Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Yiyun Li’s “A Sheltered Woman” was originally published in the March 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
When I first started reading Yiyun Li’s work, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. In the reading process, I would often wonder just what I was supposed to be getting out of it, and then when I put it down the strength would hit me. I’ve since read quite a few of her short stories (though not yet one of her novels, something I will correct shortly with her latest, Kinder Than Solitude), and I consider her an outstanding story writer. I was thrilled to see her story this week. And, to cut to the chase, I wasn’t disappointed.
This is a story about the risks of human attachment, through the eyes of a woman who has chosen to be as detached as possible. Yet we might wonder just how this is possible given her work: she is a live-in nanny who cares for infants in their first month. She is called Auntie Mei.
Auntie Mei’s strange detachment is apparent early on in the story. She sits rocking a new baby. Instead of thinking of the baby, she thinks of the rocking chair:
I wonder who’s enjoying the rocking more, she said to herself: the chair, whose job is to rock until it breaks apart, or you, whose life is being rocked away? And which one of you will meet your demise first?
And yet we learn that in a way Auntie Mei has already met her demise. She is completely stripped of human attachment. She always refuses to stay with the family longer than a month. She calls all of the babies “Baby” and all the mothers “Baby’s Ma.” When she can, she refuses to go help a family she’s already helped:
Once in a while, she was approached by previous employers to care for their second child. The thought of facing a child who had once been an infant in her arms led to lost sleep; she agreed only when there was no other option, and she treated the older children as though they were empty air.
We learn that she comes from a line of women who also forsook personal attachment. It’s an interesting portrayal because Auntie Mei is healthy and has a steady job that she’s very good at. For some people, this is enough, but it doesn’t seem that Auntie Mei is going anywhere. Her life is, as she said, “being rocked away.”
But rocking away life is all by Auntie Mei’s design. She doesn’t want to be known, but she also doesn’t want to know others. She sees it as, somehow, unfair:
Auntie Mei wondered if knowing someone — a friend, an enemy — was like never letting that person out of one’s sight. Being known, then, must not be far from being imprisoned by someone else’s thought.
It looks like things might change in this instance. The mother, who calls herself Chanel (she’s also stripped away much of her past), absolutely refuses to have anything to do with the baby. Since she is being paid, she takes care of Baby in ways she normally would not.
But the urge to take Baby and walk out the door is an urge she long ago pushed down. There may be pain caused because Auntie Mei wasn’t there, but she will not be the one to cause pain.
I found the story fascinating and elusive. I’m still wrestling with it and a few of the avenues it ventures. One I did not touch on above is the difference Auntie Mei sees between men and women. The men in the story are mostly absent, usually by the choice of the women. They are off forsaking their own personal attachments, creating things that are not alive but that appear alive. I’m curious why Auntie Mei doesn’t see this ability in herself. Why is she caring for living creatures? Is it economic necessity? We don’t really know, unless it’s because it’s the minimal form of attachment she allows herself. It’s just enough — almost.
Yiyun Li, in an interview with NPR (here), talks about a character in her new book, Kinder Than Solitude:
But at the end of the book she said she realized she did not have solitude, all she had was a life-long quarantine against love and life.
Li goes on to say that writing the book changed her attitude toward solitude “a little bit.” She says that “solitude can be kind, but there has to be something more than solitude.”
In this week’s New Yorker story, “A Sheltered Woman,” an immigrant who makes her way as a baby-nanny is able to live without an apartment, going from one family to another, month by month. She calls all the babies “Baby” and all the mothers “Baby’s Ma.” Thus, she is a sheltered woman in a variety of ways: she can have shelter without needing an apartment of her own; she can have human contact without becoming attached. She says she has been doing this for eleven years, which makes 132 babies and 132 mothers — babies and mothers she hopes never to see again. For the purpose of references, she keeps the names of these families in a small notebook she bought at a garage sale for five cents.
In this story we hear about six heartless women: Auntie Mei, her mother, and grandmother; and Baby Ma, her mother, and great-grandmother. By heartless, I mean that these women all appear mired in self-extermination. Marriages are bleak, men are banished, blotted out, and treated carelessly. Children are neglected, abandoned, and orphaned. There is a profound lack, in John Bowlby’s words, of attachment.
Auntie Mei’s grandmother abandoned her baby daughter to go and live with another man; at her own birth, Auntie Mei‘s mother threatened suicide unless her husband left; she then slowly starved herself to death when the grandmother returned. Chanel, the Baby Ma, is unmoved by her infant. She talks about a great-grandmother who hanged herself after giving birth, and she claims to have post-partum depression. That may be, but she is also in love with her story — that she conceived the baby to take revenge on her father for having an affair, and that her father forced the man to leave his wife and marry Chanel. Of course, the man is hardly ever around.
These women’s stories are an endless cycle of cold. Auntie Mei had been married once but had found the arranged marriage something she wished she could escape, her husband having been a man she “married without any intention of loving.”
Actually — this is a story about people with no ties and no history. Chanel, who has abandoned her Chinese name, is now the wife of a man who will abandon her, and the mother of a child she will neglect. The reader knows the family will beg Auntie Mei to stay, but the reader knows she will move on.
The story appears to be studying the ways people quarantine themselves against love and life. Auntie Mei has the attentions of an older man, and yet we know she will resist him, just as she will resist staying with the family and their baby who need her.
Auntie Mei is as cold as ice. Who can resist the needs of a baby? Somehow, I think these stories have some root in Chinese history and Chinese culture that is missed by me. I sense in these psychologies the result of famine or plague or war or atom bomb, and yet these women have no memory of such cataclysm. Stephen Jay Lifton has talked about how nuclear war is so total that it would cause a profound disconnectedness in its survivors, a social disconnectedness far worse than radiation sickness in itself. In this story, however, there is hardly a hint of a global explanation for the profound deadness of these women, except that they are dead, and each new generation is dead as well.
Yi Yun Li’s writing is precise, dispassionate, and engaging, but basically unfinished. What I mean is this. It’s not that I want the story to provide a deus ex machina; I know that nothing will convince Auntie Mei to stay and rescue the baby. It’s that I want the story to provide me with a vision of what caused this emotional and moral disintegration in so many women.
At the same time as I am impatient with the author, however, I think I understand what she is doing. She is exploring this psychology; she is testing it. She is asking, Am I really seeing what I think I am seeing? She is testing the possibility that there are more than a few Chinese women who have locked themselves against the pain of engaging with anyone, even their children.
I need for the writing to do what the writer resists: give an explanation.
What the writer needs is something different, however. I feel in the writer a need to prove that these ghostly women are real. It is as if she senses a terrible, alienating detachment from human connection in the culture of women, or in the culture of Chinese women. It is as if her fiction is testing whether or not her sense is accurate; she appears to be using the fiction to establish the exact nature of these women, the exact depth of their dislocation, and the exact effect of their lack of what Bowlby would call attachment.
That, in fact, may be enough for her. It may be not just enough, it may be actually Sisyphean for her to explore this territory — to prove through fiction that what she feels in the culture is actually so.
That goal must be (and rightly so), regardless of this reader’s American yearning for explanation, intervention, and reformation.
Nevertheless, I sense in the writing Li’s deeper need for just such an analysis, as if by the fiction, she hopes to provoke that explanation.