Writing About A Character As If She Were Already Dead

In The New Yorker issued on March 10, 2014, the story, “A Sheltered Woman” written by YiYun Li, is about a baby nurse named Auntie Mei, a Chinese immigrant who has established a solid career for herself looking after infants and their breast-feeding mothers in the Bay Area.

Auntie Mei keeps a distance between herself and her charges, rarely staying longer than the first month of a baby’s life and establishing an orderly regime in the households she enters. Yet her disciplined approach starts to falter when she’s faced with Chanel, a disgruntled young mother, and her son.

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Let’s look at another story appeared on the New Yorker issued on March 24, 2014, “Under the Sign of the Moon” written by Tessa Hadley.

The protagonist Greta, who’s in her convalescence, is on a train heading off to visit her grown daughter Kate in Liverpool. Though she tries to read, she finds herself forced to be polite to a young man who seems to want to chat with her. As Hadley said in a interview with The New Yorker:

“Greta is at a point where her life story seems to have settled into its essential shape: all its crucial twists and turns and accidents are behind her. Anything that happens now, she thinks, will be a coda. Then this elegiac distance is confounded by the peculiarity of her semi-flirtation with the young man, which is not predicted by anything that’s happened to her so far. Life starts up again, with all its effort, its vanity and hunger and absurdity. The future’s unknown.”

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Both Auntie Mei and Greta keep distanced from the people around them deliberately. They think their emotions– sadness, anger, or dismay– are insignificant, but in fact, they are heavy enough to crush them. They hide their emotions as they hide all the crucial twists and turns and accidents behind them. So they live a life as if they were dead until someone wakes them up. When they wake up, they find out that the world is as absurd as the one they’ve already known.

Why did I remind of Alice Munro when I was reading both Yiyun Li and Tessa Hadley? Perhaps one  of the reasons is that they all write about a character as if she were already dead, dead inside.