. Ron congratulated her on the MacArthur recognition and she acknowledged how amazed she was to receive it.
I'm sending a link to this email to Powell's: every writer deserves respect--with or without a MacArthur grant. If there's no one on staff, this old lady or one of my friends knows how to do it with enthusiasm. Call me.