For week 5 of the Deal Me In 2014 Challenge, I drew the 7 of Spades – Yiyun Li’s “Extra.” The story can be found in the 2005 collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, for which Li won both the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award.
“Extra” is an understated yet powerful story of the every-changing life of Granny Lin, a never-married woman of 51 years. When the story begins, she has just been laid off from her long-time job at a garment factory, and the laid-off (“retired”) workers have been told that their pensions will be “delayed” for an indeterminate length of time. Granny Lin is distressed over how she will support herself. She is an “extra,” a superfluous person with no real place in her society.
Auntie Wang counsels her to seek marriage to an elderly man with serious health problems who has recently been widowed. The family would rather have a wife as caregiver for him than a young home health aid, as they feel the young caregivers are dishonest and don’t really care about their clients. After some resistance, Granny Lin agrees and becomes a bride for the first time. She settles in to care for her old husband, who has diabetes and a form of dementia. Granny Lin finds that she is suited to the job and actually cares about her new husband in a “motherly” way, even though he seems to knot know she is even there. He, too, is an “extra,” as his health and age have caused him to withdraw from society.
A tragic accident again sees Granny Lin on the move, and she begins working at a private boarding school in the country as a maid. She throws herself into her work, taking on more work than assigned, and again finds herself contented. She comes to know and care about Kang, a young boy of six who was sent to the school because his father has married a new wife, and the presence of a not-exactly-legitimate child from his previous marriage is “inconvenient.” Kang is another “extra.” Granny Lin grows closer to young Kang and becomes a sort of surrogate mother to him, until yet again unforseen tragic events force her to uproot and move on.
“Extra” is a very sad story on one level, yet it is somehow also uplifting. It has that deeply bittersweet quality so often encountered in the most subtle Asian fiction, and Li handled her poignant subject gracefully. I wanted Granny Lin to catch a break. I wanted her to by happy and prosperous, to receive back even a small amount of the love she gives to others. But even though things never go well for her for long, she never gives up hope, never becomes sour or sinks into despair. She may be seen as an “extra,” but she is golden-hearted and grounded and makes a home of wherever she may be.
An observation: I thought it was appropriate that this story should be represented by the 7 of Spades, as the pips on the 7 cards always look uneven to me, with that one lonely pip seeming a bit out of place and off-balance.