Orville Schell, Yiyun Li transcend pandemics and revolutions through great literature at 7th annual Bay Area Book Festival

Bay Area Book Festival /Courtesy

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On the second evening of the 7th annual Bay Area Book Festival, a crowd of virtual participants gathered in a Zoom meeting to the sound of Chen Leiji playing a Bach cello suite on the qin— a seven-string Chinese musical instrument. 

The recording was played to introduce the speakers in a talk titled: “When Everything Falls Apart, How Does the Heart Survive? Orville Schell and Yiyun Li on China, Tolstoy, and the Power of Art, with Adam Hochschild.” 

Orville Schell, the former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is a scholar with white hair and the incisive gaze of a journalist who has recently turned to fiction writing. His debut novel, “My Old Home: A Novel of Exile,” tackles the tumultuous period in modern Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution. 

Yiyun Li is a Chinese-born novelist and professor at Princeton University. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she organized the “Tolstoy Together Project,” a guided reading of “War and Peace” which drew over 3,000 virtual participants. 

Moderated by Adam Hochschild, the conversation encompassed everything from the furniture arrangement in Leo Tolstoy’s Moscow home to “the great trainwreck of US-China relations.” 

It was an evening of unbridled metaphors. Piano imagery crashed into political upheaval in Schell’s reading from “My Old Home.” A Czarist soiree was embroidered into an extended metaphor about a textile mill in Li’s reading from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” 

But the most riveting rhetorical moves were made off the page — in the conversation itself. Schell described writing about China as the vineyard in which he toiled. He critiqued the current state of U.S.-China relations not as “tense” or “mismanaged,” but as “a trainwreck.” Switching to fiction from a career in nonfiction journalism was not “challenging” — it was like being a type of heated metal that immediately snaps back to its original shape once it cools. 

Li’s contributions were more personal and less flowery. She described growing up in the PRC with a grandfather who detested Mao Zedong. When she moved to the U.S. and began writing in English, she destroyed all her diaries written in Chinese. But the past is hard to sever. Li shared an anecdote about singing to herself to stay awake on a late night drive through Texas. The only songs she could remember by heart were the revolutionary anthems of her youth. 

Throughout the evening, Hochschild diligently steered the conversation back to the event’s central question: “When Everything Falls Apart, How Does the Heart Survive?” Schell talked about fiction as a unique tool to depict the chaos and targeted violence of the Cultural Revolution. Li talked about how pandemics breed uncertainty but provide time to read solid tomes like “War and Peace.” 

“I hope people have learned something about being patient,” Li said. “We have been patient for 15 months.” 

Drawing from details about the COVID-19 pandemic and the Cultural Revolution, Hochschild constructed an intriguing dialectic between great power and great art. Just like the Bach cello suite that was played on a classical Chinese instrument at the beginning of the talk, the literary arts hold resonance even in translation. This point was equally relevant to the speakers themselves. 

We are like two planes flying across the Pacific Ocean in the opposite direction,” Schell said to Li. “You came here to write in English about America, I went to China…” 

Li further developed the question of nationality and relocation: “I always believe what you can carry with you, you carry across the border from China to America. What you cannot carry across the border … you may as well leave them there.” 

There is no easy answer to the question: “how does the heart survive?” But one thing was evident from the evening’s discussion. Regimes can be abandoned, nationalities jettisoned, but stories are impossible to leave behind.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].