Yiyun Li: Tiananmen Square is 'never forgotten,' yet still unclear

Prize-winning Chinese American writer Yiyun Li says that today's young Chinese may have only a vague sense of what happened at Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, yet the events of that month are 'never forgotten.'

Roger Turesson
Looking back on the Tiananmen Square protest, Yiyun Li says she sees the events of June 1989 as a 'milestone' which allow her to 'think about how the country has changed since then.'

Three young Chinese lives are changed forever by a mysterious act – murder? accident? – which takes place in June, 1989. In “Kinder than Solitude,” the first novel published by Yiyun Li since she has become a US citizen, Tiananmen Square is never mentioned by name – and yet events there dominate all.

As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests approached, Li (named by the New Yorker as one of 20 most interesting US writers under the age of 40) answered questions from Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe.

Q: As we come up on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, how much do the events of 1989 still influence the lives of today’s Chinese?
The memory of 1989 remains with people from my generation and older; for younger people, it may be a vague or nonexistent past. Certainly there is the awareness that a lot around the event still remains unknown to general public, so that is one reason it’s never forgotten.

Q: How about you? Does Tiananmen Square still impact your own life? 
I don’t think it impacts my life as much as it is a milestone in my life, to which I return sometimes and think about how the country has changed since then.

Q: The China you write about in your books might be described as a rather bleak place. Yet in some ways the America of “Kinder Than Solitude” can seem somewhat empty as well. Are the essential problems your characters wrestle with shaped by dramas at the national level – or something more fundamental? 
In the novel, both countries are well-populated with characters of various kinds. So in that sense, I wouldn’t call either place bleak. However, the three main characters have failed to make a deeper connection to those around them, which is a universal human condition.

Q: You often cite a love of Western writers. Has Western or Chinese literature done more to influence your writing?
I grew up in the tradition of Chinese poetry, but came into storytelling much later, and only in English. So I would say for my writing, Western literature is a big influence.

Q: Much of “Kinder Than Solitude” is set in the United States. Now that you have been here for close to 20 years, do you think that your future work will more often feature American settings? 
The short answer is yes. I have lived most of my adult life in America, and it feels natural that America starts to take more of a role in my writing.

Q: If you had to describe your own writing, what is that you would say that you choose to write about? Is there a central issue or theme that drives your characters and/or your fiction? 
I would say I write about flawed characters struggling with their imperfect lives.

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