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It Takes a Village to Tell a Story
This week we bring you Yiyun Li’s essay on village literature, William Trevor, and family ghosts. This piece, which originally ran in Issue 34, is especially for those of you sitting at home at your keyboard, struggling with that next sentence or plot point. Take a break and read. You’ll thank us later.
It Takes a Village to Tell a Story
I grew up in an apartment building on Garden Road, where there was no garden along the asphalt but ditches on both sides that flooded every summer. Ours was the last of eight buildings, erected in the late fifties by the Department of Nuclear Industry to house physicists and mathematicians and their families, and my father, a young physicist who joined the institute about that time, has lived there ever since, marrying my mother and raising two daughters who later both chose to emigrate to America. A barbed-wire fence ran along the backyard of our ground floor unit. On the other side of the fence were four pigpens, each housing a sow and her offspring, and as an example of what would happen when harmless creatures were put up for display, even the shiest and the most bullied children among us could not resist raining rocks over the fence and down into the pens. The piglets screeched and ran in circles, but the sows were rarely provoked. Sometimes the peasant family on the other side would come out and ask us to stop, as they had to collect every rock tossed into the pens. Their patience was boundless, the words delivered as neither threatening nor begging. They were only caretakers—the horses and the pigs and the one donkey, as well as the run-down house and the patch of wheat field they halfheartedly toiled on, all belonged to the People’s Commune.
It was the mid-1970s, and Beijing was a village the size of a metropolis. The red buses running on Garden Road, covered by dust and soot, were oftentimes held up by flatbeds pulled by unhurried horses, each with a canvas bag of hay dangling under its neck. More often, for our outings, my sister straddled the back rack of my father’s bicycle, and I sat on a small wicker stool affixed to the front pole of my mother’s bicycle. Traffic accidents and other dangers were almost unheard of. Once when my father was away for a nuclear test, my sister, five and a half then, walked forty-five minutes to where Garden Road joined another street to form a marketplace, and grocery-shopped for the family. There would have been no shock or wonder expressed at this feat, as it was done by most firstborns; the ones who could not live up to the task would be pointed out and talked about.
Being the younger daughter of the family, I was allowed fewer chores and more freedom to wander. As long as I did not get into the maze of back alleys, Garden Road was a world both vast and safe to explore, and people in the street, busy with their lives and unaware of being watched, filled my days with marvels. Once, I reported to the family that I’d seen a man giving birth to a baby out by the ditch—I was four or five then, and I knew the man had been defecating in the grass, but how it had evolved into the version I delivered with conviction I could not recall.
My maternal grandfather, who shared a bedroom with my sister and me till I was eleven, was the only one not horrified by my tale. He discussed with me at length the possibility of a man giving birth to a baby; a retired editor of historical biographies, he told me that one of the very forefathers of ethnic Chinese had been born out of his father’s belly after it had been cut open by God as punishment for a human mistake; the boy later ended the era in which dragons and men lived as close relatives, and established the first dynasty.
While my grandfather did serve as a significant connection between the world beyond Garden Road and me, when I was very young we suffered, more than we enjoyed, each other’s presence. He stored tins of expensive waffles, purchased with his pension and saved for his own enjoyment, on the top shelf of his bookcase, which, even by tiptoeing on a chair, I could not reach, and at dinner he fought with me for the few chunks of meat in the radish stew. For no good reason I stole old letters, pressed between pages of his books, with ink fading on the thin rice paper, and sneaked them into hideouts in the grass, only to forget about them; they were never missed, as he was no longer in touch with his friends and relatives. My grandfather was in his early eighties, and I was five—we were two children trapped in separate stages of our lives, neither being taken seriously by the world.
Then there were the rare times when together we were nuisances to the family. One Sunday morning my grandfather took me for a walk that didn’t end till five hours later when my father rode along Garden Road, searching for us. We could have been robbed or abducted or worse, murdered, my mother yelled at my grandfather, and he patiently stirred dried-milk powder into a glass of lukewarm water and said little to defend himself. In those past five hours we had walked to three post offices until we had found one, more than an hour’s walk away, which was open on Sunday; he then gave me a grand tour of the post office, including a counter where packages bundled in old pillowcases, as it was done at the time, were examined for their contents and then sewn back together by an old woman in a green postal uniform. He also composed a terse message, on a card with green grids, to demonstrate how to send a telegram. “ALL IS WELL DO NOT WORRY,” the message said and was then delivered to a telegrapher behind a glass pane, and a few minutes later a receipt was brought to the window, promising that the telegram would arrive at the recipient’s door later that evening. The message was sent to a niece of his whom he had not been in touch with for thirty years.
That our adventure ended in my mother’s paranoid eruption was the first sign that the world was not the complacent place it appeared to be. Soon there was the first-ever traffic accident on Garden Road, a fifteen-year-old girl on her bicycle run over by a recently upgraded bus, too long and wide for the narrow road. The youngest son of the peasant family on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, a meek teenage boy, was one day arrested because he had taken to hiding behind the public outhouse and peering through a hole in the low wall that separated the women’s sessions from the men’s. Then came the murder case the year I turned seven, when my father’s office mate went home and found his eighteen-year-old daughter strangled in the closet. Details about blood smeared on the door frame and tresses of tangled hair scattered on the floor kept my imagination on fire for days afterward, and when the murderer, a boy in the girl’s high school class, was caught, long-forgotten facts were remembered, about his always-shifty eyes around girls, his having almost strangled a playmate when he was six. The boy’s father, another office mate of my father’s, pleaded to the girl’s father but he refused to extend his sympathy to the other family, and the boy was soon sentenced to death. As in many cases where stories go beyond the natural ending of death, the two men had to stay in the same office for the next twenty years, the significance of their research in nuclear weapons placed above that of their children’s lives.
As an eavesdropper, I was helplessly voracious about whispered details. Even the most far-fetched tales, as the one with the female bus driver being summoned by the girl’s ghost into suicide, made perfect sense to me. What did not make sense was the discovery of a world that had once been complete and secure, like a warm egg, but had now begun to crack, allowing glimpses into mysteries that offered little comfort or hope of being understood. A certain auntie, a longtime family friend of ours and beautiful in her stern way, was called a “worn-out shoe” behind her back by an uncle, also a family friend; what was a worn-out shoe? I asked but was told not to repeat the words again. Years later when I understood the phrase—a woman who has been used by men, a whore—the malice of the uncle’s words made me shudder, though it remained unclear where his hatred had been rooted. My best friend, whose family had to share a two-bedroom flat with another family, was called a toilet paper bandit, as the other family went on telling all the neighbors how they had caught the thievery by marking their roll of toilet paper with fingernails, and how the traces would be gone after my friend and her family used the bathroom. The marks, half-moon-shaped and, in my imagination, almost invisible, plagued me for years as the perfect cautionary tale, for it seemed that even for the pettiest and most harmless mistake there was bound to be some severe, irreversible consequence.
The world on Garden Road and beyond was filled with trapdoors, and it came not as shock when I found an old woman’s picture in one of my grandfather’s no-longer-touched books: dressed in a heavy black cotton coat, she sat on a wooden chair in the middle of an empty winter yard, her long gray hair covering half her face, her hollow eyes looking into and then past the camera; her hands, with their chicken-claw fingers, she held together in a half-begging and half-praying gesture. I hid the picture at once, agonized by the recognition that, despite his garrulousness in old age, there were stories my grandfather would never tell.
Like many beginners, when I first started to write fiction I never hesitated to put my characters into the center of catastrophic actions and let their lives be devoured by a whirlwind of life-shattering events: wars and massacres, natural disasters and human violence. In one early story a young wife was deserted to protect, against the invading Japanese army, the fabric shop that belonged to her husband and his parents, while they fled with her small children to a mountain village; the shop was put to fire, the wife violated, her blurred consciousness dancing as fabrics of all colors and textures rose like butterflies in the flames.
If each story has a life of its own, this one vamped as a story of some significance. It yearned for a life onstage, in the spotlight. As its creator, I was baffled and frustrated; the story, among its many failures, had transformed my grandfather into a villain: he was the husband who fled with his children and parents and left his wife, my grandmother, behind with his family business. The story also explained the old woman’s picture in his book—my grandmother never regained her sanity, and twenty years later died in an asylum.
But if fiction offered us no more than a simplified version of life itself, the writer might as well choose another vocation rather than feeding readers predigested messages. When my story was praised for its poignant portrayal of a culture where women were oppressed by the male members of the society, I knew I had failed miserably.
Around this time a friend gave me a copy of The Collected Stories of Irish writer William Trevor. The book has since stayed on my shelf as one of those most precious presents. As someone who came into writing fiction in a language just recently learned, I am fortunate that I do not have to go through the intricate labyrinth of my history to answer that question favored by many curious minds: when did you know you wanted to be a writer? The answer: in the winter of 2002, when I turned thirty and discovered William Trevor.
But how can one explain love or, with even less logic, love at first sight?
Perhaps I can begin with his beginnings. William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, and spent his childhood in provincial Ireland. He attended a number of Irish schools and later Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1953, he emigrated to England and has lived there ever since. He published his first book in 1958, and between then and now has written more than twenty books, including story collections and novels, a memoir, and several plays.
Born into a Protestant family in a predominantly Catholic Ireland and later living as an expatriate in England, Trevor, by his own admission, has always lived on the edge of things, and it is this distance, both from his home country in the geographical sense and from England in the sense of nationality, that allows him to observe both countries and their peoples as an outsider. His early work takes place in England and portrays characters who seem to matter little to the society they strive to belong to—an assembly of old men trying to relive their schoolboys’ glorious past, boarders taken in and put under the same roof by a scheming boardinghouse owner, a man with a troubled mind employed to protect love within marriages. This group of characters provides readers a fierce picture of life itself, with its dark comedies surrounding power, revenge, hatred, love, and the failure of love.
Eccentrics and misfits, however, are not Trevor’s only interests. Many of the stories in his first books also focus on life’s bleakness for ordinary people: isolation, deceit, adultery, aging and death. His characters appear to ask little from life but are granted even less. Often they go on living stoically with their yearnings unimportant to the world. Once in a while an incident, small as a spoiled dinner at a restaurant or big as an evilly planned murder, leads them astray from their chosen paths, but even then they resist occupying center stage. They are extras even in their own muted dramas.
From the very beginning of his career, Trevor has proved himself to belong to the rare species of writers who master the formats of both short story and novel. Starting in the ’70s—after years of expatriatism, and perhaps feeling finally distanced enough from his home country—Trevor returned, in his writing, to Ireland and the turmoil of its history. He created, as a result, some of his best novels, including Fools of Fortune, Felicia’s Journey, The Story of Lucy Gault, and the Booker-short-listed Two Lives, a collection of two novellas. In one of the novellas, Reading Turgenev, a young woman, Mary Louise Dallon, having few choices in her dwindling community of Irish protestants, marries an older draper to escape her farm life, only to discover the cheerlessness of marriage. The unspeakable shame of impotency drives her husband to drink, while Mary Louise, having to live under the reign of two critical sisters-in-law, falls in love with a cousin who has long been ill. After the death of the cousin, in order to continue living in her brief and only love, Mary Louise feigns craziness for decades so that she can be left alone in the fictional world of Turgenev that her cousin once shared with her. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the drapery reminds me of the burned-down fabric shop that once belonged to my grandfather, or that Mary Louise, at peace in her old age with her status as a crazy woman, contrasts my grandmother’s hidden picture on the bookshelf, but it is Trevor’s sympathy toward the two characters and his respectful storytelling of their secret lives that mark the book as a masterpiece of beauty and sorrow.
Deception and betrayal, unspoken secrets and unspeakable memories, aftermaths of petty or violent crimes committed for fathomable or mysterious reasons—these themes are often explored in Trevor’s fiction in a career spanning nearly fifty years. But to say one understands how Trevor’s fiction works is like bragging about one’s understanding of life itself. In “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” (After Rain), a story I teach regularly to my writing students, the narrator begins the story with a statement: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” Few writers would summarize a story so quietly in the first two lines, but as in all Trevor’s stories, the quietness here is only a deceptive surface. The piano tuner, a blind man who possesses perception beyond seeing, witnesses, with sympathy and compassion, his second wife Belle’s effort to obliterate his first wife’s memory by reconstructing a world vastly different from the one once described by his first wife. At the end of the story, when the narrator claims, through the piano tuner, that Belle will win, “because the living always do. And that seemed fair also, since Violet had won in the beginning and had had the better years,” the reader knows this is again a surface, offered with little reassurance. The only winner is time itself, and the husband and wife will continue living behind the veneer of a stable marriage between two older people, as loneliness is lived out for many of the characters in Trevor’s stories.
Why did the piano tuner remarry if he was so much in love with his first wife? asked a student once. The question, coming from an aspiring writer, strikes me as an example of an overzealous quest to explain life’s mysteries with simple, definable motivations on the character’s part. In fact, what draws me so deeply into Trevor’s work is the inexplicable: the mysteries and the unknowns that perhaps the characters themselves refuse to dwell upon. My grandmother, for instance, was not the first wife of my grandfather. The first wife, a woman said to be beautiful and artistic and deeply in love with my grandfather, who, in return, was said to have loved her dearly, hanged herself three days after the birth of their son. A ghost snatched her mind while she was weakened by the labor, the older generation said. My grandfather was said to be inconsolable, but not long after, he married a friend’s younger sister and had four children with her (one died with diphtheria as an infant). When the Japanese army invaded his hometown he left her behind to be taken by violence. He loved his children, but years later that love was used against him when he fell for a colleague—two years after my grandmother’s death he proposed to marry an editor at his publishing house, and my mother and her siblings, fully grown then, threatened to disown him as a father. He conceded and lived out the last twenty years of his widower’s life with my family.
As many family stories are told in a minimalist way, the full truth behind the bare-bones version of my grandfather’s story remains a mystery. If a young writer were to write the piano tuner’s story, or my grandfather’s story, there might not be a second marriage, since love itself could be enough of a drama to maintain a lifelong story. But in the hands of a more adept writer, like Trevor, life refuses to be crystallized by love only. Life lets itself be carried onward by the passing of time, and becomes murky in its defiance of one’s effort to comprehend it. Did my grandfather leave my grandmother behind out of a sense of duty to the family business, or did he see it as an opportunity to honor his love and loyalty to his first wife—and to discard his second wife, as my mother and her siblings believed? For by the time the Japanese army reached my grandfather’s hometown, burned-down houses and raped women were not unexpected. Did my grandfather deserve his fate when the children from his second marriage finally avenged their mother by forbidding him to remarry? My grandfather had lived with a beloved woman for two years at the beginning of his adulthood and never got to live with the other woman he later loved; in the meantime, he remained married to my grandmother for thirty-five years, the majority of which she was a crazy woman. But it is disturbing to study my grandfather under this light, the old man who once shared my bedroom and fought with me for the few chunks of meat we could afford. And it is perplexing to imagine my grandmother, said to be a melancholy woman, agreeing to part with her children during wartime and stay behind as a sacrifice.
Two years ago I met a Chinese writer with whom I had an interesting conversation. China no longer needs “village literature,” she said; as a result of the economic boom, the market belongs to readers who are white-collar city dwellers. “Metropolitan literature” is the future, the woman told me, and very accurately pointed out that I was writing village literature even when I set my stories in Beijing.
Perhaps it is because of my own provincialism that I lack interest in the metropolitan literature the woman described, a literature in which, due to the industrialization of China and the accompanying increase in economic, sexual, and artistic freedom, characters are experiencing a whole new world, their joys and sufferings a much more modernized version than the previous generation’s. I am intrigued, however, by the woman’s definition of village literature as something deemed unfashionable. What makes a story in an urban setting still a village story?
Beijing, a city with a population of fifteen million and its freeways and high-rises, is no longer the metropolis of villages from thirty years ago. But not far from the flagship stores of Prada and Louis Vuitton, a certain Mr. Wong stooped to pick up ice-pop sticks in the street, and his wife would, in their twentieth-floor apartment, scrub them clean and sanitize them in boiling water. They were neither beggars nor eccentrics—the husband had made up his mind to build a model of the house that had been demolished to make way for a stadium for international sports events, and for three years they picked and cleaned and built, until the wife died before the house of ice-pop sticks was finished. Is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Wong a village story? I suspect so. In New York City, after the deaths of an old Manhattan couple, the estate agent discovered a partition in the basement; on separate sides of the partition the husband and wife had written out decades of curses and profanity toward each other while living out a lonely life on his and her own side of the partition. Despite the vastness of the modern city we are confined to our own small tragedies. In that sense we are never far from Trevor’s characters, many of them trapped in their provincial lives.
A closer look at Trevor’s work, especially his later work, reveals a characteristic shared by many stories: situations that in another writer’s work would bloom into fully realized dramas are oftentimes removed from the center stage; the drama either happens in the past or, when present, receives only a minimal touch. The stories, freed from the burden to overdramatize (another misdirected enthusiasm of some less skillful writers), offer more space for the characters to live rather than acting out their theatrical moments.
Cheating at Canasta, the new collection of Trevor’s stories published this fall, once again proves him to be a master of these muted dramas. In “The Dressmaker’s Child,” Cahal, a young man working at his father’s garage, is asked by a newly wed Spanish couple to drive them to “the Weeping Virgin of Pouldearg,” a miracle known by the locals to be caused by rainwater, and already discredited by the church. Cahal, though, hoping to get fifty euros out of the couple, does not reveal the information, an almost harmless deception until his car runs down the child of the dressmaker, who is said to have borne the child from a union with her own father. When the dressmaker reveals that she was following Cahal when he removed the evidence of the accident—the disposal of the body is itself never dramatized—Cahal finds himself trapped by the invitation from the dressmaker for him to join her, as a lover perhaps, or more so as a co-sufferer of life. “The dressmaker did not speak to him again or seek to,” Trevor writes, “but he knew that the fresh blue paint, and the mourning clothes that were not, with time, abandoned, and the flowers that came to fill the small front garden, were all for him.” It is one of Trevor’s most fatalistic stories, where a small unforeseen nudge (in this case, the breaking down of the car at the roadside statue) and an innocent-enough mistake intertwine to wreck a young man’s life.
Other stories in the collection focus on similar themes of deceptions and secrets, innocence and evil, and fate and the passing of time, and many share the same treatment of offstage dramas. In “The Room,” a woman burdened with the secret of her marriage—nine years earlier her husband was accused in the death of a prostitute—meets a man in a half-empty room above a betting shop for a brief affair; the murder, the trial, and the woman’s lying on her husband’s behalf—all of which could be exploited as “showable” materials—stay only in the woman’s consciousness while she comes to the room where little love or comfort is provided by a man she barely knows. In “Men of Ireland,” a man returns to Ireland and tries to extort money from his local priest with an accusation of child abuse that might or might not have occurred. In “Folie à Deux,” a man runs into a long-lost childhood friend in a Parisian restaurant; even though the two men have had different lives, both are haunted by the shared past of a killing that neither understands well.
It may be a stretch to call these stories village stories, as the scope of characters and settings in the collection ranges from a tramp in a provincial Irish town to a middle-class Englishman dining in Italy. But there is nevertheless an unmistakable village-ness in these stories: life is to be lived out with stoicism despite follies and imperfections both big and small; time moves onward, never stopping for an individual’s tragedy.
A favorite question interviewers like to ask a writer is: does one imagine his audience, or in other words, is the writer aware of the readers he is writing for? Would William Trevor imagine a Chinese woman, born on another continent and growing up in a different language, reading his work on a crowded transatlantic flight, in a drafty student’s apartment in the subzero winter of Iowa, or on the porch of a Texas house where across the street a lonely Christmas tree made out of tumbleweeds stands in front of a dilapidated bungalow? Perhaps not. But it is this very universality of the human condition that Trevor depicts which tugs me headlong into his fiction, and on top of that, it is the village-ness of these stories that moves me. Nationality and ethnicity could be as much a facade as material abundance, but when stripped down to a minimum existence, people are not much different from each other. Our small hearts have just enough space for the comedies and tragedies we barely understand.
Garden Road, where my parents still live, is now a four-lane thoroughfare along which nightclubs and karaoke bars sprout like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, but the newly paved street will soon be cracked again by tramping feet, and more so by time itself, as my grandfather often said. The one who deems himself to be the first one to spot the moon by the spring river is unaware of the one who has thought so before him; the moon itself does not remember the first time it shone onto the spring river, my grandfather wrote in a letter to me, quoting an ancient poem. Shortly after that he died on a trip, and the letter, like many of the letters I found on his shelf, has long vanished into corners that I once thought were trustworthy places for my own secrets.
Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction.