Grace Li to speak at Duke’s first Medicine, Literature, & Culture Celebration

Photo of Grace Li

Almost a decade ago, Grace Li, Trinity ‘17, read Weike Wang’s elegant, witty look at science and the soul, “Chemistry.”

“It was the first time I felt like a book had been written just for me. It’s what made me realize I could write deeply personal, honest books, and that maybe other people would read them.” 

What Li didn’t realize at the time was that her own literary canvas of the Chinese-American experience, “Portrait of a Thief”, would leap off the page and onto the Netflix screen. Inspired by the true story of a mysterious string of robberies across Western museums of art stolen from China, her book examines what these thefts would look like if they featured Chinese American college students. Set to be published tomorrow, Li’s seductive debut novel on the colonization of art and identity unpeels what it means to rebel in pursuit of rediscovering one’s roots

“All the characters in this book have a little bit of me — Daniel is premed, like I was, and Lily has my childhood in Texas (and my as-yet-unfulfilled dreams of being a getaway driver!) — but the story opens and closes with Will for a reason,” Li wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “As someone who once thought my stories would only live on unfinished Word documents, Will has a lot of my fears (and dreams!)”

Li’s dream breathes in multiple dimensions.  The medical student by day and writer by night lives with a pay it forward mentality.  It is this mentality that informed her decision to to spend two gap years following undergrad teaching high school biology and running an after school creative writing program at a Title I school in the Bronx, New York through Teach for America. 

“My parents grew up in rural China, and they were only able to come to the US because of their education, so I knew very early on how education could change lives and break the cycle of poverty,” Lee shared in an email. “Teach for America was transformative for me for many reasons, but most of all because my students challenged — and amazed  me every day.”

While Li may have marched through Wallace Wade Stadium after four years of undergrad and into the real world, the awareness, aliveness, and electricity of the Duke experience is something that never left her.  Specifically, Duke fostered in her courage to turn the raw stuff of her Chinese-American cultural experience into powerful creative writing.  

 “Any and every fiction workshop by Professor Christina Askounis did wonders for my understanding of sentence structure, but more importantly, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without her smart, sharp feedback and belief in my words,” Li wrote in an email.  

“I’d also perpetually recommend Professor Katharine Dubois’ Romance Fiction class, which swiftly dismantled many of my preconceived notions towards romance, as well as showed me possibilities of character depth and development that I’m constantly trying to emulate in my writing.”

As a medical student, Li still makes time to write.  She has served as a teaching assistant for a creative writing class for medical students, been part of a writing retreat, and helped chair a student-run live storytelling event called TalkRx. As a first-year medical student at Stanford, Li wrote a short story, "Time Like Water," that received second place in Stanford Medicine's 2019 Paul Kalanathi fiction contest.

“What I love about medicine—and writing—is its emphasis on observation,” Li wrote in an email. “It demands thinking about the world and the people in it deeply and thoughtfully, and that’s something I always aim to bring to my writing.” 

This spring, I am proud to be spearheading the organization of  Duke’s first Medicine, Literature, and Culture Celebration  April 16 in Love Auditorium from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., with Grace Li.  This in-person (masks required) event, co-sponsored by several departments ranging from the English to Global Health Institute to the Center for Multicultural Affairs will coincide with the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month keynote speaker event.  

Through this celebration, the hope is  to further reveal how narrative inquiry is unparalleled in its ability to represent human suffering and healing. The hope is that the entire Duke community will join us in celebrating the Asian-American experience through the lens of a groundbreaking literary love letter written by a Duke alum. And most of all, the hope is that Li’s journey will serve as a meaningful reminder of the beauty of thriving in a space where the arts, science and service are not untied, but united.