Dorothy mentioned this book of short stories written by her daughter’s fellow student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I find it difficult to write about short stories to balance what I want to remember and what will reflect the collection. The characters are Chinese people in a variety of geographic locations—from Houston to Xi’an, to New York. Some have lived in the U.S. for nearly a lifetime, some live in China.
One of the stories that stands out for me is “Knowing,” set in Texas. A woman recounts her time as a 10-year-old being tutored in math by the father of her mother’s best friend, who she was told to call Yeye. The mother, her friend, and Yeye were bound together by their experiences of the revolution in China that we call the Cultural Revolution and had to have quiet conversations together without the rest of the family. The narrator says, “It would be years before I realized that what I was asking about was her. As long as I accepted my mother as a mystery, I didn’t wonder at her steely quiet. I might have never wondered, at least not for a long time, had Yeye not appeared in our lives.” It was when she was in her thirties that her mother’s friend finally told her the horrific story.
In “Any Good Wife” a newly married couple (with lots of complications I won’t describe) have recently arrived in the US from China for the husband’s work in academia. Ailian has taken on American cooking with enthusiasm:
In August, shortly after the start of the fall term, he came home to a dome on the table, the color and translucence of urine. Lettuce and small tomatoes make a wreath around the perimeter. Inside the dome, sliced radishes and shredded cabbage were suspended in space.”The food is trapped?” he’d asked, wondering if this was a joke or a game. “How do I get to it?” “You eat the whole thing,” Ailian said, looking pleased with herself. “It’s lemon-flavored. They call it Jell-O.”
Here are a few nuggets without any context that I want to remember:
“She’d been foolish to think she could have solitude and at the same time avoid loneliness.”
“She had to try to recall such details now. Most of the time when she remembered the past, everything struck her at once as a feeling.”
“Esther shared her loneliness as an only child. ‘The fantasy of a companion became my companion,’ she tried to explain one afternoon.”
Another standout story for me was “Compromise” told by a woman of 60 who had three grown children. Her husband had returned to Beijing, abandoning the family when the youngest child was five. When he was near death, his sister asked Sui (his former wife) to care for him, as end-of-life care was better in the US than China. She agreed, much to the dismay of her children.
My children think it was a kindness that bordered on stupidity—one that resembles martyrdom—that allowed me to take care of their father, my husband, when really it had nothing to do with kindness at all. We get so few chances in life to be of real use to another person, to make their life more bearable, and meanwhile the chances to do harm are everywhere and often discreet; you don’t fully realize what you’ve done until it’s over.
I am awed by the wisdom of this young writer, and was grateful for the moments of insight from her characters.
Ada Zhang, The Sorrows of Others, A Public Space Books, 2023, 160 pages (I read the Kindle version). Not available in the public library.