I came across the title story for Ye Chun’s ‘Hao’ in the most recent Pushcart Fiction Anthology in 2019. The singular story stopped me in my tracks for its bare, aggressive prose, crafted with a deep tenderness and care. Hao, the story, ends up being a perfect entryway into understanding the collection – the narrative details a mother-daughter relationship during the Maoist Revolution following the husband’s protest suicide. But the story never limits itself to examining only one facet of a relationship or a thin slice of the potential relationship that exists – instead it expands the first person outward, dissecting the language of every action and movement in the narrative. This is portrayed in the story’s first paragraph –
This narrator is left alone to raise her 4-year old, tortured daily by her former students at the school where she has been reduced to a janitor. She carries guilt that she cannot pass on her love of language to her child, as well as fear in knowing she cannot truly protect her daughter. The narrator’s language had been muted from its original lyricism, words now removed from their epistemological base; twisted to mean something different in this new time and regime. Their original definitions and histories, our narrator’s area of passion and study, become taboo. Ye Chun creates a narrator that refuses to remain a single noun – a dissident, a mother, a wife, a professor, a Chinese citizen – all of these identities coexist within her narrative and crash into one another with wild abandon. The story concludes with the mother-daughter pair being relegated to living in a broom closet, comforting one another by falling into the dangerous game of spelling words on each other’s back, taking a small risk by telling stories of their origins, bearing love and grief together through language.
Ye Chun takes pains to replicate the mastery of the title story throughout the collection. She crafts blunt, effective narratives that remain brief yet contain a total experience – full lives lived through exact language. The reader’s head is never spared rupture or rapture – each story contains a wonderful gallery of contrasting bright and stark images that see her characters challenge their own ideas of safety and intelligibility in an increasingly cruel world. In Gold Mountain, a harsh realistic historical fiction set in a Chinese-camp during the California Gold Rush, our narrator is also mother under the threat of constant physical abuse in a foreign country which she cannot communicate clearly – except this woman is facing a constant threat of being berated and sacked by local American miners. In Wings, a modern-day motherhood horror fantasy, a phantom child with bone-bare wings haunts a woman who is confronting the possibility of accepting, and truly wanting, to become a mother. In Wenchuan the reader is addressed by a chorus (plural first person) of grieving Chinese mothers after a series of shoddily built schools collapsed during a massive earthquake – crushing their children’s whole generation. In each of these stories we are given new perspectives that show the implicit control and power of specificity.
For a vast majority of the collection, Ye Chun’s narrators inhabit the role of mother or daughter and examine a wide spectrum of experiences. Many of the other narrators are like our narrator in Hao – societally repressed mothers who cannot escape their destiny. As I flipped through the stories, I worried that the narrators, so many of them first person mothers and daughters, would begin to blend. Fortunately, I was rapt – with each new story came a wholly new world, an entirely different viewpoint sometimes challenging and varying the one before it. Ye Chun takes pains to show that there is no such thing as a single motherhood, or childhood, or marriage, or life situation that can capture the entirety of the experience. Ye Chun instead shows us that horror and damage are relative and that no story, no matter how small, uneducated, or illiterate the narrator, is trite.
My adoration for these stories begins in the prose and narrative but grew as I saw how much the stories labor over portray a love of the language which inhabits them. Fittingly, the final story is a love letter to the Chinese language itself – Signs is a tight 11 page story that fantasizes about the life of the Yellow Emperor’s historian Cangjie (~2650 BCE) who was instructed to create a new record keeping system, as the knot-based history they had kept for centuries had grown overly complex. Cangjie’s tale covers how he has to consider what the things he thinks are, physically and metaphorically, and where they come from – what does water look like? What should water look like when drawn on the ground with a stick? How many people would recognize those particular squiggles as water? As Cangjie struggles with these questions, he has dreams of his dead mother who guides him in searching for a form for words. It’s a pure, powerful fable about language, and the one narrative that struck me the deepest – not just due to Signs’ love of language, but due to its placement at the end of a collection that labors over the meaning and legacy of each word used, discussed within the context of both a language and a story. ‘Hao’ shows Ye Chun’s mastery over her prose and the care with which she places every single word that constructs her narratives.
Timothy Norton is a multi-genre writer, father, and writing professor living in Norfolk, Virginia. Timothy’s writing can be read in The Roadrunner Review, The Daily Drunk, and Southchild Literary Magazine. You can follow all his manic obsessive reading and writing musings on Twitter at @Tim_Lives_Here.