From Time Asia (link):
In the fall of 1991, at the age of 18, Yiyun Li reported to the barren city of Xinyang for a year in the Chinese army. The government had decreed that any student bound for Beijing’s Peking University, as Li was, first had to complete a period of military training and political re-education”an ideological vaccine in the wake of Tiananmen. Li had been a high school student in Beijing during the protests, too young to take part herself, but she knew what had happened. That knowledge was dangerous. “Imagine a zipper on your mouth,” her mother told Li before she left for the army. “Zip it up tight.” But Li would not be muzzled. Despite the risk, she told her comrades of the massacre, of the corpses she had seen piled high in a hospital, and of the government’s hollow insistence that none of this had happened. “I couldn’t help myself,” Li says now. “I was in a suicidal mode all year.”
She got lucky”a friendly superior’s decision not to report Li’s blasphemies saved her from serious trouble. Once out of the army, she heeded her mother’s advice and stayed silent. In college, Li worked singlemindedly with the hope of escaping to America, and she finally left China in 1996 to study immunology at the University of Iowa. There, in the American Midwest, Li regained her voice”and discovered it was in English. Despite her initially limited command of the written language, she eventually dropped her plans to become a scientist and earned writing degrees from Iowa’s prestigious graduate program. She soon began publishing astonishingly mature short stories in magazines like The New Yorker and earned a $200,000 publishing deal from Random House at the age of 31. Now she has released her first book, a short-story collection titled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
Listen to a review of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers on National Public Radio.