UC Davis English professor Yiyun Li named MacArthur Foundation fellow

Photo: Yiyun Li
UC Davis English professor Yiyun Li

Editor's note: Watch a video from the MacArthur Foundation about Professor Yiyun Li.

UC Davis English professor Yiyun Li, an emerging fiction writer already drawing rave reviews from national critics, has been awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

Li becomes only the third UC Davis professor to receive the honor, which includes $500,000 paid over five years. She was among just 23 new fellows announced Monday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“It’s an incredible honor, and it is a hugely generous gift from the MacArthur Foundation,” Li said. “I haven’t thought about the details, but their support will mean I have more time to write in the next five years.”

Widely known as the “genius” awards, the MacArthur fellowships are bestowed upon individuals in a variety of fields “who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits.” The grants are awarded without restrictions and may be used as the recipients choose.

Li, 37, has been a UC Davis professor since 2008. She was recognized for dramatizing the myriad effects of China’s sweeping social changes in a moving, yet understated, style of storytelling.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who singled out Li during a recent campus speech, said the young English professor “has been widely acknowledged as one of the very best writers of her generation.

“She richly deserves this latest honor,” Katehi said. “We are tremendously proud to have her on our faculty, where she has shown her talents as a teacher and mentor to be as stellar as her talents as a storyteller and writer.”

Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996 to pursue a doctoral degree in immunology. Instead, she earned a graduate degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and another in creative non-fiction writing from the University of Iowa. She returned to campus this month to teach an undergraduate and graduate fiction workshop.

Her first novel, “The Vagrants,” was published in February 2009 and positioned Li to be selected recently as one of the nation’s top 20 writers under age 40 by editors of The New Yorker magazine.

“Yiyun Li was singled out both for her remarkable accomplishments and for her exceptional promise,” said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies. “Her stories help us experience universal truths about human existence."

Professor Scott Simmon, chair of the UC Davis English department, said Li has become a great teacher of both writing and literature.

“Students admire her way, not just of leading them through meanings in fiction, but of revealing to them the ways authors pull off their tricks,” Simmon said. “In her masterly novel ‘The Vagrants,’ her own writing is quite harsh and yet heartfelt, political and yet personal. She treats her characters with great compassion and yet never lets us lose sight of the comedy in their plights. That Yiyun does this in her second language is all the more remarkable.”

Li said she is working on her fourth book, and second novel, which is set in both China and the U.S.

“Unlike my previous novel, ‘The Vagrants,’ where characters were confined by history and politics and could not leave China, this is a novel looking at the last 20 years, when people from China have gained some mobility, when it is possible for them to leave China and return,” she said.

Her other two books are “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” published this month, and a debut collection of short stories, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” published in 2005.

Li is the first UC Davis faculty member to win a MacArthur fellowship since 1998, when psychology professor Leah Krubitzer, a neuroscientist, was honored. In 1992, geology professor Geerat Vermeij became the first UC Davis faculty member to receive a MacArthur.

In addition to its support of creative people and effective institutions, the MacArthur Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places and understand how technology is affecting children and society.


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