Time, family, and memory. Those were what was on Meng Jin’s mind as she began writing her debut novel, Little Gods. These questions drove her to write a layered novel about a mother from Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests and her daughter, living in America, decades later.
The novel takes place in China and America during different decades and has multiple point of view characters who piece together a complicated life of a woman named Su Lan, who becomes the absent but magnetic pull of the novel.
The historical novel is very intimate with Su Lan’s daughter Liyan traveling back to China after her mother’s death. There is also Zhu Wen, who was the last woman to truly know Su Lan before she left for America, and Yongzong, Liya’s father she never knew.
I spoke with Meng Jin about her relationship with literature and history and how they shaped her quest to write an intimate novel.
You were born in Shanghai and moved to the States when you younger?
Yes, when I was five.
Was Chinese literature big in your life during your childhood?
It wasn’t. Literature, in general, wasn’t in my life until I was an adult. I was a reader as a child, of course, but both of my parents are scientists. I wasn’t encourage to read as a child. I was discouraged. It was seen as a lazy activity.
So, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of literature as a child.
What was the shift in your life when you started getting interested in literature?
I always loved reading as a kid. Maybe because it was prohibited that made it more fun. I remember hiding in places as a kid and reading books.
I always secretly wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I admitted that to myself.
Did you ever consider following your parents into a science-based field?
When I started college, I tried to study physics. I love science as maybe you can tell from the book. I really loved physics, but college was also the first time I was exposed to the humanities. I was so attracted to them that I made a gradual move away from he sciences. I studied social theory in college and didn’t actually take any literature classes beyond the required courses. Mostly because I was afraid of the English department and intimidated by it.
When did you start writing seriously then?
I took one creative writing course in college, but it was after that I started writing seriously. Then I did an MFA program from 2013-2015.
I had questions about history and how people experience history. There were questions about time, family, and memory.Meng Jin, author of Little Gods
This novel is concerned with parents and history. Is that something that you always find yourself writing about?
My short stories that I have written are quite different from the novel. The form requires or allows different things. My short stories feel like play an experimentation. They can be more formally experimental. The novel is formally experimental as well.
When I am writing, I don’t think about subject matter. It’s not the thing that motivates me to write or creates the desire. Not explicitly. It’s more a feeling about tone and texture. Like the feeling of sentences and how they are going to move. There are questions that drive me, but they’re not quite formed in language until I start writing.
What questions drove Little Gods?
I was thinking a lot about migration and migration through time, space, and class. I was thinking about how the self fractures through extreme migrations and how it recognizes itself again.
I had questions about history and how people experience history. There were questions about time, family, and memory.
As the novel progressed, did you have a sense of where you wanted these characters to explore?
I knew early on that I had this idea of a girl being born on June 4, 1989. I knew her father would disappear. But like Liya, I didn’t know what had happened for awhile. I sensed her mother would be a scientist and that the story would start after they immigrated to the U.S. I knew the mother would be a haunting but accessible figure in the girl’s life.
When I felt this was something that could be a novel was when the mother, Su Lan, would be structurally and narratively an absence. That the other character’s would revolve around her as a sort of a mythological person.
What drew you to using the Tiananmen Square incident as this vital night in the book?
I was born born in 1989, but not on June 4. I grew up hearing about how my father named me in solidarity of the protest movement. That detail always stuck in my mind. My father had told me if I wasn’t an infant that he would have been there. The idea of what would have happened if he had been there or what would have happened if one or both parents of a child had been involved in the movement and what would have happened was circling in my mind.
Su Lan is the centerpiece of the characters and the story. How did that fall into place structurally?
I imagined her to this magnetic but absent pull. I have always been drawn to books that are told through the slant perspective. Where the narrator is a side character focused on another character where the story is not about the narrator. The most obvious one is The Great Gatsby but also the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman.
I was really drawn to that way of storytelling. Technically, it allows you to sort of write in third person with the intimacy and urgency of a first person narrator. There is also so much more complexity when you have someone looking at a character and telling a story about them. There are these questions that arise like why is that person telling this story or why are they attracted to the other character. It really appealed to me from a craft perspective.
It also made sense thematically. The book is an immigration story and immigration stories by necessity are stories about absence and loss and longing. Having the character be absent and lost and longed for made sense to me.
Which of the perspectives was easiest to write from?
Can I ask which one you thought was easiest for me to write from?
I would say Liya.
It was actually Yongzong’s perspective and Liya’s was the hardest for me to nail down. As a fiction writer, writing about someone who is more biographically similar to you, there is an automatic block there.
Another reason is that because I didn’t come into writing as very well read I had read the canon which mostly had male narrators. I didn’t have as many examples of young women narrators.
Yongzong was easier because of those examples?
I do think there are many examples of male narrators who are fundamentally flawed and don’t understand themselves. I also started writing his perspective quite light so I already knew what he had done at that point and knew what he would become. It was easy to fill in the details of his early life knowing the actions of his early life.
This feels like a very personal novel in ways, but also a very universal through all of the different perspectives. Did you find it hard to balance the intimate moments between these characters with the grander scope the book was exploring?
That balance was one of the things that was very important when I was writing the novel. It sort of relates to why I was drawn to writing about June Fourth at all. There is a way in which grand, historical moments become lose their complexity and humanity for the public. Growing up as a Chinese-America kid in the U.S., it was a jarring experience encountering Chinese history through American textbooks and American media because I had also encountered the same stories through stories my family members would tell me. It took me a very long time to understand they were the same story because the tone and texture of many history books is so different than the tone and texture of life. I wanted to write a book where I could trick readers into thinking they were getting this grand, historical tale, but I wanted to tell the story through the textures of daily life.
This kind of goes hand in hand with what you just said, but what do you hope readers walk away with as they end Little Gods?
As a reader myself, all I look for from a book is an intimate sense of connection. If readers have that feeling, then I would be very pleased.
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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.
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