THE New Yorker recently announced its 20 Under 40 list of American writers, running some of them in their summer fiction issue and others since.
Two of the bunch – Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li – were fairly recent profile subjects of mine, and I’ve enjoyed, without surprise, watching their rise. Both are foreign-born writers who’ve settled in the Bay Area and show the ability – despite nativist stirrings elsewhere in the culture – of the West Coast to absorb talent from elsewhere.
I spoke to Alarcon, who was born in Peru, right before the publication of his mythic, almost post-apocalyptic Lost City Radio, one of the best debut novels of recent years. Here's my piece.
Alarcon -- at the time teaching at Mills College in Oakland – and I discussed Peru’s bloody history, the war on terror, Russian novelists, and the way American publishers stereotype Latin-American literature.
Among other things, Alarcon is an exemplar of globalism. He told me how his posses in Lima and Oakland are pretty similar:
"The language they speak is different, but we do the same things. We write, read a lot, nurse drinking problems -- typical bohemians. In Oakland we speak in English, in Lima in Spanish. We listen to the same music, have the same references -- there are certain clubs in Lima where they only play the Cure and the Smiths."
Yiyun Li spent her childhood and early adulthood in China – she has eerie members of being a high school student during the Tianenmen Square massacre – and moved to the states in the mid-‘90s. The characters in her first novel are living through the nastiness of the Cultural Revolution. I spoke to her, here.
"The people here don't see themselves as living in history," she told me 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."
Li considers herself at heart an Irish writer – she remembers being in the army as an 18 or 19 year old and reading Joyce’s Dubliners and seeing a whole world open up. Her first story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is remarkable, especially its story “Immortality.”
Li has another story collection coming, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and she tours on the book this fall. I know I’m not the only reader looking forward to it.