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University of Iowa News Release

March 16, 2006

PEN/Hemingway Awards, April 2, Will Be An All-Hawkeye Event

Black and gold will be appropriate attire when the PEN/Hemingway Award -- America's top honor for a first book of fiction -- is presented on April 2 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Not only does the winner, Yiyun Li, hold Master of Fine Arts degrees from both the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and the UI Non-fiction Program, but the other two finalists are also UI writers: Douglas Trevor is a faculty member in the UI English department and Daniel Alarcon is a graduate of the Writers' Workshop.

The library, which is the largest repository of Hemingway's work, annually hosts the ceremony for the award, which is presented by the Hemingway Foundation and PEN New England. The late Mary Hemingway, the wife of Ernest Hemingway, founded the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 1976 to honor her husband's memory and draw attention to first books of fiction.

PEN, the world's oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization, is an association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression and foster international literary fellowship.

Li was selected as the 2006 recipient for "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers." Trevor was a finalist in recognition of "The Thin Year in the Fabric of Space," winner of the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award; and Daniel Alarcon was a finalist for "War by Candlelight," which he wrote in a reading room on the second floor of the UI Main Library.

If that wasn't enough, the PEN/Hemingway presentation shares an event with the L.L. Winship/PEN/New England Awards, given annually to authors from New England or to authors whose writing includes a New England setting. The 2006 fiction winner is Jennifer Haigh, another Writers' Workshop graduate, who won the honor for "Baker Towers."

"I feel deeply honored," Li says. "I am also aware that on the list of previous winners are some of my literary heroes, including Marilynne Robinson, which makes me want to write 10 times better."

Li arrived in the United States from Beijing in 1996, with minimal command of English. Only a decade later she held her two UI degrees and had work published in major literary journals. She is also the most recent winner of the largest short story prize in the world: The inaugural Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, sponsored by O'Flynn Construction in Ireland, included a cash prize of 50,000 Euros.

Li says of her debut collection, "This is a book about small people who are never stars in the spotlight and who are sometimes extras even in their own lives," she says.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Writers' Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson, whose "Housekeeping" won the PEN/Hemingway Award, commented, "With great tenderness, tact and humor, these stories open a world that is culturally remote from us, and at the same time as humanly intimate as if its people were our own family and their thoughts the thoughts that lie nearest our own hearts."

Li has been in the news in recent months because the federal immigration bureaucracy rejected her petition for permanent residency status. As the Washington Post reported, "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 8, 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 endeavor.'

"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."

And then, earlier this year, her appeal was rejected as well. She was informed that "at the time of this filing the petitioner had not met the very high standard set by Congress to establish her 'extraordinary ability.'"

The wording of the decision appeared to suggest that Li could apply again: "Unfortunately, her most notable achievements occurred largely after this petition was filed."

On April 2, the PEN/Hemingway Award will be added to that list.

"The denial doesn't say I cannot file a new petition," Li told the Washington Post in February. "So I will try."

The Writers' Workshop, the English department and the non-fiction program are units in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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