To say one is hao means that one is well, but hao itself is only a word, a descriptor for the concept of goodness. It is a response, a quality, a sensation. Being hao can mean many things, and that’s what Ye Chun’s short story collection Hao grapples with in relation to questions of identity within and beyond motherhood.
In Hao, Ye examines twelve transnational stories of Chinese women in differing contexts, from San Francisco’s Chinatown to China’s Cultural Revolution. Conceptions of motherhood and, in effect, womanhood are at the core of every narrative, but their collective meaning lies in the different nuances of each. One woman experiences insecurities about her body after motherhood. One becomes a young mother while her husband is in the army. One desperately craves a child.
As she narrates the stories of her characters, Ye traverses continents. She pulls apart houses to slide into quiet lives of domesticity. And it’s here that she engages with these women, asking them in ways that they have never been asked what their struggles are. How do you feel? she whispers. How are you?
This vulnerability and attunement to her characters underlie Ye’s writing. Her prose is slow and deliberate. She carefully constructs visual representations of the speaking body and connects the meanings of Chinese characters to the meanings of her own characters. In doing so, she locates who her characters are in reference to borders between nations, languages, and identities.
In one story, a woman named Luyao suffers a stroke. Yet it is the legacy of the stroke that affects who Luyao is as a mother. This is the dynamic aspect; here Ye reflects on the intersection of the woman’s body, illness, and the social implications of physical disability by leveraging her character’s interiority with insight and clarity. As she does so, she captures the unique positions that each individual occupies, sketching out the subliminal nature of Luyao’s pain by expressing it through the external loss of language.
While Ye skillfully toes the balance between the abstract and concrete with a literary translator’s distinct knowledge of language, she does waver a bit. In this way, perhaps Hao may be too ambitious in scope. The collection delves into so many thematically interwoven stories that when Ye attempts to illuminate their specificity, the effort feels tenuous and uncertain.
It often feels like the weight is on the lyricality of the prose—and the prose is stunningly beautiful—more than the substance of each piece. Settings feel comparatively empty as Ye immediately begins foregrounding a new character and story. This lack of integrative context is a contrast to Ye’s masterful three-dimensional depictions of her characters and themes.
But, of course, Ye is a poet. Her poetic language is what informs the creation and core of her stories. The poetry of Ye’s prose is what gives Hao its power. Hao is built around and by fragments of senses, the almost gritty rawness of feeling channeled into larger conversations about society. In just several short pieces, Ye touches upon broad subjects like Chinese identity in America and femininity, but also their more personal intersections. The world might be large, but in this collection it feels vivid and free.