The National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, launched its 5 Under 35 program in 2006 to highlight the work of young literary talents; this year each writer gets a $1,000 cash prize and will be invited to participate in public readings.
Many past 5 Under 35 honorees have gone on to further acclaim. Nam Le’s short story collection “The Boat” won the international Dylan Thomas Prize; Tea Obreht’s novel “The Tiger’s Wife” took the Orange Prize for fiction; and two honorees, Dinaw Mengestu and Karen Russell, were each later awarded MacArthur Fellowships….
One of those writers this year is S. Li, who took up creative writing as a hobby when he was in medical school. The 31-year-old neurologist’s debut novel, “Transoceanic Lights,” was published by Harvard Square Editions, a small independent press.
“I had sent the book to the National Book Foundation for consideration for the National Book Awards, fully knowing that my chances were zero,” Li said from his home in Burlington, Mass. When he received the email informing him he’d been chosen as an honoree, “I thought it was a scam. And then I realized it wasn’t. I had no idea this was even in the cards.”
Li’s novel, about a Chinese immigrant family, is based on his own childhood. He was 5 years old when his family moved from Guangzhou, China, to Boston.
“I was sort of teaching myself the craft of writing,” Li said of his years writing fiction while also learning medicine. “And so it just made natural sense to go with material that comes easiest to you, and that’s your childhood.”
Li is one of two immigrants honored in this year’s program. Yaa Gyasi, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Homegoing,” was born in Ghana and moved with her family to the United States when she was 2. [more]