He was raised by his mother alone, as she was by her father. She wondered if his mother, who had set up their date, had told him about that.
Siyu was thirty-eight, and the man, Hanfeng, was forty-four. Siyu’s father, after supporting her through college, had remarried, choosing a woman thirty years his junior. The woman had a young son from her previous marriage, whom Siyu’s father had taken on as his responsibility. The boy was now in his last year of high school, and Siyu, having told her father many times that he deserved peace and simplicity, maintained a respectful distance from his new family. Each year she spent New Year’s Eve, and sometimes other holidays, with Hanfeng’s mother, who had been her zoology professor in college. There was no way to predict when the older woman would be in the mood to invite Siyu, so she tried to keep herself uncommitted, which meant that most of the holidays she spent alone.
“Professor Dai must miss her students these days,” Siyu said after she and Hanfeng had exchanged greetings, although she knew that 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. The first time Siyu had seen Professor Dai, on a campus tour during the opening week of college, the older woman had been following a strutting owl down a dimly lit hallway; she paid little attention to the group of new students, and stooped slightly the whole time, as if she were the mother of a toddler and had to watch out for minor accidents. When a boy stepped over to take a closer look at the owl, she scooped up the bird in her arms and glared at him before striding away.
“Retirement is a strange thing for her,” Hanfeng said. His mother had always despised women who grabbed every opportunity to matchmake, but within days of his return to China she had mentioned a former student she thought he should meet. His mother did not say much else, but he could sense that it was marriage that she was thinking about. Twenty years of living away from her had not changed that in him: he always knew what was on her mind before she said it, and he wondered if she was ever aware of that.
The teahouse where Hanfeng and Siyu were meeting, at a hillside pavilion in the Summer Palace, had been chosen by his mother, and she had suggested that they also take a long stroll along the lakefront. It was early March. The day turned out overcast and windy, and secretly Hanfeng hoped that the wind would not die down, so they could forgo the romantic walk. He wondered if Siyu was wishing for a different scenario. He could not yet read much from her face. She smiled courteously as she gave him a few facts about the tea she had ordered for them both, White Peony, but the smile and the words seemed to come with effort, as if her interest in interacting with him could easily fade. Her body was slender, and her hair, black with noticeable strands of gray, was kept straight and at shoulder length. He wondered why the woman, who was beautiful in an unassuming way, had never married.
“Do you find Beijing a different city now?” Siyu said. It must be a question that he was asked all the time, but it would not do anyone any harm, she thought. It was not the first time that Siyu had been set up with a stranger—since she had turned twenty, neighbors and acquaintances, pitying her for not having a mother to fuss over her future, had taken it as their responsibility to find a husband for her—but with those men she had known from the beginning that she would not bother trying to impress them. Over the years, she had developed a reputation as unmatchable, and nowadays only the most persistent of the matchmakers would mention a widower or a divorcé, in his fifties or sometimes sixties, as a possible solution. The first time such a prospect was presented in an enthusiastic speech, Siyu had the odd feeling that she was now expected to marry her father; only later did she realize that she was no longer a young woman.
Siyu worked as a librarian in a zoology institute, and her life had not changed much from that of a college student. In her mind, she might still be the eighteen-year-old who had set her alarm clock early so that by six o’clock she would be sitting on the bench under an ancient gingko tree in front of the biology building. At half past six, Professor Dai would arrive on her bicycle—a tall, rusty, heavy-built one that would have better suited a peasant or a street peddler—and she would nod at Siyu almost imperceptibly as she locked it up. It had taken two years for Professor Dai to cross the courtyard and ask Siyu about the thick volume that she had been reading every day. Charles Dickens, Siyu had replied, and then added that she was trying to memorize “Great Expectations.” Professor Dai nodded, expressing neither surprise nor curiosity at the task that had already made Siyu an eccentric in the eyes of her classmates. Siyu did not explain to them that her grandfather—her mother’s father, whom she had never met—had once memorized volumes of Dickens on the small balcony of a Shanghai flat, a feat that had eventually led him, before the liberation, to a high position in a bank run by Englishmen. It was Dickens who had in the end killed Siyu’s mother: as a daughter of the British capitalists’ loyal lapdog, she had hanged herself when her own daughter was four months of age, barely old enough to be weaned.
Hanfeng looked at Siyu’s face, detecting a familiar absent-mindedness. His mother, too, asked him questions to which she seemed scarcely interested in knowing the answers. He wondered if this happened to women who lived by themselves. “Too many cars,” he replied, nonetheless—the standard response he gave when asked about his impression of Beijing these days. “I miss the bicycles.”
Hanfeng had returned from the States a month before. He had told his former colleagues in San Francisco about his intention to settle down in China, and they had joked about moving with him and becoming the forty-niners of the new gold rush. He had gone along with the joke, making up ambitious business plans that he knew he would not carry out. His mother was getting old, he’d explained to his friends; the thought that he, too, was no longer a young man in need of adventures he had kept to himself. Semi-retired was how he liked to think of his situation, but within days he had realized that what he had made in the States at the tail end of the dot-com bubble would not be sufficient to support a life of idleness, as he had hoped. Still, he was not eager to go out and seek employment. He deposited half his money into his mother’s account and told her that he would take a break; she did not ask about his plans for the future, in the same way that she had not questioned his decision to leave or to come home.
At seventy-one, his mother was as independent as ever, and she loathed most activities that a woman her age enjoyed: taking morning walks with a companion, gossiping and bargaining at the marketplace, watching soap operas in the afternoon. Hanfeng had never wondered how his mother spent her days in retirement until his return, when, all of a sudden, the three-bedroom flat that must have seemed empty to her became crowded. He had been the one to cook for the two of them when he was a boy, dividing the meals in half and eating his portion alone; his mother, her preoccupation with her research a ready excuse, had eaten at odd hours then. Since his return, he had taken over the cooking again, and, now that neither of them was eager to go out into the world to fulfill any duty, they ate together.
The idea of renting a flat had occurred to Hanfeng, but as soon as the thought was formed he dismissed it as a waste: he had left for America right after college, a move intended to claim a place for himself—a whole continent, in the end, as in twenty years he had drifted from New York to Montreal, then Vancouver, and later San Francisco—and a life that had to be lived away from a mother; but with the return to China he no longer felt the urgency to have his own place. Freedom is like restaurant food, he had told an old friend in the States, and one can lose one’s appetite for even the best restaurants. Pure nonsense, replied his friend, who, unlike Hanfeng, had long ago settled down with a partner, a house, and two dogs, and talked of adopting a baby. Take a break, he had said, urging Hanfeng to return to California after he had refreshed himself with his homemade dumplings and noodles. Hanfeng, however, could envision himself living a bachelor’s life in his mother’s flat, reading the same newspapers and comparing notes on the stories that interested them both, wandering freely through the flat when she went out for her piano lessons twice a week.
The piano was the only thing that kept his mother actively engaged with the world. Soon after Hanfeng’s return, she had asked him to go to a recital she was playing in, at a local music school. It was attended by men and women Hanfeng’s age, who seemed nervous when their well-trained and nicely dressed children took the stage. His mother was the only one who went up without a puppet-like show. She gazed at the sheets of music for a long moment, then started to pound on the keys with a seriousness that took Hanfeng by surprise. He had thought the piano was merely a retirement pastime for his mother, and had protested mildly when she mentioned that her goal was to be good enough one day to play four-hand with him. Hanfeng had not told her that he was no longer playing, even though a rented piano had always been the first piece of furniture to fill an empty apartment in each city he had moved to. Small children giggled in the audience, and a few older ones smirked, pitying the old woman for her stiff arthritic fingers that would never be as good and agile as theirs. Some parents shook their heads at their children disapprovingly, and it occurred to Hanfeng that he was becoming a parent for his mother, that he would be the one to protect her from the hostility of the world.
The thought left him baffled. His mother had always been a headstrong woman, and, with her grayish-white mane and unsmiling face, she appeared as regal and intimidating as she had ever been. Still, seeing her through other people’s eyes, Hanfeng realized that all that made her who she was—the decades of solitude in her widowhood, her coldness to the prying eyes of people who tried to mask their nosiness with friendliness, and her faith in the notion of living one’s own life without having to go out of one’s way for other people—could be deemed pointless and laughable. Perhaps the same could be said of any living creature: a caterpillar chewing on a leaf, unaware of the beak of an approaching bird; an egret mesmerized by its reflection in a pond, as if it were the master of the universe; or Hanfeng’s own folly of repeating the same pattern of hope and heartbreak, hoping despite heartbreak.
Siyu asked a few more questions, and Hanfeng replied. When there was nothing much left to say, he curled his fingers around the teacup and studied its shape, and Siyu pictured him as a young boy, spreading his slender fingers on the cold keys of a piano. His mother must have told him, when he complained about the open windows in the winter, that playing would keep the blood circulating in his hands. Siyu did not know why she imagined that; it was as unfounded as all the other things she had made up about him. In Professor Dai’s flat, there were framed snapshots of Hanfeng, playing in piano contests at five, eight, ten, fifteen. There were snapshots of him when he had first arrived in America, with his bright-colored T-shirt, long and flying hair, and broad smile, as picturesque and unreal as the Statue of Liberty in the background.
Siyu had been eighteen when she first saw those photographs, when she was sent as a representative from her class to deliver a New Year’s present to Professor Dai. No one had wanted that job; Professor Dai’s coldness was known to be hurtful, and it had made sense that Siyu, with her mild eccentricity, would be the one chosen. But that day, to Siyu’s surprise, Professor Dai had not simply dismissed her from the doorway, even though she had immediately placed the present, a framed painting of a golden carp, next to the wastebasket. Professor Dai had invited Siyu into the flat, moved the papers that covered the dining table onto the piano bench, and let Siyu sit while she went to the kitchen to make tea. Her son was the one who played the piano, Professor Dai answered when Siyu asked, and pointed out the pictures of Hanfeng. Very vaguely, Siyu had thought that he was the kind of boy she would like to have as a boyfriend, a prize badge that she could wear to make other girls jealous. Years later, she knew it was not the thought of the boy that had made her wait on the bench outside the biology building in the mornings during college; nor was he the reason she continued to befriend Professor Dai in a manner allowed by the older woman. Occasionally, Siyu would carefully study the pictures of Hanfeng in Professor Dai’s flat, and when they ran out of things to say about animals she would ask about his life in America. When Professor Dai called and asked her to meet Hanfeng, Siyu wondered if the matchmaking had come as a result of a beguiling impression she had left of her interest in a good-looking bachelor.
The waitress came to offer a fresh pot of tea. Hanfeng turned to Siyu and asked her if she was ready to leave. They had spent almost an hour talking, and he had fulfilled his mother’s wish without humiliating the woman with his lack of interest. Siyu looked out the window at the willow trees, their branches waving like unruly hair in the wind. Not a great day for a walk, Hanfeng said. Siyu agreed, then asked him if he needed a ride.
“I’ll take a cab home,” he said.
“I’m driving past your mother’s place, in any case,” Siyu said. Her own flat, a small studio that she rented from a retired couple, was only minutes from Professor Dai’s flat, but Siyu thought she would appear too eager if she mentioned that.
Hanfeng wished that he had made up an excuse—a lunch with a friend in another district; an exhibition or a film to see—but it was too late to correct himself now.
A week later, Hanfeng’s mother asked him if he planned to see Siyu again. They had finished their breakfast, and were reading that morning’s newspapers, plates and bowls scattered on the table between them. Hanfeng’s mother did not raise her eyes from the page as she asked, but he knew the question was not as haphazard as it seemed. Should he? he replied.
“Do you dislike her?”
It took more than an hour over tea for him to say that he disliked a woman, Hanfeng thought, but he just shook his head slightly. He was not surprised by his mother’s question. Do you dislike piano? she had asked, when he wanted to give up the instrument at twelve for games that he could play with boys his age; Do you dislike engineering?, when he thought of pursuing a literature degree in college rather than the one she had chosen for him. Before he left China, she told him that she might not have been a good mother in the worldly sense, but she considered herself successful in giving him two things: practical skills with which to earn a living, and music as the only trustworthy companion and consolation for his soul. Twenty-three, and in love with a childhood friend who was dating a chirpy girl, Hanfeng did not believe that either of his mother’s gifts would in any way contribute to his happiness. America, at first glance, seemed a happy enough place, and when his friend called with the news of his engagement Hanfeng sought out companions. All he wanted was to have some fun, he replied when more was asked of him; “Have fun”—wasn’t that the phrase that replaced words of farewell in many Americans’ lexicon? But eventually the reply came back to taunt him: I thought we would have some fun and that’s all, his last lover had said, a Chinese boy, a new immigrant, as Hanfeng had once been, whom Hanfeng had helped support through college.
He should ask Siyu out to a movie, his mother suggested, or a concert. When he showed a lukewarm reaction, she said, “Or ask her to have dinner with us here.”
“Wouldn’t that be too quick?” Hanfeng said. Even though Siyu had been introduced to him by his mother, a dinner invitation, after meeting only once, seemed to imply an approval of sorts from both his mother and himself.
“She is not a stranger,” his mother replied, and proceeded to check the calendar on the kitchen wall. Saturday was a good day, she said, and when Hanfeng questioned Siyu’s availability at such short notice his concerns were dismissed. “She’ll rearrange her schedule if she has to,” his mother said, and wrote down the date and Siyu’s number on a piece of scrap paper.
Hanfeng wondered if Siyu had felt similar pressure from his mother. What would she have said to Siyu—I would like you to date my son? Knowing his mother, he wondered if she had simply mentioned that her son needed a wife and that she thought Siyu would be the right person for the role. “Why has she never married?” he asked.
“I imagine for the obvious reason of not having felt the need to get married.”
“Does she want to get married now?” Hanfeng said. He had expected his mother to reply that Siyu had not met the right person—and then he could have questioned why his mother thought him a good choice for her.
“She didn’t say no to the date last time, no?”
When Hanfeng called Siyu to invite her to dinner, the line was quiet for a moment. He waited for her to find an excuse to turn down the invitation, or, better still, to tell him that she had obliged his mother with their last meeting and the sensible thing to do now was to make their mutual disinterest known to his mother. Instead, Siyu asked him if they could possibly meet once more before the dinner. Anytime after she got off from work would do, she said. He wondered why she needed to see him when all could be settled on the phone, but he agreed to a late-afternoon meeting that day.
There was a power outage at the coffee shop where Siyu had suggested they meet. Apart from the light of a few candles on the counter, the inside of the shop, a long, narrow rectangle, was almost pitch-black. Siyu, who had arrived a few minutes earlier and taken a seat by the only window, explained to Hanfeng that the place was always quiet, and more so today, as the coffeemakers were not hissing. A sulky young girl placed a pot of tea and two cups heavily on the table. Siyu apologized for the shop’s unfriendliness after the girl had returned to the counter. “I’m about their only regular customer, but for three years no one has acknowledged me,” she said.
“Why do you still come here?”
“It’s quiet. I can assure you it’s not easy to find a quiet place like this in Beijing,” Siyu said. “My theory is that the proprietress is a rich man’s mistress. She does not want the shop to make money for him, and he cannot close it, because it was his present to her.”
Hanfeng looked around, but there was no one there besides the girl at the counter. “They seem to hire unhappy people,” he said.
“The proprietress is a beautiful woman,” Siyu said. Hanfeng nodded. He had no further questions, and she could see that he was one of those people who would not return to the place. She wished she could tell him that, apart from the beauty of the woman who once in a while showed up at the coffee shop with an air of authority, there was little evidence to support her guess. Yet there had to be an explanation for the sad, lifeless appearance of the shop. She thought of telling him this, but he was part of the world that did not seek her explanations. The world had made up its mind about her oddity in her spinsterhood.
They sat in silence for a moment. In another place, a more romantic setting, lovers’ murmurs would have been well masked by soft jazz coming from hidden speakers, their faces illuminated by candlelight, but here there was no music and the candles were lit out of necessity. The idea of getting to know Hanfeng better before having dinner with him and his mother seemed, like all the other ideas that had occurred to Siyu, a regrettable mistake. When he did not help find a harmless topic of discussion, she asked him if he was aware of his mother’s wish to see him get married.
“I suppose all mothers worry about their children’s marriage status,” Hanfeng said vaguely. He had thought that his mother had long ago accepted who he was; when he had visited from America in the past, she had never pressed for any details of his American life, sparing him the pain of explaining himself. “Doesn’t your mother?”
She had no right to feel let down, Siyu thought. Nevertheless, it disappointed her that Professor Dai had not told him much about her. That she had been raised by her father had been, from a young age, the first thing people said of her. “I never met my mother,” she said. “My father brought me up by himself.”
Hanfeng looked up at her. Before he could form an apology, she said there was no need for one. She had grown up not knowing her loss, so there had not been any real loss. She wondered if that was how Hanfeng thought of his father. Professor Dai had never mentioned her late husband, but Siyu had once had a summer job in the department office, and had heard other professors and the secretaries talk about how he had died in a snowstorm when his bicycle skidded in front of a bus. An accident that no one could be blamed for, but Siyu had sensed the others’ disapproval of Professor Dai, as if she were partially responsible for the unfair fate befalling a man; the dead husband, by contrast, was always praised as the gentlest person.
“What was it like to grow up with only a father?” Hanfeng asked. He had little recollection of his father, but there were photographs, taken when Hanfeng had turned a hundred days, six months, one year, and then two years old. In all four pictures, he was flanked by his parents, who looked serious and attentive. They would have been called gold boy and emerald girl at their wedding, enviable for their matching good looks. It must have been his father’s idea to have a family picture taken at every milestone of his life, since after his father’s death Hanfeng had never been in the same photograph as his mother.
She imagined it was not very different from growing up with a mother, Siyu replied. There was no other parent to whom they could compare the one they had, and love did not have to be balanced and divided between two people; the claiming of loyalty was unnecessary. Siyu did not say these things, but there was a gentleness in Hanfeng’s eyes where before there had been only aloofness, and she knew that he understood.
Hanfeng turned away from Siyu’s gaze and looked out the window. A woman in a heavy mud-colored coat was riding a bicycle and threading through the long line of cars in the street, and a young child, bundled up in a gray shawl, so that its gender could not be determined, sat on a bamboo chair affixed to the back rack of the bicycle, as unfazed as the mother was by the impatient honking of drivers around them. Hanfeng pointed out the child to Siyu, knowing that both of them had travelled the streets of Beijing in that way, he behind his mother, she her father.
After the woman and her child had disappeared from sight, Siyu said that, when she started to ride her bicycle to school at twelve, her father would get up every morning and run after her until she reached the school gate. She used to be ashamed of being the only one escorted to school by a running father, but she could never say no to him.
“He must be the most loving father in the world,” Hanfeng said.
Siyu nodded. A door behind the counter opened and then closed, and for a moment it seemed that the flickering candles would be extinguished. She had had to squeeze the hand brake often on the downhill ride to the school so that her father’s panting would not be so loud that other people took notice, and only when she was much older did she realize that her father had insisted on running beside her so that she would not become one of the wild youngsters who sped and broke an arm or a skull in an accident. She had always been aware of his love for her and for her mother, even though he had not said much, but in the end she had been the one to make up grand reasons for her absence. You’re still my only daughter, he had said to her when she decided not to attend his wedding; you’re part of the family, he had said when she told him that she would not be coming home for the lunar New Year. He did not need her to complicate his life, she had replied, knowing that he would stoically accept her proposal of a monthly lunch as their only way of remaining father and daughter.
Ungrateful and coldhearted she must seem in the eyes of old neighbors and family friends, but how could she stay in his sight when she was going through her life with a reckless speed known only to herself, all because of a love she could not explain and did not have the right to claim in the first place? I wonder if I made a mistake by bringing you up alone, her father had said to her at their most recent lunch, taking it as his failure that she had not found a husband. I was afraid of what a stepmother would do to a girl, but perhaps a woman would have made a difference, he said, less guarded and more talkative now in his old age. Siyu had shaken her head and denied that he had anything to regret. That she had grown up without a mother could be a ready explanation for anything—her oddness in her teen-age years, her choice of an unremarkable job despite her excellence in schoolwork, her singleness. Were people to know her secret, they might easily conclude that she had spent her life looking for a mother in her love of an older woman, but Siyu did not believe that things would have turned out any differently had she had a mother.
A beautiful and sad woman, Hanfeng thought as he looked at Siyu’s face. As beautiful and sad a woman, perhaps, as his mother had once been. Could this account for his mother’s wish for a marriage between Siyu and him? Hanfeng had been surprised, at first, that a former student would remain close to his mother. She had not been the kind to pick favorites among her students; nor had she ever encouraged any personal interaction with them, as far as he knew, though he could see why Siyu, motherless and with a gentle and loving father, might seek out a professor despite, or perhaps because of, her sternness. But Siyu seemed to know his mother only in a peripheral way, as a pupil, and Hanfeng wondered if this was why his mother had allowed the younger woman to remain a friend. When Hanfeng was ten, a woman had come from a southern province to see his mother. An unannounced visit, he could tell, when his mother returned home in the evening and found him shelling peas alongside the guest, their knees almost touching, on two low stools. The woman, who had told Hanfeng that she was a very old friend of his mother’s and was planning to stay with them for a week, had left the next morning before he awoke. He had been puzzled but had intuitively known not to ask his mother about it. Still, the image of the woman’s face, pale at the sight of his mother, and her hands, which let the peas fall into the pile of shells, had stayed with Hanfeng. He could not pinpoint when he understood that there had been betrayals between the two friends, but by the time he left home for college he had known that he would never learn the true story, his mother having long ago decided to live alone with the secret until her death.
At the dinner, both Siyu and Han feng felt a shyness around each other, but Professor Dai did not let the awkwardness deter her. “When you are young, you marry for passion,” she said, looking first at her son and then at her future daughter-in-law. “When you’re older, you marry for companionship.”
Hanfeng glanced down at his plate. One day she would die, his mother had said to him the night before, after he had listened to her stumble through a Chopin piece on the piano. There was nothing to grieve about in her death, but she would like to see that he did not repeat her fate. Repeat? Hanfeng had asked, pretending that he did not understand and knowing that she could see through him. She would like him to marry Siyu, his mother had said. There were many ways to maintain a marriage, and she expected theirs to be far from the worst.
The same message had been conveyed to Siyu, when Hanfeng was sent to buy a bottle of wine for dinner. She was helping Professor Dai lay the table, and, when she looked over, the older woman paired the chopsticks without meeting her eyes. Siyu had never mentioned the strangers she had been matched up with over the years, but, one New Year’s Eve, Professor Dai had told Siyu that she shouldn’t get married if it was not what she wanted. They had just finished dinner, and, sitting across the table from Professor Dai, Siyu could see the prints of bamboo leaves on the curtain lit up by the fireworks outside. Professor Dai had opened a bottle of wine that year, an unusual addition to the holiday meal, as neither of them was the type to celebrate. You could feel trapped by the wrong man, Professor Dai said. Her voice, softened by the wine, was less steely and almost inaudible beneath the booming of the fireworks; you would have to wish for his death every day of your marriage, but, once the wish was granted by a miracle, you would never be free of your own cruelty. Siyu listened, knowing that the older woman was talking about herself, knowing also that both of them would pretend to have forgotten the conversation after that night. Other conversations, on other New Year’s Eves, were never mentioned again. One year, Siyu had told Professor Dai about her mother’s suicide; another year, Professor Dai had mentioned that her son had no interest in marriage. Professor Dai’s acknowledgment of Siyu’s decision to purchase a secondhand car so that the older woman could avoid taking a crowded bus or enduring a chatty cabdriver was hinted at but not directly stated, and so was her gratitude for Siyu’s alertness, when she had failed to answer Siyu’s weekly phone call and Siyu had discovered the older woman on the floor by the piano, having suffered a stroke.
She had remained unmarried for Professor Dai, Siyu thought now, and she would, with her blessing, become a married woman. She would not wish for her husband’s death, as his mother had, because the marriage, arranged as it was, would still be a love marriage. Siyu had wished to be a companion for Professor Dai in her old age, and her wish would now be granted, an unexpected gift from a stingy life.
“So this is an engagement dinner, then?” Hanfeng said, feeling that it was his duty to say something to avoid silence among the three of them. He doubted that he would feel any deficiency in his life without a wife, he had said the night before, and his mother had replied that Siyu was not the kind of woman who would take much away from him.
“We don’t need any formality among us,” Professor Dai said now, and told Siyu that she should move in at her earliest convenience instead of wasting money on rent. Siyu looked down the hallway, knowing that the room that served as a piano studio for Professor Dai would be converted into the third bedroom, the piano relocated to the living room. She could see herself standing by the window and listening to Hanfeng and Professor Dai play four-hand, and she could see the day when she would replace Professor Dai on the piano bench, her husband patient with her inexperienced fingers. They were half orphans, and beyond that there was the love for his mother that they could share with no one else, he as 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. ♦
Yiyun Li (李翊雲, born November 4, 1972) is a Chinese American writer, writing in English. Her short stories and novels have won several awards and distinctions. She is presently an editor of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine A Public Space.
Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing, China. Her mother was a teacher and her father worked as a nuclear physicist, a profession where talk of emigration to the United States was common. Following a year of military service in the army, she went on to earn a B.S. at Peking University in 1996. In the same year she moved to the US and in 2000 earned an MS in immunology at The University of Iowa. In 2005 she earned a MFA degrees in creative nonfiction and fiction from The Nonfiction Writing Program and the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker,The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. Two of the stories from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers were adapted into 2007 films directed by Wayne Wang: The Princess of Nebraska and the title story, which Li adapted herself.
Li had a breakdown in 2012 and attempted suicide twice. After recuperating and leaving the hospital, she lost interest in writing fiction and for a whole year she focused on reading several biographies, memoirs, diaries and journals. According to her, reading about other people's lives "was a comfort”.
Stephanie Merritt of The Observer wrote,
Yiyun Li's 2005 debut story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers earned her comparisons with Chekhov and Alice Munro. Her first novel, The Vagrants, draws heavily on the art of the short story as it follows a disparate group of citizens of the industrial town of Muddy River over three months in 1979.
Ian Thomson of The Independent wrote,
With its controlled understatement and scrupulous and unsparing lucidity, The Vagrants is a work of great moral poise and dignity. These days, few writers can be said to possess gravitas; yet Yiyun Li exudes a seriousness that would be remarkable in one twice her age. As a chronicle of political betrayal under a modern dictatorship, The Vagrants is a minor classic; I have not read such a compelling work in years.
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
- Li, Yiyun (2017). Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Random House.
- Li, Yiyun (2009). The vagrants. Random House.
- — (2014). Kinder than solitude. Random House.
- Li, Yiyun (2005). A thousand years of good prayers. Random House.
- — (2010). Gold boy, emerald girl. Random House.
|The Proprietress||2005||"The Proprietress". Zoetrope: All-Story. 9 (4). Fall 2005.||?|
|House Fire||2007||"House Fire". Granta. 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2. Spring 2007.||?|
|Prison||2006||"Prison". Tin House (28). Summer 2006.||Li, Yiyun (2008). "Prison". In Furman, Laura. The O. Henry Prize stories 2008. New York: Anchor Books.|
|A Man Like Him||2008||"A Man Like Him". New Yorker. May 12, 2008.||Li, Yiyun (2009). "A man like him". In Sebold, Alice. The best American short stories 2009. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.|
|A Small Sacrifice||2010||"A Small Sacrifice". The Threepenny Review. 123. Fall 2010.||?|
|A Sheltered Woman||2014||"A Sheltered Woman". New Yorker. March 10, 2014.||Li, Yiyun (2015). A Sheltered Woman. HarperCollins.|
Essays and reporting
- Profile at The Whiting Foundation
- "The Rumpus Interview with Yiyun Li", January 14th, 2009
- January 2009 interview with Yiyun Li
- "Executioner Songs", The Wall Street Journal, JANUARY 30, 2009
- "Interviews: Yiyun Li", Identity Theory
- Articles by Yuyun Li on her UK publisher's blog, 5th Estate
- Yiyun Li speaks about Gold Boy, Emerald Girl on KRUI's The Lit Show
- Video: The Story Prize reading with Anthony Doerr and Suzanne Rivecca. March 2, 2011.