I and You by J. David Stevens
The four stories in J. David Stevens’s 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.
Cover Art/Design: Alban Fischer
Size: 8 X 5.25 X 0.17 inches
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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”
"Stevens's stories powerfully demonstrate the never-ending process of adaptation, questioning, and learning that migration forces upon us all, immigrants or not. The unknown, the other, isn't just the new culture or race, but the family history that remains hidden, left behind. Stevens is at his best when he explores the emotional repercussions of having to find one's way through life with this incomplete knowledge. His characters' stories are full of failures and disappointments, unexpressed desires and pains, but Stevens gives us a ray of hope at the end, in the child who finally draws a straight line in calligraphy class, the caregiver who gains a better understanding of the husband who left her, the lover who finds a calling for Chinese cooking. Ultimately, these are stories of empathy and love in the everyday world, where people reach out to each other and keep practicing, even if the end result is imperfect." ~ Patricia Campion, The Collagist
"The ways in which [Stevens's] characters perform their 'liminal identity,' reacting to the dueling social pressures of China and America, give the stories a quiet yet potent drama." ~ David Amadio, Cleaver
J. David Stevens's Mexico is Missing won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction in 2006. His work has appeared in a variety of national magazines, including Harper's, The Paris Review, Tin House, The Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, River Styx, and Mid-American Review. In addition, several stories have been anthologized in collections from W.W. Norton and Longman, as well as in The Best American Nonrequired Reading Series. His most recent nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Post Road, River Teeth, Sonora Review, and Denver Quarterly. He lives in central Virginia with his wife and two children, where he teaches at the University of Richmond.