Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The New Yorker's Young West Coast Writers

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.

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