“Why do you die?” her mother asked. “Why doesn’t Lihua die?”
She rose to the heavy responsibilities as the family’s oldest remaining child. But Yu also responded to that wound with a relentlessness and creativity that would help define her as one of the most important Chinese American writers of her day — until she was finally stopped, at age 90, by covid-19 in a suburban Maryland retirement complex.
She was cremated on Mother’s Day.
Yu published more than two dozen books, the fruit of a fascination — and obsession — with writing that spanned 75 years. The work guided her and her mostly Chinese-speaking readers through heartbreak, divorce, struggles over identity and belonging, and questions of sex, sexism, friendship and family.
“She had this outlet that really gave her a sense of her place in the world,” said her son, Eugene Sun, an infectious-disease doctor in Manhattan working to develop new drugs for tuberculosis. “The day was a sponge for her to absorb things and feelings, and somehow her brain processed that and turned it to art.”
Yu’s children remember her late-night sessions at a speckled blue Formica desk in Schenectady, N.Y., smoking True menthol cigarettes with her feet resting on an old typewriter case.
She’d write by hand on thin paper with small green boxes for each Chinese character, filling up page after page as everyone slept. Struggling to balance her writing, a teaching job and duties at home, she’d alternate between “Shake ’n Bake” chicken dinners and rushed stir-fries.
“She lived a life as a mother, and then at midnight she would sit down and everything would disappear,” said one of her daughters, Anna Sun, who was the longtime coordinator for Middlebury College’s Summer Chinese School.
Yu was full of passions and contradictions, deeply loving and intensely judgmental. She loved the New York City Ballet and “Broadway Joe” Namath. She took up football to connect with her son, but did so with such gusto she could be unbearable, storming around screaming profanities at the television. She so despised Howard Cosell’s distinctive delivery that she once grabbed a jar and wiped peanut butter on the screen.
“Then his face moved, and the peanut butter didn’t move,” Anna recalled.
Her mother pushed herself, and those she loved, with a mantra she held onto from a grade-school teacher who read one of her early stories: “You can make something of yourself.”
“She always told people, ‘This is your dream. You can do this,’ ” Anna said. “I think that’s partly why people who know her love her so much.”
Yu could also take that to the limit, as with the forced-march Chinese lessons she held with a box of Kleenex on hand for her three kids’ inevitable tears.
She would say “you’re always going to have that Chinese face, and you need to know how to speak Chinese,” said her daughter, Lena H. Sun, a Washington Post reporter who used that preparation as the paper’s Beijing bureau chief in the 1990s. She later focused on infectious diseases, helping lead coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In many ways, the fact that covid killed her so quietly is kind of a blessing,” Lena said. She had reported on patients’ brutal and unsuccessful struggles on ventilators, and “I did not want that for her.”
“My mother was a very charming person, with this incredible personality,” Lena said. “She had a special relationship with each one of her children, and a special relationship with each one of her grandchildren.”
Since they weren’t able to see her in her last days, some in the family wrote Yu letters she would never read.
“You should have had someone to hold your hand,” Lena’s daughter, Sophie Mindes, wrote, remembering Yu’s own strong, loving grip. In her letter, Mindes also addressed the daughter she may have, promising to share her grandma’s legacy.
“I promise to tell you about her pride, her talent, her charm, and her faults. She and I are rough in the same way. We sometimes hurt people,” Mindes wrote. But “she was bold, and I envy that. I am made up of all her good and her bad, and I’m sure you will be too.”
An early breakthrough for Yu came in 1956, three years after coming to America. After performing poorly on an English proficiency exam at UCLA and being turned away by the literature program, she entered a creative writing contest established at the school by Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn.
Her story, “The Sorrow at the End of the Yangtze River,” follows a 15-year-old girl searching for the father she disappointed by not being a boy. Her mother tells the girl, whom Yu named after herself, of the joy and promise of her pregnancy.
“Then you arrived. And it was the end of my happiness. The beginning of my heart-broken, interminable lonely life,” she tells her. They weep for the man who abandoned them, as her mother tells her it was not her fault. Then the girl travels to a distant city and lies her way into work as his new family’s maid, waiting for the right moment to tell him the truth.
Yu won the contest.
“This is the day I will never forget in my life,” she told her granddaughter Emily Sun, also known as Eevee, in interviews in 2018.
Yu had moved to Northern California in 1953, when a friend of her father promised to help her get into graduate school. Instead, he put her in secretarial classes and had her clean the family meat grinder, leaving her seeking a way out.
She was introduced to her future husband, a nuclear physics graduate student named Chih-Ree Sun, through a distant cousin. The two exchanged letters, and he helped her come to UCLA. He beamed in the front row as Goldwyn handed her the award.
“Oh, I am so infinitely happy,” Yu wrote in her red hardcover diary at the time. “I now must keep it up, no matter how difficult it is for me.”
She told a prominent Taiwan newspaper she won “because of the insult she got” from an acting department chair at National Taiwan University, who had knocked her language skills and pushed her out of the English literature program, said Henry Yu, one of her younger brothers.
“That award gave her a lot of self-confidence,” Henry said. “She is not only a dreamer but also is a doer.”
Yu’s short stories were first published in newspapers in Taiwan while she was still in college. Some were set in China’s heartland, where her family had escaped Japanese atrocities when she was a girl. “In Liu Village” explored the aftermath of a village woman’s rape and rejection.
Others were set in Taiwan, to which the family fled before the communists seized power in China in 1949. “Every time when her short story was published, she would go out and buy 50 cents of peanuts to treat all her brothers,” Henry recalled.
Later, she explored the lives of immigrants to the United States from both of those earlier homes, chronicling what she described as a “rootless generation” that wasn’t sure where it fully belonged. Yu was “widely known, read and discussed in the Chinese-speaking world,” said Middlebury College Chinese professor Thomas E. Moran, and wrestled powerfully with that “intersection of cultures.”
In her most widely read novel, “Again the Palm Trees,” a young man leaves Taiwan after graduating with an English degree and ends up disappointed by life in the United States and his work teaching Chinese, a role Yu also had.
Yu turned that commonplace struggle into a profound odyssey for many readers, exploring the professor’s journey back to Taiwan on a vacation that turned into a reckoning. He will lose the woman who wants to join him in the United States if he decides to stay and help Taiwan by being a teacher. He might also find a life worth living.
Her brother Yu Yue-hwa, an environmental engineer who studied in St. Louis, was torn with similar choices at the time, leaving him awed by the prescience and rawness of her storytelling.
“She is writing directly about her feelings, without any covering up. That’s the thing that most attracts her audience,” Yu Yue-hwa said. His sister’s emotions were “very straightforward,” like their father’s, he said. “She is easy to be happy and easy to be sad and easy to be angry.”
Their father, an agricultural chemist who eventually became a senior manager at the Taiwan Sugar Corporation, dominated the household, and Yu wrote unsparingly of his infidelity and the chauvinism of traditional society. She often explored the status and role of women, and a novel inspired by a particularly fierce aunt, “Dream of Returning to Green River,” was made into a TV drama in China.
Three years after President Nixon visited China in 1972, Yu seized that opening to return and find a sister, Meihua, who had been left behind when the family fled for Taiwan. At a poignant but uneasy reunion in Shanghai, family members saw the sisters’ resemblance. But Meihua had “the hands of a worker, all callused and puffy,” Lena said.
During the trip, Yu was also swayed by the propaganda and careful staging of Communist Party officials, and she later wrote glowingly of the changes that had come to China since she was last there. Her books were banned in Taiwan, then under martial law, and the family was visited by the FBI.
Yu had regrets, among them the three novels she wrote in English and couldn’t get published.
She told Xiao-huang Yin, an American studies professor at Occidental College, that mainstream publishers “were only interested in stories that fit the pattern of ‘Oriental exoticism’ — the feet-binding of women and the addiction of opium-smoking men. . . . I didn’t want to write about that stuff. I wanted to write about the struggle of Chinese immigrants in American society.”
She continued her habit of writing in her red diaries, alternating daily between English and Chinese, even after retiring from teaching Chinese at the State University of New York at Albany. She moved to Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, Md., with her second husband, Vincent O’Leary, in 2006.
She had her mah-jongg mafia, playing and smoking with friends around Washington, and a regular meetup with local writers she called the Gang of Four. Barely 5 feet tall, Yu had a dogged exercise routine that often had her listening to music while walking backward through the grounds to increase her agility.
Yu began showing signs of dementia about two years ago, sapping her spirit. In her diary, she started drawing circles for words she could no longer conjure. Last month, she fell ill with the virus, and she died in her apartment on April 30.
Searching through her mother’s papers in the quiet apartment, Lena recently began to read aloud press clippings from Yu’s long-ago writing contest triumph.
“Miss Yu burst into tears when Goldwyn predicted she would one day become a great writer if she kept working hard,” her daughter read, her voice breaking.
In the story, Lihua rushed back to her mother to share in the joy of her rekindled relationship with the father she had found, and to tell her he still loved them both. But her mother was ill and died before they could speak.
Later, she walks toward her mother’s grave to pay her respects on Tomb Sweeping Day. Her father is there, and gives her his hand. “My only daughter, come home with me. I will make up to you for what I owed your mother,” he says.
“No, father, I can take care of myself,” she replies.
Walking away, she looks at the clouds. “I see my mother’s saddened eyes. I also see my father’s eyes, sometimes tender, sometimes cruel and sometimes rueful. Then I see myself, moving, moving . . .”