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[LITERARY] Yiyun Li - Extraordinary U.S.-based Writer Proving Her "Worth" to INS

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  • madchinaman
    Proving the extraordinary Yiyun Li is a literary sensation, but that hasn t impressed immigration officials, who rejected her request for residency. By Bob
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1 5:39 PM
      Proving the extraordinary
      Yiyun Li is a literary sensation, but that hasn't impressed
      immigration officials, who rejected her request for residency.
      By Bob Thompson, Washington Post


      Something clicked. Before long, Li was showing McPherson a story
      called "Immortality." Written from the point of view of an entire
      town, using the first person plural, its first sentence reads: "This
      story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were


      Five years ago, Yiyun Li had a problem: How to persuade the literary
      world to take seriously a 28-year-old native Chinese speaker trying
      to write in English who had published exactly nothing and whose
      training consisted of a single adult-education class?

      Since then, the Beijing-born Li's career arc has been so steep it
      gives her peers vertigo.

      She's had stories published in prestigious magazines such as the New
      Yorker and the Paris Review. She's won the Pushcart Prize and the
      Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a
      $200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina
      calls — in what qualifies as a serious understatement — "most
      unusual" for a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her
      first book, a story collection called "A Thousand Years of Good
      Prayers," was published this fall to wide praise.

      Now she has another problem: How do you explain to the federal
      immigration bureaucracy what the word "extraordinary" means?

      In the summer of 2004, Li petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and
      Immigration Services to become a permanent resident of the United
      States. To approve her application for a green card, USCIS would
      need to agree that she was an artist of "extraordinary ability,"
      defined in Title VIII, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 204.5(h)(2)
      as "a level of expertise indicating that the individual is one of
      that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of

      To the upper echelons of literary publishing, Li looks like a slam-
      dunk to meet this definition. Not to the USCIS, however. A year
      after she filed it, her petition was rejected.

      She has appealed. A USCIS spokesman says she is likely to get her
      answer in a few weeks.

      "Things change a lot," as a character in one of Li's stories
      says. "Within a blink a mountain flattens and a river dries up.
      Nobody knows who he'll become tomorrow."

      No matter what happens with her immigration petition, the mountain
      has already flattened for Yiyun Li: The changes she's lived through
      in her 33 years are remarkable. When she talks about her childhood
      and how she came to leave China for the United States, some
      memories — such as her sister's suggestion that she watch "Baywatch"
      to learn how Americans dress — cause her to burst into infectious

      Most do not.

      There's this memory, for example, from when she was 5: Police with a
      loudspeaker tell everyone in her Beijing neighborhood to gather in a
      field. They lead four men, bound with ropes, onto a temporary stage.
      An officer announces that the men are to be executed soon, after
      being displayed to similar gatherings in nearby neighborhoods.

      "Death to the counterrevolutionary hooligans!" the officer shouts,
      fist raised.

      "It was like a celebration," Li says now, on the phone from her
      office at Mills College in Oakland, where she recently accepted a
      tenure-track teaching job. "I was in a celebrating mood too." Back
      then, she didn't know any better.

      She learned. She watched her mother close the windows before
      speaking of certain things. She saw her horrified looks when Li's
      grandfather, who had been known to call Mao Tse-tung "the king of
      hell," mouthed off about the Communist Party. She absorbed repeated
      warnings "never to say anything to anyone outside the house."

      Li was born in 1972, the year President Nixon shocked the world with
      his tête-à-tête with Chairman Mao. She came of age just as China was
      laying the groundwork for its economic boom. She remembers her
      physicist father traveling abroad and coming home with descriptions
      of the beauty of Paris — and, just as important, permission to
      import the family's first refrigerator. She recalls thinking, "I
      hope my life won't be like this forever."

      She also remembers Tiananmen Square.

      In the spring of 1989, as student-led protests began to build in
      Beijing, Li was in high school, a 15-minute bike ride from the
      square. Her parents were pessimistic from the beginning — "They said
      the government would shoot at people" — but Li was more hopeful. She
      found herself particularly moved by a group of middle-aged men that
      she recalls stood quietly by the side of the road. Their sign
      read: "We have knelt down all our lives. This is our opportunity to
      stand up as human beings."

      On the night the army crushed the protests, Li's parents locked her
      in her room. Her mother ventured out and came back crying, saying
      she'd seen the body of an 8-year-old boy. The next morning, her
      father reported seeing piles of bodies in a hospital bicycle garage.
      A good friend was picked up for questioning. "It was like 9/11," she
      says. "Everybody knew somebody" who'd been in the square that night.

      Everybody in Beijing, perhaps. But Chinese television started saying
      right away that no one had been killed, and many outside the capital
      believed this.

      Two years later, Li found herself in the army. Fearing a repeat of
      the democracy movement, the government had required all students
      entering Peking University to go through a year of political
      reeducation first.

      "Imagine a zipper on your mouth," her mother told her as her army
      year began. "Zip it up tight." But as Li wrote last year in the
      British magazine Prospect, she couldn't control her anger. One day
      she found herself telling her squad mates about the massacre.

      "Was it true people got killed?" a young woman asked.

      "Don't spread rumors," her squad leader said.

      After her outburst, Li became terrified of reprisals. She was lucky.
      The squad leader reported her, but the officer who got the report
      chose not to pass it on.

      Out of the army, studying biology, Li focused on one goal: to get
      into an American graduate school. She got into four and chose the
      University of Iowa, in part because she could study immunology there.

      Li had a boyfriend in China, to whom she is now married, but at the
      time he stayed behind. Lonely, she signed up for an adult-education
      writing class, the kind mainly populated by middle-aged women at
      loose ends. The teacher singled her out for encouragement. For
      years, that remained her only contact with other writers.

      "I wrote by myself," she says.

      In the fall of 2000, about to turn 28 and closing in on her
      immunology doctorate, she started to panic — because she'd realized
      that she really wanted to be a writer. She talked to her advisor and
      arranged to leave the program with a master's degree. The next
      summer, she signed up for a class taught by short-story virtuoso
      James Alan McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

      McPherson's Southern accent flummoxed her — "I couldn't understand
      most of what he said" — but one particular point he made got
      through. In the Western world, and especially in America, he told
      the class, the focus is so much on the individual that "we have lost
      the community voice." But that voice is still present in writing
      from countries such as China and Japan.

      Something clicked. Before long, Li was showing McPherson a story
      called "Immortality." Written from the point of view of an entire
      town, using the first person plural, its first sentence reads: "This
      story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were

      McPherson thought it was wonderful. "It's what a teacher lives for,"
      he says.

      Li says she was still so timid that "it blew my mind that a great
      writer — a great human being — even noticed me."

      She and her writing, however, soon were getting noticed more.

      Admitted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop — widely viewed as the best
      graduate writing program in the country — she wound up earning two
      additional master's degrees, one in fiction and one in creative
      nonfiction. Long before she finished them, she sold "Immortality" to
      the Paris Review. She sold another story to the New Yorker. Random
      House's Medina came to speak at Iowa in November 2003 and was given
      both stories to read. She thinks she read "Immortality" on the
      flight back to New York.

      "I remember just starting to shake, it was so good," Medina
      says. "I've been an editor for 150 years, and I don't jump off
      planes and buy books based on one story" — but that's essentially
      what she did, signing Li to her two-book deal in a matter of weeks.

      The first book was "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers." Its 10
      stories are populated by "natives and exiles of post-Mao, post-
      Tiananmen China," as the Washington Post's reviewer put it: ordinary
      people who are "victims of tradition and change, of old barbarities
      and recent upheavals." Each story, the review concluded, "feels
      fresh, wise and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and
      heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes

      The first immigration lawyer Li consulted was recommended by
      scientist friends. When he found out she was a writer, she says, he
      told her she'd have to be "the second coming of Ernest Hemingway"
      for her petition to succeed.

      She found another lawyer and filed for permanent residency in August
      2004. She heard nothing for nine months, then USCIS asked for more
      information. In her original application, she had relied heavily on
      writers and editors she knew, many of them connected to the Writers'
      Workshop. The immigration bureau asked, among other things, for
      evidence that those outside her "circle of colleagues and
      acquaintances" considered her work significant.

      Li and her friends scrambled to get additional testimonials to
      her "extraordinary ability." They came up with more than 20, among
      them novelist Salman Rushdie and New Yorker Editor David Remnick.

      None of this helped.

      Li's submission, according to the decision from USCIS's Nebraska
      Service Center, was "not persuasive" that she had "risen to the very
      top of the field of endeavor." The decision also denied that "any
      specific works by the petitioner are particularly renowned as
      significant contemporary writing."

      The problem, Li's supporters think, may be a failure to understand
      the intensely competitive world of literary publishing.

      "Yiyun Li is a huge success in literary fiction," Medina says. "But
      how does that read," she wonders, to someone unfamiliar with the
      context for her accomplishments?

      Asked about this, USCIS senior public affairs officer Christopher
      Bentley said it would be "premature for us as an organization" to
      comment on Li's case now. "Everything is working exactly the way it
      should," Bentley said. "A decision was made, the decision was
      disagreed with, the customer took advantage of her right to appeal
      that decision."

      In late September, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" won the Frank
      O'Connor International Short Story Award, which carries a monetary
      prize. The award came too late to be included in Li's appeal.

      Li doesn't know what she'll do if the appeal is denied. She has a
      temporary visa that will permit her to keep working in the United
      States for several more years, after which she might try again for
      permanent residency status.

      If she can't be an American, it is not clear who she will become.
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