‘Extra’ by Yiyun Li

This is a quietly devastating story with an inevitable crescendo of consequences. When 51-year old Granny Lin is made redundant from the factory, her neighbour matchmakes her with an ill widower. Granny Lin ‘tends his body with motherly hands’, the blood away after insulin shots and repeats the myth, started by his children, that his dead wife will be home soon – only to be left penniless two months later when she is blamed for his death. She takes a job as a laundry maid in a boarding school where she strikes up a close bond with  rejected six-year old Kang; she tells him stories and “tucks him in, the unfamiliar warmth swelling inside her. She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.” When Kang’s secret obsession with stealing girls’ socks is discovered, he is bullied, taking his shame out on Granny Lin and running away. Fired from her job, she walks into town where “All the people on the street seem to know where their legs are taking them. She wonders when she stopped being one of them.” Her bag is stolen and the story ends with her facing an uncertain future.

This human demise, full of logic but void of compassion or accountability, reminds me of Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ or Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Real Durwan’ – the descent of an elderly female servant against the backdrop of rising modernity, where clinging to the daily rituals of care and servitude cannot protect the vulnerable from the force of changing times.

In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Fourth Estate, 2006)

‘Extra’ by Yiyun Li

As a nervous student of creative writing, I stumbled upon a conversation in Aysmptote between Claire Wigfall and Yiyun Li, both of whose stories I came to love. In that conversation, Yiyun Li discusses her literary relationship with William Trevor and the ways in which her stories form dialogues with his. This kind of writerly kinship seemed so liberating and hopeful to me. Almost all the stories I’ve written attempt a dialogue with another literary object. Among these is ‘Extra’, a particularly quiet and affecting example of Li’s work.

First published in The New Yorker, 2003. Read online

‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’, by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li left her training as an immunologist to become a writer. Medicine’s loss is literature’s gain: her first novel, the grim, Dostoevsky-like The Vagrants, is one of the best books published in the last 10 years. Li excels at short fiction, too: in this collection she explores, through the latent melancholy and resigned pragmatism of her characters, the fractured nature of modern China, where she grew up (she moved to the US in her 20s): its cultural and historical upheavals, its individual deaths and departures arbitrarily violent or casually mundane by turns. In the strikingly hesitant title story, the Gold Boy and the Emerald Girl, both raised as only children, are set up for a pairing off in middle age by his anxious mother, who is unaware that they are mismatched because their romantic impulses lie in different, possibly forbidden, directions. Nonetheless, the two reach an understanding and a resolution that ‘they would not make on another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness’.

(From Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Hamish Hamilton, 2010)