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The Vagrants

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
Feb 16, 2010 | 368 Pages
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    Feb 16, 2010 | 368 Pages

  • Ebook $5.99

    Feb 03, 2009 | 352 Pages

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“Powerful and thoughtful . . . a revelation.”—The Washington Post
“Extraordinary . . . beautifully paced, exquisitely detailed . . . In this most amazing first novel, Yiyun Li has found a way to combine the jeweled precision of her short-story-writer’s gaze with a spellbinding vision of the power of the human spirit.”—Chicago Tribune

The Vagrants is pure pleasure and a must-read.”—San Francisco magazine
“[Li is] one of America’s best young novelists.”—Newsweek
“[A] fully transporting vision.”—The New York Times


American Library Association Notable Books WINNER 2010

IMPAC Dublin Literary Award FINALIST 2011

Author Q&A

Other People’s Stories 
Yiyun Li 

When I was growing up in Beijing, in a two-bedroom flat shared by my parents, my grandfather, my sister, and me, the only good piece of furniture we had was a hardwood wardrobe, which my grandfather had purchased for my parents when they got married. The wardrobe was painted deep red, and on both doors were golden characters in the most elegant calligraphy. 

I was an early and a late reader at the same time—early meaning I had begun, around age three, assigning sound and meaning to each of the characters on the wardrobe, and depending on the day and my mood the characters together would form different messages; late meaning that only when I turned seven did I realize that the words on the wardrobe were a quotation from Chairman Mao, calling all Chinese people to take on the glorious task of liberating the repressed working class around the world. 

Once I knew the exact meanings of the words on the wardrobe, I lost interest in them and turned my attention to the outside world, though at the time the world offered little for a hungry mind—I would be thirteen before I was allowed into a library; there were not many books or magazines for a child to read except for the Communist Young Pioneers’ Weekly; on my parents’ bookcases there were old translations of Russian and Soviet novels, but the long and incomprehensible names of the characters intimidated me, and I did not pursue them until much later. 

The discovery of the execution announcements thus came as much-needed education for me. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, there was a surge of executions across the nation, and every week several new announcements would cover the old ones from the previous week at the entrance to our residence compound. I read the announcements—with trepidation at first, for fear of the grown-ups’ disapproval, but when my mother would read along with me on our walks to the nearby marketplace, I knew I could return to the announcements and reread them as many times as I wanted. I soon accumulated a vocabulary of legal terms such as “counterrevolutionary hooliganism.” Oftentimes, apart from the basic information about a criminal—name, sex, birthdate and birthplace, verdict— there would be a small paragraph of narrative about the crime, of - fering just enough details to make a child’s mind run wild with imagination. To this day I remember a few cases distinctly: in one, two brothers seduced newlywed women, persuading them to have sex with the promise of watching imported movies from the West, because they considered it less of a crime than seducing a virgin; in another, a teenager robbed a fruit peddler of his day’s earnings; in yet another, a group of young men and women were caught having parties where they learned yao bai wu—the Chinese name for “swing dance,” which had become a sign of new hooliganism under Western influence. 

I spent the years between eight and eleven reading the weekly announcements; they became less frequent in the mid-1980s. Still, the huge checks in red ink (a sign for immediate execution) covering the black words on white paper, the golden national emblem on the announcements, and the official signatures stayed with me, and much later, when I became a writer, I would go back to the memory. Many of the death sentences, in retrospect, were unfortunate products of the era. It is my job as a writer to reimagine what was not given in those death announcements, just as once I had assigned meanings and interpretations to Chairman Mao’s message on our wardrobe; it was awareness that the life and story of a real person could not be summarized in one paragraph on an execution announcement, along with other memories, that began my journey to the writing of The Vagrants. 

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