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`A Thousand Years of Good Prayers': Li's Impressive Debut

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"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Stories" by Yiyun Li; Random House ($21.95)


You should get to know Yiyun Li. I think you'll be hearing a lot more about her.

An Oakland, Calif., resident who teaches writing courses at Mills College, Li was born in China in 1973. She came to the United States in 1996 and earned a master's degree in immunology from the University of Iowa. To improve her English she took a writing course and turned out to be so good at it that it changed her life. She wound up with a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and another MFA from the University of Iowa in creative nonfiction. Her stories have been published in the New Yorker and the Paris Review, and she won the Plimpton Prize for New Writers in 2004.

The 10 stories in her debut collection, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," deal with the way the lives of ordinary people - from children to old-age pensioners, from peasants in small villages to hip exiles in America - have been shaped by the tumult of Chinese history. Her characters bear indelible marks from the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the thwarted expectations of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the moneymaking frenzy of contemporary China.

Typically, Li's characters are undergoing the shock of change. In "After a Life," Mr. Su, a 65-year-old retired math teacher, has begun dabbling in the nascent Chinese stock market, making daily visits to a brokerage, which, "like most of the brokerage firms in Beijing, rented space from bankrupted state-run factories." There he strikes up a conversation with an old Marxist, Mr. Fong, who wonders "how Marxist political economics could be adapted for this new, clearly capitalistic situation." Mr. Su reflects, "With almost everyone in the country going crazy about money, and money alone, it was rare to meet someone who was nostalgic about the old but also earnest in his effort to understand the new."

As their friendship grows, Mr. Fong draws Mr. Su into his personal life, telling him of the affair he's having with a young woman he met at a street dance. The old Marxist has been taking ballroom dancing lessons. "Mr. Su had thought of teasing Mr. Fong about surrendering to Western influences, but seeing Mr. Fong's sincerity, Mr. Su had given up the idea."

Mr. Fong, who wants Mr. Su's help in providing an alibi so his wife won't find out, defends his affair as "`Better than those, you know, what they call, one night of something?'

"`One-night stands?' Mr. Su blurted out, and then was embarrassed to have shown familiarity with such improper, modern vocabularies."

But the sly humor of old mindsets giving way to new mores is only part of this delicately crafted story. For Mr. Su and his wife have long concealed the fact that they have a daughter, Beibei, who was born severely retarded. They blame themselves for Beibei's condition: They are cousins who married despite opposition from their families. The doctors urged them to give the baby to a medical school for research, but the Sus moved away from their district and stopped having visitors to their small apartment. Their fear of being found out by the authorities grows when they have a second child, a boy, in defiance of China's population-limiting one-child policy. The son, Jian, is now a college student, and Beibei is almost 29.

The Sus have endured years of stress and anxiety in caring for and hiding Beibei, whose screams arouse the curiosity of neighbors, and it has torn their marriage apart: "For twenty years, they have avoided arguments carefully; they have been loving parents, dutiful spouses, but something that had made them crazy for each other as young cousins has abandoned them, leaving them in unshareable pain."

With great economy, Li achieves a delicate balance between the comic and the tragic. She's a writer who knows the value of words and doesn't waste them, elegantly and concisely summing up an attitude or a relationship in a few phrases.

In the story "Son," Han, who has become a U.S. citizen, has returned to China to visit his mother, a former Communist Party member who has become a Christian. He realizes that she has substituted one set of convictions for another, seeking stability in a world of dizzying change.

When his mother asks Han to go to church with her, he declines:

"`I'll sit in the Starbucks and wait for you.'


"`The coffee shop over there.'

"Han's mother stretches and looks at it, no doubt the first time she has noticed its existence."

This is not only a joke about how branding has not yet become universal, it's also a simple and direct evocation of the gap between young and old, East and West - a familiar theme that Li plays on with uncommon freshness in several stories.

In "Love in the Marketplace," Sansan, an English teacher, shows her classes the movie "Casablanca," because it "says all she wants to teach the students about life." Sansan was once engaged, but she allowed her fiance to marry Min, a Tiananmen Square protester, so Min could leave China when he went to graduate school in the United States. Hence Sansan's fondness for "Casablanca," that tale of love and duty in a time of political repression. Li spins her story out of the tension between the romantic Sansan and her doggedly practical mother, who has sold hard-boiled eggs to travelers in the train station for 40 years, but the course the story takes is anything but predictable.

Li's typical mode is realism (if that old label has meaning anymore) but she's also capable of crafting a parable about the continuities of Chinese history, as in "Immortality," the story that won her the Plimpton Prize. It tells of a man who was born with the face of "the dictator" - presumably Chairman Mao, though he's never identified as such - and links his fate with that of the eunuchs who once served the emperors. She also pulls off a tricky narrative tour de force in "Persimmons," gradually disclosing the motives of a mass murderer by reporting the gossip of the peasants in his village.

It's clear that Li has mastered the strategies of fiction. She elevates patient endurance to near-heroic stature in these stories of ordinary lives swept back and forth by the tides of history and politics. This book may be one of the year's most auspicious debuts.


(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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