I would like to make clear that I have included several former students of mine on this list not because I think I taught them anything, but because my greatest, perhaps only talent as a teacher is that I’m a good reader. I know when to shut up and gawk. I’m particularly clear that I taught Yiyun Li nothing because I remember reading this story in The Paris Review when she was first a student in my class. This far into my anthology I am aware of my favorite things in short stories: the ability to cover serious chronology; peculiar characters; bravado narration. This story is also the best first person plural I know. She has written many, many brilliant short stories (and also novels) since she published this story in The Paris Review.
First published in The Paris Review, Fall 2003, and available to read here; collected in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Random House, 2005
Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, the central premise of this moving story is how immigrant young adults break away from the duties and expectations of their parents. Han, the thirty-three years old protagonist, is single and a recently naturalized American who visits his mother in Beijing. He has “a brand-new American passport and an old Chinese worry.” He is a “diamond bachelor” (Chinese-born U.S. citizen) who must tell his mother to stop looking for eligible girls to marry him as he is gay.
Yiyun Li avoids self-consciously literary language and creates simple, pared-down prose to illustrate the disconnect between the mother and son. The story is also about religious dogma where the son is an atheist and his mother who has just converted to Christianity, has the fervour of the newly converted. Due to her newfound faith, the mother is insistent on converting her son as well, to which he responds more and more angrily as time goes on. While on the surface the son can be viewed as a stereotypical atheist, the story takes a deeper look behind what is fuelling his angry reaction towards his mother. Han points out that the so-called “catholic” church his mother attends is run by the government, which means that it is full of state propaganda.
The story is told from the son’s perspective. It is his thoughts that the reader gets to know intimately, and his loving, but frustrated, feelings towards his elderly, widowed mother. His closeted state related to his sexuality makes sense in the context of growing up in the 1980´s China, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997. He does not want to upset his mother who is enmeshed in the societal beliefs of this culture.
The story whilst being light-hearted in tone, is nonetheless a powerful critique of communist China and its repressive measures and stranglehold over its citizens.
Yiyun Li’s debut collection won the Frank O’Connor International short story award and the Guardian First Book Award in 2006.
First published in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Harper Perennial, 2006
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)
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
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)