Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American writer who has made a name for herself with short story collections and novels. She won an award for her short story collection “A Thousand years of Good prayer” and made her Scandinavian breakthrough with the novel “The Vacurents”. Moving to the US when she was 18 years old, with the intent to continue her studies in science fields, Yiyun Li discovered her love of literature there instead. Ms. Li has stated that a good practice for aspiring writers is to read at least one classic novel per year. And even if this story has no real importance to this blog post, I can´t help but mention this endearing story: when Ms. Li was visiting Stockholm´s International writer’s scene in 2013, she mentioned that while growing up her mother was a complete tiger mum. After explaining to the Swedish audience what this meant, the interviewer asked if she was a tiger mum to her children. Ms. Li replied: “Oh no, I´m too easy going. I´m more of a chicken mum; I let my kids run free and make their own path”.
In “A Thousand years of Good prayers” Yiyun Li casts Chinese people as the majority of her protagonists (and one Mongolian person), a modus operandi in her fiction writing. This ethnicity though is greatly varied, as it is with the lived experience of any group. Some of them are people that live in the more rural sides of China, some have immigrated to the United States (one story features a gay man who has sought out asylum in the US) and some live in the large cities of China. The stories touch on many different issues such as disability, estrange families, the stigma of supposedly having lost ones virginity before marriage, and being disillusioned by corrupt politics. The running theme is Chinese culture, society, the personal and family dynamics. While I enjoyed many of the stories, one stood out to me due to a particularly interesting subject matter. The story “Son” is about a mother-son relationship where the son is an atheist and his mother has just converted to Christianity, and is a bit too enthusiastic about her new found beliefs.
The narration follows the Son´s perspective. It is his thoughts that the reader gets to know intimately, and his loving, but frustrated, feelings towards his elderly, widowed mother. The son is, on top of their different relations to religious belief, gay and has never come out to his mother. He has always wanted to be more of a dutiful son and not disappoint her. His closeted state related to his sexuality makes sense in the context of growing up in the 1980´s China, as homosexuality was illegal in the country until 1997 and considered a mental illness until 2001. His mother, enmeshed in the societal beliefs of the culture, has grown up with this conservative view on sexuality, and the son deems that his mother would especially condemn him now with added incentive of her new found religion.
While the son hasn’t come out as gay to his mother, he has always been open about being an atheist. When the story begins, Li gives you the sense that this repudiation of religion is accepted by the mother until the advent of her recent conversion. Due to her new found faith, the mother is now quite insistent on converting her son as well, to which he responds more and more angrily as time goes on. While on the surface the son would come off as a stereotypical angry atheist, the story takes a deeper look behind what is fueling his angry reaction towards his mother. While he is trying to be dutiful and kind son, his mother is testing his patience by continually pushing her beliefs on him. On top of this, his mother´s behavior seems more than false to him, since he still holds resentment for her burning his bible when he was twelve years old – something the mother claims the father had forced her into.
By balancing the son’s cynicism with the mothers naivety, the story asks hard moral questions. It is left to the reader to decide whether the mother was at fault for her behavior in her sons tween years, are if she is telling the truth. This antagonism between son and mother, hypocrisy and honesty, is for grounded in a scene where it is revealed that the mother pays two street children that (it is heavily implied) are clearly being exploited by an adult ringleader. The son sees them as cheating his mother, the mother sees possible conversion candidates, and the reader is questioned to regard the moral direction of two adults and their reply to child exploitation. Li shows us both characters motives and asks the reader if this was the right response or not. The reader is placed in a morally grey zone, motivating a consideration of our own beliefs and consequent actions.
Through the son´s point of view the reader also gets to see the story of his first crush at twelve, where he fell for a fellow schoolmate who it seemed returned his affections, but due to the intolerant environment neither one of them really wanted to admit the situation. Through just a few sentences Ms. Li paints a bittersweet tale of childhood wonder and first love, that was trapped in not being able to be confirmed but still cherished.
The son´s atheism and cynicism however are the real star of this story. Usually writers would have these points of views be a straw argument, but the sons skeptical approach is often proven to have legitimacy. He points out that the so-called “catholic” church his mother attends is run by the government, which means that it is more than likely a place where sermon is full of propaganda. He wonders how his mother can easily defend herself for being previously strongly opposed to Christianity, and now strongly for it. He believes that people are feeble about their beliefs, that people are mostly fair weather believers, fickle in what they preach, and hypocritical in their actions, whether it be motivated by religion, culture, or politics. This narration is enjoyable not only because it embodies strong character building, but also because here we have a fair depiction of skepticism which yields a moral grappling with consistent ethical actions. What the son stands for gestates an indeterminate validity, whether we agree or not.
“Son” shows us an atheist protagonist who is more than just an atheist, and not one without reason in an irrational world. Plus, his non-belief has only become an issue due to his mothers’ persistence in bringing it up.
A fine tale of family and lack of belief. “Son” by Yiyun Li is superb.