Vivian (Xiao Wen) Li

On Chinese philosophy and memory: exploring Chan Buddhism recollection, ritual, and narrative
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I wanted to take my writing a step further. I graduated with an English and Philosophy degree from the University of Toronto, and had a great experience with some writing workshops. I also love learning and I think I really value the freedom to explore what's interesting to me. I applied for the UBC School of Creative Writing as I saw it's a very interdisciplinary program and I wanted to explore more elements of my writing—I primarily wrote in fiction and poetry (now I've expanded into areas such as screenwriting, TV writing, comics, and playwriting). I was actually deciding between studying for law school (for human rights law) or applying for creative writing, and I remember going to a University of Toronto Backpack to Briefcase event, where alumni meet students and inspire or guide them on their journey after graduation. An author there mentioned that everyone's path isn't always linear, and that she returned to school after another degree to study creative writing. I realized then that I really wanted to pursue and see where my art takes me, as it's always been an integral part of my life.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I really liked what the program would be offering, and I love the mountains as well as nature—I find a lot of peace and inspiration from water, wind, and clouds. While I was at an Explore Program for a month at the University of Victoria (I wanted to explore the West Coast), I managed to visit UBC for a few days. I really loved what I saw, and when I was applying for creative writing programs a few years later, UBC was top of my list. I was also drawn to the opportunities it gave students, such as editing for an internationally recognized journal, PRISM international, or directing for Brave New Play Rites Festival. These were all experiences that were particularly intriguing and rewarding for me.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The interdisciplinary aspects, the opportunities it gives students, and the way people from different disciplines can collaborate and help each other in classes and workshops. For instance, in my first screenwriting class, I learned a lot from my peers, a few of whom had already directed, wrote, and/or produced feature films. I had a slight interest in film before the sessions, but afterwards I started to actively pursue film projects and/or programs. My first short musical dramedy, In Silence, We Sing (which premiered at the 26th Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival) was possible in part because of the screenwriting class which taught me how to format screenplays and gave me the confidence to pursue film. I don't think I would've learned this from other MFA programs, as most of them are very strict on what genres you enter with—a few of them even refuse to let you take any courses that aren't in your discipline. I applied with fiction and poetry, so if I hadn't come to UBC, I doubt I would've been as invested in film as I am now. I’ve since directed a video poem and co-directed a short documentary that will premiere at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The aburi sushi makes my mouth melt! Also, the physically active lifestyle a lot of people lead here—I've gone to the gym much more since arriving in Vancouver. I also love how close the beaches are for sunset beach walks after a busy day.

While I was at an Explore Program, I managed to visit UBC for a few days. I really loved what I saw, and when I was applying for creative writing programs a few years later, UBC was top of my list. I was also drawn to the opportunities it gave students, such as editing for an internationally recognized journal.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I'm looking forward to delving deeper into the middle section of my novel, and integrating my research abroad in China with the elements I wish to explore in the book!

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

For me, it's definitely sustainability of energy. In the arts and academic fields, it feels like no one really rests, and it's a mentality that I've somehow subsumed but am struggling against. An elastic that's always stretched out will eventually snap, and there's no reason why we can't explore what we care about while being caring of each other. I'm trying to change my mindset to resemble the slow but constant flowing of waves rather than the bright spark of lightning.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

My middle-school teacher in Geography kept telling us that we should learn for learning's sake, and not for anything else (grades, applications, etc.). Another teacher I encountered in Chinese school mentioned that once we learn something, it's ours forever, and no one can take it away. I've kept both their teachings to heart, and building on them, tried to keep an open mind to see the interdisciplinary connections between different disciplines and art forms. I think their advice has been extremely valuable to my development as a scholar, writer, and artist.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

A routine I had last summer with one of my friends was to walk down to Wreck Beach to watch the sunset, walk to Rain or Shine, and then on our way back, visit the Rose Garden. We had views of three different kinds of sunsets, and it was beautiful even later at night. I also enjoy reading, listening to audiobooks, drawing, going on nature walks, and dancing. I love open-world games like Breath of the Wild, and lounging around or visiting new cafes/museums with my partner.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Curate your community, seek opportunities, and set a healthy sleep routine! I've found it essential to find people I connect with on a deeper level, and I've loved finding ways to get involved in different artistic disciplines as well as research for my new projects. And sleep will help with everything—I always feel more clear-minded after I wake up.

Outside of your academic work, what are the ways that you engage with your local or global community? Are there projects in particular that you are proud of?

In my artistic practices, I engage with themes such as mental health, racism, and climate change. I've created plays, stories, comics, songs, and poems that highlight these aspects—in art, I'm hoping to continue or develop conversations we're already having through emotion and feeling. I recently directed a video poem, The Garden, Echoes that explores grief and loss through visual-poetic elements and premiered at the Bloomsday Film Festival in Ireland. My debut chapbook, Someday I Promise, I'll Love You (845 Press) explores mental health and ancestral history. Further, In Silence, We Sing (my short musical dramedy) delves into immigrant grief and joy during the pandemic, as well as ancestral ghosts that traverse across borders. In each project, I hope to inspire and create connection across communities in the past and in the future.


Read tips on applying, reference letters, statement of interest, reaching out to prospective supervisors, interviews and more in our Application Guide!