Yan Ge short story: The writer who lives in a suitcase

A short story by one of China’s most promising writers, who now lives in Dublin. A young woman’s retreat from her polluted city takes a surreal turn

This was years ago when I was still writing in Chinese. I was invited by the University of Leeds to be a speaker at their literature in translation workshop. My translator, who would be attending the workshop, picked me up from Heathrow. We took the tube to Kings Cross and then the train to Yorkshire.

It was almost winter. When we stepped out of Leeds train station my translator suggested we get a taxi. The driver was a red-cheeked man with a heavy accent. “You ladies any plan for the visit?” he asked. “We are going to the university, for a literature event,” my translator said. “Oh! A literature event?” he said and looked at us from the rearview mirror. “Yes, and we have a very important writer here in this taxi,” my translator announced. “Oh really?” he looked at us again.

Later we arrived at the hotel and the driver came out to help us with our luggage. My translator’s suitcase was a small one because she was only coming up from Weymouth for two nights. Mine was big and heavy because I had come from China and would stay for about a week this time. The driver lifted my translator’s suitcase and then mine. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “This is heavy! What’s in there?” he asked.

“That very important writer,” I said.


I told this story the next day at the workshop to show the students the beauty of a plot twist and how one could optimise the limited materials at hand to conjure a narrative.

It was a very successful event. We laughed a lot and then went to a local Chinese restaurant together and drank lots of wine.

What I didn’t know back then was that life was full of irony itself and that a metaphor, when being told and received too well, could easily sneak into reality and hijack its storyteller.

Consequently, only a few months later, I became a writer who lives in a suitcase, for real.

To be honest, it wasn’t too bad living in a suitcase. It was basically a studio, one whole space well designed and smartly compartmentalised. At the beginning, it felt slightly cramped but once I got used to it, I noticed it was in fact deceptively spacious. It was not a bad place to sleep and certainly a fine spot to have dinner without being interrupted. When the weather was good, the sunshine came in through a crack (bless the crack) and I could even boil up the kettle to make myself a nice cup of tea. And, did I mention the solitude? Ah the solitude one can enjoy being inside of a suitcase. The best thing that could ever happen to a writer.

My father said I enjoyed being alone when I was little. The most devastating moment of my day was when I had to go to the kindergarten or when I was ordered by my mother to go hang out with other kids from the compound. My favourite thing to do, on the contrary, was to hide in the narrow gap between the closet and the sofa in the living room/parents’ bedroom, and to stay there for as long as possible.

I could not recall any of these scenarios but I did remember later when I was seven or eight, my best friends were the cardboard boxes from my mother’s souvenir shop. Located right outside of the Revolution Memorial Park, her shop was basically a shack. So she had to use my bedroom as the warehouse in which she stored cartons of caps, umbrellas, bamboo penholders, tin whistles and other things that might interest a tourist or his child. I remembered during the summer break, when she was most busy with the shop, I spent my days and nights with these boxes. I pushed them around and piled them up. I built a castle, and then squeezed in and sat proudly in the middle. I would curl up, put my chin on my knees or even between my legs. I could bend really deep. These were the happiest memories of my childhood.

One day, when I was sitting in my castle enjoying my solitude, my mother came back. She looked very upset so she didn’t notice I was there behind the boxes. She was accompanied by a strange man. I could not really recall the man’s face but I remembered distinctively he had a red nose. They went to the living room and started to talk. They spoke rapidly, in very low voice. I got the impression that they were discussing serious things. After a while, my mother started to cry. Her cries almost sounded like howling and were really disturbing. I remembered I was very concerned, trying to decide whether I should go out to comfort her or not. I did not go. The red-nosed man said something else and then he left. My mother was in the living room by herself. She was weeping and hiccupping. At this point, I started to feel scared. I decided to stay behind the boxes since I did not want her to know that I knew. I could not tell how long she sat there and cried. It probably felt much longer to me than it really was. Eventually she finished, stood up. I could hear her straightening up her clothes, opened a drawer, took something and closed it. And then she left.

I meant she LEFT. She took off on that day and never came back. When I realised she was gone for good I tried to tell my father about the red-nosed man and their quarrel in the living room. But he said: “What are you talking about? Your mother died.” I couldn’t believe what he said. However, everybody else seemed to agree with him. “Poor little girl, you must be so confused. Your Mama passed away. It was such a tragedy,” they said. “But no,” I tried to argue, “I saw her there, quarrelling with a red-nosed man…” “Oh,” my relative reached out her hand and stroked my hair, “You poor thing. She just died.”

That was what they said. They said my mother passed away when I was little. They said the weird story I tried to tell them was just my imagination. They said I read too much fiction so I could not tell reality from fantasy. They said: “… but it’s great that it worked out for you and now you are a writer! It’s a blessing from your Mama!”

That was what they said anyway.

Maybe I should talk about how I ended up in the suitcase before it was too late. It was not long after I returned home from England when the real winter came. It was the most difficult winter I could remember. My grandmother, though, she said that was how I always felt in the middle of any given winter. “Do you remember the winter when you were just 11?” she asked. I could not remember. But I did know this particular one was nasty. It was cold, humid, dark, and it was, for the first time, heavily polluted.

When the smog came we thought it was just fog but soon we realised it was far more ferocious than fog. It descended, devouring and withering everything. It darkened the cold, densified the air and made the sun disappear. My father commented when he was drinking: “Now this is interesting. Look at how dusty this table gets! I just cleaned it this morning!” His friend, who was drinking with him, said: “A real man is not built for table-cleaning. Old Xu, you need to get yourself a woman.” My father frowned and said: “What do I need a woman for?” So the friend said: “Old Xu, you are kidding! A woman can do a million kinds of things. She cleans and she cooks. She could take care of you and your child and she could certainly do a lot more in the bedroom! You see, nowadays it is dark all day, you could both go to bed early and…” My father slapped his friend at the back of his head and said: “Fuck you, you shit head!” And the friend laughed. They laughed together and drank more Baijiu.

There were other jokes about the smog. Some were hilarious, some not so funny. But people laughed over them regardless since they were free. They also laughed at the young hipsters who made a fuss out of the smog, people who checked the Air Quality Index number every day and wore ridiculous face masks.

My grandmother, who was 85, went to the market place one day and saw a group of kids wearing white gas-mask-shaped face masks. She was scared. She asked me when I called over: “What is happening these days with you kids? Is there a war coming? Is the Kuomintang back?” I explained to her those were probably students from a nearby college and they wore air filtration masks because of the air pollution these days. My grandmother was confused. She checked outside of the window and said: “Air pollution? What are you talking about? It’s just cloudy. It’s always cloudy here. You kids of this generation are so spoiled, coming up with all these nonsense! You know what, back in my day, everybody was starving. I hadn’t had any meat for six years. Those were the real tough days…”

She was right. None of these young students had ever been starved, beaten or persecuted. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they had never seen the war, the famine or the revolution. We considered them privileged, therefore arrogant and ungrateful. I was having a bad cold around the New Year’s holiday when my father came home and asked me about the protest.

“What protest?” I asked, coughing. “Those college students!” he scowled, “they are protesting on the west street and blocked all the traffic! My tour bus couldn’t get through and had to detour around the second ring road. Such chaos!” “What are they protesting about?” I asked. “The air pollution! They want the government to shut down the new factory up in the mountain area-like that’ll ever happen!” My father sat down, took out a cigarette. “Those trouble makers! Now we are all ordered to not go outside!” he continued. “Do they have any idea how much money my agency is going to lose for this?” He was really upset so he called his friends to come over and have a drink.

They arrived soon, since all the travel agencies were out of business for the moment. Four of them sat around the table drinking Baijiu and having roasted pig ears. “Old Xu, I dare you to go to the west street for a stroll!” his friend laughed and said. “Why don’t you get your ass there, Zhang?” my father said. “I bet your tour group would like to see a real live protest, wouldn’t they?” “Oh they’d love to!” the friend said, “I was supposed to get a foreign group.” “So now you have to choose,” another one said, “the foreign tip or the Chinese annual bonus money!” “I’d like to have both!” Zhang said. “Maybe when this is over. We can hire some people to be the protesters when a foreign tour group comes.” “You shit head!” my father laughed, and added, “I’ll order some of those weird-looking masks. A souvenir!”

Unfortunately, no matter how clear and loud their laughter was, the tragic reality would not transform itself into a comedy. The reality was indifferent and hard-core like a dead squirrel. A few days later, when the protest blew off, my father and I went to visit grandmother but only found her empty apartment. “Ma!” my father shouted, “Ma! Where are you?” “She is not here.” I checked the bedroom and the kitchen, the bathroom then the washing machine. “Where could she go? She can’t go outside these days!” my father said, searching through a stack of magazines. We were extremely concerned. “I’m gonna call the police! Something is wrong!” He took out his phone.

“Don’t call the police!” Suddenly, we heard grandmother’s voice. “Don’t call the police! Come here, just come here!” the voice said. It came from grandfather’s old bedroom. So we dashed into the bedroom, which had turned into a storage room since grandfather died. Packs and boxes of things that were no longer needed were stacked everywhere, leaving rectangular shadows on the floor. “Nainai!” I called out, “Nainai!”

“I’m here!” I heard her voice, coming from this big wooden chest by the nightstand. I remembered that wooden chest. Grandmother told me it was from her mother. She cherished it very much and used it to store her winter quilts. “Nainai?” I called to the chest, in spite of my sense of rational judgment.

“I’m here, I’m here.” This time, both my father and I heard clearly. My grandmother’s voice was coming right from that chest.

“Why are you in the chest?” My father stepped forward. “I’ll open this for you now!”

“Don’t! Don’t!” she shouted and coughed, “I’m fine. I’m fine here. I’m living here now.”

Later, we learnt my grandmother’s incident was not the first one and certainly not the last. A 62-year-old retiree took residence in a drawer the night before. A 10-year-old elementary school pupil enclosed himself in his Lego box and refused to come out. A 28-year-old mistress who recently became unemployed was found inhabiting her TV armoire and demanding more soap opera DVDs and so on and so forth.

The government declared them weak-minded renegades, traitors of our beliefs. But we all knew the truth was these people, too old or too young, being too vulnerable to the smog, had to find a place to hide. This time my father could not laugh. He frowned and sighed and smoked quite a few cigarettes.

“Are you OK, Dad?” I asked him.

He looked at me. His face looked pale through the smoke. “I’m fine. And you, are you OK?” he said.

“I think I am,” I said.

“Don’t go out these days. I’ll order an air purifier soon.” he said.

It was a sunny morning before the air purifier arrived. My father cooked poached eggs and came to my room to tell me the breakfast was ready. He found that I was not in my bed, that my bedroom was empty.

I could never know how exactly he felt when he heard my voice rising from the red suitcase since I was not able to see his face and he walked away in silence very quickly.

About three decades ago, the government opened the Revolution Memorial Park in our town as one of the national patriotic education centres. My father saw the opportunity and decided to be a tour guide. He met my mother through the training course and they got married the year after. Together they worked for the park and became the star employees. They saved money and opened a souvenir shop the year I was born. After my mother left, my father sold the shop and bought three second-hand tour buses, starting his own travel agency. From that point on, for almost 20 years, he worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day. He was on call 24/7.

He did not talk to me very much. So I could only observe and speculate, trying to find out the reason why he became a slave of work. In the end I came to the conclusion that he actually enjoyed his job, meaning that compared to spending time with people who knew him too well, he would rather socialise with complete strangers, outsiders who came to marvel over our previous misery and poverty. “Look at that!” He would point at any given item at the exhibition, a worn pair of pants, a broken hoe or a cooked and half-eaten leather shoe, and he would improvise a joke that could deeply entertain the group. And they would laugh together with my father.

I believe these tourists became his one-time flings, his closest drink buddies, his private therapists and even his saviours from real life. Therefore, I was not surprised at all when, after finding out I was trapped in a suitcase, he went straight back to work, seeking consolation from strangers.

My father’s schedule became impossibly hectic. He was out all the time. I could only hear him coming home once or twice a month. (I could be wrong. After all, I was only in a suitcase.) He used to enjoy getting his friends to come over for a drink but this stopped as well. “Maybe he didn’t want other people to find out that his daughter was one of the weak ones too, defeated by the smog, and she could only retreat, with cowardice, into a suitcase,” I thought. I thought of thousands of things while enjoying my solitude.

The Spring Festival passed without much celebration. Soon, it was the beginning of March. The weather got warm but the smog still lingered. One evening, my father came home after 10 days’ absence. He opened my bedroom door and knocked on the suitcase. It sounded like thunder from within.

“Yes?” I answered. “Are you OK?” he asked. “I am,” I said. “You are busy these days.” “Always like this in the spring time,” he explained.

“Listen,” he said, “would you like to go to work with me tomorrow?” “Sure,” I said, “would you take me?” “I will,” he answered and then stood up, closing the door.

The next day he took me to work. He brought the suitcase to the entrance of the memorial park where he warmly welcomed a group of foreign tourists and handed out to each one of them an imported air filtration mask. “Only this! Not made in China!” he exclaimed and people laughed.

That day, sitting inside of the suitcase, I accompanied my father at his work for the first time. I had the chance to witness what a charismatic tour guide he was. The way he told stories, the way he made people laugh, the way he got them thinking, exclaiming, contemplating and then paying for things they didn’t really need. It was just marvellous.

Dragging the suitcase, he walked with a tourist light-footedly and asked: “Where do you come from?” “England,” that person said. “Oh, my daughter went there. She loves it,” he said. “Oh really? How lovely. It is a nice place,” the tourist said. “I’m sure it is, unlike here,” my father said, pointing to the sky. “Is it hard, with this terrible air pollution?” the Englishman asked empathetically. “Sometimes,” my father said. “There are good days, though, like today. You came, I made new friends, and money.” The Englishman laughed. I knew he realised he had to tip my father when the day ended.

They spent about five to six hours in the park. It was enormous, packed with historical stories to tell and pain to distribute. I realised I hadn’t been to the park for years and it had been renovated and expanded. I glanced out through the small crack I used as an observation hole, receiving a free tour in secret. At the new exhibition hall featuring the Great Victory in Jingang Mountain, my father put the suitcase in front of an exhibition window as he spoke and gesticulated. Through the crack, I saw a group of statues under the strong lighting. A family of peasants came out of a cottage, welcoming Chairman Mao to their home. Among them, I saw the genial face of the Chairman, the overjoyed peasant woman, her husband, another peasant, and their child, a little girl. I was frozen. For some inexplicable reason, the peasant woman looked extremely like my mother and the peasant man was just like the red-nosed man I saw that afternoon. I leaned in to the crack, could not believe what I saw. However, before I could take a second look, my father moved the suitcase. I wanted to ask him to wait but did not do so because I did not want to make a scene in front of the visitors. A family should hide their scandals behind the door, as we always said in Chinese.

Naturally, I could not pay any attention to the rest of the tour. I was thinking again about my mother and the red-nosed man. I kept wondering what had really happened and would she not have left if I had spoken up behind the boxes. I sat and groped through my memories of that afternoon: the smell of the cardboard, them walking in, the creaking of the door, them passing by the boxes, them arguing, the thin thread of light on the ceiling, her crying. Meanwhile, the suitcase went uphill and down and was pushed in and laid down on its back. An engine started. An engine started and the wheels turned.

When I realised, I was already at the airport. It was around nine in the evening, the busy hour for an airport. I heard people running, rushing with their luggage, kids crying and screaming, a cleaning lady operating an electric floor-cleaning machine and all sorts of noises. I shouted out: “Hey! Hey!” But no one could hear me. Before I managed to find a proper way to notify my carrier, I felt the suitcase was lifted and then put down. Beep. The sound of the conveyor belt. And I heard a man’s voice. “London Heathrow.”

My father did not explain himself very much so I had to find the explanation from my end. As I was in the cargo hold of an airplane, travelling from China to London, I thought long and hard. Looking back, I had to admit, it was not a coincidence that he decided to take me to work the day he accommodated a group of foreign tourists. It was possibly part of the plan that he left the suitcase in front of the group statues so I would be distracted. It was certainly orchestrated that he swapped this suitcase with a visitor’s similar-looking one so this visitor would take me away and then smuggle me, innocently, to a foreign country. But why would he do such a thing?

It was not the first time he had sent me away. A few years ago, after I had graduated from college, he insisted that I should go to the United States for postgraduate study. “But I don’t want to go!” I remembered I said, “it’s a waste of money! Plus, I just got a job.” And I remembered he said: “You just go. Don’t worry about the money. There will be more jobs for you when you come back.” He stopped for a moment and then added: “Or, don’t come back. Find a job there and stay.”

I was appalled by the idea that my father wanted me GONE so I went to the States and stayed there for two years. During which, I wrote a novel based on my home town, about two young tour guides’ love story in the revolution. It got published and became a best seller. So when I came back, I was considered a writer and already signed up the contract for a second novel. My father picked me up from the airport, looking distraught. I could not tell which part disappointed him more, me coming back from America or me turning into a writer. We had not spoken properly for quite a while when one late afternoon he came home and saw me sitting on the sofa with my laptop. “Why are you still here?” he asked. “I’m writing. I need to finish this novel before the end of this year.” I answered as I typed. He didn’t say anything, standing in silence for quite a while, and finally he sighed: “OK.”

I hadn’t given that incident proper thought until this moment when I was trapped in the cargo hold, nauseated by the pungent smell of gasoline and other waste. I felt sick. I turned over and back in the suitcase, finding it suffocating. “Maybe, for many years, he just wanted me to disappear.” I thought, “he just wanted to get rid of me because my mother left and I remind him of her so he hates me and now I’m gone, what is he going to tell other people, would he say that I just died…?” Thoughts rushed down from the top of my head like a hundred black horses.

At the moment of despair, the most surreal thing happened. I heard from somewhere in the cargo hold a young girl’s voice rising: “Fuck!” Startled, I sat still and it occurred again. “Fuck!” it went on. I peeked through the crack. It was dark outside. I could hear only the roaring and humming of different machines when the second voice sounded: “Are you OK?” “I bumped my head. Fuck!” the first voice replied. “I think there’s turbulence. Be careful now,” someone said, a third voice.

I listened for a while and realised I was not the only isolated case on this plane. There were other people in different suitcases being shipped to England from China. Let me try to put everything in plain words so it will not sound too absurd. Basically, there were two girls from Beijing, one man from Shanghai, another boy from Shenzhen and myself. According to them, their families paid substantial amounts of money so they could be taken by some passengers to London and then hopefully get settled there, a tranquil country with fresh air.

“But,” I asked hesitantly, “is this legit?” “Of course not!” the first girl scowled, “but, what can we do? Being poisoned inside a suitcase? It’s bad enough that I’m now living in a suitcase. I deserve a better environment!” “We are lucky that we are in suitcases so we can be taken away easily,” the man from Shanghai said. “Lots of people are in cupboards or drawers – they are fucked!” I thought of my grandmother. “So what do we do now? Are we undocumented immigrants?” I asked, disorientated. “Just be quiet. Nobody will find out. These are just suitcases!” the girl said. “Just wait,” the man instructed calmly, “wait for a right moment and talk to the one who carries you. Tell that person your situation and tell him you are in this together now. And also, we are not undocumented immigrants. If anything, we are just refugees. We are the victims of the catastrophe that took place in our home country. Ask for political asylum.” “Wow, uncle, you know lots of shit!” The Shenzhen boy was impressed. “Of course, I do. If I tell you who I am your jaw would drop!” the man laughed. “Who are you? Tell us, tell us!” these kids hustled, and the conversation went on.

Apparently, I had been in the suitcase for too long and was severely outdated. I was sitting in my suitcase and listening to my co-travellers and I saw myself as a tiny spot in the whole grand picture. I also saw my father, another insignificant stain, getting further away second by second. I was tormented by the fact that I misunderstood him, that I could not see how heroic and daring his move was, that I failed to comprehend he had sent me away out of love and selflessness, that he was in fact extremely desperate in his own life.

I cried for a bit, revised one chapter of my ongoing novel and fell into deep sleep.

When I woke up I was on the train again. The hypnotising sound of wheels brushing along railways. It seemed that my carrier had arrived and probably transferred somewhere at a train station.

Where were we going? As I wondered, I was suddenly hit by an epiphany. I sat up sharply and gripped my quilt. It could not be more obvious. As a writer I knew the drills of my own craftsmanship. If I were a character in someone else’s writing, then the implied author would take me back to the point where it began, to make it swirl, to make it circle, to make it go round and round infinitely like a feather in the dark and windless universe.

So here we were, my carrier and I, stood outside of Leeds train station on Prince’s Square, hailing a taxi. And the taxi arrived. The driver came out to help with the luggage. My carrier took one duffel bag himself and the driver lifted the red suitcase. “Oh,” he said, “this one’s heavy! What’s in there?”

“Just the stuff from my travels,” my carrier replied. He sounded young and proud. “I just came back from China.”