The four stories in J. David Stevens’ I and You focus on immigrants and their families, characters trying to find the merge point between the China of a previous generation and America today. A teenage son puzzles over his father’s obsession with American football. A Texas lesbian falls for an international graduate student. A divorced middle-aged woman tries to right an old wrong in the life of a man for whom she serves as caregiver. Through episodes where intimacy falters in the face of palpable distance, characters must confront unknowable details in the lives of even those closest to them: parents, lovers, confidantes. These are ghost stories of a kind, tales of what was lost and what was let go during the cultural journey from East to West.
“Sometimes Mrs. Lu chooses the words. ‘This,’ she says, sketching a broad figure, ‘means honesty.’ She makes a few more strokes. ‘This is wisdom. This is grace.’ She paints in both the clerical and cursive styles, one all block and orderly, the other smooth curves—controlled wildness. I like them both. She shows me the basic figures to practice. My name. Numbers one through ten. Words she believes to be elemental.
She likes the word ‘harmony’ especially. In Chinese, she explains, there are many different symbols for the one English word, depending on how it is meant. She covers a canvas with symbols, straight lines that cross and mesh and skate outward from one another. ‘This means how earth and heaven fit together,’ she begins, pointing at a symbol then arcing one arm toward a window to take in everything that we see around us. ‘This means harmony in your home. And this means harmony like music, sound.’ She jumps from figure to figure. ‘A legal agreement. Lots of money. Good terms with another person. Two nations at peace.’
It is as if each word has its own story to tell. Not like English, where words are like dialing a safe. Hit the right combination and the meaning opens for you, does its job, but it’s all mechanical. With Mrs. Lu each word has spirit, a life created for it from the first time it was drawn. I stare at the sheet she has made. I would like to tell her that I will remember all of the meanings. But in the end we both know that I will take the sheet home and fail to practice and return the next week, having forgotten everything. It is unfair. I wish I could tell Mrs. Lu what the figures mean to me—that I see their story, the one I make up, an old language I am rewriting to fit what I must say.
‘It took thousand and thousand of years to make these words,’ Mrs. Lu observes, to impress upon me the gravity of the skill I would master. But I doubt I have that kind of time.”
~“I and You”
Cover Art/Design: Alban Fischer