A Sly Wit

Yiyun Li A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Yiyun Li is a sly wit. Who else reads for relaxation The New York Times obituaries and ExecutedToday.com? Who else could poke fun of the personality cult otherwise known as Maoism?

The first time I met Li was at the Napa Writers Conference. I was one of eleven aspiring novelists and she was our teacher. By the end of the week, I had fallen for her sense of humor and her quiet intelligence. I left Napa with a copy of her debut, a short story collection titled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

This was back in 2017. Li’s collection languished on my to-be-read pile for 5 long years. Perhaps, as the venerable indie bookstore Shakespeare & Company tweeted, “Some books just need a bit of shelf-time before they (/you) are ready.”

Granny Lin walks in the street on a November afternoon with a stainless steel lunch pail in her hand. Inside the lunch pail is an official certificate from her working unit. “Hereby we confirm Comrade Lin Mei is honorably retired from Beijing Red Star Garment Factory,” says the certificate in bright golden characters.

It does not say that Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankruptcy or that, being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension.

Yiyun Li, “Extra” from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Random House 2005)

A Time and a Place

All of the stories in Li’s collection are set—physically or emotionally— in China. “Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way” unfolds in a Beijing courtyard house that sounds remarkably similar to the setting of Li’s novel, Kinder Than Solitude. A secretive place called the “Institute” shows up in there and in the title story. The Institute sounds like the kind of place where a nuclear physicist like Li’s father might have worked.

This is not to say that Li’s work is autobiographical or at least not any more autobiographical than your average novelist. Li draws on her memories of China to bring life, sorrow, and black humor vividly to the page. For example, what makes Granny Lin’s “honorable retirement” simultaneously funny and sad is the fact that these are the go-go years of Deng Xiaoping. Under his aegis, Chinese markets opened to the world, some to spectacular success and dismal failure in others.

Li writes of the teacher Sansan, who once dreamed of moving to America. But the rules for studying abroad have changed. Her temporary job to teach English at the Educators’ School in her small hometown has solidified into her future. There is no escape for Sansan, just as there is no escape for her students.

The students, recent graduates from junior high, will be teaching elementary students after two years of studying in the Educators’ School. Most of them are from the village, and the school is their single chance to escape heavy farm labor.

“Love in the Marketplace”

Safety in Numbers

In Napa, Li told me that she rarely uses the pronoun “I”. She said it was much safer in China to speak as “we”. Of the 10 stories in Li’s collection, only one is written in first person singular, the narrator of choice for most contemporary US fiction. This may be simply contrarian behavior on Li’s part. In an interview with The Guardian, Li said, “I’m not that kind of nice, friendly lady who can also just write a little. Being subversive is important to me.”

These days, most writers shy away from the first person plural narrator, the royal we. Li deploys that Greek chorus voice to devastating effect. In “Persimmons,” a no-name village is struck by twin disasters. A Party official kills one of their children and drought attacks their crops. Lassitude stands in for despair; humor serves as redemption. The men of this village call themselves persimmons for being so soft that Heaven can squeeze them until they pop.

We all nod, eager to shoo away the tiny doubt that circles us like a persistent fly. Of course, we did what we could—after the boy was found in the water, we marched together with his little body to the county seat, asking for justice. Hoes and spades and axes and our fists and throats we all brought with us, but when the government sent the troop of armed police in our direction, we decided to go back home.


An Ulterior Motive

While it’s nice to think that kismet caused me to pick up A Thousand Years of Good Prayers at this particular time, the truth is, I had an ulterior motive. I am trying to teach myself how to put together a short story collection. How many stories do I need? In which order should they appear? Li offers some answers.

The three strongest stories appear at the end of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: “Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way,” “Persimmons,” and the title story. This would seem to imply that a short story collection, like a novel, needs to build in power.

Thematically, Li’s stories circle around the importance of children (for posterity, to quiet unpleasant rumors), the randomness of violence and, most often, the estrangement between parent and child.

In the title story, Mr Shi travels to America to visit his recently divorced daughter. He comes to console but also to urge swift action.

Women in their marriageable twenties and early thirties are like lychees that have been picked from the tree; each passing day makes them less fresh and less desirable, and only too soon will they lose their value, and have to be gotten rid of at a sale price.

“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”

Six of the ten stories were previously published in US literary journals. This makes sense to me. Nothing breeds success like success. I have another Yiyun Li book lurking in my to-be-read pile, purchased the last time I saw her. I look forward to meeting her wit and sly intelligence all over again.

29 Oct 2022 | Karen Kao