“When We Were Happy We Had Other Names”
by Yiyun Li
from the October 1, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I‘m not much for long titles that try to cleverly ramble a sentence, but at least this is not another variation on “What We Talk About When. . . ” Also, I like Yiyun Li an awful lot, so I’m going to look well around that and see what we have this week. Li’s work receives a mixed response on this site. Part of me understands the criticism, but the other part of me — the part that loves her work regardless — is stronger. I’m anxious to see how this story plays out.

The opening paragraph is certainly intriguing to me, if not one that pulls me right in. And maybe that’s the best way for me encapsulate Li’s work for me. It isn’t immediately flashy, usually comes at me slowly but with great power. Anyway, to the opening paragraph:

The funeral director would be right with them, a woman’s voice said through the intercom when they rang the bell. After standing on the porch for a minute and then another minute, Jiayu and Chris sat down on two wicker chairs, a small round table with a potted yellow chrysanthemum between them. It was a cloudless day, the sky intensely blue. A pair of squirrels were chasing each other on the lawn, and some unseen birds in the trees, which had yet to change colors, made loud noises, a game of hue and cry in the quiet neighborhood. Perhaps the real setting of every Shakespeare play, Jiayu thought, is a wall-less waiting room like this: life as an antechamber to death.

I’m curious what you all think of the story, so please let us know below and have fun with the conversation!

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By |2018-09-24T11:11:59-04:00September 24th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Yiyun Li|Tags: |8 Comments


  1. David September 24, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    I‘m not much for long titles that try to cleverly ramble a sentence….

    Well. I neither mind long titles nor ones that form a sentence, but in this case your criticism is a bit harsh, given that the title is a line from Shakespeare. I took a look through other recent titles of New Yorker stories and imagine that you must have hated the titles of “I Walk Between the Raindrops” and “Whoever Is There, Come on Through”, but the one you most despised would have to have been ““As You Would Have Told It to Me (Sort Of) If We Had Known Each Other Before You Died”.

  2. Sean H September 24, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    Fantastic story. Truly grappling with grief and death? Not easy. High degree of difficulty and Li acknowledges this (“The death of a child belonged to a different realm–that of a Greek tragedy or a mawkish movie.”). The perils are almost completely avoided and this becomes a consistently revelatory piece of fiction about the banality of grief and the frangibility of the human species.

    The transistor radio is a wonderful symbol for both the ephemerality of our lives and the difficulty of anything resembling real connection with others. The story is also very well-structured, with the elipticality of the Shakespeare allusion giving the story both heft and self-awareness, and the single use of a dialogue-based discussion early on being shed in favor of what amounts to an internal monologue, a meditation on the hardest things in life.

    The minor characters and recollections are consistently well-rendered. The plot points are deftly arranged, and a “spreadsheet of death” is a lovely and original choice. The historical awareness is also really high, starting with Mrs. Wilson who remembers 1891, when the world was a very different place.

    There are some slipshod moments, though they are few and far between. “Memory was a haystack” is a notable negative (though it’s quickly redeemed by “distraction was unattainable”) and the last line of the third-to-last paragraph “An answer was unnecessary…” should’ve been cut.

    The transmogrifications alluded to in the title are appropriate, as are Li’s hard-hitting truths about death and memory (“After she died, many relatives had shed tears, but how many of them could tell a story about that little girl now?”). Even the little riff on how children essentially crave attention, a form of fledgling celebrity/notoriety/fame, is nicely crafted. The “Perhaps grief was…” repetition pays dividends as well. The language is consistently evocative and immersive (the Christmas paragraph, for instance).

    The flimsiness of our traditions and routines are calmly disassembled here, and throughout the piece Li uses science, reason, and logic to continually assess her subject from a multiplicity of illuminating perspectives. Superstition is also revealed as light raiment indeed, though without calling human foibles idiocy. Reliving and retracing and trying to keep the memory of the dead alive is normal, banal, unexceptional. Change equals death so of course we try to achieve stability and order in the face of randomness and chaos. Life is, after all, a long period of dormant lifelessness (like the white noise on the radio) that flickers only briefly and then dies out (both an individual life and the life of our species).

    The grandfather is exceedingly well-positioned in the story and Jiayu’s relationship with him and the surprises he reveals open up a final theme — speculation. We don’t know other people, we just think we do, and we spend our lives speculating about what was going on inside their heads and hearts. The doubling of a three-person family also brackets the story and makes for noteworthy bookends along with the Shakespeare allusion. I would also note that Philip Roth’s novella Everyman and Charles Bukowski’s poem “oh yes” feel like salient influences here.

  3. kensuiyim September 25, 2018 at 5:44 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with Sean H. A lot goes on and the spreadsheet of death is certainly a “lovely and original choice”. The story opens up through literally spreading out along tendrils of memory. I quibble with the point about the memory as a haystack being a “notable negative”. I believe it’s a strong metaphor for how easily one can get lost in memory. I had a hard time understanding the ending line – Li often loads her last lines with meaning, often hammering in a central point or presenting a character reversal. Any ideas?

  4. David September 25, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    Li’s most recent story published in The New Yorker was “A Flawless Silence”. It was the third story of hers I read and I liked it a lot. In my comment on it here I mentioned how all three of these stories had some sort of fragmentary structure. She not only does this again with this story, but does it in a way that seems very natural to the content of the story. Jiayu’s discussion of the term “memory lane” and her suggestion that it’s more like a haystack explains this idea, although the metaphor she uses doesn’t really work. The idea that is evoked by the metaphor of a haystack is something that contains hidden, hard-to-find needles, but that’s not the idea she has in mind when she talks about “a hundred stories, none of them complete”. I thought maybe a hedge maze might be a better metaphor, since, like a lane, it is a path you travel, but it can have rapid and unexpected changes in direction, you can easily get lost in it, and sometimes end up in places you have already visited.
    I thought it was an interesting choice to have the death that launches the story be the suicide of a teenager, yet very little time is spent on telling us much at all about Evan, let alone what might have been his reason for killing himself. It’s also telling, in a very subtle way, that Jaiyu’s husband, Chris, is almost entirely absent from most of her thoughts. The divorce rates among couples who have lost a child are very high, and we already get the sense there is some distance from Chris in how she is dealing with Evan’s death.
    The one element of the story that did not work for me was the spreadsheet. It seemed to me like merely a writer’s device and entirely unrealistic. It is one thing for the death of her son to cause Jaiyu to want to reflect on all of the other deaths that have been a part of her life. But to want to write them down in a list cataloguing them, and not just as a list, but on a spreadsheet, suggesting many different sortable columns of information about each, strikes me as almost pathological behaviour (and no, not of the sort that can be excused by the irrationality of grief). It did remind me, however, of the Jim Carroll Band song “People Who Died”.
    Overall I’d say this is a good story. Not as good as “A Flawless Silence”, but still strong. The sheer number of deaths recounted and the variety of their circumstances make an intricate collage of thoughts about grief and death.
    Ken, I don’t think there is anything going on with the final sentence beyond the surface meaning, but the entire final paragraph is an inventive twist on her thoughts about death. She recognizes that her own grandfather went through the loss of a son, just like she is going through now, and feels empathy for him, but she describes it as mourning him as a young man. What also goes unstated in this paragraph is the fact that had her grandfather not lost this son and then his wife after that, he never would have married Jaiyu’s grandmother, meaning Jaiyu would never have been born. So the very fact that Jaiyu exists is thanks to these two very tragic deaths her grandfather had to experience. The faces of death are many and complex.
    [For those interested, here is “People Who Died”. All of the people named in the song are people Jim Carroll actually knew and who died the ways the song describes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TK3mYCYi_2k ]

  5. Sean H September 25, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    Just a quick note to follow up David’s comment (good job on the reference to Jim Carroll’s song “People Who Died”; people might also remember Carroll from the movie The Basketball Diaries, where he was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio), as Jiayu’s creation of the spreadsheet isn’t supposed to be read as pathological. It’s merely the behavior of an analytical or left-brained individual, an organizer and sorter, a rationalist and empiricist. Good qualities in a detective or any problem-solving occupation (coder, hotel manager, accountant). Alphabetizing one’s bookshelves is to some people necessary to maintain order, but to others it might seem like obsessive-compulsive disorder or “almost pathological” when it’s merely a case of “different strokes for different folks.”

    Without doing a full biographical reading or commenting on authorial “intent” in any way, it’s perhaps useful to note that Li seriously studied science in both China and in America before later in life changing professions/areas of study to English/Writing from Immunology. Her parents were also a teacher and a physicist. She even served in the Chinese Army for a year, so she’d be familiar with highly regimented behavior. The “insisting on perfect corners on one’s bedsheets” mentality is the kind of spic-and-span type that Jiayu appears to be.

    Most cultures, and many individual families, have pretty ornate rituals regarding the dead, so creating a spreadsheet on a computer reads more like a technological age version of things like guestbooks at funeral homes, recitations of the names of the dead, the Kaddish, or even something like memorialization, ie: the names inscribed around the parapets at the World Trade Center memorial or the way people do rubbings of names at Vietnam Veterans Memorial/”The Wall” in Washington DC.

  6. TME September 26, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    This was a really wonderful story–crisp and perfectly plotted and stuffed with illuminating observations and insights. Yiyun Li is truly a talented writer, all the more so seeing as how her stories are written in her second language. I don’t have much more to add to what’s already been very adeptly outlined by others above. However, as for kensuiyim’s comment about the final sentence, I read it this way, though I’m of course oversimplifying the crux of the idea: True grief, when driven by the loss of a person in one’s life, is in essence synonymous and inseparable with a period of profound reflection–reflection on an individual’s relationship with the person they’ve lost, reflection on the lost person’s life more generally, as well as reflections about others that are spurred by the pain and disorientation one feels in the wake of a great loss–and that there’s never a wrong (or ‘too late’) time for such a meditation to occur. In it, we find the humanity of others and thus our own. This story seems to be an extended (meta) exercise in just that type of reflection, with Jiayu’s grief first leading her to think about her son and eventually her grandfather and the man he was, including his life long before she was born, which was an aspect of him that she had never really given much thought to prior to her own loss. In this way, her grief served as a bridge that connected her to her grandfather and his own grief in a new and acute way. That’s at least what I walked away with.

  7. mehbe October 2, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    I stumbled on the memory as a haystack idea, too. It was a “huh?” moment of the sort that rudely took me out of the reader’s trance I was enjoying. Thinking more about it, how many people actually have any experience of a haystack of the sort she means? Not that many, I don’t think. I even grew up on a farm, and our haystacks were neatly organized stacks of bales, not randomly jumbled piles of straw (which may explain why the metaphor bugged me so much).

    The lack of parental interest in their son’s suicide bothered me even more. Just a quick agreement that they didn’t understand and had no clue, and that was that. Really? That’s all? I think that fairly brusque dismissal was the author’s contrivance to get on with her real theme of grief – it didn’t work for me. And even though suicide figures in other deaths in the story, it’s particular nature doesn’t seem to be addressed very well. The son could just as well died in a car accident, for all they seem to care about the manner in which he died. I could understand if the parents were portrayed as avoiding the issue because it was too painful, but that’s not the feeling I got.

    The spreadsheet of deaths made sense to me as the kind of thing that grief can make you do, having myself done some fairly unusual things under the influence of grief. It’s a state of mind that’s a fairly universal experience, but, paradoxically, it seems to manifest in distinctly unique ways with each individual.

    The narrator’s connection with, and mourning of, the grandfather was beautifully done, and I found myself being moved in a way that surprised me. Good stuff.

  8. SM October 15, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    I enjoyed the story, more than Li’s other recent ones (though perhaps still not as much as other readers, it seems). There’re a lot of good points already made in the discussions. Just to add a couple more thoughts:
    What an excellent opening! With imageries so expected yet so effective, the reader could sense with almost heartbeat precision the couple’s paralysis, isolation, and bewilderment. But then she gets right on it with that Shakespeare contemplation, and you realize, like with every Li story, that this isn’t a story interested in being easy to read at all.
    I also thought Li did a much better job here when working the current political atmosphere into the narrative than in “A Flawless Silence”. It is no coincidence that she married a man born on a corn farm, and for fifteen years brought potstickers to Christmas parties; or that the two young girls got an early taste of otherness and privilege, surrounded by circles of literally silent people that spoke a different language; or that Ms. Eileen Wilson’s missionary cousin fell victim to a nationalist movement in late Qing China, more than a hundred years ago (for reference, see the Boxer Rebellion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion).
    I didn’t like that the writer, in her contemplations and experiments, bulldozes over the husband. Sometimes it feels to me that there’s only a certain type of characters that interests Li, and that’s *gasp* people like herself. I’m talking about retired men killing themselves after choir practices, war hero grandmas chasing children off with broomsticks, grandfathers, loss bracketing life’s both ends, decidedly content in between, etc, etc. Common people feel things too, and I don’t understand why thoughts and emotions couldn’t be balanced in a story.
    Also does anyone else notice the proposition-facts/memories/surprises-reflection structure of Li’s paragraphs? She used to do this sparsely and to great effect, but here she seems to have decided to model entire pages the same way. I do enjoy being intellectually stimulated, but maybe not enough, because boy does it get repetitive in a story to read the fourth epiphany in a row.

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