The University of Iowa

Yiyun Li wins Sunday Times short story prize for A Sheltered Woman

Yiyun Li’s story, 'A Sheltered Woman', was awarded The Sunday Times EFG short story prize, a £30,000 award, in April. First published in the New Yorker in March 2014, it tells the story of a nanny to a new baby whose mother is suffering from postpartum depression.

Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said that while “the calibre of the entire shortlist was exceptional … the mastery displayed by Yiyun Li in her chillingly cool and insightful story left little doubt she should be the winner”.

At the beginning of 'A Sheltered Woman', the character tells how she has kept details of the 131 babies she has cared for in a small notebook she bought at a garage sale in the midwest. “She had liked the picture of flowers on the cover, purple and yellow, unmelted snow surrounding the chaste petals. She had liked the price of the notebook, too: five cents.”

“When she handed a dime to the child with the cashbox on his lap, she asked if there was another notebook she could buy, so that he would not have to give her any change; the boy looked perplexed and said no. It was greed that had made her ask, but when the memory came back – it often did when she took the notebook out of her suitcase for another interview – Auntie Mei would laugh at herself: why on earth had she wanted two notebooks, when there’s not enough life to fill one?”

The novelist, who earned an MS in immunology 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 Iowa Writers' Workshop, said that she had a similiar experience in Iowa that had inspired the story.

“A couple years of ago, while rummaging through old things, I found a notebook that I had bought at a garage sale in Iowa City when I first came to America – I had paid five cents for it. The notebook was in a good shape; though it remained unused,” she said. “A character occurred to me: she paid a dime and asked if there was a second notebook so she did not have to have the change back. Such greed, the character said, laughing at herself. From that moment on I knew I had a story.”

Li will be reading in Dublin, Ireland on June 10th at 6:00 pm for the University of Iowa Irish Writing Program, at the Hodges Figgis Bookshop in Dawson Street, Dublin. Li teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as a visiting professor as well.

Previous winners of the Sunday Times award include Junot Díaz, Anthony Doerr and last year’s winner, Adam Johnson.