“Tolstoy did not neglect to describe the outhouses”: Yiyun Li on the Material Concerns of Characters and Writers
The Author of Wednesday’s Child on Class, Money, Joy, and Luxury
One of the questions I often ask my students, while reading their work, is: what is a character’s livelihood? Such money-mindedness may be considered too prosaic by some of my students, or too realistic, or not of the top literary quality. But I like to point out that a character does not live on air and dew. Where does bread come? And toilet paper? The great Tolstoy in War and Peace did not neglect to describe the outhouses near the front. A character’s loneliness and isolation can be touching, but loneliness and isolation, like ball gowns or gourmet sandwiches, are part of an economic activity, and so come with a price.
In August, 1996, I arrived in America with two suitcases, which included everything I thought I would need for my new life—clothes for warm and cold seasons, two scarfs, a pair of gloves, a pair of sneakers, a pair of sandals, two packages of sanitary napkins, and a folding knife my sister had bought the last moment and slipped into my suitcase. I also had five one-hundred-dollar bills in my wallet, which was a brand-new leather one. I retired this wallet two months ago, after twenty-seven years. It was very tattered in 2023.
My rent that first year in Iowa City, for a studio apartment of 200 square feet, was $275. I earned a stipend of $15,600 as a graduate student in the immunology program in the University of Iowa. The first week after I settled down, I found a job flipping burgers at the Student Union, but a week later, I was told that I was not allowed at the job, as my stipend counted as 20 hours of graduate work in the lab. A non-residential alien on an F-1 student visa is not allowed to work for more than 20 hours a week.
The Cub Foods of Iowa City was where I did most of my grocery shopping. That first year I bought the cheapest white bread, at 9c a bag, which would last a week. A friend of mine had a friend working at local Hy-Vee, and sometimes she would give me a free bag of very good bread that was past the expiration date. These breads came at $1.49 or $2.49 a bag, and even past their prime they tasted very good, and put my 9c bread to shame. The next year, my husband joined me, and our bread was upgraded to the 19c a bag. And a year later, to 29c. In the following years we kept upgrading our bread, to 49c, 89c until $1.49 when I got my first job working in a hospital lab in 2002.
I did not feel poor. I was already smitten by the most unrealistic idea of taking up English and becoming a writer. The dream was the most luxurious thing that happened to me by then. Wealth was abundant around me: there were all the books in the library; there were all the vocabularies I wanted to learn; there was a retired local journalist who tutored me Latin and French for a nominal fee—I think she loved the idea of someone wanting to learn a new language, and she herself spoke fourteen.
In 2000, I gave up my science training, found a job in a laboratory, wrote, and then, between 2002 and 2005, I enrolled in two MFA programs at Iowa. By then I was a new mother, and to be on student’s visa meant that once again I could only work for 20 hours a week. I lost my job at the lab. I did not receive any funding the first year I was in the MFA program. Still, I felt very happy—to be given a seat in a writing program felt a luxury in itself. Our family of three was then supported mostly by my husband’s graduate stipend. We moved into the most inexpensive housing available to us, in a complex that had once been an army barracks and was then used as family housing for (mostly) international students. Our two-bedroom apartment cost $425 a month. Our childcare cost $500 a month.The joy came from knowing that I did not have to be a writer; in fact, I was not in the best position to be a writer; and yet I chose to.
And still, I did not feel poor. In fact, if I were allowed to make a cliché statement, I would say those years of being a non-residential alien, building a marriage, becoming a mother, and working toward being a writer—those years were full of a purposeful joy. I was not carefree, but I was full of care toward a family and a career that was not yet a career.
During this time, two conversations with my MFA classmates struck me as extraordinary. In one, someone commented that I was the only one in the program living in the graduate slum west of Iowa River. (Most of my cohort lived in houses around town—not posh, but much better than the cement blocks we lived in.) The other conversation was with a brilliant young woman, who complained about not having enough money and so not being able to give her attention to writing. (She was fully funded by the program, but she had also taken a loan out for the three-year program.) Not many of my Iowa cohort could be called wealthy, I suppose, but most of them were American citizens. (If only I were allowed to work…) And many of them shopped at Co-Op, which at the time was a place I would never set foot in. Many ate out. In our entire Iowan time—nine years total—we only ate out on special occasions.
I’m writing these things out not to romanticize the experience of being a poor artist-in-training or the difficulty of being an immigrant. In fact, what I remembered most vividly about this time, was the joy of staying up after the baby fell asleep and working between midnight and 4am. We lived in a cramped situation, and my office desk was a folding tray table, picked up at a garage sale for $5. Those night hours—typing on a wobbly table, facing no window but a cold wall of white-washed bricks, hearing the late cargo trains rumble past our back window (we lived right next to the train track) and hoping the baby would not be stirred up by the noise—the joy of those hours was not about the poetic beauty of being a writer or living any kind of writerly style. Rather, the joy came from knowing that I did not have to be a writer; in fact, I was not in the best position to be a writer; and yet I chose to. That decision in itself was a luxury.
Then one day I got a call from The Paris Review, asking if a story I had sent to their slush pile was still available. I started to laugh on the phone. “You’re asking if the story is still available!” I exclaimed. The woman on the phone, who has since become my closest friend, said that they had researched but they could find nothing about me on the internet. (That too, in retrospect, was a luxury.)
In September, 2003, I published my first story in The Paris Review, and was paid $1000. That week my husband and I went to the Fairway Grocery and bought four 6-oz cartons of blueberries, at a whopping price of $1.5 a carton. It was the first time in my life that I tasted blueberries, paid by the money I earned from writing.