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Chinese writer's story collection triumphs

11 December 2006

Last week the Guardian First Book Award gave a major boost to short stories by awarding this year's prize to the Chinese writer Yiyun Li's collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The Award, which was established in 1999, rewards the finest new literary talent with a £10,000 ($19,550) prize and, uniquely, is open to writing across all genres. It is judged by both a celebrity panel and members of the public who participate through reading groups run by Waterstone's stores.

Yiyun Li has already won the inaugural Frank O'Connor International Award for 50,000 euros (£33,750 and $66,000). Claire Armitstead, the Guardian's literary editor and chair of the judges, said: 'Yiyun Li is an exceptionally talented writer with a huge and important story to tell - one that stretches from China to the US, from 20th-century communism to 21st-century capitalist society. It's all the more remarkable that she tells it so well through such small and particular vignettes. Her stories burst open in the mind and continue growing long after you put the book down.'

Yiyun Li is an immunologist by training who now lives in the US with her husband and two children, but she grew up in China. She is a product of the famous Iowa Writers' School and, interestingly, says that she can only write in English: 'I can't write in Chinese at all. I think it's more like self-censoring, than other people censoring me. I don't know - I just feel so much more comfortable writing in English. I think I need a distance with language just to write.'

Yiyun is also determined that her writing should not be seen as 'Chinese' or representing in some way Chinese issues: 'If I write a story, I write a story. I have to make sure it's a good story, and that I don't take any short cuts because it's about China.'

There is a resurgence of interest in short stories, encouraged by Story, the website devoted to campaigning for the short story, which has news about short story opportunities and a number of excellent short stories, including ones by Jackie Kay and Ian Rankin, which can be read online.

Commercial prospects for stories are still not all that good, but they do, like poetry, have one major advantage - a brevity which fits in with our pressurised world. As Simon Prosser, Publishing Publishing Director of Hamish Hamilton, says: 'The short story form is better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel.'

Interview with Yiyun Li

Story website

News Review on the Frank O'Connor award