Published in: A Public Space
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
One of the best things about literary journals is that they not only print the work of talented writers, but they sometimes also make the stories available on line for free, as A Public Space has recently done with Yiyun Li’s brilliant “Kindness.” Yuyin Li, a McArthur fellow and the author of two short story collections as well as a novel, The Vagrants, has written a stunningly unsentimental tale of a middle aged Chinese woman who looks back on her life. The narrator tells us in the first few paragraphs that she is unmarried, childless, with no real friends. Her only real human interaction seems to be the meager attention she doles out to her secondary school math students. Her reaction to the few students who respond to her with affection? “I pity those children more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives. It is a terrible thing, even for an indifferent person like me, to see the bleakness lurking in someone else’s life.”
With a scorched earth beginning like that, I expected a harrowing tale of abuse to follow, and my expectation was heightened by this: “‘Why are you unhappy?’ To this day, if I close my eyes I can feel Lieutenant Wei’s finger under my chin, lifting my face to a spring night. ‘Tell me, how can we make you happy?’” But neither Lieutenant Wei nor anyone else in the story has assaulted her. There is no story of rape or other violence to explain the narrator’s emotional devastation. Instead, Li spins a story of a lonely girl with an old father and a bedridden, emotionally fragile mother. She meets a former English professor who reads literature to her and then translates it into Chinese. Slowly, without being directly told what the individual words mean, she learns English by absorbing the novels, just as the reader slowly, without being directly told the reasons, absorbs the reality of her life and comes to understand it without having the easy explanation of obvious trauma.
The reality that Li shows is one of people who have accepted too little out of life, of a child who grows up in the ominous silence of her parents’ frustrated longings and never dares to risk emotional connection with anyone. It is a sad world made all the more poignant by the gradual blossoming of the people around her, the misunderstood man who eventually prevails, the girls her own age who are discovering sex, marriage, sometimes even travel. They leave in their wake a middle aged woman who can only cherish gifts as small as a bar of soap or a burst of song. This was the first work I had read by Yiyun Li, and I else urge anyone who is unfamiliar with her work to click on the link to “Kindness” above and join me in discovering her phenomenal talent.