“Extra” is a short story by Chinese-American author Yiyun Li. Deborah Treisman and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum discuss this story in 2021 at the New Yorker Fiction podcast. This was the second story Yiyun Li published anywhere. “Extra” was included in Li’s 2005 debut collection A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers.
Brilliant and original, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers introduces a remarkable new writer whose breathtaking stories are set in China and among Chinese Americans in the United States. In this rich, astonishing collection, Yiyun Li illuminates how mythology, politics, history, and culture intersect with personality to create fate.
From the bustling heart of Beijing, to a fast-food restaurant in Chicago, to the barren expanse of Inner Mongolia, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers reveals worlds both foreign and familiar, with heartbreaking honesty and in beautiful prose.
CHARACTERS OF ANY AGE CAN ‘COME OF AGE’
When we think of a ‘coming-of-age’ story we generally think of teenagers and young adults. Yiyun Li’s “Extra” is a good example of a coming-of-age story about a character who is in many ways a metaphorical newborn but not young in years.
As the story opens Granny Lin has just lost the job she worked at for her whole life. She is about to describe the experience as a dream. Yiyun Li could have chosen to interweave prior experience into Granny Lin’s story of the present, but did not. Granny Lin is an excellent example of a truly in statu nascendi character. Another author who wrote like this was Modernist short story writer of the early 20th century, Katherine Mansfield.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
“Extra” is a wonderful example of a short story which avoids giving the main character backstory. This isn’t just done to keep the short story short. There’s a narrative reason for it.
As an aside, the author has claimed that at time of writing she barely knew what a backstory was, a good example of how authors don’t necessarily need to know all the theory and literary terms before writing an excellent story. Some do, of course. Margaret Atwood can talk at length about storytelling as a craft, linking it to history, politics and myth.
Readers don’t realise until after the reading experience how adeptly Yiyun Li transitions between summary and scene. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum points out, “We barely notice the shifts between summary and scene because the routines of her life and the habits she creates are all summarised, but the summaries are rendered as visibly and palpably as a scene would be.”
The descriptions of routine — technically flashbacks — are so vivid and engaging that we don’t realise we’re not in the present time.
SETTING OF “EXTRA”
I come to this story with little knowledge about China and its history, and where this story fits in it. What I gather from the New Yorker Fiction podcast is that the main thing for Western readers to understand is this: The story is set around the mid 1990s when China is undergoing massive economic transformation.
Likewise, Chinese people themselves are forced to undergo huge transformations.
Granny Lin has worked her whole life at a garment factory. Although she is still in her early fifties — not old by today’s standards — this is hard physical labour and the work has taken its toll on her fitness. The story of a single, menopausal, physically breaking woman laid off from her garment factory without any promise of economic security into her old age suggests a story of imminent misery. But that’s not what Yiyun Li does here. She eschews that story. This narrative ultimately returns power to Granny Lin.
For this reason, as pointed out in the podcast, Yiyun Li goes out of her way to teach readers how to read the story, paying attention to the irony, pathos and humour.
How does she do this?
TEACHING READERS HOW TO READ A STORY
LOOK FOR IRONY
The phrase ‘these facts are simply not true’ teaches the reader to avoid reading the story at a surface level.
It does not say that the Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt or that, being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension. Of course it does not provide such information, for these facts are simply not true.“Extra”
MIXING UP THE REGISTER
I don’t think this counts as ‘polyphony’, which encourages the reader to interpret all voices on a level playing field. We are clearly asked to poke fun at the woman who accidentally quotes a Toyota commercial. But Yiyun Li juxtaposes different registers — an amazing trick when we consider this story imaginatively takes place in a Chinese language, yet we are reading it in English.
In the section below, what at first appears to be an ancient Chinese aphorism is soon revealed (by our sympathetic main character) to be a line from a Toyota commercial.
“There is always a road when you get into the mountain,” Auntie Wang, Granny Lin’s neighbor, says to her upon being informed of Granny Lin’s situation.
“And there is a Toyota wherever there is a road.” The second line of the Toyota commercial slips out before Granny Lin realizes it.“Extra”
Officialese of the letter also juxtaposes against the Toyota commercial jingle. Take note of other juxtapositions as you read. All of this links into the setting because old China juxtaposes with new China.
JUXTAPOSITIONS IN “EXTRA”
- Old Setting Versus New Setting: Granny Lin goes from an old bankrupt state run factory to a brand spanking new private school.
- Old Character Versus New Character: The first section of narrator pairs Granny Lin with an old man. The second pairs her with a young boy. Age against youth. Granny Lin is herself advanced in chronological years but comes to us in statu nascendi (without backstory).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “EXTRA”
This story has two main parts to it. First there’s the story of a brief arranged marriage. Next there’s the story of Granny Lin’s love for a young boy at Mei-Mei Academy. Each half mirrors the other. In both she is accused of lying, for instance. In both she experiences a certain kind of love.
Who is “Extra”? The boy is extra because he is the offspring of a rich man’s disfavored wife.
“Not when he is the son of a disfavored wife,” Mrs. Du says. “An extra is what he is.”“Extra”
This set up is similar to that in the 2007 film Boychoir. Like the main character in the film, the boy of “Extra” is sent to a prestigious boarding school to get him out of the father’s way. Both boys spend their holidays at the school while the other students are welcomed home.
Granny Lin is also considered superfluous to society unless she attaches herself to a family. What use are single people to the building of a nation? She is one of life’s unremarkable invisible people. “I just want this to be a record of an obscure life.” This story illuminates a previously obscure life. What happens before doesn’t matter. That is also “Extra”.
Yiyun Li has said in interviews that her stories are about everyday people without a lot of power, but who live serious lives. She aims to write about them seriously.
Like the main character of many children’s books, Granny Lin is innocent and guileless.
GRANNY LIN’S CHILDLIKE APPEARANCE
Granny Lin walks down the street on a November afternoon with a stainless-steel lunch pail in her hand. Inside the lunch pail is an official certificate from her working unit. […] Granny Lin looks down at herself. She is wearing a bright-yellow plastic poncho and a pair of grass-green rubber boots, her outfit for bath time.“Extra”
I have told them that, were there one honest person left on earth, it would be you, Granny Lin.“Extra”
Later, she observes her new husband’s ageing body. We learn she never seen a naked male body before. Later, ‘her old body fails her young heart’. Yiyun Li is emphasising the sense of an old life beginning anew.
Granny Lin also has an enormous capacity for devotion. This separates her from an actual child, who are egocentric by necessity.
GRANNY LIN AS GHOSTLY INBETWEEN
By existing as both a naif and as a menopausal woman in the same body, Granny Lin is in a ghostly inbetween (liminal and invisible) state but her dual nature can also be her superpower, and as we will see at the conclusion of this story, it is. Even near the beginning, the acquaintance (who admittedly doesn’t seem to have any genuine wisdom to impart) points out that Granny Lin is ultimately an optimist. Because she has no backstory, life hasn’t worn her down.
“Extra” delves into the deep human desire for connection.
On the surface, this is a character with very few needs.
For a few days, Granny Lin adds, subtracts, and divides, and she decides that her savings will run out in a year—in two years if she can skip a meal here and there, go to bed right after sunset, and stay bundled up so that she does not have to feed the insatiable stove extra coal through the long winter of northern China.“Extra”
All her life she has used public bathrooms, fighting with other slippery bodies for the lukewarm water drizzling from the rusty showers.“Extra”
The following paragraph comparing the single radish (Granny Lin’s dinner) to a ‘plump Buddha’ is ironically telling. A single radish as dinner is hardly luxurious by anyone’s standards, which makes the ‘plump Buddha’ simile at odds with reality. Which of the two women sees the radish as ‘plump’? I believe we’re in Auntie Wang’s head now. Auntie Wang is about to suggest Granny Lin do the pragmatic and self-sacrificial thing and become a carer for an old man with advanced Alzheimer’s. To this busybody archetype, Granny Lin has no desire of her own. Even a radish, for this inconsequential woman, seems plump.
Granny Lin has never married and the prospect of marriage embarrasses her. Perhaps this is the aromantic representation rarely pointed out, or even considered, in literary analysis. I believe literature is full of GRSM (gender, romantic and sexual minorities) diversity, but the queerness of such characters rarely gets a mention.
By the way, Granny Lin, how come you aren’t married? You never told us the reason.”
Granny Lin opens and then closes her mouth. “It just happens,” she says.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.“Extra”
Like Granny Lin in this short story, Charlotte (Lucas) Collins of Pride and Prejudice is a standout literary example of a woman who simply does not feel the romance her society expects her to feel. So she does the pragmatic rather than the romantic thing. She marries a man she does not love, but who can provide a measure of economic security.
THE SENSE THAT GOOD THINGS ARE UNDESERVED
Later in “Extra”, Deborah Treisman and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum note that Granny Lin feels like a thief. What is she stealing, they wonder. She is stealing ’emotional intimacy’, or access to someone’s interior life. Granny Lin is trying to access and experience that and feels she doesn’t have a right to do so.
Two scenes exemplify this feeling: The first is the conversation in the shower with Old Tang. The second is a touching scene in the laundry room. Granny Lin gently probes Kang in an attempt to understand something of his inner life.
In both of these scenes, “the physical intimacy, the act of washing or supporting someone else’s body becomes prelude for the emotional vulnerability that happens. When Granny Lin questions the boy about his family she’s rubbing lotion on him. Physical intimacy leads into emotional intimacy.”
AUNTIE WANG AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE DOMINANT CULTURE
Fifty-one-year-old Granny Lin has not conformed to societal expectation of a woman: To marry and produce offspring. Auntie Wang (still called Auntie despite being older) represents the attitudes of the dominant culture, which expects certain things of women. Auntie Wang is a woman herself, of course, but that doesn’t stop women from internalising the expectations and imposing them upon other women as an act of self-preservation. When she pokes Granny Lin in the forehead with a finger, this is an unambiguous act of condescension. “Use your brain,” she says.
BUSYBODIES AND GOSSIPS IN STORYTELLING
Busybody side characters are very useful in stories where main characters are disinclined to make firm decisions, plans and indulge in gossip. Busybodies can do all this for our main characters. Another example is Rachel Lynde from Anne of Green Gables. These characters are most often middle aged women. They tend to function as opponents as well as allies, as the storyteller sees fit.
Granny Lin’s next opponent is the husband of her arranged marriage who, understandably, wants his wife of fifty-four years rather than the woman his children set up for him as live-in carer. The line “Seventy-six. High blood pressure and diabetes” reminds me of the grim pragmatism of Margaret Atwood’s main character in another New Yorker short story, “Stone Mattress“.
When Granny Lin develops feelings for a child at her next job, the boy wants his mother. Granny Lin functions as proxy caregiver, never appreciated for who she is.
What are we to make of Granny Lin’s affection for a little boy? If Granny Lin were a male character, I’m sure readers would anticipate a dark turn (which never comes). Instead, women of Granny Lin’s age are expected by society to nurture and love. This boy feels like the son Granny Lin never had. They seem to connect via her discovery of his penchant for socks, and also because they both come from a country area rather than a city. Granny Lin also appreciates the very simple things in life. (She’s content with a radish for dinner.)
This gendered expectation juxtaposes against the in-story plot in which a young boy is accused of sexual deviance simply for collecting girls’ socks.
This is a character forced by circumstance to take up paying work as they come her way. She doesn’t want to marry Old Tang, but goes along with it because it is the logical thing to do. She seems happier with her position looking after children but, again, this is an example of a fictional character who doesn’t ask for much. There is probably something further to be said about the collectivism of Chinese people compared to the individualism of, well, Americans in particular.
This collectivist mindset is exemplified when Granny Lin sees all the riches at the fancy private school and thinks only of sharing the spoils with the people she has known in her life who would really appreciate such a treat.
The near death battle of the first section: Old Tang’s accident in the shower.
The struggle in the second part of this story is internal. In these kinds of stories, authors often insert an external battle or argument or miscommunication of some kind which isn’t necessarily directly related to the inner struggle, but which signals to readers: ‘This is the climax’. Conflict gives a story shape. A story can otherwise feel unfinished.
That’s not to say the proxy-battle isn’t important. It will ideally have heavy thematic significance, and will at least give us more characterisation.
In this case, Yiyun Li gives us the awful injustice of the accusation of theft. Granny Lin is taking the leftover food so as not to waste it, and is then accused of thieving. The author has already shown us that she’s the inverse of a thief. She sees the sock theft as a serious matter, yet unlike the school, doesn’t make a big song and dance about it.
Each of the two parts comprising this short story contains its own revelation. In the first, Granny Lin realises that if she lives with Old Tang, she too will soon lose her mind. Soon after, a description of a literal realisation:
“I live here,” Granny Lin says. She sees an unnatural lucidity in Old Tang’s eyes, and feels her heart fall. Such a moment of clarity happens only before a nearing death.“Extra”
In story, moments of clarity almost always happen after a nearing death. By subsuming her own life for this old man, Granny Lin is heading backwards. This ties into the duality of Granny Lin as child and old woman in a single body. This line marks her out as a metaphorical Benjamin Button.
At some point in the story readers understand that Yiyun Li is giving Granny Lin (and us) a happy ending. For me it’s the sentence: ‘Hungry as people are, it is strange that nobody ever thinks of robbing an old woman of her lunch.’
In both sections of narrative, with first then old man, then the young boy, the story ends with the male character wanting another woman. The old man wants his first wife and the young boy wants his own mother.
Yet the story doesn’t end in a sad way. I’m reminded of “Holes” by Alice Munro. Rejected by the son she spent a large part of her life caring for, she has the resilience and resourcefulness to find her own happiness. Granny Lin outwits a mugger; the mother of “Holes” finds happiness in the act of eating a meal for one and enjoying a glass of wine in peace.
Deborah Treisman feels Yiyun Li has turned Granny Lin from an extra to a main character.
Now that Granny Lin has experienced a new kind of love, something has awakened in her. We are left thinking she will go on to find a repository for this love. I feel Granny Lin is in a vulnerable position, though. Someone who has been acculturated into being a selfless giver, finding someone who returns the same care and kindness as he receives will be largely a matter of luck.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
THE SHORT STORIES OF WILLIAM TREVOR
Yiyun talks about William Trevor as a literary influence. Like Yiyun Li, Trevor is interested in older, quieter characters. I have analysed a few of William Trevor’s short stories myself, and one of my favourites is “Bravado“, also read on the New Yorker Fiction podcast.
A SIMPLE HEART
But on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is more reminded of “A Simple Heart” by Flaubert, the first story in Gustave Flaubert’s collection Three Tales, first published in 1877. Because it’s out of copyright, you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg. This story inspired Julian Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot (1984).
There is also a 2008 French film based on Flaubert’s novella.
See also my analysis of “A Sheltered Woman” a more recent short story by Yiyun Li, first published in 2014. ♦