Unafraid of Emotion

In several of the stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the 2005 collection by Yiyun Li, what connects one character to another is often vanishingly slim: the sight of “a wisp of hair” on a hard-to-manage, disabled adult daughter is all it takes to restore love to a weary mother’s heart; another mother looks at her gay, unmarried son with loving eyes “so eager and hopeful” the man must look away; a pregnant young woman, far from home and planning to abort, bursts into tears at the smallest movement of the growing life inside her.

These small human moments often provide the climax to Li's tender and truthful stories, as if the ability to bridge the gap between two people—or the inability to do so—were the single most important thing to say about a character.  Such stories generate real emotion in the reader like few other works of contemporary fiction can; Li, who appears at an author reading and signing in Carmel next week, is as unafraid of emotion as many of her characters are wary of its power.

Yet the emotions on display in Li’s work never sag into sentimentality.  Indeed, as she showed in The Vagrants (2009), her brilliant debut novel about life in a provincial Chinese town in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, she is remarkably unsentimental about children.  In The Vagrants, an entire community of men and women, boys and girls, is shaped by a shifting yet nonetheless unyielding political and social system that leads some to sad and surprising acts of cruelty and betrayal.  It is rare to encounter a book at once so sorrowful and so exhilarating; I was reminded of the novels of Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy, ambitious, carefully constructed works that set vivid individual characters into their environments like pieces of a puzzle in order to reveal a larger design about the nature of human suffering during a particular time and place.

In Li’s work, that time and place is mostly contemporary China.  Her second collection of stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), continues many of the themes found in A Thousand Years.  But if the emphasis in A Thousand Years was on the elusive, fragile nature of connection, in her latest book such connections are even more tenuous, if they exist at all.  In the title story, a gay man returns to China to live with his mother, a widowed, retired professor who is intent on seeing him marry one of her former students for reasons the story probes with extraordinary delicacy.  Such a marriage will not be founded on romantic love, but as in several other stories, Li explores how love is shadowy and unknowable, yet also tenacious.  “They were lonely and sad people,” Li writes, “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.”

Li’s radiant stories enlarge the reader’s world, making our own human tragedies large and small more transparent, and so more bearable.

Yiyun Li, author presentation and book signing, Tuesday, April 10, at 7:00 p.m., at Carpenter Hall, Sunset Center, 9th & Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea.  Presented by the Carmel Public Library Foundation as part of its Annual Arts & Literary Series.  $10 suggested contribution.