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

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.