Author Yiyun Li presents a new collection of stories highlighting different aspects of that species-unique phrase, the human condition. Raised during China’s Communist movement, Li brings a fresh perspective on people who lived through an era often bereft of the subtleties of the human experience because of the Communist national movement to unite through abject conformity.
In the first story, a novella-length tale spanning 5 decades, Li brings to life the acerbic character of a woman untouched by emotions, who reminisces about being part of a Maoist women’s army regiment. The scientific detachment with which this woman inspects her own memories of repeated attempts by two women, her superiors, to reach out to her throughout her lifetime is chilling yet enthralling.
The next few stories are shorter, offering snapshots of life that link together to create the chain of a lifetime. An art teacher, unable to articulate the stark, haunting beauty of a student, falls under suspicion of misdeeds from his artistic fascination and retires rather than attempt to explain the depths of his soul. The teacher falls under the spell of internet-drama and reaches out in real life to the victim of an internet-smear campaign, using old world methods and chivalry. A Chinese couple immigrated to the United States, only to be drawn back to the same painfully backward village and ideals they left to escape, in search of a child. Three girls swear loyalty to a sisterhood where they share everything— even blame for misfortunes. A woman runs a shelter for women whose spouses have been imprisoned, secretly trying to prove she is the best and most loyal woman of them all.
The stories often traipses through reflections on pivotal moments from the past; ancient memories recall the keystone ghosts of the characters’ development and part the curtains to the private inner sanctums of each character’s thoughts. Li’s characters are often awash in intriguing period-propaganda and the sharp expectations of a society that deigns not to understand them and punishes them for any overlap of their cookie-cutter’s design. There are frequent and distinct clashes between Communist-era mentalities and more modern mindsets. This collection of short stories emphasizes how emotions and situations are perceived differently in supposedly modernized China.
If period pieces rich in daily-life-details and cultural contrasts interest you, or if you’re a history buff of early 20th century Maoist China, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl will satisfy your literary desires. This book is readily available in e-book and print format at your local Chicago Public Library.