Four or five years ago, as I wandered around a Boston bookstore, I picked up an anthology of short stories by new writers, flipped it open to a random page, and landed on this line:
“[Siyu] knew it was not the students that his mother missed but the white skulls of mammals and birds on her office shelves, the drawers filled with scalpels and clamps and tweezers that she had cleaned and maintained with care, and the fact that she could mask her indifference to the human species with her devotion to animals.”
That line, from the story “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” was the first exposure I had to Yiyun Li, a Chinese-American writer. Li has authored two novels and two collections of short stories that have won innumerable awards.
That night, I dreamt about Siyu’s mother’s office, the brittle bones and shining tools, about the cool rhythm of the language. I couldn’t explain why the line had struck me so deeply — only that it seemed to construct a detailed and specific world that enveloped me with all that it suggested. The next morning, I bought a copy of “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” Li’s second collection of stories.
My copy is now weather-beaten and rough-edged, battle scars from having been reread many times, most recently this summer. It features nine stories, the first of which is novella-length, all set primarily in modern or 20th-century China. In “Prison,” a young woman from the countryside is hired as a surrogate mother for the main character and her husband, who have lost their daughter in a car accident. The female protagonist of “Number Three, Garden Road” pursues a longtime neighbor through a ballroom-dancing club. And an aging professor sets up her gay son with a former student in the title story “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.”
Li’s stories are about lonely, disconnected people, who are sometimes unlikable or brash, often comfortable in their isolation. Many critics have characterized Li as a political writer, a chronicler of modern China and the ripple effects of the Communist regime and the Cultural Revolution — though she herself is wary of this label (“These things are not why I write,” she said in an interview with the Harvard Review, “and I find that I have been put into that place from time to time to be a spokesperson against my wish.”). Others have drawn connections with traditional short story greats like Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro. Indeed, reading the stories in “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” lends a sense that the worlds Li builds extend beyond the boundaries of each individual piece, that the characters have lives and experiences beyond the limits of what is expressed on the page.
But what struck me most in Li’s writing was the way in which, despite being written in English, it managed to evoke the feeling of Chinese. The calm, almost formal quality of the prose reminded me of the Chinese poetry that my mother read to me as a child, and reading Li’s work gave me the peculiar sense of reading Chinese in English, of accessing a certain purity of voice that I have never encountered before.
Li, however, says she does not write — and doesn’t even imagine her characters speaking — in Chinese, though that’s typically their ethnicity. In fact, prior to arriving in the U.S., Li had never written before, neither in her mother tongue nor in English. But she has always loved to read, particularly English literature by Dickens and Hardy, after their books were once again permitted to be circulated in China. In fact, she thanks William Trevor, an Irish novelist, playwright and short-story writer, in the acknowledgements of “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.”
These influences, coupled with the ability of Li’s writing to evoke China, present an interesting paradox of identity. While one might say that Li has appropriated what could be termed a historically “white” way of writing, her capacity to express a seemingly different culture, experience, and even language has not in the least been limited. Above all, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” provokes us to consider the purpose of language and the ways in which it can disrupt and transcend its own boundaries.