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In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, while the West was immersed in a revolution of personal liberation, China underwent another kind of upheaval, the Cultural Revolution, in which the state clamped down on bourgeois hedonism and targeted even the mildest of dissidents.

This is the setting of “The Vagrants” (Random House: 338 pp., $25), the first novel by Yiyun Li, a Northern California writer regarded for her short stories -- a world of rooftop loudspeakers, of Maoist propaganda posters, of a couple charged for the bullet used to execute their renegade daughter. For Western readers, it’s as vivid a portrait as they are likely to get outside a Zhang Yimou film.

Li, however, cautions against reading her book as either a historical or political document.


“The people here don’t see themselves as living in history,” the author, 36, said at a cafe on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus, near her Oakland home. “Politics is like the weather: People get used to bad weather, talk about the weather, but life goes on. People desire the same things everywhere: a little bit of power, a little bit of money, comfort, love. I don’t want to make them victims of the times.”


A personal epiphany

“The Vagrants” is based on an actual incident that took place in 1979 -- what Li calls a hinge moment between the rigid Maoist era and the greater openness of contemporary China -- in which a young woman was executed and, afterward, mutilated and raped.

Though this event triggered a large protest, official coverage was minimal. And yet, for Li, it opened up a host of associations, of issues, about the culture in which such a thing might occur.

“My interest was not in the woman so much,” Li said, “but in the town. So I started asking questions. Not about the center of the action but the people around the edges. I’m interested in onlookers and their reactions.”

James Alan McPherson, a professor of Li’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, once told her that American writers had lost, in their pursuit of individualism, “the community voice.”

In “The Vagrants,” Li uses not a single community voice (as she does in her short story “Immortality”) but a collage of points of view to show how the aftershock of a single provincial execution could lead to a groundswell anticipating Tiananmen Square.

A meticulous attention to detail is what makes “The Vagrants” work. To Li, this is essential. “It’s hard to make this world real,” she said. “It’s so foreign to most of my readers.”

Li is a petite, gentle-seeming woman who offers a shy smile as she recounts unspeakable horrors. Her novel can be almost relentlessly grim.

“I think the innocence is probably just a surface thing,” said Wayne Wang, who directed the 2007 film “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” based on the title story of Li’s 2005 short fiction collection. (Li wrote the screenplay.) “I think she sees very much the pain, the tragic things. She sees pretty deeply into that.”

Li, who now teaches at UC Davis, was profoundly shaped by growing up in a country very different from the superpower of today.

Born in 1972, the year President Nixon went to China, Li grew up during the last years of Mao Zedong’s reign. At 5, she attended a denunciation ceremony in which four bound men were presented to the crowd for jeering and cursing before they were taken to the next angry mob and, eventually, their execution.

In the early 1980s, she said, executions became even more frequent. “The goal was to cleanse the society. If you had a dance party at home -- there was a lot of Western influence -- you could be executed. At the time, if you danced swing, it was a horrible, horrible crime.”

Such events shaped not only Li’s moral and political attitudes but also her interest in narrative: The executions were announced by large white sheets of paper recounting the lives and crimes of the condemned. The notes were covered in big red checks to demonstrate that a prison sentence had been completed.

These announcements intrigued her. They were miniature crime novels, full of “very vivid storytelling.”


‘I’m just curious’

As she grew up, China opened somewhat -- or so it seemed. But the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 took place while Li was in high school; her parents locked her in her bedroom to keep her safe.

All this, Li notes, is overlooked or sugarcoated in official histories and avoided in conversation. “History wasn’t really written anywhere,” she said. “There was no record, or a minimal record. You just wondered, ‘What happened to those people?’ ”

Given the enormity of the suffering and the lack of a good historical record, it would be natural to think that Li is trying to serve as a conscience for her country. She doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think it’s my role to document,” Li said, “because I’m making up things. I shouldn’t claim any grander purpose -- I’m just curious.”

In that sense, Li sees herself as different from the best-known Chinese writer in America, Ha Jin, whose 1999 novel, “Waiting,” won a National Book Award. Jin, she said, is at heart a Russian writer, since his most dedicated reading has been of Tolstoy and Dostoevski, and he writes “very expansive novels” on the Russian model.


A writer emerges

Li, on the other hand, sees herself as an Irish writer and has always felt at home in stories of Irish villages or Dublin neighborhoods.

“I was in the army, 18 or 19, and I carried this copy of ‘Dubliners’ with me,” she said. She liked the mood of Joyce’s stories, especially “Eveline,” in which a woman sits by her window and decides she lacks the courage to leave Ireland with her beloved.

Li moved to the United States in 1996 to study immunology at the University of Iowa. Her love of literature led her to enroll in an adult education class and, eventually, at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

There, she discovered her own talents, while reading, among other things, the stories of William Trevor. Li admires the way “he looks at everything without missing a single detail. And his language is very pure.”

The characters in “The Vagrants” -- especially Bashi, a shadowy young drifter fascinated with the condemned woman -- bear more than a passing resemblance to Trevor’s: “neither good nor bad but disturbing.”

They remind Li of a teenage boy she played with as a little girl. The son of her mother’s friend, he was also a known pedophile. “What do you do with these people?” Li asked about this boy, with whom she was never left alone. “You live with them. Trevor has a lot of compassion for people who are a little bit off. And he’s interested in people who have secrets, who have a double life. I think all societies have people with double lives.”

Li, of course, has led her own kind of double life, even in this country, where she fought to establish residency. In 2007, after waves of petitions and lawyers, Li -- who had won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, had a tenure-track job at Mills College and placed stories in the New Yorker -- became a resident alien. “I come from outer space,” she joked.

Li’s next novel will look at contemporary China -- her parents still live there -- with its rampaging market economy, breakdown of family bonds and remade sexual mores.

“The last time I went back,” she recalls, “everybody said, ‘You must be so surprised . . . so much has changed!’

“But people don’t change. Physical things change, the city changes its look. Otherwise, people are very similar to what they were many years ago.”