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The Vagrants
Cover of The Vagrants
The Vagrants
A Novel
by Yiyun Li
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In luminous prose, award-winning author Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of unforgettable characters who are forced to make moral choices, and choices for survival, in China in the late 1970s. 
Shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 
Morning dawns on the provincial city of Muddy River. A young woman, Gu Shan, a bold spirit and a follower of Chairman Mao, has renounced her faith in Communism. Now a political prisoner, she is to be executed for her dissent. Her distraught mother, determined to follow the custom of burning her only child’s clothing to ease her journey into the next world, is about to make another bold decision. Shan’s father, Teacher Gu, who has already, in his heart and mind, buried his rebellious daughter, begins to retreat into memories. Neither of them imagines that their daughter’s death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond.
In luminous prose, Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of these and other unforgettable characters, including a serious seven-year-old boy, Tong; a 
crippled girl named Nini; the sinister idler Bashi; and Kai, a beautiful radio news announcer who is married to a man from a powerful family. Life in a world of oppression and pain is portrayed through stories of resilience, sacrifice, perversion, courage, and belief. We read of delicate moments and acts of violence by mothers, sons, husbands, neighbors, wives, lovers, and more, as Gu Shan’s execution spurs a brutal government reaction.
Writing with profound emotion, and in the superb tradition of fiction by such writers as Orhan Pamuk and J. M. Coetzee, Yiyun Li gives us a stunning novel that is at once a picture of life in a special part of the world during a historic period, a universal portrait of human frailty and courage, and a mesmerizing work of art.
Praise for The Vagrants
“She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle.”W Magazine
“A Balzacian look at one community’s suppressed loves and betrayals.”—Vogue
“A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression. . . . [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel.”O Magazine
In luminous prose, award-winning author Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of unforgettable characters who are forced to make moral choices, and choices for survival, in China in the late 1970s. 
Shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 
Morning dawns on the provincial city of Muddy River. A young woman, Gu Shan, a bold spirit and a follower of Chairman Mao, has renounced her faith in Communism. Now a political prisoner, she is to be executed for her dissent. Her distraught mother, determined to follow the custom of burning her only child’s clothing to ease her journey into the next world, is about to make another bold decision. Shan’s father, Teacher Gu, who has already, in his heart and mind, buried his rebellious daughter, begins to retreat into memories. Neither of them imagines that their daughter’s death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond.
In luminous prose, Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of these and other unforgettable characters, including a serious seven-year-old boy, Tong; a 
crippled girl named Nini; the sinister idler Bashi; and Kai, a beautiful radio news announcer who is married to a man from a powerful family. Life in a world of oppression and pain is portrayed through stories of resilience, sacrifice, perversion, courage, and belief. We read of delicate moments and acts of violence by mothers, sons, husbands, neighbors, wives, lovers, and more, as Gu Shan’s execution spurs a brutal government reaction.
Writing with profound emotion, and in the superb tradition of fiction by such writers as Orhan Pamuk and J. M. Coetzee, Yiyun Li gives us a stunning novel that is at once a picture of life in a special part of the world during a historic period, a universal portrait of human frailty and courage, and a mesmerizing work of art.
Praise for The Vagrants
“She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle.”W Magazine
“A Balzacian look at one community’s suppressed loves and betrayals.”—Vogue
“A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression. . . . [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel.”O Magazine
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One one 
    The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sob­bing quietly into her blanket. A day of equality it was, or so it had oc­curred to Teacher Gu many times when he had pondered the date, the spring equinox, and again the thought came to him: Their daughter’s life would end on this day, when neither the sun nor its shadow reigned. A day later the sun would come closer to her and to the others on this side of the world, imperceptible perhaps to dull human eyes at first, but birds and worms and trees and rivers would sense the change in the air, and they would make it their responsibil­ity to manifest the changing of seasons. How many miles of river melting and how many trees of blossoms blooming would it take for the season to be called spring? But such naming must mean little to the rivers and flowers, when they repeat their rhythms with faithfulness and indifference. The date set for his daughter to die was as arbitrary as her crime, determined by the court, of being an unrepen­tant counterrevolutionary; only the unwise would look for significance in a random date. Teacher Gu willed his body to stay still and hoped his wife would soon realize that he was awake. 

    She continued to cry. After a moment, he got out of bed and turned on the only light in the bedroom, an aging 10-watt bulb. A red plastic clothesline ran from one end of the bedroom to the other; the laundry his wife had hung up the night before was damp and cold, and the clothesline sagged from the weight. The fire had died in the small stove in a corner of the room. Teacher Gu thought of adding coal to the stove himself, and then decided against it. His wife, on any other day, would be the one to revive the fire. He would leave the stove for her to tend. 

    From the clothesline he retrieved a handkerchief, white, with printed red Chinese characters–a slogan demanding absolute loy­alty to the Communist Party from every citizen–and laid it on her pillow. “Everybody dies,” he said. 

    Mrs. Gu pressed the handkerchief to her eyes. Soon the wet stains expanded, turning the slogan crimson. 

    “Think of today as the day we pay everything off,” Teacher Gu said. “The whole debt.” 

    “What debt? What do we owe?” his wife demanded, and he winced at the unfamiliar shrillness in her voice. “What are we owed?” 

    He had no intention of arguing with her, nor had he answers to her questions. He quietly dressed and moved to the front room, leav­ing the bedroom door ajar. 

    The front room, which served as kitchen and dining room, as well as their daughter Shan’s bedroom before her arrest, was half the size of the bedroom and cluttered with decades of accumulations. A few jars, once used annually to make Shan’s favorite pickles, sat empty and dusty on top of one another in a corner. Next to the jars was a cardboard box in which Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu kept their two hens, as much for companionship as for the few eggs they laid. Upon hearing Teacher Gu’s steps, the hens stirred, but he ignored them. He put on his old sheepskin coat, and before leaving the house, he tore a sheet bearing the date of the previous day off the calendar, a habit he had maintained for decades. Even in the unlit room, the date, March 21, 1979, and the small characters underneath, Spring Equinox, stood out. He tore the second sheet off too and squeezed the two thin squares of paper into a ball. He himself was breaking a ritual now, but there was no point in...
About the Author-
  • Yiyun Li is the author of six works of fiction—Must I Go, Where Reasons End, Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. She is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award, a PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and a Windham-Campbell Prize, and was featured in The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 fiction issue. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 20, 2008
    Li's magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim novel centers on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary in the provincial town of Muddy River and spirals outward into a scathing indictment of Communist China. Former Red Guard leader Shan Gu is scheduled to be executed after a denunciation ceremony presided over by Kai, the city's radio announcer. At the ceremony, Shan doesn't speak (her vocal chords have been severed), and before she's shot, her kidneys are extracted—by Kai's favor-currying husband—for transplant to a high regional official. After Shan's execution, Kwen, a local sadist, and Bashi, a 19-year-old with pedophile leanings, bury Shan, but not before further mutilating the body. While Shan's parents are bereft, others celebrate, including the family of 12-year-old Nini, born deformed after militant Shan kicked Nini's mother in her pregnant belly. Nini dreams of falling in love and—in the novel's intricate overlapping of fates—hooks up with Bashi, providing the one relatively positive moment in this panorama of cruelty and betrayal. Li records these events dispassionately and with such a magisterial sense of direction that the reader can't help being drawn into the novel, like a sleeper trapped in an anxiety dream.

  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2008
    A harrowing portrait of a woman 's execution by an oppressive Chinese regime, and how her death affects an entire provincial town.

    The debut novel by Li (stories: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, 2005) takes place across a brief stretch of days in Muddy River, a poor town hundreds of miles from Beijing. But the modest setting and short time span belie this rich, expansive novel, which captures the anxieties and brutality of life during the last days of Maoism. In the spring of 1979, a young woman named Gu Shan is scheduled to be executed for protesting the Cultural Revolution. Her parents, Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu, are understandably heartbroken, and Shan 's death has an impact well beyond one household. On the day the townspeople gather in a nearby stadium for the mandated "denunciation ceremony, " we meet a cross-section of residents: Tong, a boy whose self-awareness grows beyond the indoctrination at his elementary school and the abuses of his alcoholic father; Kai, a former classmate of Shan 's who sympathizes with her politics even while married to a doctor eager to flatter party leaders; Nini, a crippled adolescent who 's practically enslaved by her parents; and Bashi, the town know-it-all who courts Nini even while mourning his grandmother 's death. As the story moves along it becomes clear how straitjacketed everybody 's lives are. Moreover, the reader gets graphic glimpses of Shan 's wrecked psyche before her execution and her ruined body after. Yet Li 's story has an empathetic, uncannily graceful tone. It helps that her characters aren 't strictly mournful: Tong has a boyish curiosity, Bashi is appealingly pranksterish, and Teacher Gu is admirably even-tempered, even as he slowly discovers how he was used as a political pawn for much of his life.

    A complex, downbeat, ultimately admirable tale of a cloaked portion of Chinese history.

    (COPYRIGHT (2008) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    October 15, 2008
    Following her short story collection "Thousand Years of Good Prayers" ("LJ" 9/1/05), Li's debut novel interestingly details life in the town of Muddy River, China, in 1979. Assorted characters are gradually introduced as stories unfold and revolve around the denunciation ceremony, execution, and attempted retribution for Shan, the daughter of retired Teacher Gu and his wife. Here, Li's central character, 19-year-old Bashi, intermingles with Old Kwen, a 56-year-old bachelor, as well as that of a young boy named Tong and an outcast 12-year-old girl named Nini. One of six sisters, Nini is plagued with severe birth deformities, but she and Bashi soon develop a friendship and tender bond that eventually leads Bashi to ask Nini to become his child bride. Added to this story are darker moments, like the sexual mutilation of Shan's body by Old Kwen, which Bashi tries to expose. Limited passages detailing particular scenes are not for the squeamish but are likely no worse than those found in gritty crime novels. Like other works set during this period in China, the novel is realistically filled with elements of inequality and despair. Content aside, Li's writing can be likened to that of Ha Jin, as she is a talented storyteller who is able to juggle multiple story lines and lead the reader through numerous highs and lows in this character-driven work. Well written and recommended for larger fiction collections, particularly public and academic libraries strong in Asian literature.Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA

    Copyright 2008 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from January 1, 2009
    In the wake of her first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), Li, who grew up in Beijing, received numerous awards, including the PEN/HemingwayandWhiting awards. In her staggering first novel, she extends her inquiry into Chinas particular brand of soul-killing tyranny. Its 1979, and the citizens of the industrial city of Muddy River are feeling festive as they prepare for the public denunciation ceremonies preceding an execution. The condemned is 28-year-old Shan. Once a zealous Red Guard infamous for beating a pregnant woman, who gave birth to a deformed daughter, Nini, Shan began questioning Maoist practices. She is now tortured and killed, her body desecrated. This barbarity ignites a string of crimes and catastrophes. Touched by the conflagration are disabled and much-abused Nini, now 12; two strikingly independent young boys, one scheming, one sweet; Old Hua and his wife, who rescued and raised seven infant girls who had been left outside to die; and Kai, a news announcer who risks all to protest Shans wrongful death. Unflinching and mesmerizing, Li traces the contagion of evil with stunning precision and compassion in this tragic and beautiful novel of conscience.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2009, American Library Association.)

  • Ann Patchett, author of Run "Yiyun Li has written a book that is as important politically as it is artistically. The Vagrants is an enormous achievement."
  • Colum McCann, author of Zoli "Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. Nothing could be a more apt description of Yiyun Li's extraordinary new novel, The Vagrants. It is a book about a street, but a street that turns the corner into another street, then turns into a town, and soon becomes a whole country. Li finds the music in the smaller lives and makes them symphonic. This is history and memory at its most raw and brilliant, reminiscent of Saramago, Aciman, and Coetzee. The Vagrants is a novel to be savored and discussed."
  • Nell Freudenberger, author of The Dissident "Every once in a while a voice and a subject are so perfectly matched that it seems as if this writer must have been born to write this book. The China that Yiyun Li shows us is one most Americans haven't seen, but her tender and devastating vision of the ways human beings love and betray one another would be recognizable to a citizen of any nation on earth."
  • Amy Bloom, author of Away "This is a book of loss and pain and fear that manages to include such unexpected tenderness and grace notes that, just as one can bear it no longer, one cannot put it down. This is not an easy read, only a necessary and deeply moving one."
  • Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl "A starkly moving portrayal of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, this book weaves together the stories of a vivid group of characters all struggling to find a home in their own country. Yiyun Li writes with a quiet, steady force, at once stoic and heartbreaking."
  • Janet Maslin, The New York Times "There is a magnetic small-town universality toThe Vagrants...but this is small-town universality with a difference. That difference is Communist China. The town isn't small; it only feels that way, as a provincial city where everyone seems to know his neighbor's business."
  • Chicago Tribune "Yiyun Li's extraordinary debut novel...beautifully paced, exquisitely detailed...an amazing technical achievement....Li's genius lies in her ability to blend fact with an endlessly imaginative sense of the interplay of forces that powered the massive shift in the social order that led to Tiananmen Square...In this most amazing first novel, Yiyun Li has found a way to combine the jeweled precision of her short-story-writer's gaze with a spellbinding vision of the power of the human spirit."
  • W Magazine "She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle."
  • O Magazine "A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression. . . . [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel."
  • Kirkus Reviews "[A] rich, expansive novel, which captures the anxieties and brutality of life during the last days of Maoism. . . . Li's story has an empathetic, uncannily graceful tone."
  • Elle "Li has poured her prodigious talent into The Vagrants. . . . Familiarity with Chinese history isn't at all necessary to relate to the grief, pain, confusion, fear, loyalty, suspicion, and love portrayed by the characters in this deeply affecting story. . . . The Vagrants has a confident, democratic style that gives a distinct voice to every character. 'Growing up in China, you learn you can never trust one person's words,' Li says. 'People's stories don't always match.' But one thing is clear: Li's stories matter."
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