Yiyun Li's first novel, Kinder than Solitude, is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Photo: Getty
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China’s Chekhov: Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

The sophomore novel from the author of story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Kinder than Solitude
Yiyun Li
Fourth Estate, 312pp, £16.99

In her award-winning story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and her superb first novel The Vagrants, Yiyun Li writes about how human relationships have endured or been crushed by China’s chaotic reality.

However, it is in America that Li’s importance as a writer is established. She is a MacArthur fellow and one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to watch. None of her works has been published in Chinese. And even though she didn’t move from Beijing to San Francisco until she was 24, she writes solely in English. “Chinese is rather an inhibitory language for me,” she has said. “I don’t have a Chinese vocabulary for most emotions because I grew up in this environment where emotions were not encouraged.”

Kinder than Solitude, like Li’s first novel, is about the unspoken emotional fallout of a young woman’s death in a small community. While The Vagrants revolved around the execution of a dissident during the Cultural Revolution, Kinder than Solitude is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Shaoai, a belligerent student awaiting punishment for her part in the protests, is mysteriously poisoned.

The story begins with the arrival of Ruyu, an unloved orphan who moves in with Shaoai’s family in a close-knit quadrangle in Beijing. Shaoai spares no effort in making her feel unwelcome, but her young friends Moran and Boyang (the only boy) happily take her under their wing. The three friends are the prime suspects in Shaoai’s poisoning although no one is charged with the crime. The novel evolves like a thriller that depends less on whodunnit than on differing emotional consequences for the three suspects: “A secret that never heals makes a person, however close, a stranger,” says Ruyu, “or worse, an intimate, an enemy.” Ruyu’s calm, inscrutable voice dominates the novel, and those around her. Her aggressive stoicism unsettles the community much more than the protests. “Intimacy and alienation,” writes Li, “both required effort beyond Ruyu’s willingness.”

In the two decades it takes for the poison to disfigure and finally kill Shaoai, the three friends enter their own quiet and insistent versions of solitude. Twenty years on, Ruyu dispassionately studies “her bruised body in a mirror so that she could have a better sense of the pain she should feel”. Moran becomes “a weary impersonator of all that one was not”. Boyang, the only one to stay in Beijing, cruises the streets as a cynical womaniser. As Li reveals the ways in which the emotionally destitute see themselves, judgements become harder to pass, conclusions murky and elusive.

Distance provides some perspective. Both Ruyu and Moran move to the US, making Kinder than Solitude one of the few times that Li’s fiction has left Chinese soil. Though America doesn’t generate the vivid descriptions that light up Beijing, this cultural shift provides a platform for Li to examine afresh the notions of fate and culpability.

As a child, Moran was once reminded of an old Chinese saying: “An egg never wins when it hurls itself against a rock.” It helps explain why she and Boyang find Ruyu’s fatalism so beguiling and, ultimately, contagious. In America, however, it is utterly baffling. To her waspish San Francisco employer, Ruyu is a curio rather than a threat, her chronic stoicism almost comical: “Disappointment is for those who begin with a plan, those who sow seeds and refuse to accept the barrenness of life.”

Although the lives and landscapes of this book become bleak indeed (marriages fall apart, no children are born, disconnection is the default), Li’s insight and humanity breathe beauty into the barrenness. And, despite the aimlessness of the characters, the plot is powered by the underlying mystery of Shaoai’s poisoning that, when resolved, poses forceful questions about agency and blame.

If it seems like Li is sidestepping politics, she isn’t. Her novel is published during the 25th-anniversary year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and its smaller tragedy seems interchangeable with the one that overshadows it: “One day neighbours in the quadrangle would refer to this time as the days when Shaoai had been mysteriously sick, as they would speak of the May afternoon when an army tank was overthrown and burned down at a nearby crossroads, or the day in June when Teacher Pang’s cousin pedalled three bodies on his flatbed tricycle from the Square to the hospital.”

Kinder than Solitude lacks the colourful personalities of The Vagrants, and at times the characters’ isolation can be a little overbearing. Yet this is also where Li’s writing is most powerful: her penetrating, understated sentences perfectly capture the muted feelings of her characters. No wonder she has been called China’s Chekhov.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser