Li’s 2010 novel The Age of Goodbyes, recently translated from the Chinese by YZ Chin and published by Feminist Press, sheds light on the relationship between censorship and memory in the wake of the 13 May Incident from the perspective of a Chinese writer who left Malaysia. The novel begins on page 513, signifying the date of the race riots. From there, it follows two sets of strange and possibly related characters, their narratives nestled inside one another like “Russian doll[s].” The framed story begins in 1969, when a young member of the Labour Party of Malaya named Yip Lin Sang is briefly imprisoned, and his lover, a Chinese Malaysian woman named Du Li An, leaves him to marry a “small-time triad ringleader” instead. The frame narrative focuses on the son of a sex worker, who lives in a labyrinthine and otherworldly motel called Mayflower and reads about Du Li An’s love life in a fictional novel titled The Age of Goodbyes. The mysterious book, which covers the 21 years of Du Li An’s tumultuous marriage, is written by a woman also named Du Li An, though Li chooses to give her a pen name, “Shaozi,” to lessen the confusion.
Blending metafictional elements with lush, cinematic accounts of marginalized histories, Li illuminates the ordinary lives of Chinese families in Kuala Lumpur who conduct semi-illicit business and find ingeniously mundane ways to subvert authority and convention. Singularly imagined and formally experimental, Li’s scenes possess the cool contemporary melodrama of a Wong Kar-wai picture. Grief and nostalgia are portrayed in the manner of Tsai Ming-liang’s masterpieces of slow cinema. Du Li An’s long, thankless marriage also calls to mind Jia Zhangke’s 2018 film Ash Is Purest White, in whose final scene the middle-aged girlfriend of a mob boss is dumped by way of a WeChat message. Likewise, the characters in Li’s novel are better at saying goodbye than they are at communicating with others and mending relationships: sons and husbands casually leave home; men stop visiting their pregnant lovers; a dying mother pays no mind to what will happen to her son once she’s gone, choosing instead to spend her final moments gorging on mutton curry. Yet there are no real antagonists in The Age of Goodbyes. Part of the pleasure of reading Li’s novel comes from lingering in the wake of these careless characters’ profound and humorous decampments.
Structurally, the storylines in Li’s book not only fold into one another but also tessellate to form a multilayered puzzle whose rules constantly shift. To wander its pages is to enter a game of hide-and-seek, which the self-aware novel deftly references. Early on, the sex worker’s son recalls his mother’s habit of buying him toys and hiding them in various corners of Mayflower, telling him each time, “Go find it, why don’t you.” As a child, he scoured the motel, peeping behind numbered doors, moving aside calendars and paintings on the walls, checking abandoned wardrobes and under kitchen counters that no one seemed to use. “But even at a young age,” he suspected that his mother’s actions were “fishy” and that she hid his toys in order to “disrupt [his] mind and muddy [his] memories.”
The malleability of memory and the reliability of personal testimony are issues that directly impact the study of history, and when the sex worker’s son begins reading Shaozi, Li uses the fictional author as a proxy to draw connections between political events such as Operation Lalang — another police crackdown in 1987 — and the censorship of Sinophone literature in Malaysia. However, little can be gleaned from these moments of analysis, which the text tends to glide over or terminate via self-referential footnotes. The text instead hones in on a few scattered biographical details — the absence of books in Shaozi’s house, for example, or the fact that she worked as an underwear seller at the night market. There exists, Li writes, a compendium of essays penned by a forcefully opinionated critic who argues that, in her naïveté, Shaozi “bungled the handling of History with a capital H” — that is, logical, recorded, Hegelian history that seems to be headed somewhere. Shaozi’s critic, Li makes clear, is nothing more than a “contrived” charlatan.
From the beginning, readers sense Li’s opposition to “History with a capital H.” By pivoting away from the activist Yip Lin Sang’s arrest and focusing fully on Du Li An’s domestic life, Li advocates for history with a lowercase h, that which is seen as inconsequential and hardly ever recorded. We find Li’s novel populated by such minor historical characters. Given center stage, these seemingly insignificant players challenge History with their furtive ways of living and their fluid relationship to fact.
Like a game of hide-and-seek, the struggle between visible and invisible history plays out spatially, in the labyrinth of Mayflower. According to Li, “Every town and city with a Chinese presence may harbor one or two rundown motels called Mayflower. There’s no connection between them, yet they resemble each other so uncannily they could be part of a chain.” What unites them is the fact that they don’t “fit in with the city.” The image of the sex worker’s son reading Shaozi’s novel in a motel room calls back to a time in the 1950s when British colonial authorities in Malaysia segregated Chinese communities to stymie the spread of pro-independence and communist sentiments. Within these segregated enclaves, reading groups and community libraries formed. Residents shared works of popular fiction, usually from Taiwan and Hong Kong, since books from mainland China were often barred from circulating. Shaozi’s The Age of Goodbyes is described as a “lowbrow” romantic read, but in the hands of the sex worker’s son, it possesses, if not for its written content then in its perpetual existence and exchange, an iota of political power. The book’s presence turns Mayflower into a site of resistance, where daydreams, delusions, and entire fictional worlds fly comfortably under the radar.
Within these secret spaces, political identities and loyalties may splinter and interweave. In Li’s novel, dual and dueling political allegiances are expressed through the proliferation of twins and doubles, and through the metaphor of the mirror. At one point, the sex worker’s son discovers he has a twin who lives a rich and privileged life, the exact opposite of his. In Shaozi’s book, Du Li An’s adopted daughter gives birth to twin boys, whom the women separate and raise. Du Li An’s brother shares a name with the proprietor of the Mayflower motel. Her sister-in-law Emily makes an appearance in another of Shaozi’s stories, in which she plays a charming traveler.
The twin motif is elevated to a political register in a specific instance. The activist Yip Lin Sang, we learn early on, has a twin named Yip Mong Sang, a financial executive at a textile factory. When Du Li An’s marriage sours, she becomes romantically involved with Yip Mong Sang. Through this affair, we learn that the Yip twins were separated at age five. Yip Lin Sang once told Du Li An, “Seeing [Mong Sang] was like seeing a person who’d escaped from a mirror.” And Yip Mong Sang recalls, “I always felt peculiar when I saw [Lin Sang] as a kid. It was like seeing another me, one that I didn’t really like.”
The Yip twins’ childhood separation plays out like a diaspora in miniature. Their estrangement causes Du Li An to think, “Looks like it wasn’t true after all, what people said about blood being thicker than water”; their tentative acknowledgment of one another as adults — even the reflexive repulsion — comes to resemble a reckoning with unspoken history. When the two appear in the same room — at a secret-society leader’s birthday banquet, for example — the gentle shock reminds readers of Lin Sang’s 1969 arrest and the 13 May Incident, events that precipitated everything else in the book.
This is part and parcel of Li’s broader aim in The Age of Goodbyes. By setting her story in the aftermath of a major historical event, by denying the reader a coherent and linear progression of causes that would — if such a feat were possible — explain the 13 May Incident in a logical manner, Li in effect refuses to let “History with a capital H” dictate the interests of her novel. Instead, she trains the reader’s eye on inner lives that endure by mutating in the margins. Luckily for Li’s minor characters, who exist on the fringes of history, fiction is just a footfall away from fact.
Jenny Wu reviews art and books, writes fiction, and occasionally curates. Her work can be found in Astra, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, and other venues.