“‘The Driver’ opens with the image of expensive, imported lemon trees being painstakingly transplanted into non-native soil; we know from the outset that this will be a story of contrasts,” Kimberly King Parsons, our 2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers guest judge, writes about the grand prize winning piece. “In nuanced, exquisite detail, we learn about a family steeped in both Eastern and Western thought, old and new money, wisdom and innocence, violence and kindness. The prose reflects this delicate balance, and is by turns delicate and direct, lush and sparse, sensuous and withholding. As tension builds—between mother and daughter, sister and sister, employer and employee—the desire for belonging, like the heat, becomes all-consuming. I love this story—it has stayed with me.”
As a child, I did not yet understand my mother’s place in China, the anxious longing she felt returning to the land that had once been her home. I noticed that she had become mysterious and distant upon coming to my uncle’s house, but attributed it to the novelty of hearing her speak in another language, as if I were now looking at her through filtered glass. As an adult, I would return to my uncle’s house alone, and realize how strange and difficult it was for my mother to walk through the door of their Western-imitation home, even to look about her at the surrounding city, clamoring for the sky, devouring its old self.
The summer we visited my aunt and uncle’s new house in Changsha, they were having dozens of lemon trees planted in the front yard. A large team of workers had been hired for the task. They were loud and bold—sitting where they liked, setting up makeshift tents here and there on the lawn, telling jokes and drinking beers. When dusk fell, dirty old trucks drove them away, and my sister and I would kick the fruit from some of the older trees into the plaster fountain where they floated in lazy clusters.
“This is western,” my mother said, looking at the trees, the house, the plaster fountain. “Those trees aren’t native here.”
When we went to China, my mother loved to inventory the things that had and hadn’t changed, making sure her home wasn’t vanishing beneath her feet. She noted everything, new and old, with the same solemnity, nodding in resignation at the ugly new high-rises that looked like they had leapt blindly forth from the earth, giving the slightest smile to the older men sitting in plastic chairs in the shade, shirts pulled up over their stomachs, cigarettes hanging indifferently from their age-worn lips. China was like a teenage boy growing too fast, my mother always said, his clothes never fitting him properly before he started growing again. My sister pointed out a chicken pen, half-hidden and coy behind a screen of stirring lemon branches.
“When we were kids they just ran around,” my mom said. “Even inside.”
Her own mother had once given her chicks to take care of. One night my mother had forgotten to close the hatch and woke up in the morning to find that foxes had eaten them all.
When my mother told that story her voice had the sadness of a child, a regret she tried to make light for us.