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Gold Boy, Emerald Girl – a quiet voice talking

Earlier this year, the British government warned us that Britain was soon likely to become an offshore outlet for China, or something similarly outrageous. I had just finished reading Yiyun Li’s extraordinary collection of short stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl so China was on my mind. It was a fortuitous coincidence to discover a recording on the University of Chichester’s Thresholds site where one can hear Li reading and talking a little about her work.

Li’s stories tell of a China emerging into the 21st century. Her characters are fascinating and the stories are a captivating window into day to day life in China. If you are interested in the details of how people have survived all these years in the People’s Republic before the social and economic reform of the last twenty years, you can’t do better than read this book. But there’s more to it than that.

The stories are told in a quiet, low key, thoughtful way; never melodramatic or even particularly dramatic. You don’t hear the voices of individual characters especially clearly; Li consistently tells her stories in a distant third person narration. The stories often sound like folk tales and fables; ancient sayings, old folksongs, almost forgotten traditions make an appearance. Perhaps, I thought as I read, Li’s saying that the decades of hard line communism, the rule of the iron fist, are a terrifying blip on the ancient Chinese cultural landscape. Maybe. But there’s more to it than that.

At first I found the stories depressing, largely because of this monotone voice. Li describes changing times: the property boom, adoption, children returning from the US. The situations themselves are often intriguing, for example: a wealthy old woman shelters women in trouble in her mansion, another group of old women become famous by becoming private investigators specialising in extra-marital affairs. Interesting subjects but still I couldn’t help feeling down. But as I thought about this, I began to see that I was missing the point. Many of her characters have suffered deprivation, emotional or economic or both, but perhaps it wasn’t the cumulative voice of no hope and misery I was listening to, but the voice of the oppressed. But, yes, there’s more to it than that

Li is telling the stories of people who have been forced to hide their individuality. We know that during the first forty years of the People’s Republic of China life was difficult, impossible for very many people; creativity had to follow strict rules, families were small and emotionally undernourished, many lived in terror. Li is showing how years of oppression, the fear of violence and repercussion, have made people quietly introverted and repressed. As Robert Coover says on that same Thresholds recording, ‘the writer has to strive for the truth as it concerns the metaphor he’s working with. If it’s a dark subject, a dark voice is likely to be the best for the job.’ Li tells us that her characters speak to her in English, her first language for writing and she sometimes translates Chinese idioms to give her writing an authentic flavour. The voice here in Li’s work is not dark or angry, but any lightness or optimism is toned in thoughtful grey. You sense the historical burden but these characters are not being enticed by the flashy, new world. They are not replacing the old regime of oppression and poverty with the new ideology of western consumerism. They are quietly clinging to something else, holding something for themselves, finding their own way. That’s the point, I think.

On the whole, her main protagonists are largely troubled victims of the past, the communist regime having curtailed their ambition in one way or another. In the first story, ‘Kindness’, the one Li reads on the recording, Li tells the story of a young girl, Moyan, who finds herself in the People’s Liberation Army struggling to find a voice, always resorting to communist slogans to hide her emotional life. When an officer orders her to sing, she tries to sing but finds she has no voice even when she wishes with all her heart to obey the order. Ultimately, she never finds the courage to fight her way out of her past but clings to her memories and a love of literature. I’m not giving anything away here, because we know this from the beginning of the story. As Li says: ‘the chick cannot be returned to the shell’. We all have to find our own way.

It could be said that this is a metaphor for most of the stories in the collection. Li talks of how stories start a lonely journey when she sends them out into the world so she has built an ally for her stories with those of William Trevor. Her stories, she says, talk to William Trevor’s, and find friends in his stories. Mine, I have to say, inevitably return to the shell but that’s beside the point, and anyway, perhaps they’re not sufficiently ambitious. Li intends her stories to be part of a dialogue.

The stories inhabit the countryside, the city, the army, the successful, the deprived and the lives of people who have left China and returned. Her characters are discovering this new modern world and they are absolutely true and relatable, people with whom one can converse, people bravely creating their own paths. These are masterful, beautiful stories and for an insight into lives led in a far off land, absolutely wonderful! Read them.

For information on Yiyun Li:

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