Skip to content Skip to main menu

An excerpt from'A Sheltered Woman'

The new mother, groggy from a nap, sat at the table as though she did not grasp why she had been summoned. Perhaps she never would, Auntie Mei thought. On the placemat sat a bowl of soybean-and-pig’s-foot soup that Auntie Mei had cooked, as she had for many new mothers before this one. Many, however, was not exact. In her interviews with potential employers, Auntie Mei always gave the precise number of families she had worked for: a hundred and twenty-six when she interviewed with her current employer, a hundred and thirty-one babies altogether. The families’ contact information, the dates she had worked for them, their babies’ names and birthdays—these she had recorded in a palm-size notebook, which had twice fallen apart and been taped back together. Years ago, Auntie Mei had bought it at a garage sale in Moline, Illinois. She had liked the picture of flowers on the cover, purple and yellow, unmelted snow surrounding the chaste petals. She had liked the price of the notebook, too: five cents. When she handed a dime to the child with the cash box on his lap, she asked if there was another notebook she could buy, so that he would not have to give her any change; the boy looked perplexed and said no. It was greed that had made her ask, but when the memory came back—it often did when she took the notebook out of her suitcase for another interview—Auntie Mei would laugh at herself: why on earth had she wanted two notebooks, when there’s not enough life to fill one?

The mother sat still, not touching the spoon, until teardrops fell into the steaming soup.

“Now, now,” Auntie Mei said. She was pushing herself and the baby in a new rocking chair—back and forth, back and forth, the squeaking less noticeable than yesterday. I wonder who’s enjoying the rocking more, she said to herself: the chair, whose job is to rock until it breaks apart, or you, whose life is being rocked away? And which one of you will meet your demise first? Auntie Mei had long ago accepted that she had, despite her best intentions, become one of those people who talk to themselves when the world is not listening. At least she took care not to let the words slip out.

“I don’t like this soup,” said the mother, who surely had a Chinese name but had asked Auntie Mei to call her Chanel. Auntie Mei, however, called every mother Baby’s Ma, and every infant Baby. It was simple that way, one set of clients easily replaced by the next.

A little bit about Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages.


See the full Shortlist