Extra by Yiyun Li Short Story Analysis

“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.

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A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li Short Story Analysis

“A Sheltered Woman” is a short story by Chinese-American writer Yuyun Li, and a subversion on the trope of the domestic suspense story. In a subcategory of these stories, an unstable woman enters the family home and threatens the family unit.

These domestic suspense stories — in which the woman a mother trusts most turns out to be a homicidal killer — have been around for a long time, but found a new lease of life with The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) about an evil nanny.

After her humiliated husband kills himself, an embittered pregnant widow loses her child, and embarks on a mission of vengeance against a woman and her family.

Logline of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

Domestic suspense was already back in fashion with the 1987 success of Fatal Attraction. Some commentators have no ideological issues with the Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and consider the opening scene of molestation followed by miscarriage an accurate insight into the lack of agency afforded women during the period of time around childbirth. Writer Amanda Silver inserted some feminist talking points and the story was taken as feminist (a trick utilised later by Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl, cf. The Cool Girl paragraph).

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