Brigid Hughes is the founding editor of A Public Space, a Brooklyn-based independent magazine of literature and culture that debuted in 2006. Previously she worked at The Paris Review, where she succeeded George Plimpton as editor upon his death in 2003.
Brigid Hughes: To get things started, can I ask you about influences? You mention William Trevor in your acknowledgments, and you published an essay in Tin House about his influence on your work. What authors or books have mattered to you?
Yiyun Li: I like to think that one writes stories so they could go out and talk to other stories. William Trevor’s stories have made space for my stories to venture out to the world, to be on their own, so my stories talk to Trevor’s stories constantly. For instance, the title story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” was written especially to talk to a Trevor story, “Three People.”
Of course stories, like people, can’t just stay sheltered by those to whom they feel close kinship. Stories also like to have discussions and sometimes arguments with other stories. A few writers who have been constantly on my mind when I write: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, John McGahern, J. M. Coetzee. So they have been influencing me too in each of their own ways.
BH: Can I ask what specifically “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and “Three People” were talking about with each other?
YL: “Three People” [from Trevor’s collection The Hill Bachelors] is, as the title suggests, a story about three people: an aging father; his unmarried, middle-aged daughter; and a man close to the family who the father hopes will propose to the daughter so she will not end up in solitude after her father’s death. Unknown to the father—I don’t want to give too much away of the story—the daughter and the man shared some dark secret between them. The final passage of the story goes like this: “The darkness of their secrets lit, the love that came for both of them through their pitying of each other: all that might fill the empty upstairs room, and every corner of the house. But Vera knows that, without her father, they would frighten one another.”
When I started to work on Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I imagined writing a story about three people too—an aging mother, a grown-up son, and a woman—and the mismatch between the latter two would not be any better than between the couple in “Three People.” The story is set to a tone similar to that of “Three People,” though I do remember writing toward the end and feeling overwhelmed by the bleakness and fatalism of “Three People,” working on the final line of my story to catch the same music but with some gentleness: “They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”
BH: Do you think your characters in the new stories are lonelier, or rather more isolated, than in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the first collection? I’m thinking of that opening line from “Immortality”—“His story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born”—and that sense of being part of something bigger than oneself, history, or community, which seems much less the case with the new stories. Do you notice differences between the two collections?
YL: I would like to think that the stories in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl were more mature than the stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers!
But I know exactly what you are asking about. “Immortality” was the first full-length story I wrote, about nine years ago, and I was very aware at the time of how China and its past (and present) cast a long shadow over at least two or three generations of characters. Many of the stories in the first collection were written out of meditations on the inescapable fate of many of the characters being trapped by political and ideological turmoil in the past century.
Are my characters lonelier or more isolated now? In a way, yes. In choosing solitude, my characters are also trying to regain some of the control of their own fates—rather than being members of a chorus, they allow themselves to become outcasts, sometimes illogically, sometimes stubbornly. But I don’t think they are passive characters. I like to imagine that some of the characters in the first collection (in “Persimmons,” for instance, or “Immortality,” or “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”) allowed themselves to be carried away by history and politics as long as they did not drown—and one tended not to drown if one did not fight against that torrent. Many of the characters in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl made the decision of not letting themselves be swept away. They held on to anything—loneliness, isolation, and even death—to be themselves.
BH: Is that also what Professor Shan is saying when she tells Moyan, in “Kindness,” “The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool. When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you”?
YL: By forbidding Moyan to fall in love with anyone, in a way Professor Shan is acting as cruelly and inhumanely as the unfair and harsh world from which she is trying to shelter the girl, though the latter, in following the advice of the older woman, also defies her in her own way. Twice in the story—at the beginning and at the end—Moyan says, “I have never forgotten any person who has come into my life.” And indeed she is able to remain true both to her words and to her promise to Professor Shan: She is able to love without making herself a fool.
BH: When you emigrated from China, The Letters of Shen Congwen was one of the few books you brought with you to the United States. He wrote about, and was criticized for, his disinterest in politics and lack of commitment to the class struggles of his time. You recently translated some of those letters, and in an introduction wrote that “relevance is always a useful tool for lesser minds to attack true artists.” What is the connection between the politics of the present day and fiction—does one inform the other in any way? What does it mean to be a political writer?
YL: I have always resisted being called a political writer. Take Shen Congwen as an example—his commitment to his arts was not influenced by the ideology of his time, which, in one sense, made him apolitical, but in another sense his resistance was also highly political. Once I was asked by an editor to write something relevant to our time—in his letter he framed relevance with examples of a Mumbai slum, or a Chinese sweatshop, or a war-torn zone in Africa. Certainly we need stories from these countries, these places, but his letter reminded me of the criticisms Shen Congwen received in his time.
BH: How would you like your books to influence the reader?
YL: If books are like people, mine are not the prettiest ones, or the loudest ones, or the quirkiest ones one meets at a party, nor are they, I hope, too frivolous or too scared of truths to matter to the readers. I would like to imagine that the readers can have a conversation with my books—they can agree or disagree with the characters fairly and honestly.
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is now available in paperback.
Buy the eBook