‘Extra’ by Yiyun Li

Extra by Yiyun Li, 2003

The magic trick:

Showing our protagonist explore her identity through two very different relationships and situations

One of the better stories I’ve read in a long time. Yi really captures it all here – a specific time and place, a specific character, a specific feeling. Granny Lin, in essence, is enjoying a sexual awakening story arc here. That said, she’s about five decades older than such an arc would suggest and there’s no sex. She is, however, exploring her identity, and it’s a riveting process for the reader to take in.

Like many stories from the early portion of writers’ careers, it seems, “Extra” explodes off the page, doing dozens of things at once. There are so many literary devices at work here, so many reflected ideas and symbols.

I like that Granny Lin has two main relationships in the story – with her new (and, sadly, short-lived) husband Old Tang and a boy at the school where she works. Interestingly, the relationship with Old Tang inspires motherly feelings from her, while the friendship with the boy, though completely without any unseemly vibe, feels more like a romantic love.

It’s one of many such twins in the story and only prompts the reader to think more deeply about the text.

And that’s quite a trick on Li’s part.

The selection:

Old Tang is the only man Granny Lin has seen fully naked. The first time she undressed him, she could not help stealing a look at the penis, nestled in a thinning bush. She wondered what it had looked like in its younger years, but right away chased the unclean thought from her mind. The frail nakedness filled her heart with a tenderness she had never experienced, and she has since tended his body with motherly hands.

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