Saturday, January 11, 2014

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li began writing short stories in America in her adopted English language, not unlike Ha Jin.  She is a favorite author of Amy Tan and is considered a feminist writer.  She became a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 2010 and teaches at UC Davis.
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010) followed her novel The Vagrants.  In "Kindness", an unmarried woman, Moyan, recollects her closest relationships, a friendship with a Professor Shan, who loves English novels, Lieutenant Wei, a female army officer, and a brief crush on a man who moved out of her neighborhood. The English teacher reveals to Moyan that she is adopted (pp. 13, 73) and her mother was a nymphomaniac (p. 21).  In the Army, a friend asks her to translate the sexy passages in Lady Chatterly's Lover.  "I blushed at the words she used - zuo-ai, doing love, an innocent yet unfortunate mistranslation of the English phrase making love" (p. 31).  Inevitably, her lieutenant catches her with the book under the bedsheets (p. 39).  It is the death of Wei (p. 4) that motivates the narrator to tell her story.  At one point, Moyan develops a brief crush on a neighbor.  Shan comments "The moment you let someone into your heart you make yourself a fool...when you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you" (p. 39).   A sad commentary at best.
Li says she wrote this story as an homage to William Trevor:
I opened the novella with three sentences that echoed the opening sentences of Nights at the Alexandra, and while writing it, I imagined my narrator speaking to the narrator in Trevor’s novella – both characters lead a stoically solitary life, yet both are capable, and are proofs, of love, and affection and loyalty. Their conversation would not have happened in reality, but I hope that by speaking to one person in her mind, my narrator, in the end, speaks to many.
"A Man Like Him" concerns a celibate Teacher Fei (who "never cupped his hands around a woman's breasts," p. 91) who offers to assist a man wrongfully accused of adultery by his daughter, who exploits the Internet to seek revenge.  Fei's father had committed suicide (p. 89) and Fei gave his mother every chance to do the same (p. 90).  Fei's teaching career was ruined by a few moments of gazing (p. 98) at a female student, an indiscretion that branded him a pedophile (p. 99).  The Chinese character with the sound Fei means to give up or abandon - both these men have lost their livelihoods due to alleged wrongdoing for which they have no control.

In “Prison,” a Chinese couple (Yilan and Luo) living in America lose their 16-year-old daughter in a traffic accident (unintended suicide) and find their world shattered. They go to China and find a surrogate mother so that they might have another child.  The wife chooses an uneducated young woman (Fusang) 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 (p. 125). 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 (p. 130).

In "The Proprietress," Mrs. Jin is the owner of a small general store in Clear Water Town. Even though she sells goods to the poor people of the village, her most important activities have little to do with her store. Her home is next to a county jail and is a safe haven for "adopted" women of all ages. Among whom is Susu, a woman who recently caused an uproar when she asked the courts to allow her to have a child with her husband before he was executed. Her request makes Susu nationally known, so much so that a reporter from Shanghai comes to Mrs. Jin’s shop to ask her a few questions.