Against the Grain: Minal Hajratwala and Yiyun Li

March 23, 2009

Full disclosure: Minal is a friend of mine. When I first moved to the San Francisco
Bay Area, almost 10 years ago, in search of a journalism job -- I was
told to talk to Minal, who was then an editor at the San Jose Mercury News.
Soon after, she went "underground" to write her book. I would see her
now and again, but I could tell that all her energy and focus were
going towards writing and synthesizing research for Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) -- released last week. I started reading the book on a quick trip
I took to India a few weeks ago and found it to be incredibly engaging.
The balance between her own experience as a South Asian American and
the detailed research of her family's migration makes it unlike other
Asian American non-fiction books out there. Plus, Minal is also an
acclaimed poet, so the writing is infused with a richness that makes it
a joy to read. [If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, come to a reading and launch party at The Booksmith (644 Haight Street, San Francisco) on Thursday March 26th from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.] She'll also be featured in the soon-to-be-published issue of Hyphen: The Family Issue.

I've been equally fascinated with all the media about Yiyun Li's novel The Vagrants, which focuses on the lives of several people in a small Chinese town whose lives are affected by the execution of two young women during the Cultural Revolution. Li's book has been consistently described as "brutal," "searing," "bleak" and the New York Times review said the novel was, in effect, "an anthology of horror stories." I can't tell you how excited I am about this book because of its unabashed darkness, which seems the best antecedent to the glut of over-exotified Chinese American novels. In an interview on New America Now radio, Li responds to a question about her subject matter by talking about Toni Morrison: "I don't think it's a writer's role to broadcast or represent a country. If you read Toni Morrison, for instance, she's still writing about slavery. Well, this country has put slavery away long ago, but now, history still lives on and I think, for me that grimness is not my goal. It's just to find a perfect background for a novel and for my characters to live." Li's first collection was the basis for Wayne Wang's 2007 A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. It would be interesting to compare Wang's Joy Luck Club to Good Prayers. Li is a professor at UC Davis and lives in Oakland.

Have people read either of these books? What do you think?




i hear "the vagrants" is an amazing read, though i have yet to read it myself!