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October052008

New Yorker Festival: Manil Suri, Yiyun Li, Sana Krasikov

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Jonathan Taylor, who has written about Merrill Lynch, New York City’s greenmarkets, and skybridges for us, writes:

Friday’s “Writing About Home” fiction panel, with foreign-born, U.S.-based writers Manil Suri, Yiyun Li, and Sana Krasikov, was low-key and revelatory. I’ve been reading a lot of fine travel writing lately, and the topic appealed to me as a reversal of that activity: going somewhere else and writing about where you came from. Perhaps more important, it’s a reversal of the choices made: rather than going abroad for the purpose of writing, each of these writers were forced or decided to come to the United States for other reasons, and each in their way later turned, as adults here, to fiction writing. (Suri took writing up initially as a hobby; he is a mathematician, and his description of his writing life sounded distinctly methodical if not almost absurdly logical.)

Deputy fiction editor Cressida Leyshon’s questions gradually drew out the way each writer’s work, even though inevitably focused on this or that specific set of stories, skilfully engages the social “ripples” of historic cataclysms.

Suri’s The Death of Vishnu created a microcosm of Indian society within one apartment building. Li views China through what she described as the “villager-like” mentality Beijing’s residents still possess, in which “politics is like the weather.” And Krasikov noted her admiration for fiction in which the shadows of “what’s happening beyond the story” creates tension within it, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day or Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, where “we know now” the unspoken fates of their protagonists.

These historical earthquakes cause dislocations, not just geographical ones. In Krasikov’s stories, scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union work as nannies or home health care aides—recalling a detail of Li’s “A Man Like Him,” in which a university professor disgraced in the Cultural Revolution is forced to become a school janitor. Each writer, interestingly, told with relish a story about being mistreated on returning to their home country. Suri humorously recounted the bureaucratic antics of an Indian bank teller. Krasikov described, with more outrage, being accused of shoplifting from a Moscow Sephora—and noted the blatant discrimination in Moscow against people of more obviously Caucasus origins. And Li observed that because she had two children, something forbidden to Chinese couples, she was universally assumed to be a nanny (and hence treated rudely).

The final audience questioner summed up the writers’ situation nicely—“to be both an insider and an outside observer”—and asked of each of them whether writing about his or her home country made them feel more “intimate” with it. The answers were appealingly direct and diverse: Krasikov said no, it “exacerbates distance.” For her, the process of digging deeper into former Soviet reality—which has of course changed unrecognizably since her family left in 1987—is a process of “discovering distance.” Suri’s experience was the opposite: he had long tried to leave India behind him, but when he took up writing, India forced itself on him as his subject, bringing him “closer” to it. And Li—who in response to an earlier question had said that she could no longer live with China, in the same way that, as an adult, she could no longer live with her mother—said that writing about China had not made her more “intimate” with it—just more “patient.”

In addition to Li’s “A Man Like Him,” two of Krasikov’s stories are available on the New Yorker website.

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