March 30, 2023
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Life & Culture

Distinguished Visiting Writer Series hosts memoirist Yiyun Li

“What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance?” fiction writer Yiyun Li asks in her latest memoir, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life.” Her memoir is an intimate account of her life as a Chinese-American writer.

Li, a contributor for The New Yorker and a MacArthur Fellow, will be reading from her memoir at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 in Clark Lounge as the third installment of the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series.

Growing up in Beijing, China, Li earned her Bachelor of Science at Peking University in Beijing. After she immigrated to America in 1996, she earned her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. She lives in Oakland, California, and teaches at University of California, Davis.

Jack Wang, associate professor of writing, will be introducing Li at her reading. In an article published in The Atlantic in 2013, literary editor Ann Hulbert compares Li’s open-ended plots to those of Anton Chekhov, a Russian fiction writer and playwright, a comparison Wang said is worth noting.

“Li has been hailed as China’s Chekhov — and for good reason,” Wang said. “Through spare yet unstinting prose, she excavates … sorrows of ordinary lives with astonishing insight.”

Her novel “Kinder Than Solitude” and her collection of short stories “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” are works influenced by the intersection of culture and history in China and the United States, reflecting on her experience as a Chinese American.

Eleanor Henderson, associate professor of writing and head of Ithaca College’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series, said she is looking forward to hearing Li, who has been frequently talked about in the news lately.

“What is really exciting about Yiyun Li’s visit is that … [it] happened to coincide with the publication of the new book,” Henderson said. “She is a writer that is publishing very actively in The New Yorker and has been awarded as one of the top 20 writers under 40.

She said the writing department typically looks for critically acclaimed authors who will challenge and intrigue new writers and help them through their own projects. Li’s work as an author is versatile, ranging from fiction to memoir.

She will work closely with junior Monica Chen, senior Grace Rychwalski and 13 other students in individual conferences in the Visiting Writers Workshop, a course Henderson teaches in tandem with the series.

Henderson said the experience that writers gain through the workshop is similar to an advanced-level graduate course.

“I encountered this kind of experience in graduate school, but nothing like it in undergraduate,” Henderson said. “The experience is really valuable to the students, especially in the Writer’s Workshop, who work one-on-one with the writer.”

Chen said that after enrolling in the course last year to improve her poetry, she wanted another chance to learn from another distinguished writer, this time from Li.

While junior and senior students are prioritized, any student from any major can apply for the Distinguished Visiting Writers Workshop.

Chen said she reapplied to the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series because she feels that participants get more than just writing experience out of the workshop.

“I specifically applied to Yiyun Li because of her work with fiction because I think that fiction is something I struggle with,” Chen said. “When I took the Writer’s Workshop last year, I learned a lot about writing, but also life.”

Colin Barrett can be reached at or via Twitter: @colinb333555