Bueno, gut, nzuri, joh-eun: If you're an English speaker learning another language, one of the first things you'll be taught is the word for good. In Chinese, that word is hao; like its English counterpart, it can also mean fine or OK, an assurance that nothing's awry, that everything's going to be all right.
In Ye Chun's stunning new short story collection Hao, though, the characters are anything but OK — they're sick, afraid, people who find themselves out of place and out of time. It's a powerful collection that explores what happens when lives break down, when it becomes hard to find a word — any word — to express profound loss and anguish.
Ye's collection opens with "Stars," about a graduate student who experiences a novel kind of agony while lecturing her students: "It's a swirling, crackling kind of pain, as if an electric eel is twisting inside her skull." After being taken to a hospital, she's diagnosed with a stroke that has robbed her of a basic, and important, capability: "Luyao, at thirty-seven, third-year doctoral student in economics, and mother of a six-year-old, has lost her ability to speak."
She can still say one word, though: hao, "the most common word in Chinese, which must have been so imprinted in her memory it alone has escaped the calamity. She says hao even when she is shaking her head and slapping her hand on the threadbare sheet of the hospital bed." She realizes she won't be able to finish her graduate studies, and that her relationship with her beloved child will be altered in horrible ways: "Her daughter has not confided in her since her stroke — must have figured that her mother can offer no words of comfort anyway." It's a heartbreaker of a story, and Ye does a beautiful job chronicling Luyao's anger, resentment, and despair; she concentrates on a series of seemingly small moments in the woman's life that together form an unbearable loss.
The collection's title story also focuses on the common word. Qingxin is a former teacher in 1966 China, months after Chairman Mao Zedong launched the infamous Cultural Revolution, in which adherents of his cult of personality terrorized the nation. Her Chinese language textbooks have been taken away and burned, and she's constantly subjected to "struggle sessions," tortured and humiliated by her former students in public.
All that's keeping her from giving up is her beloved young daughter. "She will not show her amazement after knowing that she is still alive, still able to move her arms and legs and breathe without too much pain," Ye writes. "Still allowed to go see her daughter. To be able to do all that for another day surprises her, as though she does not know her own dimension, or how far her life can be stretched without snapping. She is relearning how to live this life."
"Hao" is a story brimming with anger, but Ye relates it with a surgical clarity that effectively brings the enormities of the Cultural Revolution into focus. It's a stunning look at despair in the face of unspeakable evil, chilling and perfectly written. "But what is hao in this world, where good books are burned, good people condemned, meanness considered a good trait, violence good conduct?" Qingxin reflects. "People say hao when their eyes are marred with suspicion and dread. They say hao when they are tattered inside."
Words play a big part in "Crazy English," about Yun, a Chinese woman who's moved to the States to live with her American husband and, with high hopes, become a graduate student. She's passed her Test of English as a Foreign Language exam, and is studying for the GRE, hoping to teach Chinese.
But her studies are constantly interrupted by a stalker who stares at her at a library. She finds herself unable to concentrate on her English vocabulary book: "She has been at the letter p for days now, ever since that man, that stalker, entered her vision. She cannot look around without seeing him and the things he could do to her."
Her feckless husband is of no help, only suggesting she not "dress like a twenty-year-old." The story has a chilling ending, with Yun finally finding a word to say to her tormentor, "knowing how ineffectual it can be." Ye perfectly portrays the helplessness of a person out of her element, ignored and gaslit by others who refuse to understand her. It's an intense story that finds Ye again exploring themes of fear and language.
There's not a story in Hao that's anything less than gorgeous. Ye, who's also a literary translator, has an uncanny ability to explore the vocabularies that we build around ourselves, the ways that we communicate, and what happens when those break down. It's a beautiful collection that looks at people who have nothing but their words — until they don't.
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