Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TIFF Books on Film: Eleanor Wachtel Chats with Yiyun Li

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Yiyun Li & Eleanor Wachtel (photo credit: Sam Santos, WireImage/Getty for TIFF)

On Monday evening, May 12, TIFF continued their popular TIFF Books on Film series with an adaptation of Chinese American writer Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

The event, which included an introduction by CBC's Eleanor Wachtel, a screening of the film and a post-screening on stage Q&A between Wachtel and Li, played to a packed house. Director Wayne Wang brought Li's short story to the screen (with Li serving as a first-time screenwriter). During the Q&A, Li spoke to the experience of writing for the screen, admitting that the first draft she handed to Wang wasn't quite right. "He said, this is a radio play, not a screenplay," Li said, laughing.

But she clearly got the hang of things, judging by the final product; the film is a quiet but powerful examination of family relationships, secrets and silence, as well as the formative influence of language. Li, whose first language is Chinese, also spoke to the freeing power of writing in English, which she felt gave her a chance to re-invent herself. She first arrived in America as a graduate student in immunology, in which she completed a PhD, but a community writing workshop blew her writerly spark into a flame. Her first story ever, Li related on stage, was a piece inspired by her time in the Chinese army, and featured young female soldiers participating in a shooting drill. With enthusiastic encouragement from her writing teacher, Li soon sold her first novel, Vagrants, which was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Since then, Li's career has skyrocketed, with honours including the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award and the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, also know as the MacArthur "Genius" Grant.

In the film, a young Chinese American woman plays host to her father, who is visiting from China. A retired rocket scientist, he is worried about his recently divorced daughter. His well-meaning but old fashioned concern causes tension with his more modern-minded daughter. As the film progresses and family secrets are teased out, viewers learn the daughter's prickliness comes from more than just feeling judged by her father.

Her father, for his part, makes a single friend during his visit: an Iranian woman he meets in the local park. Neither one speaks more than a handful of English words, with their exchanges taking place in Chinese and Persian, respectively, and neither sharing the other's mother tongue. These scenes question the nature of language and communication, as the characters seem to find genuine comfort in their time together, and to even understand much of what the other is saying, despite the language itself signifying nothing to the listener.

The film utilises a small cast, including several amateur actors. Li got laughs from the audience when she explained that a perky, blonde, bikini-clad mortuary science student in the film was in fact a local woman who had been sunning herself near the set and was indeed a recent mortuary science grad. Additionally, an oddball antique shop owner was played by the mayor of a nearby city. These touches of the weird blended perfectly with the strained silence of the central father-daughter relationship in the film, keeping the film from straying into the territory of the maudlin or melodramatic.

The film also has a Toronto connection, as revealed by Wachtel: it was scored by Canadian composer Lesley Barber, with music performed by concert pianist Eve Egoyan, sister of acclaimed director Adam Egoyan.

The Books on Film series continues with screenings on June 2 and June 23. For more information, please visit the TIFF Books on Film website.

All images courtesy of Sam Santos, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

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