The two most prominent sources of reader/reviewer fascination with the stories of Yiyun Li are: that a writer for whom English is a second language can write so “elegantly” in her adopted language and that Li provides “insights” into a culture with which Western readers may not be familiar. Li’s debut collection, A Thousand Years of Prayers, won the first Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award, and the Guardian First Book Award in 2006, only ten years after she came to the University of Iowa from Beijing to study immunology. She has told an interviewer that she did not know Iowa City was a writer’s town; during her second year, someone told her that everyone is Iowa City was writing a novel, “And that started my dream. I thought I wanted to write a novel, too,” although she had never written anything in China. She began taking several undergraduate writing classes and then enrolled in both the nonfiction and the fiction program at Iowa, graduating with two MFA’s at once. Readers find such authorial backstories remarkable and irresistible.
Li has been named by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35 and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. In 2010, she won one of the so-called “genius” MacArthur Foundation Awards, worth half a million dollars over a five-year period. Her novel The Vagrant was shortlisted for the big-money IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009, which was won by Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. But the fact that she won the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award in 2005, beating out David Means’ wonderful collection The Secret Goldfish, may make judges decide this year to award it to another, even though most reviewers think that Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is a better collection of stories than A Thousand Years of Prayers. I have not read Li’s first collection, but after reading her recent collection, I ordered it and plan to read it soon. Her success reaffirms my suspicion that good storytellers are born, not taught
As might be expected, the long, novella-type story, “Kindness” that opens Gold Boy, Emerald Girl has attracted the most praise from reviewers. It is often just assumed that if a story is long, it is more complex than one that is short. However, although “Kindness” is an affecting first-person account of a woman named Moyan who rebuffs the affection of her mathematics students and lives alone, which is not surprising since she has rejected overtures of love and friendship from others all her life—her professor who introduced her to Dickens, Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence, and her Lieutenant while a teenage recruit in the People’s Liberation Army. Although Moyan’s refusal to make contact with anyone has made her an exemplum of what Frank O’Connor has said is characteristic of the short story as a form—loneliness—“Kindness,” in its drawn-out exploration of the sources of Moyan’s isolation over a period of years, is much more characteristic of the novel form than the short story.
If “Kindness” is to be taken as typical of Li’s novelistic technique, the eight remaining stories in the collection, in my opinion, are ample evidence that Li is a stronger short story writer than she is a novelist. Frank O’Connor’s “lonely voice” is predominant in all of Li’s short stories—which may due as much to the fact that the great Irish short story writer William Trevor is her favorite author as it is to the influences of a repressive modern Chinese culture.
In “A Man Like Him,” a retired art teacher becomes incensed when he reads about a young woman who is suing her father for taking a mistress and abandoning his family. He frequents social web sites, pretending he is a younger, more desirable man, buys fashion magazines with pictures of young women, and lives with his ninety-year-old mother, who adopted him as a child. He ponders the expression, “a man like him,” feeling lost and alone, and stalks the beaten-down father who abandoned his family to show his sympathy--telling him, “We are the kind of men who would not kick our feet or flail our arms if someone came to strangle us to death.” He tells the father his own story of being accused of perversion for simply looking with fascinated interest at a young girl in one of his classes. The father tells him that his daughter has said that if she is unsuccessful in getting him put in prison, she will come with rat poison, adding, “I am waiting every day for her to fulfill her promise, and I count it as my good fortune to have little suspense left in my life.” The retired teacher leaves the man with an expression that his aged mother often uses and which he has adopted for his own, “I have nothing to say about this world.”
“I have nothing to say about this world” might be the mantra of most of the lonely characters in Li’s stories. For example, in “Prison,” a successful Chinese couple living in America lose their sixteen-year-old daughter in a traffic accident and find their world shattered. When the husband suggests they go to China and find a surrogate mother so that they might have another child, the wife chooses an uneducated young woman whose only child has been stolen by a kidnapper several years before, and stays with her during the pregnancy with twins, fretting over imagined dangers to the unborn children. When the two women are approached by a young beggar boy on the street, the pregnant woman insists that the boy is her missing child, causing such a scene that the boy’s guardian must take him away. When the two women get home, the girl demands that the woman give her half the money promised so that she can buy the boy back from the beggar man. When the woman asks the girl to sit down so they can talk about it, she threatens to run away and sell the twins. The story ends with a standoff as the woman thinks, “This was the price they paid for being mothers…that the love of one’s own child made everyone else in the world a potential enemy.” She knows that the relationship of trust she and the girl has developed during the pregnancy is crushed and that they will remain each other’s prisoners.
“House Fire” starts out to be what seems like a light comedy about six women friends, from their mid-fifties to early seventies, who establish a detective business to investigate men who cheat on their wives. The title comes from a popular joke that circulates as a text message throughout the city: “An old man in love is like an old house on fire, which burns easily and burns down fast.” The women are so successful that a television station does a story about them, which ironically makes them lose business because potential clients think their “cover has been blown.” When they interview a potential male client, they become especially interested because the man thinks that his wife is having an affair with his own father who lives with them. During the course of the interview, the women recall their own past fears, disappointments, and betrayals. It is the lightest story in the collection, but even then it manages to probe beneath the surface of the mere plot to reveal the backstory of the characters’ loneliness.
The shortest story in the collection, “Souvenir,” (about six pages) may be the only one to verge on the manipulative. It is a single scene in which still another lonely, elderly man, approaches a young woman in a pharmacy with the oft-used line, “You remind me of my wife when she was your age.” The girl tries to avoid him, but when she awkwardly buys a pack of condoms, while being laughed at by other women in the story, she drops them and the old man puts his foot on them, scolding her for what he thinks is her immoral behavior. What he does not know is that the girl is planning to give herself to the boy she loved, a boy who has been beaten so badly by the authorities that his parents tell her he will never become a husband. However, “she is the kind of girl who did not believe their words. She believed that her love would save and change him.” The story ends with these lines: “Someday, when she became an old woman, she would show the pink pack to her children, a souvenir of her hopeful youth.”
The title story, which concludes the collection, is about a thirty-eight year old woman and a forty-four year old man for whom the man’s mother (the girl’s former teacher) is trying to arrange a match, unaware that her son is gay. The title refers to pictures of the man with his parents as he was growing up. “They would have been called ‘gold boy’ and ‘emerald girl’ at their wedding, enviable for their matching good looks.” The young woman agrees to marry her old professor’s son, but only because both love his mother. The story, and Li’s book, ends this way: “They were half orphans, and beyond that there was the love for his mother that they could share with no one else, he was a son who had once left but had now returned, she who had not left and would never leave. They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”
I like Yiyun Li’s stories, not because she provides me with information about Chinese culture, but because she is a fine writer who has mastered my favorite literary form. She is obviously a born storyteller who has learned a new language with which she feels completely comfortable and confident. Moreover, by studying the stories of William Trevor, she has learned the secrets of the short story form from a consummate master.
A couple of weeks ago, Eileen Battersby (who was a judge of the Frank O’Connor Award when Jhumpa Lahiri won in 2008) wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the six shortlisted authors in this year’s competition, concluding, “Lightning may well strike twice. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl stands out on this shortlist. Should it win, it will be a victory for everyone: the author, the short-story form, the judges, the award, literary prizes in general and oh yes, let us not forget, the real winners, us, the readers.”
The winner of the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced on September 18. In a few days, I will comment on the sixth and final book on the shortlist, Marry or Burn by Valerie Trueblood. Then I may well venture my own opinion as to who might be the winner of the Award.