Yiyun Li is one of my favorites. It brightened my day when I saw that this week’s selection was another of her stories. As the story began, though not much is happening, I knew I was in good hands. Just look at how Li creates a physical space:
Once upon a time, I was addicted to a salon. I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait—not everyone went to Lily’s for a haircut. The old men Lily called uncles sat at a card table, reading newspapers and magazines in Chinese and Vietnamese. The television above the counter was tuned to a channel based in Riverside, and the aunties—related or not related to the uncles—watched cooking shows and teledramas in Mandarin.
Once this is establish, Li goes on to introduce us further to the narrator, a writer, and Lily, the woman who runs the salon, and what this space means for them.
I was the only customer under sixty, and the only one who spoke in English. With others Lily used Vietnamese, Cantonese, or Mandarin. The first time we met, I lied and said that I had been adopted by a couple from Holland when I was a year old and that we moved to America when I was in middle school. Lily forgave me then for not being able to speak one of the languages she preferred. Brought up by foreign devils, she told a nearby auntie in Cantonese. Half foreign, the auntie said; hair still Chinese. Half devil, Lily said; brain not Chinese. Both laughed. I smiled blankly at Lily in the mirror, and she smiled back. What do you do? she asked, and I lied again and said I was a student. She picked up a strand of hair and let it fall. My hair had just begun to show signs of gray. What subject? she asked, and I said I’d gone back to school because I wanted to become a writer. Will you make money being a writer? she asked, and I said not really.
Those are the first two paragraphs of the story, which plunges into the pasts of Lily and our narrator and how they come together in this space, seemingly set apart from the turmoil elsewhere: “Still, the world was full of perils. Some rather real, some rather close.”
I’m still processing what we have here, but I liked it very much. In her interview, Li brings up I.B. Singer’s “The Cafeteria,” saying she wanted to write a story that could “enter into a conversation with” Singer’s story. I don’t believe I’ve ever read “The Cafeteria,” so there’s a nice follow-up to this story.
I hope we can talk about Li’s story and Singer’s story below. Please feel free to leave your thoughts!