The First Page of: The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

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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 teh 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 the 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

*Excerpted from The Vagrants by Yiyun Li Copyright © 2009 by Yiyun Li. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Our take: Li sows the seeds of sympathy on this first page; not even full two paragraphs in, and we’ve got grief, politics, and poverty befalling the characters. But what makes us want to keep reading aren’t only the details of Teacher Gu’s present situation — it’s the way Yi shifts in scale, from the universal cycles of springtime to the claustrophobia of the Gus’ bedroom, from a death sentence to a red plastic laundry line.

Yiyun Li talks with Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space, tomorrow night at the Asia Society in New York City.