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Watching the Execution

Execution in Chinese Village a Backdrop to Novel

New America Media, Audio, Q&A, Yiyun Li & Sandip Roy Posted: Mar 22, 2009

Editors Note: The execution of a young woman for being a counter-revolutionary lies at the heart of Yiyun Li searing new novel The Vagrants. Set in a small provincial town in the late 70s, The Vagrants documents how that execution reverberates throughout the small town as everyone, knowingly or unknowingly, gets caught up in its aftermath. Li won a multitude of awards for her book of short stories "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and joined host Sandip Roy on New America Now, NAMs radio program.

How common were executions like the one that's at the center of your novel, when you were growing up in China?

It was not unusual. It happened. I remember just as the characters did in the book, I actually went to a couple denunciation ceremonies, right before executions, as a child.

What is a denunciation ceremony?
Mainly, its for education purposes so when the prisoner was sentenced to death they would be paraded around the neighborhood, from neighborhood to neighborhood. Someone would announce their crime and why they were going to be executed. Then they would parade them around the next neighborhood.

Was that really like a class field trip, the way it sounds in your book?

It was for me. Between [age] 5 and 6, I attended two ceremonies. It was quite festive because it was something that didn't happen everyday and you left your school or daycare, you went to see all these people, and mysteriously you saw all these bad people too, escorted onto the stage. People were rather, not callous, but people were getting used to these things. They would go to the fieldtrip and then get on with their own lives.

Did your parents ever talk to you about this later?

No, my parents never talked about these things. I was in daycare, and my sister was in elementary school. I would run into her at the denunciation meeting, which was fun. But, no, my parents never talked to me about these things.

Details in this novel are stunning: a little invalid girl licking the flour paste used as glue for the execution notice. Was poverty a part of your growing up?

I did not grow up in that poverty, but I did eat flour paste. We have a chemical glue that was rather expensive, so my father would not spend money on chemical glue, he would make a little flour paste and I would eat the leftover paste, which actually tastes really good. That detail came to me because if someone is hungry, she will do anything, she will eat anything. That's coming from the character.

The events in this book are often so violent and horrific, yet the people watching, and are around them are so ordinary. Did that interaction really interest you?

Yes. My main interest as a writer is people who are not in the center of the action. In this case, the center of action would be in Beijing where the pro-Democratic movement was going on. Or even the center of action in that provincial town where the execution was, and how people protested.
I'm more interested in people on the edge; their reactions are often times interesting. I also feel that they contribute as much to the actions in the end as onlookers, as the audience.

Did you know people like Gu Shan? Shes a woman who is executed, who at one time had been a Red Guard -- a vicious and militant one. She kicked a pregnant woman in her belly, and then in a twist of fate, is condemned as a counter-revolutionary.

I did not know someone like her, but the book was loosely based on a real case, in which a woman, who used to be really militant and revolutionary, had a change of heart. She just turned to the other side and was executed. A lot of details were also taken from other executions. There were a lot of executions around that time, and they would do all these horrible things before an execution.

Including selling someone's kidneys?

Well, yes that came from another case, including cutting someone's vocal chords, so the prisoner, before execution, could not say anything.

Do executions in China still have denunciation ceremonies?

It probably doesn't happen that often now. But when I was working on the novel, I looked at very updated pictures and probably in some provincial towns such things do happen. I wouldn't say they happen every day.

I wonder if you are criticized for writing about such grim things in China, when China is working really hard to put that behind it. It wants to talk about 'lifting millions out of poverty.

I don't think it's a writer's role to broadcast or represent a country. If you read Toni Morrison, for instance, she's still writing about slavery. Well, this country has put slavery away long ago, but now, history still lives on and I think, for me that grimness is not my goal. It's just to find a perfect background for a novel and for my characters to live.

Transcription by Laurie Simmons.

Click here to hear the full interview.


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