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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 20, 2009

Yiyun Li, alumna of UI fiction and nonfiction programs, reads March 3

Yiyun Li, the acclaimed author who is an alumna of both the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Nonfiction Writing Program, will read from "The Vagrants," her new novel, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, in the Prairie Lights bookstore at 15 S. Dubuque St. in downtown Iowa City. The "Live from Prairie Lights" series event will be streamed live and then archived on the UI Writing University Web site

Critic Lauren Nemroff wrote, "During the Cultural Revolution countless unspeakable acts went down in the otherwise unremarkable industrial town of Muddy River. Lovers betrayed lovers, children denounced their parents, and neighbors became sworn enemies. A few years later, the townspeople have convened at the public stadium to witness the execution of Gu Shan. A Red Guard leader in her youth, she has received the death penalty for her counterrevolutionary writings and unrepentant attitude.

"In Yiyun Li's startling debut novel, 'The Vagrants,' we are introduced to Gu's parents, neighbors, and a handful of Muddy River's social outcasts whose lives have been irrevocably affected by her life and death. Yiyun Li's unblinking and unpredictable fictional narrative demonstrates how corruption and cruelty, fear, and moral ambiguity at the level of the individual reflect the dehumanization of an entire society."

A starred review in Publishers Weekly calls the book a "magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim novel" and predicts, "the reader can't help being drawn into the novel, like a sleeper trapped in an anxiety dream."

Li emigrated from China in 1996, with minimal command of English, to pursue a doctorate in immunology, but three years later she gave up that pursuit to become a writer. Her collection of short stories, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, Slate Best Book of 2006 and the Guardian First Book Award. She was also honored with a 2006 Whiting Writers' Award, and her work was included in "Granta's Best of Young American Novelists 2."

Li told a Los Angeles Times reporter that while "The Vagrants" was inspired by actual events in the recent history of her homeland -- including events she experienced personally while growing up in Beijing -- she does not see the work as an historical or political document.

"The people here don't see themselves as living in history," she said. "Politics is like the weather: People get used to bad weather, talk about the weather, but life goes on. People desire the same things everywhere: a little bit of power, a little bit of money, comfort, love.

"The last time I went back everybody said, 'You must be so surprised . . . so much has changed!' But people don't change. Physical things change, the city changes its look. Otherwise, people are very similar to what they were many years ago."

The Writers' Workshop is a graduate program and the Nonfiction Writing Program is part of the UI English Department in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Jan Weissmiller,; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073 (office), 319-430-1013 (cell),