Stories Reach Below The Surface Of China's Growth
The word "haunting" could be used to describe many of the short stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. The collection is by Yiyun Li, who emigrated from Beijing to the United States in the 1990s, and received the prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant in 2010.
With the backdrop of a nation moving from isolation to openness, Li's characters deal with universal struggles such as loneliness, regret, love and loss. And often, they're not who they may appear to be.
In the title story, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl," a professor finds herself in a love triangle after she tries arranging a marriage between her former student and her grown son. What the professor doesn't understand is that her student is already in love with her.
This theme — of hidden desires and misunderstood feelings — is central to the collection. As part of Tell Me More's BRICSion series, Li tells host Michel Martin that the political pressures in China have led people to become more guarded and secretive, even in their personal lives. "People simultaneously live more than one life, and it's always exciting when a character lives a double life," she says.
The lead character in the short story "Kindness" is Moyan, a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a decrepit flat. She has no husband, children or friends, and finds little fulfillment in her job. But instead of despair, her solitary life gives her a sense of power. "That's her way of rebellion — is to be isolated. Even though all these people came to her when she was younger, trying to make her, you know, open her eyes and love the world, she refused all the help. She refused to open up," says Li.
When asked if writing is her own form of rebellion, Li says writing just makes her think a lot. "I think probably [I] had a history of being forced into science, being not allowed to express a lot of feelings, a lot of thoughts," she says. Li was on track to pursue an immunology degree before she started writing in the U.S. When she gave up science, Li recalls that her mother said, "Oh, you wasted all the good education I gave you."
Li's parents still live in Beijing, and she's now confident that they are proud of her, despite them not knowing that she is a MacArthur "genius." But Li says that some Chinese people living in the U.S. accuse her of pandering to Western readers. "Oftentimes, they would question, you know, 'Do you win these prizes because you're good? Or do you win these prizes because you're writing about China?' "
Once an older reader approached Li and said, "I experience everything you wrote about, but still I'm not approving of your writing because I want people to see China as a beautiful country. I want Chinese people to be looked upon as great people. And you're not doing that service to us."
Li hopes her readers understand that she is not a spokesperson for China. "Mostly, I'm writing from my angle and my understanding of the world ... and if I write about America, America is not going to be that beautiful fairy-tale place either," she says. "I look at life in the way that I want to know the real truths, you know, under the surface. And [when] you write about anything under the surface, you're going to make people feel uneasy."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here at TELL ME MORE, of course, we try to stay up-to-date on the news of how countries and people are changing, but we also understand that sometimes fiction writers can tell those stories even better than journalists can. So this summer we decided to read through literature from countries that are rising on the global stage, the so-called BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Today, we turn to the C in the BRIC, China, with a collection of short stories called "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." Author Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. Her writing has earned her many awards, including the prestigious MacArthur so-called genius grant in 2010. That same year, The New Yorker magazine named her one of the top 20 writers under 40. And Yiyun Li is with us now.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us - and, of course, congratulations again.
YIYUN LI: Thank you and thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You actually came to the U.S. to get a degree in immunology. So how did you start writing fiction?
LI: Well, it was one of those stories that you fell in love with something. I came as a PhD student and I happened to land in Iowa City, Iowa. People said everybody in town was writing a novel so I thought I would try, and I just fell in love with writing.
MARTIN: Was China always your subject?
LI: China seemed a very natural topic for me. You know, it's the country I knew very well and the people I knew very well, so I started to write about China when I started writing.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the collection. It's a very haunting - do you mind if I use that word? It's haunting.
LI: Well, it's, it's a perfect, very apt description.
MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about how you - was, was there kind of a central organizing theme or idea around his collection?
LI: You know, one reason I write fiction is I'm curious about human beings, not about the surface. We all have secrets, you know, things unsaid are a major theme for me and so I think in writing fiction and in writing about these stories you are trying to push the characters to say those things that they don't want to say.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the title story, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." It's about a woman who tries setting up a marriage between her former student and her grown son. Could you just take it from there, if you would?
LI: So, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" translated from Chinese, it means, you know, the perfect match. The boy would be, you know, handsome and rich. The girl would be beautiful and chaste. Of course, in the story of former student of the professor and her grown-up son, they are the perfect mismatch. So the son is not interested in women. He's gay and he did not come out to his mother but she knew. And the student had been in love with this professor for 20 years, so in the end it's that perfect mismatch, you know, how the professor - why the professor wanted to bring these two together and why they agreed to her plan. These things are very interesting to me.
I think in China in the past, you know, 50 years, people have, you know, been in a situation either by political pressure, by cultural pressure, they would choose not to say how they feel and they would choose not to be who they really are to themselves. That is interesting to me because people simultaneously live more than one life. And it's always exciting when a character lives a double life.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're continuing our BRICSion book series. We're looking at works of fiction from the so-called BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. We're focusing on the C in the BRIC today, China with Yiyun Li, author of the short story collection, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." She's also the author of previous well-reviewed books called "The Vagrants," for example, and "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers."
Let's turn to the biggest or longest story in this particular collection. It's titled "Kindness." Moyan, your protagonist in the story, leads a very isolated life - even at the point of China's opening, right?
MARTIN: Those days of being told where to go, what to study, what you're allowed to think about and not think about are over, but she's still very isolated. She's not married. She has no children. She says she doesn't even have any friends. Why did you want her to be that, that way?
LI: I think, you know, there's one thing that she holds on to is that's her way of rebellion is to be isolated. Even though all these people came to her when she was younger trying to make her, you know, open our eyes and love the world, she refused all the help, she refused to open up. In a way I think that's her best way of commenting her own life, that this is my choice.
You know, when we say, you know, your fate is determined by your personality, but your fate is - on the other hand - is determined by history too. And because of that emphasis on collective living, she rebels against that historical force on her. So I-I-I, yes, I do think, you know, in a way she is a hero in her way that she says no to all these external pressures.
MARTIN: Is writing your rebellion?
LI: Well, you could call that. I think writing really just makes me think a lot, which, you know, probably had a history of, you know, being forced into science, being not allowed to express a lot of feeling, a lot of thoughts.
MARTIN: Are your folks still alive, if you don't mind my asking?
LI: They are. They live in Beijing.
MARTIN: They live in Beijing. Do they know that you are as successful as you - as a writer as you have become?
MARTIN: What do they think about your being a writer, by the way? A fiction writer at that - a novelist?
LI: A fiction writer, I know. I hope they like it. I don't know. I think when I give up science my mother was very disappointed and she said oh, you wasted all the good education I give you.
MARTIN: You don't know? You haven't asked them?
LI: Well, I think - well.
MARTIN: Have you sent them your books?
LI: Yes. My mother doesn't read English. My father reads English. But in a way, I think it's, again, I mean to me choosing to write and choosing to, first choosing to come to America and then choosing to write in English, it's a way to, you know, to have a, have a different life than what they envisioned for me. So I try not to comment on my life. I try not to talk too much of my present situation or with them. We get along well, but my career or my writing part is, is a little private for me.
MARTIN: OK. I get that. But do they understand that one of the, MacArthur fellowships are among the most coveted honors that one can have in this country...
MARTIN: ...that you are a genius?
MARTIN: Those are - there's so-called genius grants? Would you like me to call them and tell them?
LI: Please, not.
LI: Don't do that.
LI: No. It's OK. I think they know. They are very proud of me.
MARTIN: One other story. Tell me one other story you might like to talk about in the book. Just choose. Those are the two that I chose were the ones that struck me.
MARTIN: Is there one other that you'd like to tell us about.
MARTIN: And particularly one that you think really kind of opens a window into a culture and a time that many people are still - are fascinated by.
LI: There's one story it's called "House Fire." China, once the economy takes off, a man - especially, you know, rich people, started to keep mistresses and it's called second wives in China. And I read in the newspaper six retired women were indignant about betrayal in marriages. So what they did was they went on to start a private detective agency to specialize extramarital affair, which is a very interesting phenomenon for 21st century China. So I wrote a story about the private detective agency, you know, how they got together, how they solved their cases how, you know, when they went into the marketplace they would have walkie-talkies hidden under their vegetables and they would have, you know, balky earlier model cell phones under their scarves. In the end, it's not really about a private detective agency; it's really about the six women and what, you know, psychological state they were underneath that successful business.
MARTIN: But it is also about the fact that one of the - the backdrop of the story is you described was the, the fact that China is now a different place than it was 30 years ago, where people can now own private property, for example, and that some tremendous fortunes have been made, right...
MARTIN: ...in China in just recent decades. Not just in Hong Kong, but on the mainland, right?
LI: Yes. Exactly.
MARTIN: And so and what effect this is having on people's lives. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that? And do you think that'll be a subject of your future work?
LI: I do think, you know, my work is going to look at that change and look at what, you know, facing the new situations - what people do or fail to do.
MARTIN: There was one other thing I wanted to ask, I wasn't sure though, whether it made sense, is I just wondered if you have a sense just from readings and from your public readings and reaction that you get from - 'cause I don't know how engaged you are of social media and things like that, or how you hear from your readers - whether you get a very different reaction from your American readers or Western readers and from Chinese expatriates.
LI: Sometimes do. I would say, you know, my fellow Chinese living in America, oftentimes they suspect that I'm writing to please the Western audience, or writing to seek the favor. You know, like oftentimes they would question, you know, do you win these prize because you're good or do you win these prizes because you're writing about China? And it doesn't make sense? I, I sometimes try to explain. But in the end I stopped explaining.
MARTIN: That's very interesting? What is that about? Are people not proud of your success or, or do they feel that it's because you're being critical? Do they interpret your work as being critical of China and they don't appreciate that?
LI: Yes. I can give you an example, you know, two examples. One, I, I travel to Virginia once and I gave a reading in the college. And there was this young woman in her early 20s just coming from China for college. And afterwards, she said to me in Chinese, she said I know you're a good writer, you know, I read your book, but why do you have to write about these dark, lonely people? Why can't you write about, you know, the great Beijing Olympic in 2008? I explained to her that I don't write Olympic because I am not interested and I think it's going to be a propaganda story.
LI: Yeah. Another reader coming to my neighborhood bookstore and she said I experience everything you wrote about, but still I'm not approving of your writing because I want people to see China as a beautiful country. I want Chinese people to be looked upon as great people and you're not doing that service to us. I...
MARTIN: That is fascinating. Go ahead. Tell me more.
LI: I understand her feeling. I said I understand your feeling but, you know, I think one assumption that I try not to have people to have is, you know, I'm not a spokesperson for China. I'm not representing China in any way. Mostly I'm writing from my angle and my understanding of the world. And I explain that if I write about it America, America is not going to be that beautiful fairytale place either. You know, I look at life in the way that I want to know the real truths, you know, under the surface. And you write about anything under the surface you're going to make people feel a little uneasy.
MARTIN: Yiyun Li is the author of a short story collection, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." She's also a winner of a MacArthur fellowship, a so-called genius grant. And she was kind enough to join us from Berkeley, California.
Yiyun Li, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LI: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.