It was only when I started describing Little Gods to people that I realized how seamlessly debut novelist Meng Jin integrates the huge, complicated themes of revolution, rebirth, time, and language into an intimate story, without sacrificing their grandeur or significance. At its heart, Little Gods is the story of a scientist, Su Lan, whose brilliance both attracts and alienates the people who love her. While her husband, child, and friends circle around her like planets to a sun, she struggles to use her fire to light the way forward and incinerate the past. Set against the backdrop of the 1989 student uprisings in China, and later in the anonymity and dislocation of the American immigrant experience, Little Gods is a beautiful exploration of how the political is the personal, and of the invisible cords that tie us to our histories — both private and collective — despite our best efforts to only look forward. It was a pleasure to speak with Jin about her novel, and it is a delight to present Little Gods to you as Volume 84 of Indiespensable.
Rhianna Walton: The contrast between life and the death, and the inescapable violence of rebirth, is a central theme of Little Gods. To that end, the novel opens with an incredible third-person chapter that takes place in a maternity ward adjacent to Tiananmen Square on the night of the massacre. It’s an amazing opening — disorienting, upsetting, and cryptic — almost like a short story. How did you arrive at it?
Meng Jin: It took me a long time to get to this opening. I spent many years trying different ways of opening the novel. In previous drafts, I had started with Liya’s voice. But when I wrote the version that you see today, that was when the rest of the book opened up for me.
I think of the opening almost as a trick. It starts from this bird’s eye perspective and then it narrows and circles in. I thought a reader might pick it up and think, I’m going into this really grand story, with this grand, omniscient voice. Quite quickly, though, we land on an inconsequential character, and then the opening ends and we go into the perspectives of the other characters.
Once I figured out that the nurse was the character who would open the book, the rest of the writing fell into place.
Rhianna: The nurse is a wonderful character — I was sorry to see her go! I wondered if she’d end up being one of the central characters, or integral to the main narrative, because she’s so fully realized in just a few pages.
Jin: Thank you. It was very important to me that every human on the periphery be a fully realized human. Many of the characters in the center of my novel exist at the periphery of their societies as well.
As a writer, when I envision a picture, I try to look at the people who might be standing outside of it and remember that though they’re not the subject, they’re just as human and their interior lives are just as rich and mysterious as anyone else’s.
Rhianna: This might be an obvious question, but why Tiananmen Square? Why that night?
Jin: I was born in May of 1989 in Shanghai. When I was a child, my father would say that if it weren’t for the fact that I had just been born, he would’ve been in Beijing protesting. Of course, the storyteller in me started imagining that my birth had somehow saved his life.
I think that story really stuck with me. The premise of this novel is a reimagining of that: What would have happened if my father had been a different person? What would have happened if my story had taken a different turn? Perhaps that’s why this event had a hold over me as a writer in a way that other events in Chinese history have not.
But the grand historical perspective that I touched on earlier also drew me to Tiananmen Square. I wanted to tell a story that, on the surface, might seem like a story about history and politics, but was really a deeply intimate story about individuals.
Part of that is because, as a Chinese American growing up in the United States and learning a lot of Chinese history secondhand through American textbooks, at the same time as hearing stories that my family members would tell, I often felt this strange incongruence between the stories my family told and what I learned from American textbooks and media.
So much so that it took me a long time to understand that, for instance, my grandmother talking about Japanese soldiers invading her village was the same story as World War II. Part of this is because the tone and texture of history, and of history textbooks in particular, is so different from the tone and texture of life.
I wanted to tell a story in which history touched the lives of my characters, but the center of the story would be their puny desires, hopes, and dreams.
I always wanted the ending to feel like I was throwing open the windows.
Rhianna: With the exception of the opening and closing chapters, Little Gods is written in the first person, which I thought was such an interesting choice given that the novel’s central character, Su Lan, is deceased and has no voice; everything she says and all we learn about her is filtered through the perspectives of four people: three narrators — her neighbor, husband, and daughter — and a friend, Bo.
I’m curious about how you chose this structure and built the narrators. It sounds like you started with Liya, but what guided the process?
Jin: I started this novel so long ago that it’s hard to remember exactly what I started with. I do know that early on, when the novel really started to take shape and become less of just this idea and more of something that I felt like I could actually write, was when I realized that Su Lan would be an intentional absence in the narrative. I pictured her as a magnetic center, even a black hole around which the other characters orbited and into which they were falling. The other points of view arose naturally from that.
I’m really interested in stories that are told from these side narrators. The most obvious example is The Great Gatsby, where the protagonist is almost this mythological creature because we’re observing him from the point of view of someone who’s off to the side watching, almost obsessively. Another work that really informed this book was the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels. I loved the way in which Elena watching Lila, and narrating Lila, complicated Lila and Elena. [Laughs] I thought there was so much richness in that point of view.
This novel was always about Su Lan. I had Liya’s voice first. Zhu Wen’s came second. Yong Zong’s came last.
Rhianna: I loved all of them. I didn’t like all of their personalities [laughter]… but they’re all just such unique, complicated individuals.
Obviously, the novel is called Little Gods. The idea of the student revolutionaries as “little gods” comes up in the opening chapter, but I was wondering if Su Lan might be guilty of a similar destructive hunger to determine the future; and, if in their own ways, Yong Zong, Liya, and Zhu Wen, in their assimilation of Su Lan’s story to better tell their own, also make that choice — to obscure the past in order to invent the future, rather than allowing the past to inform the future?
Jin: I think that’s a beautiful reading. Thank you.
Rhianna: Let me rephrase my question. The idea of playing God seems to apply to each character in the book in different ways. Little Gods takes that giant, revolutionary, big-window approach you’ve spoken about down to these little lives, but aren’t they all — revolutionaries, Su Lan, Liya, etc. — engaging in the same problematic process of trying to build a future disassociated from history?
Jin: I love that reading. Will you please do the rest of my interviews for me?
Honestly, I didn’t think too hard about the title and what it meant on a larger scale. It popped out to me as a phrase on the page. I liked how it came up in this almost inconsequential, side-note way. As a writer, I tend to go towards mystery. I write very much by intuition. The title just felt right to me.
I didn’t want to examine too much what it meant. But I love your reading of the title’s significance and how it can apply to each character. You’re totally right: one of Su Lan’s determining characteristics for me was, indeed, her destructive need to determine the future and her false belief that the way to do that was by erasing the past.
I thought of Yong Zong’s character as someone who also had that desire, but was much more able to implement it successfully because of his personality. His personality’s also determined partially by the conditions in which he was raised. Su Lan’s attracted to Yong Zong because she sees that quality in him. She wants to be as ruthless as he is, but she’s not quite able to.
That’s what, ultimately, in my mind, leads to the life that she ends up having.
Rhianna: On a related note, I love the epigraph from John Berger: “The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is….The past is not for living in,” which speaks so directly to your characters’ obsessions with reconstructing or erasing the past, as well as to their general unease with the present.
Jin: When I read that line, I knew it would be the epigraph.
It’s perfect. It’s art criticism. [Laughs] It’s a totally different subject. The way that John Berger sees the world — his eye, his way of interpreting, and his way of describing the world — definitely informed my sensibility as a writer.
Rhianna: I may be reading too much into it, but I really came to think of Su Lan as a living embodiment of Berger’s thesis in Ways of Seeing. Her plain face “the kind of face that could become anything with just a few lines of makeup, that, like a mirror, reflects the viewer back upon herself”… she’s very canny about the way people will use her beauty to create a story about her past, which then also allows them to imagine a shared future with her. As Yong Zong notes, “she erased the need for history. She erased even the need for the present.”
Jin: As I said before, I’m more of an intuitive writer. I think the most accurate way of describing Berger’s influence on me would be that the same parts of me that were drawn to Ways of Seeing drew me to the themes in my novel. But I think your reading is really beautiful.
Rhianna: When Su Lan has Liya and moves to the U.S., she goes from being this very beautiful, put-together woman to making herself as plain, and often silent, as possible. It forces Liya to become her own person in the purest sense because she can’t use her mother’s appearance or stories as a foundation.
At one point in the novel, Su Lan calls this, “Keeping your history from infecting the child,” which I found sad and fascinating. Where did this idea come from? Is it something that you think about, or that you’ve encountered in your own family?
Jin: Yes. One of the biggest themes that I was interested in exploring in this novel was exactly this idea of how people make themselves, especially people like Su Lan who really don’t identify with the life they were born into.
This question of wiping your slate clean in order to make the life you want is one that, without me consciously thinking about it, came up over and over again in this novel. Retrospectively, it makes a lot of sense that I would be drawn to this question because it’s an immigrant story. What is immigration, but attempting to make a new life?
As a writer, I tend to go towards mystery.
That line, “Keeping history from infecting the child,” is something that felt very specific to Su Lan for me. This wasn’t something that I thought about consciously while I was writing, but now, after the novel is done, I’m able to see that Su Lan has a view of history that is actually quite similar to the Chinese Communist Party’s view of history, and specifically Mao’s view of history when it came to the Cultural Revolution.
One of the Chinese writers that looms largest in my mind is Lu Xun. His story “Diary of a Madman,” and all of his work, is very focused on the idea that China’s past is cannibalistic, and that Chinese society needed to let go of its millennia-long traditions in order to move into modernity.
Lu Xun died shortly before the Communist Party came into power, and his work was then appropriated into the curriculum. I think he would have hated becoming the literary mouthpiece of the party, but the themes of his work really naturally jived with the message that Mao Zedong wanted to send.
So this idea of history infecting the future is actually one that is a big part of China’s contemporary history. It didn’t play out so well in the Cultural Revolution, and it definitely didn’t play out so well for Su Lan either.
Rhianna: That’s fascinating, especially in light of how apolitical Su Lan is.
Something we haven’t discussed yet is Su Lan’s work as a physicist, and the ways that’s incorporated into the novel’s exploration of time.
Su Lan’s obsessed with the idea of reversing the second law of thermodynamics, which, according to her, would allow us to predict the future by returning entropy to a state of order. Doing so would essentially erase our memory of the time before that order.
Su Lan’s use of theoretical physics to problem-solve her way out of a traumatic past was one of the most surprising and pleasurable elements of Little Gods. Do you have a background in physics or mathematics? How did physics become such an integral part of the novel?
Jin: I don’t have a strong background in physics or mathematics. My parents were scientists, and as a child, I was much more exposed to the sciences than to the arts. I actually went into college wanting to be a physics major. I loved physics and math, but I had never really been exposed to the humanities.
Once I got a little taste of the humanities, I found they definitely fit my temperament more, even in the sense that I hated how ugly the sciences classrooms were. [Laughter] All of the humanities classes that I dropped in on were in these beautiful classrooms with intimate settings, not PowerPoint presentations in huge lecture halls.
Soon after starting to study physics, I realized that I was just much more drawn to the conceptual aspects of it, and less interested in doing math problems. While I was writing the book, I read a lot of popular science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, and Carlo Rovelli‘s books.
Those were really, really important for this novel. Carlo Rovelli, in particular, writes about physics in a way that I find so incredibly beautiful. I read these books like I would read poetry, not really worrying too much if my comprehension was at 100 percent, but just for the beauty of the language, and for all the metaphorical potentials that they lit up in my mind.
I always knew that Su Lan’s character was going to be a scientist, because I wanted to write about a woman scientist. Everything just snapped into place when I realized she would be a physicist, because those metaphorical potentials that I mentioned earlier just seemed to be on the same wavelength as the other themes that I was interested in exploring in the novel.
Rhianna: I’m surprised that more novelists don’t use quantum physics as a metaphor. Fiction and quantum mechanics are both forms of storytelling. They explore all these relational possibilities, and they seek to form order from chaos. I loved how you integrated science and art in Little Gods.
Jin: Thank you. As someone who really loved the sciences, I always felt a little bad about how divided the sciences and the arts were in our contemporary society; and especially about the image that exists in the popular imagination of the Asian immigrant scientist. It was one that I wanted to try to rewrite.
In one of his books, Carlo Rovelli seamlessly weaves in a quote from Dante with a description of something called a “4-sphere,” a sphere existing in four dimensions instead of three. When I read that passage, I was like, Yes, this is what I want to do in my book.
Here, I felt, was a scientist who was standing at science and looking at art. I wanted to stand at art and look at science, and write about scientific concepts in a way that didn’t feel so different from art.
Rhianna: I was really intrigued by your use of Chinese words and dialects in the novel, and especially by the way language, to an extent, seems to determine the inner nature and trajectories of the characters. This was particularly striking with Su Lan’s birth language, which is described by multiple characters as possessing an almost physical force.
I suspect that Yong Zong’s response to it is partly informed by classism, but there’s also this suggestion in the text that Su Lan’s dialect is imbued with a terrifying and negative physical power and logic that keeps her tied to a past she’s trying to outrun.
I wanted to stand at art and look at science.
Jin: Thank you so much for noticing this. This is one of the things that was very important and large in my mind as I was writing, that I thought might slip under some readers’ radars. Dialect and language are a huge part of this novel for me. I really believe that language structures consciousness, whatever the neuroscientists say.
In my experience, living in one language, I feel like a different person than who I am living in a different language. As someone who lives between languages, I’ve definitely experienced the heartache of having that sort of divided consciousness; especially as someone who comes from one language, but is fluent and writing in another, the heartache of losing that first language is strong.
I’m drawn to language because of my own linguistic baggage — that’s why I wanted to explore those themes in the novel. As for Yong Zong, he becomes a translator. Part of that, for me, is related to his ability to shed his old life. He’s able to translate himself much more easily than Su Lan is. Su Lan’s always struggled with language, and, for me, that was connected to her struggle to shed the past, as you said.
I think the reading of that dialect as violent is tinted by Su Lan’s perspective. For Su Lan, that dialect is so deeply associated with the consciousness of her childhood, which was traumatic for her; it’s inseparable from the trauma of her childhood.
It also, in a more concrete way, prevented her from social mobility. It was an obstacle in her desire to be socially mobile, because she didn’t learn Mandarin until later in life. That first linguistic impediment plagues her throughout her life, especially when she goes to university.
Rhianna: There are two scenes in the novel that made me think about language and Su Lan’s dialect in particular.
First, when she’s arguing with Yong Zong and he imagines seeing her skin crack open and darkness radiate out of her; he says in this moment that he realizes he doesn’t know Su Lan, and doesn’t want to. It’s painful to witness.
Then, there’s an eerie moment at the very end of the novel, when Liya is sleeping at her grandmother’s house, and she wakes up to her mom’s voice in her ear, screaming at her to leave.
Jin: The way I wrote about dialect in this novel is very strongly informed by the way Elena Ferrante writes about dialect in the Neapolitan novels.
Dialect is only spoken — it’s not written. Because dialect is not a written language, it’s also the language of the illiterate. It’s so deeply associated with poverty and the violence of poverty. It’s not that the dialect itself creates violence, but that the social conditions that come with it are violent.
Rhianna: It’s a really evocative element of the novel.
There’s one last thing I’d love to talk about, which is the final chapter of the book. It reverts to a third-person narrative that follows Liya’s visit to Su Lan’s childhood village. On a language level, I was really taken by the beauty of the writing, which is both eerie and precise in its depiction of the landscape and the social conditions in this area of rural China.
Thematically, I thought it was interesting because I’d been very skeptical of Su Lan’s philosophy throughout the book, and of the way she mothers Liya. And yet, at the end, I got this impression that Liya was going to be fine, and, in fact, had been incredibly well-positioned to invent herself as she wanted to be.
Jin: I always wanted the ending to feel like I was throwing open the windows.
When I think about the endings of novels, or movies, or any work of art that really stays with me, it’s usually because the ending isn’t closed off. I think of stories as walking into one room, crossing it, and opening the door into another room — and you can’t open that door until you’ve crossed the room.
I thought of the ending as something that would open another door. That’s the feeling I wanted: of one story ending and another one beginning.
Rhianna: I asked one of my coworkers if she had any questions for you about Little Gods and she said, “I just want to know what happens next!”
Jin: Well, what happens next is that life continues.
I think that in America, in particular, we’re very fond of neat beginnings, which comes with America’s false narrative of its own neat beginning. That, too, is connected to a lot of the things we were talking about earlier, about Su Lan’s false notion that she can start over as a blank slate.
This is part of why the book starts at the end and ends at the beginning. In real life stories don’t have beginnings or ends. Anytime you have a beginning, there is a story that comes before it… Even with the ultimate beginning, birth — every child comes into this world with so much history.
I spoke with Meng Jin on December 18, 2019.
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Meng Jin writes sentences that sometimes become paragraphs that once became a book called Little Gods. She lives in San Francisco with her partner, Neel, and her puppy, Tofu.