Author Yiyun Li and the Pursuit of Passion

Yiyun Li signs a copy of her book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayer, for a student.Author Yiyun Li’s laughter and warmth eased the nerves of the many freshmen paying close attention to her talk Wednesday evening at the Soda Center.  Li’s appearance on campus was sponsored by the Saint Mary’s MFA program as part of their Creative Writing/Reading Series. Her short story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” was this year’s summer reading assignment for incoming freshmen.

So, while the students scribbled the notes they would have to share with their English professors the next morning, Li revealed what they had pondered all summer long: What motivated her to write these stories? What was the story behind the stories?

The selections in “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” describe the many struggles of the Chinese people whose world has been dominated by Communism. But it’s also about Li’s own life story and her inner struggle between following her dreams and conforming to the ordinary. In her youth, Li was a math prodigy preparing for a career in biology. With just a year left to complete her doctoral degree, she could no longer withhold the writer inside; she had to pursue her passion. 

Li began her talk with a quote from Steve Jobs, the innovative co-founder of Apple, who had a lot to say about pursuing your passion and who had just died that day. She described Jobs as someone with extraordinary vision about life. In his 2005 Stanford commencement address he said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”  Li trusted that she was meant to become an author, telling her story through the lives of the characters she brought to life. 

For her reading that night, Li chose to share a non-fiction story that described a time in her life when she was forced to be a scribe, copying documents, instead of doing what her heart yearned to do.  She recalled how her grandfather had told her she had “no future in the world” because she was a terrible scribe. She laughed along with the audience at the irony of her grandfather’s observation.

Li referred to her stories as her children, and credits them with helping her understand what it means to be American. As a Chinese immigrant, she values the freedom to trust her instincts, connect the dots of her life and be a living example of what it means to dream freely and find what makes you come alive.