Yiyun Li on Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
A childhood memory that my sister and I shared, though from slightly different angles, was a lost two-yuan bill. She was seven, and I was three, and on this summer day she was in charge of taking care of me and buying two yuan worth of pork, which, in 1976, would count as half of our monthly meat ration.
The waiting line at the meat counter was long. I was hot, and bored, and made a fuss to hold the bill for my sister while she struggled not to lose the ration book, or me, or her position in the line. She had me promise not to let the money go from my grasp many times before putting it in my hand; I walked in and out of the line, holding the money tightly, but the next thing I knew, when I looked again the money was gone from my hand, and in its place I had a piece of scrap paper.
My sister received a memorable beating for the lost bill from our mother. I received no such punishment, but had my first experience of remorse. For days after I would try to revise my memory: that I had not asked for the money; that I had held it so securely that it had not been replaced. But remorse, like my sister's pains from the beating or from being the less favored daughter, takes its course to become less engrossing, so the episode becomes a joke between us, standing in for all the things we can and cannot possibly laugh about. What I find more fascinating, though, is how the money was replaced: my parents believed that I dropped the money and picked up something else in its place; I, however, knowing even then the significance of two-yuan bill, believed that I had not let the money go until someone, not by force but by guile, got the money out of my hand and repaid me with the scrap paper. Either possibility would make sense; either could make a story with a happy ending: the one who deceived a small child and the one who spotted a lost bill could both, at the end of the day, celebrate their good fortune.
All the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, like the episode with the lost money, came from situations--both Chinese and American--that could lead to different stories. The versions I chose to tell, I hope, have neither villains nor victims in them but people who have both taken from others and have been taken from, who have both deceived and been deceived, and who are as lonely as you and I.
©2010 by Yiyun Li
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The nine brilliant stories in Li's collection (after The Vagrants) offer a frighteningly lucid vision of human fate. In the title story, motherless Siyu has long been in love with an older zoology professor, Dai, who suddenly wants Siyu, 38 and single, to marry Dai's gay 42-year-old son, Hanfeng. In "A Man Like Him," retired art teacher Fei embarks on a strange quest after reading a story about a Web site devoted to shaming a man who left his wife. Fei seeks out the man, needing to confide to him his own sordid brush with infamy. The collection's magnificent centerpiece is "Kindness," the novella-length reminiscence of a spiritually despondent math teacher named Moyan, whose bleak story begins with the emotional starvation she suffered from her adoptive parents and grimly continues over the years as two older women--an English teacher and Moyan's army superior--attempt, unsuccessfully, to reach out to her. Li's description of army life, and particularly her description of Moyan's regiment's march across Mount Dabi, is a bravura piece of writing, but it's Moyan's evolution from pitiable to borderline heroic (in her own way) that is Li's greatest achievement.
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