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Brilliant and original, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers introduces a remarkable new writer whose breathtaking stories are set in China and among Chinese Americans in the United States. In this rich, astonishing collection, Yiyun Li illuminates how mythology, politics, history, and culture intersect with personality to create fate. From the bustling heart of Beijing, to a fast-food restaurant in Chicago, to the barren expanse of Inner Mongolia, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers reveals worlds both foreign and familiar, with heartbreaking honesty and in beautiful prose.
“Immortality,” winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for new writers, tells the story of a young man who bears a striking resemblance to a dictator and so finds a calling to immortality. In “The Princess of Nebraska,” a man and a woman who were both in love with a young actor in China meet again in America and try to reconcile the lost love with their new lives.
“After a Life” illuminates the vagaries of marriage, parenthood, and gender, unfolding the story of a couple who keep a daughter hidden from the world. And in “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” in which a man visits America for the first time to see his recently divorced daughter, only to discover that all is not as it seems, Li boldly explores the effects of communism on language, faith, and an entire people, underlining transformation in its many meanings and incarnations.
These and other daring stories form a mesmerizing tapestry of revelatory fiction by an unforgettable writer.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Chapter 1Extra Granny Lin walks in the street on a november afternoon with a stainless steel lunch pail in her hand. Inside the lunch pail is an official certificate from her working unit. “Hereby we confirm Comrade Lin Mei is honorably retired from Beijing Red Star Garment Factory,” says the certificate in bright golden characters. It does not say that Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt or that, being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension. Of course it will not provide such information, for these facts are simply not true. “Bankrupt” is the wrong word for a state-owned industry. “Internal reorganization” is what has been kindly omitted in the certificate. And, mind this, Granny Lin’s pension is being withheld only temporarily. For how long, the factory has no further information to offer. “There is always a road when you get into the mountain,” Auntie Wang, Granny Lin’s neighbor, says to her upon being informed of Granny Lin’s situation. “And there is a Toyota wherever there is a road.” The second line of Toyota’s commercial slips out before Granny realizes it. “There you go, Granny Lin. I know you are an optimistic person. Stay positive and you will find your Toyota.” But where on earth can she find a way to replenish her dwindling savings? For a few days Granny Lin adds, subtracts, and divides, and she decides that her savings will run out in a year—in two years if she can skip a meal here and there, go to bed right after sunset, and stay bundled up so that she does not have to feed the insatiable stove extra coal balls through the long winter of northern China. “Don’t worry,” Auntie Wang says the next time they meet each other at the market, looking down at the single radish Granny Lin has bought for her dinner, as plump as a Buddha, dwelling between her two palms. “You can always find someone and get married.” “Get married?” Granny Lin says, and blushes. “Don’t be so conservative, Granny Lin,” Auntie Wang says. “How old are you?” “Fifty-one.” “You are even younger than I am! I am fifty-eight, but I am not as old-fashioned as you. You know what? Young people no longer have a monopoly on marriage.” “Don’t make me a clown,” Granny Lin says. “I am serious, Granny Lin. There are so many old widowers in the city. I am sure there are rich and sick ones who need someone to take care of them.” “You mean, I can find a caretaker’s position for old people?” Granny Lin asks. Auntie Wang sighs and pokes Granny Lin’s forehead with a finger. “Use your brain. Not a caretaker but a wife. That way, you can at least inherit some cash when your husband dies.” Granny Lin gasps. She has never had a husband in her life, and the prospect of a dead husband frightens her. Yet Auntie Wang makes the decision for her right there and then, between two fish stands, and in a short time she finds Granny Lin a match. “Seventy-six. High blood pressure and diabetes. Wife just died. Living alone in a three-bedroom flat. Pension two thousand yuan a month. Both sons married and earning good money in the government,” Auntie Wang says, surprised that Granny Lin remains unimpressed. “Come on, Granny Lin, where else can you find such a good husband? The old man will die in no time, and the sons are so rich they won’t mind sparing some of the old man’s savings for you. Let me tell you, this is the most eligible family, as far as I know. Their doorsill has been worn away by the feet of the matchmakers. But of all the possible wives, they are interested only in you. Why? Because you are never married and you have no children. By the way, Granny Lin, how come you aren’t married? You never told us the reason.” Granny Lin opens and then closes her mouth. “It just happens,” she says. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Anyway, they don’t want someone who has a litter of children and grandchildren. I wouldn’t trust such a stepmother, either. Who can guarantee that she won’t steal from the old man for her children? But you are the best. I have told them that, were there one honest person left on earth, it would be you, Granny Lin. What are you hesitating for?” “Why don’t they hire someone to take care of him?” Granny Lin asks, thinking of the two sons who might soon become her stepchildren. “Won’t it be cheaper in the long run?” “Do you not know what those young girls from the nanny market are like? They are lazy, and they steal money—husbands, too, if they are hired by young couples. They leave the old people sitting in their own shit all day long. To hire such a girl? Ugh. It would only push him to death quicker.” Granny Lin has to agree that, indeed, an older woman as a wife is a wise choice. Accompanied by Auntie Wang, Granny Lin goes to the interview with the two sons and their wives. An hour of questioning later, the two sons exchange a look, and ask if Granny Lin needs some time to consider the marriage offer. Not having much to think about, she moves into her new home in a week. Her husband, Old Tang, is sicker than she has thought. “Alzheimer’s,” a daughter-in-law tells her at their wedding dinner. Granny Lin nods, not knowing what the disease is but guessing that it has something to do with the brain. She supports her husband with both hands and leads him to the table, sitting him down and wiping away the drool from his chin. granny lin becomes a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She no longer remembers in what year of her life people started to call her Granny Lin instead of Auntie Lin; unmarried women, people believe, age faster. It does not matter anymore, because she feels quite qualified for her name. Every week, one of the sons stops by and checks on Old Tang, leaving enough money for the next week. Old Tang is a quiet man, sitting in his chair by the window, immersed in his bottomless silence. Once in a while, he asks Granny Lin about his wife, and, as instructed by the two sons, Granny Lin replies that the wife is improving in the hospital and will be home in no time. But before she replies Old Tang seems to have forgotten his question, and goes back to his meditation without any sign of having heard Granny Lin. She waits for more questions that never come, and eventually gives up. She turns up the volume of the television and shuffles around the house, sweeping and dusting and wiping and washing, but the time arrives earlier each day when she finishes the housework. Then she sits down on the couch and watches the daytime soap operas. Unlike the twelve-inch television Granny Lin used to own, which required her to make a trip across the room every time she needed to change channels (and all together she got six channels through the antenna made of two steel chopsticks), Old Tang’s set is a monster with scores of channels, which all obey a small remote control. Dazed by all the choices she has, and by the ease of moving from one selection to another, Granny Lin soon finds that the machine does her no good. No matter what program she is watching, there is always the nagging worry that she is missing a more interesting one. Several days into her new life, Granny Lin is stunned to discover that she is no longer addicted to television, as she has been in the past ten years. Does marriage have such revolutionary power that a long-established habit can be overthrown in such a short time? Granny Lin sighs and clicks off the television. Old Tang does not notice the silence flooding the room. She realizes then that the television is not to blame. It is because of Old Tang’s presence that she cannot focus. She picks up an old magazine and peeks at Old Tang from behind the pages. Ten minutes grows into twenty minutes, and she continues looking at him as he insists on not meeting her gaze. She has an odd suspicion that Old Tang is not ill. He knows she is there, and he is observing her secretly. He knows that his wife of fifty-four years has left him for good and that Granny Lin is his new wife, but he refuses to acknowledge her. He pretends to have lost his mind and expects her to play along as if she were a hired caretaker. But Granny Lin decides not to concede. He is her husband; she is his wife. Their marriage certificate is secure under her pillow. If Old Tang is testing her patience, she is ready to prove it to him; it is a tug-of-war that Granny Lin is determined to win. She puts down the magazine and looks boldly into Old Tang’s face, trying to outstare Old Tang. Minutes stretch into an hour, and all of a sudden Granny Lin awakens in a dread that she, too, is losing her mind. She drags her body out of the couch and stretches, feeling the small cracking of her arthritic joints. She looks down at Old Tang, and he is still a statue. Indeed, he is a sick man, she thinks, and feels the shame of having cast rootless doubt on Old Tang, a man as defenseless as a newborn baby. She walks to the kitchen quickly and comes back with a glass of milk. “Milk time,” she says, patting Old Tang’s cheek until he starts to swallow. Three times a day, Granny Lin gives Old Tang an insulin shot. Only then does she catch a glimpse of the life left in Old Tang, the small flinch of the muscle when she pushes the needle into his arm. Sometimes a small bead of blood appears after she draws the needle out, and she wipes it away with her fingertip instead of a cotton ball, entranced by the strange sensation that his blood is seeping into her body. several times a day Granny Lin bathes Old Tang: in the morning and before bedtime, and whenever he wets or dirties himself. The private bathroom is what Granny Lin likes best about her marriage. For all her life, she has used public bathrooms, fighting with other slippery bodies for the lukewarm water drizzling from the rusty showers. Now that she has a bathroom all to herself, she never misses any chance to use it. Old Tang is the only man Granny Lin has seen in full nakedness. The first time she undressed him, she could not help stealing a look now and then at the penis, nestled in a thinning bush. She wondered what it had looked like in its younger years, but right away chased the unclean thought from her mind. The frail nakedness filled her heart with a tenderness she had never experienced, and she has since tended his body with motherly hands. One evening in late February, Granny Lin leads Old Tang to the plastic chair in the middle of the bathroom. She unbuttons his pajamas and he bends his arms at her guidance, his head leaning on her shoulder blade. She removes the nozzle and sprays warm water on his body, putting one hand on his forehead so that the water does not get into his eyes. Granny Lin is squatting on the floor and massaging Old Tang’s legs when he touches her shoulder with his palm. She looks up and he is gazing into her eyes. She gives out a cry and backs away from him. “Who are you?” Old Tang says. “Old Tang,” Granny Lin says. “Is it you?” “Who are you? Why are you here?” “I live here,” Granny Lin says. She sees an unnatural lucidity in Old Tang’s eyes, and feels her heart fall. Such a moment of clarity happens only before a nearing death. Granny Lin had seen the same light two years earlier in her father’s eyes, hours before he passed away. She thinks of rushing out to call a doctor, but her feet are locked on the floor, and her eyes are locked in his eyes. “I don’t know you. Who are you?” Granny Lin looks down at herself. She is wearing a bright yellow plastic poncho and a pair of grass green rubber boots, her outfit for the bath time. “I am your wife,” she says. “You are not my wife. My wife is Sujane. Where is Sujane?” “Sujane is no longer with us. I’m your new wife.” “You’re lying,” Old Tang says, and stands up. “Sujane is in the hospital.” “No,” Granny Lin says. “They lied to you.” Old Tang does not hear her. He pushes Granny Lin, and his arms are suddenly strong. Granny Lin clutches him, but he is wild with uncontrollable force. She lets go of his hands, not knowing why she needs to fight with her husband over a dead woman. But he is still wrestling with the air and, two steps away, slips down in a puddle of soapy water. Nobody pays attention to Granny Lin at the funeral. She sits in a corner and listens to the men and women who come up to talk about Old Tang’s life: an accomplished physicist and a great teacher, a loving husband, father, and grandfather. The speakers finish and shake the family members’ hands, ignoring her at the end of the line. I did not kill him, Granny Lin imagines herself telling every person there. He was dying before the fall. But she does not tell the truth to anyone, and instead admits her negligence. Nobody would believe her anyway, for she alone saw the light in his eyes, the last glimmer before the eternal night, as it is called, the brief moment of lucidity before the end. granny lin does not get a penny from Old Tang’s savings. She has looked after Old Tang for only two months, and has, in many of the relatives’ minds, killed him with her carelessness. She does not blame the two sons. She can think only of their loss, a thousand times more painful than her own. When one of them suggests a job in a private boarding school that is run by his friend, Granny Lin almost weeps out of gratitude. Situated in a mountain resort in a western suburb of Beijing, Mei-Mei Academy takes pride in being among the first private schools in the country. It occupies one of the few four-storied buildings that were allowed to be constructed in the area. (“Connections, connections,” the chef tells Granny Lin the day she arrives—how else could the school have gained the permit if not for its powerful trustees?) Private schools, like all private businesses, are sprouting up across the country like bamboo shoots after the first spring rain. Relatives of the Communist Party leaders are being transformed overnight into business owners, their faces appearing on national TV as representatives of the new proletariat entrepreneurs.
Yiyun Li is the author of six works of fiction—Must I Go, Where Reasons End, Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. She is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award, a PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and a Windham-Campbell Prize, and was featured in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 fiction issue. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.