When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.
In “For Our Children and For Ourselves” by Xuan Juliana Wang (reprinted in The Masters Review [hey, that’s us!] online August 10, 2022), a successful businesswoman (Vivian) approaches a young man (Xiao Gang) with an offer: if he marries her daughter (Melanie), she will bring him to America, make him rich and comfortable beyond his wildest dreams. It takes him all of one dinner, and just a few lines of conversation with the daughter, to agree to her terms. After all, it’s not actually about Melanie; Vivian is dangling in front of him everything he’s always secretly believed that he deserves. The catch: Melanie has Down Syndrome, obvious both physically and conversationally within seconds of his meeting her. Xiao feels no desire for her, and indeed it goes against his grandiose concept of self to imagine settling down with her.
But this is not a story about whether or not to accept the proposal. We already know what will happen; it is obvious that he will accept. Indeed, our first full scene in the piece shows us his bachelor party, and we see that he has committed even before the reader is fully aware of the situation. This is not a story that builds conflict out of action, out of whether he will or won’t.
Rather, the tension of this story comes from the exploration of morality around the decision. We see this in that same bachelor party scene, where Xiao’s best friend dares to bring up Melanie’s condition (even going so far as to use a slur I’ll not repeat here). Xiao has already accepted the offer. Once his friend mentions Melanie, Xiao’s decision doesn’t change; instead, he looks around to see how he is being judged, how people are thinking about him as a result of the choice he’s made.
This moral exploration rages in our characters (for Vivian, how to make everyone satisfied with imperfect circumstances in which no one can be fully happy, and whether her control of the situation can create those satisfactory conditions; for Xiao Gang, what it says about him and his place in the world to make the decision that he thinks he has to make) just as much as it implicates the reader, who almost has to take a side. But that is the genius of this story: there’s no perfect place for the reader to land here. Yes, on Melanie’s side is the easy moral place to fall: we feel for her, of course we do, and many of my students in discussing this story say that the worst thing that happens in this story is the way that her agency is taken away by both her mother and Xiao. I hear that, and it’s certainly a powerful emotional hammer that the story wields gorgeously. How can one not feel for her? But, we can’t fully “side” with her, because all we know is that she is being wronged (and a large part of the moral play in this story can be explored via the question of who is wronging her, and how) — while she is the victim, she is not, in the moments of story we see, an actor. She is exclusively being acted upon, which sets up the great concern at the heart of the piece.
So then, in considering the morality that girds this story, we are forced to consider what it means, the possibility that Vivian is right, this woman who knows Melanie better than we do and who is first and foremost dedicated to making sure Melanie will be able to survive after her mother is gone; if, as Vivian believes, Melanie is incapable of making the decision of who to love, or if she is capable but the world is incapable of seeing her as anything but her condition and therefore incapable of offering her love, does she therefore still deserve a relationship, because the world is (or, may be) too cruel to offer it on its own terms? If yes, then Vivian is doing the right thing in grabbing someone like Xiao Gang, who though holding his nose and grimacing is stepping up into a position where it appears other people would not have, albeit for reasons that are not altruistic, that have nothing to do with love or even joy. But what if Vivian is wrong? And even if Vivian is right, it’s still a callous choice on the part of Xiao to accept because it would better his station. Should he be a better person and refuse to marry Melanie? Except, of course, if he refuses to marry her because she has Down Syndrome, then he’s still a bad person; if he refuses to marry her because he doesn’t love her, well, that’s of course his right but he’s saying in that moment that he deserves a thing that Vivian claims Melanie can’t have, which opens its own can of moralistic worms; and of course, in refusing to marry her he’s losing all of the things that would be best for himself. And what if he refuses to marry her, but she is, as Vivian suggests, incapable of finding someone she loves or even likes; does that end up implicating him in some way, or would Vivian simply find someone else even worse, and does that change how we might potentially view him and his decision?
Vivian as villain, Xiao as villain, both as villain, both as stuck in their situation, Vivian as reluctant hero, Xiao as antihero, Melanie as victim or Melanie as deserving of agency—each of these interpretations are equally complex, and each of them can be seen on the page, depending on the lens through which you view this story.
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I’m not a big fan of writing truisms. But the one that I find myself reaching for time and again, when I’m lecturing to students or when I’m staring morosely at my own struggling pages: every character is the hero of their own story. If a character deserves to exist on the page, deserves to be seen and witnessed and chronicled, then they must see themselves and their actions as, on some level, reasonable ways to get to their larger desires, which they see as right or good. This doesn’t mean that we need to root for them, or that we agree with the moralism of their goals, but rather that we need to be able to understand what they are doing and how they can justify their actions.
Xiao Gang dreams of being something other than what he is. In a country where there is no chance for him to stand out, that’s all he wants. I want to be very clear here: having a desire does not excuse him from the actions he takes to fulfill that desire. But it does humanize him as he struggles with the choice in front of him. He thinks he has talent, he thinks he has drive, but no one else cares, no one else sees it. In one of the most powerful moments of Xiao’s narration, he finally makes the decision to go to America (assuming it means he will lose contact with his family, especially his illiterate mother with whom he won’t even be able to exchange postcards) because his mother “had not said to him, nor hinted even once…that maybe he didn’t need to do this. Had she voiced any hesitation, said he could find his way on his own…he knew he wouldn’t have gone through with it.”
So what we have is a character who thinks of himself in grandiose terms but who is now forced to come to terms with the fact that he cannot achieve what he wants on his own. That is simple fact; even his mother knows he’s reached his full potential. So in the face of that failure, he makes the only choice available to him that still allows for looking himself in the mirror and seeing the person that he wants to be.
It’s also important to point out that he is expressly chosen for this opportunity. Vivian sees him, sizes him up, and recognizes in him the qualities that she is looking for. While certainly, it is his decision that leads him down this path, it’s also true that if he was the kind of person who seemed like he might have made another decision, then the option wouldn’t have been presented to him. I’m not entirely sure what to do with that, but I love that wrinkle; in a certain twist of the narrative lens here, Vivian is taking away a decent amount of his agency in the same way that she is taking away much of Melanie’s agency. She is offering what he most wants and claiming that she’s trying to solve everything for everyone, but (as long as she’s right about the kind of person he is, which is certainly debatable just as much as it’s debatable whether she’s right about her daughter) she has stacked the deck as completely as she is able. Hell, one of the details that I missed in my first read-through of this piece: in the final section, where we’re all primed to hate on Xiao when he is on the plane and thinking through his life of pretending whenever he can get away with doing so that Melanie is his sister, we learn that Vivian has renamed him. That control, and the way that he is swept away by it without argument, feels incredibly telling to me.
Vivian, alternately, has made something of herself in ways Xiao Gang cannot. She’s passed all of life’s tests, and done so ruthlessly; while her husband proved too soft and “delivered in cadenced sighs his juvenile overtures about love,” she barely even notices when he gives up on her affections and then leaves her for someone else, rebuilding herself into “someone who took pride in never having loved her husband.” She builds a successful company entirely through “years of never doubting her instincts.”
And yet, now she finds herself struggling with a situation that she cannot simply fix through iron will and hard work: her daughter Melanie will “stay a child forever.” To protect her, she doubles down on the control that has so easily gotten her through every challenge to this point, sweeping all other possibilities away from the path.
These characters, our two main viewpoint characters (there are small snippets that follow Melanie’s joyful thoughts, and it feels to me self-evident that she is the hero of her own story), both view themselves as wronged figures attempting to do the best they can with the hands they’ve been dealt. We don’t have to agree with them, we don’t even have to empathize with them, in order to follow the logic they’ve built around their actions.
I don’t know on which side, if any, you’re going to land with this story. When I teach it, which I do often, I have had entire classes tell me that they empathize with Xiao and that Vivian is the worst human being they’ve ever met; I have at other times led discussions where the consensus agrees that Vivian’s maternal desperation is the most human aspect of this story and that the few folks in the class who see Xiao’s side might be just as evil as he is; and a few times, I’ve had classes tell me this story shouldn’t even be taught if everyone’s going to be so terrible. But to get to have that serious argument, that conversation about where and who and why on a deeply moralistic level, exploring characters who deeply believe in what they’re doing and why, that’s the absolute height of literature. Go read it, and decide for yourself.
by Brandon Williams