The situations in life that leave Yiyun Li feeling "bewildered" are what compel her to write, the acclaimed author told a packed UNSWriting event this week.
The public lecture, held in conjunction with the Sydney Writers' Festival, is the result of a new partnership between the literary festival and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Li, a Beijing born and bred writer who now lives in California, discussed her debut novel, The Vagrants, with UNSW's Professor Jon von Kowallis, a Chinese literature specialist.
The novel, a scathing indictment of Communist China, has received praise from some of the world's toughest literary critics. The book centres around the 1979 execution of a female counter-revolutionary in a Beijing village.
But Li stated that The Vagrants wasn't intended as a historical or political novel, but as a study of human frailty and courage.
"I write because I'm curious about people and I write to make sense of what bewilders me," she said. "To me, this book is all about the characters. Writing is partly about becoming an actor - imagining how it feels to be homeless or to be old. As a writer you give up your own life to be in the moment of that character."
Li teaches writing at the University of California and her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories. Her debut short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction.
Like the pared prose of her books, Li's intention as a writer is simple: "If I can write one sentence that, even briefly, removes people from their practical world, then I'm happy," she said.
Yiyun Li will appear at various events throughout the Sydney Writers' Festival.
UNSW academics are participating in the Festival, speaking on subjects as diverse as the environment, climate change, Sydney Harbour, Irish literature and intensive care medicine.
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