Reader’s Guide to The Vagrants by Yiyun Li


The Voyage Out Book Group’s Reader’s Guide to The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

 Book Information:

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Random House

368 pages





The Literature of China

Other books in this region:

Red Sorghum, Mo Yan

Waiting, Ha Jin


Author Bio:

Yiyun Li was born in China in 1972 and grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Bored and missing her boyfriend, she enrolled in a creative writing course to improve her English. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her second collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl was shortlisted for the O’Connor award. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Yiyun Li has received numerous awards, including Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, and 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

Li earned a B.S. at Peking University in 1996. She also earned an MS in immunology (the branch of medicine and biology concerned with immunity) at the University of Iowa, an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. Two of the stories from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers were adapted into 2007 films directed by Wayne Wang: The Princess of Nebraska, and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which Li adapted herself.

She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.

Books by Yiyun Li:

 A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Random House, Inc. September 2005 (stories)

The Vagrants. Random House. February 2009 (novel)

 Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Random House. September 2010 (stories)

 Kinder Than Solitude. Random House. February 2014 (novel)


Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:

  • Are all of the characters victims? If so, is this a one-note novel?
  • Muddy River is not Beijing. What effect does having a setting that is not the center of the action create in the novel?
  • How is the world of The Vagrants a society of orphans?
  • In what ways does Shan’s body represent China? Vocal chords severed, no final cry, kidneys extracted while alive, transplanted to an aging army man, her private parts are preserved by perverts, (Hottentot?)
  • Is this a novel, or an anthology of horror stories?
  • Li’s interest is not I the system itself, but in the costs.
  • We read how hedgehogs, if artificially frozen, can be unfrozen again and think they’re emerging from hibernation. What does this say about China?
  • Is it possible to empathize with these characters?
  • Gu Shan is a ghost in the book.
  • The vagrants turn out to be the Hua’s, but are there other vagrants?
  • The book has so many characters. Did it need all of them? Which are superfluous?
  • To what effect does Li use a panning device to take us from the micro/individual to the macro/collective? Or, how does the micro interact with the macro in this novel?

What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:

–       One of the more active vagaries we went down was when we talked about the characters in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here’s a game: place all of the characters on Maslow’s pyramid and see what you come up with.

–       With so many characters, the book demands to have readers compare and contrast characters. Here area few we discussed: Nini vs. Kai, Teacher Guv s. Han, the Hua family vs. Tong’s family, etc.

–       Once again we had the debate over whether the book would be more ‘knowable’ if we had studied Chinese history.

–       We talked about the deadening of a society by continuous murdering of women and girls, and how that could lead to a group of people not only allowing a young girl to be murdered in front of them, but also not be horrified and damaged by the act.

–       We talked about the image of Bashi as a devil and Shan as an angel, and how Li built her characters to reject easy understanding. This devil/angel dichotomy can be falsely attributed to many of her characters (and you would find ways to prove your contentions wrong every time.



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