Writer Yiyun Li named MacArthur “genius” Fellow


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Author Yiyun Li is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, it was announced today. Li, who lives in northern California and is an assistant professor at UC Davis, was giddy when The Times reached her by phone. What will the fellowship mean to her? ‘It means that I have more time to write.’

‘At this moment, I have two children and I teach full time,’ she said. The MacArthur Fellowship-- $500,000, paid out over five years -- is a no-strings-attached grant, often referred to as a ‘genius grant.’ Looking into her future, Li expects ‘a little bit less teaching, a little more time to focus on writing.’


The MacArthur Fellowships are awarded to ‘individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits’ in all fields. This year’s fellows include a biomedical animator, an oceanographer, an optical physicist, a theater director, a linguist, a molecular biologist and a stone carver.

Li was born and raised in China. She was in high school during the Tiananmen Square massacre; her parents locked her in her bedroom to keep her safe. She was a science student -- albeit one who carried a copy of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ with her when she served in the Chinese army -- and came to the U.S. in 1996 to study immunology. She landed at the University of Iowa -- home of the elite Iowa Writers Workshop -- and began studying creative writing after finishing her bachelor of science degree there.

Earlier this year, Li was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, a list of upcoming fiction writers to watch. Her novel ‘The Vagrants’ won the California Book Award for Fiction; her debut collection, ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,’ won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award and the California Book Award for first fiction. Her latest book, ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,’ is also a short-story collection; released on September 14, it hasn’t won any awards -- yet.

This class of MacArthur Fellows also includes historian Annette Gordon-Reed, whose meticulously researched books ‘Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy’ (1997) and ‘The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family’ (2008) brought readers new understandings of Jefferson and the black families who worked for him. ‘The Hemingses of Monticello’ won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in history; Gordon-Reed teaches at Harvard.

Television writer and producer David Simon, the creator of ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Corner’ and ‘Treme,’ is also a 2010 MacArthur Fellow. He spoke to our sibling blog Showtracker.

Previous MacArthur Fellows include authors Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Lydia Davis, Colson Whitehead, Edwidge Danticat, David Foster Wallace and George Saunders.


Winning the MacArthur, Li said, ‘is not something I would even dream about.’

-- Carolyn Kellogg