Yiyun Li: A Voice That Won't Be Silenced

Photo Credit: Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post

Not convinced that a so-called somewhat mysterious "voice" is essential for top-notch writing? Read this Washington Post story of Chinese-born Yiyun Li, who mastered English after coming to the States for graduate studies. Li has masterfully wielded this "foreign" language to secure a two-book contract from Random House for $200,000, and to win writing honors galore. Unfortunately, ironically, her application for U.S. citizenship has been denied, and she's in the process of appealing.

I was inspired by her positive take on writing in a language that's not your mother tongue, as I've mourned my own loss of aptitude in Bangla:
Her style is straightforward, but McPherson (her teacher) thinks she's "reinvigorating the English language with rhythms and ways of speech that are found in Chinese." More important, perhaps, writing in English has reinvigorated Li.

"Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language," a young woman says to her father in Li's title story. "It makes you a new person."

"I couldn't write in Chinese," Li says, acknowledging the autobiographical component of her character's observation. She held herself back both because she'd grown up in a family reluctant to express emotions directly and because of the oppressive political imperative to keep her lip zipped. In high school, she once ripped up something she'd written about Tiananmen Square just before she was to hand it in to her teacher. While in the army, she kept a journal but wrote only nature descriptions.

"When I wrote in Chinese, I censored myself," she says. "I feel very lucky that I've discovered a language I can use."