PEN/O.Henry 2012: Yiyun Li, “Kindness” from A Public Space #10, Summer 2010

Art from SF Gate

Art from SF Gate

But it is Professor Shan’s collection that I truly live with, Dickens and Hardy and Lawrence, who once saw me as a young girl and who will one day see me as an old woman. The people who live out their lives in those books, like their creators, are not my people, and I wonder if it is this irrelevance that makes it easy for me to wander among them, the same way that my not being related to my parents by blood makes it easy for me to claim their love story as mine.

Moyan tells us of her life: she learned not to love from a couple of chicklings, a flautist, and a teacher who, though she warned her about the pain love brings, ended up being the closest relationship of her life.

It’s a very long story – 70 pages in this edition – really a novella rather than a short story. It’s also in Li’s collection Gold Boy Emerald Girl, and has received high praise from everyone, including two of the three PEN/O.Henry jurors who chose it as the best story of the anthology.

It starts out with Moyan’s self-assessment; this seems grim, but is merely straightforward:

I am a forty-one-year-old woman living by myself, in the same one- bedroom flat where I have always lived, in a derelict building on the outskirts of Beijing that is threatened to be demolished by government-backed real estate developers. Apart from a trip to a cheap seaside resort, taken with my parents the summer I turned five, I have not traveled much; I spent a year in an army camp in central China, but other than that I have never lived away from home…. I have not married, and naturally have no children. I have few friends, though as I have never left the neighborhood, I have enough acquaintances, most of them a generation or two older. Being around them is comforting; never is there a day when I feel that I am alone in aging.
I teach mathematics in a third-tier middle school. I do not love my job or my students, but I have noticed that even the most meager attention I give to the students is returned by a few of them with respect and gratitude and sometimes inexplicable infatuation. I pity those children more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives. It is a terrible thing, even for an indifferent person like me, to see the bleakness lurking in someone else’s life.
I have no hobby that takes me outside my flat during my spare time. I do not own a television set, but I have a roomful of books at least half a century older than I am. I have never in my life hurt a soul, or, if I have done any harm unintentionally the pain I inflicted was the most trivial kind, forgotten the moment it was felt-if indeed it could be felt in any way. But that cannot be a happy life, or much of a life at all, you might say. That may very well be true. “Why are you unhappy?” To this day, if I close my eyes I can feel Lieutenant Wei’s finger under my chin, lifting my face to a spring night. “Tell me, how can we make you happy?”
The questions, put to me twenty-three years ago, have remained unanswerable, though it no longer matters, as, you see, Lieutenant Wei died three weeks ago…

The notice of Lt. Wei’s death is the motivation for her telling of the story of her life, focusing on the time spent in the army camp but bringing in the few other important relationships that led to her decision to avoid love and attachment. These sidetrips into the past inform her life in the army camp, and her present.

Her mother was crazy, perhaps not clinically but by social standards, rendered that way by unrequited love for a married man. She was offered a choice: marry another man, much older, or go to an institution. She chose marriage. Moyan remembers her as spending most of her time languishing in bed, reading old romance novels.

Her father, a department store janitor, seems to mean well. An early incident she recalls involves two chicks, bought for her by some neighbors since her father could not afford them:

My father, on the way home, warned me gently that the chicks were too young to last more than a day or two. I built a nest for the chicks out of a shoe box and ripped newspaper, and fed them water-softened millet grains and a day later, when they looked ill, aspirin dissolved in water. Two days later they died, the one I named Dot and marked with ink on his forehead the first one to go, followed by Mushroom. I stole two eggs from the kitchen when my father went to help a neighbor fix a leaking sink – my mother was not often around in those days – and cracked them carefully and washed away the yolks and whites; but no matter how hard I tried I could not fit the chicks back into the shells, and I can see, to this day, the half shell on Dot’s head, covering the ink spot like a funny little hat.
I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the eggshell.

This is not when Moyan decides not to love; it is merely the first step, and I respect that the story doesn’t try to reduce things down to a single moment. A neighborhood teacher, Professor Shan, calls Moyan aside when she is twelve, first to tell her that her that she is adopted, then to teach her to read English via David Copperfield (among others).

Just before high school, as they move on to D. H. Lawrence, another neighbor enters her awareness. They relate almost entirely through his baby daughter: he calls her Nini’s Sister; she calls him Nini’s Father. When he leaves suddenly, he calls her aside to say goodbye in a very sweet and touching way; she is distracted for her lesson with Professor Shan, who surmises the reason and offers some advice:
“The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool…. When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you. Do you understand, Moyan?”

Moyan understands perfectly. She stops visiting Professor Shan, but surreptitiously takes a volume of D. H. Lawrence stories with her.

These incidents are woven into the primary plot line of her time in the army camp, where she has good relationships with several soldiers (including Jie, who asks her to underline the “good” parts of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and then is later disappointed when reality doesn’t match literary license), but still keeps her distance, especially from Lt. Wei, who switches back and forth from drill sergeant to counselor. Whatever her role, Moyan maintains a steely presence, never accepting the friendship offered.

Her time in the army is not joyless: she finds comfort and enjoyment in a march, a day in the woods, in a field of fireflies. These are small joys, to be sure, brief, and solitary. She returns home because of a family emergency, and discovers something new about her mother, another defining trait, a startling piece of the puzzle. She returns to Professor Shan for daily readings that continue until her death twelve years later, at which point Moyan finds herself excluded from the funeral by the Professor’s family; they seemed to think she was trying to get her hands on an inheritance.

It’s a beautifully written, quiet story, very internal, all in Moyan’s revelations and discoveries of her family and herself. There’s a lot said in what isn’t said. In her Contributor Notes, Li says she wrote this 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.

I love that technique. It’s always strange when a narrator just starts relating a story out of thin air. It’s what we’re used to, of course; it’s what a story is. But it does require a certain suspension of disbelief, that upon receiving the notice of Lt. Wei’s death, Moyan would stop and write down this story, as in a journal. Having this extra layer, though it’s not explicitly part of the text, seems like a great way to define Moyan and to keep the purpose of the story crystal-clear throughout.

I’m perhaps not as taken with the story as a whole as most, a reaction I find is similar to that I had to Claire Keegan’s “Foster,” an Irish novella from last year. Maybe it’s novellas, especially where short stories are expected (there’s a different way of reading involved, and a different type of discussion, and I found myself annoyed to be interrupted from the rhythm I’d set for this volume; that’s entirely my problem, and a pretty ridiculous one, but fact is I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read this novella had it been presented separately); maybe I’m just moving away from the internal narrative I’ve always been so fixated on. That, in fact, would be a good thing. I’m still envious that someone is allowed to write such an internal story – or maybe it’s that she’s able to do so in a way that still has momentum, something I never learned.

Still, it’s lovely, and I’m glad PEN/O.Henry snuck it in on me here.

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