Yiyun Li on the long shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre

Yiyun Li's novel Kinder Than Solitude draws upon her own memories of being a 16-year-old in Beijing. This interview was originally broadcast in June 2014.
Yiyun Li is the author of many award-winning novels and short story collections, including A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Kinder Than Solitude. (Penguin Random House Canada)
Listen to the full episode53:39

When Yiyun Li arrived in Iowa from China to study immunology at the age of 23, she took a community writing course to improve her English. To her surprise, it was the beginning of an illustrious career in fiction, which has spawned award-winning books like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants. 

Li's novel Kinder Than Solitude, published in 2014, explores the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre and draws upon her own memories of being a 16-year-old in Beijing. The novel shifts between three lives in the later months of 1989 and follows up with them 21 years later. The three characters, former friends, have resisted talking about the public tragedy for over two decades, though they are haunted by the poisoning of their young activist friend.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Yiyun Li in June 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Li's latest book is a memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, which was released last week.

Remembering the Tiananmen Square massacre

I was a little mathematics genius, so on Saturday afternoon my friend and I went to this special mathematics school. When we came back, we started to see buses being overturned and people gathering. I came home and told my parents that things did not look very good in the street, so my parents said my sister and I could not go out that night. Then my mother asked my father to guard us so we could not run away, and then she went into the street. I do not think she went far from our apartment, but by then the shooting had already begun. She saw probably one of the youngest victims — seven or eight years old, a boy dead in his mother's arms. My mother came home crying.

The long shadow of Tiananmen Square

Kinder Than Solitude is not a political novel, except that it's a novel with a political setting. It happens in 1989, a few months after the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of the characters was an active protestor, but other than a few neighbourhood grown-ups, most people were avoiding talking about it. Especially the three main characters. I did not write the book to negate 1989, but I was fascinated by my characters' refusal to acknowledge 1989. I think negative space tells us a lot about characters. They live in the big shadow of Tiananmen Square and public tragedy, and they will not acknowledge that. It's a shadow that said life could be turned into nothing. All three characters do not escape this shadow.

The violence of poisoning

In 1995, in a college next to the university I went to, a student was poisoned by a heavy metal chemical. She recovered the first time. She returned to school and was poisoned again. She went into a coma quickly. At the time there was no diagnosis. The internet was not very available in China then, but her high school friend had access to internet so he sent an SOS email to the world and said, "Her symptoms include this and this and this." Within the day, hundreds of emails returned and said she was poisoned. She was saved, but she was disabled. Nobody was arrested or charged, even though it is widely believed her roommate or maybe her three roommates did it together. This is a real case.

Poisoning happens all the time in China and, in general, when I started the novel, I was interested in people who poisoned other people. Poisoning is a very passive-aggressive way to kill people. All murders are plotted, but poisoning has a special kind of plot. It's an intimate kind of crime because you have to have access to poison and also you have to have access to people's food or drink. I started to write the novel and I realized that poisoning was really more than physical violence. It's psychological violence.

Yiyun Li's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "The Breath" composed and performed by Chang Jing.