Meng Jin’s debut, Little Gods (Custom House, 2020), is an elegant, haunting novel that lingers like an eerie song. What starts on a grand stage—in a maternity ward near Tiananmen Square, where a massacre is about to unfold—becomes an intimate portrait of the novel’s main character, Su Lan. Amid the tumult of that historic day, Su Lan’s husband goes missing while she delivers her first and only child, Liya. Su Lan, a physicist, eventually emigrates to the United States, where she and Liya live an impoverished and itinerant life. The novel is set into motion seventeen years later, when Su Lan dies unexpectedly and Liya travels back to China, compelled to discover the history her mother denied.
Little Gods is a delicate tapestry, weaving multiple points of view (predominately in the first person directed toward Liya) to conjure Su Lan, but in doing so it explores memory, time, ambition and—most profoundly—the personal and cultural desire to disappear the past. Like all history, Su Lan’s story is told by those who survived; and it’s not surprising that the versions we receive are contradictory. In China, Liya crosses paths with Su Lan’s former neighbor, Zhu Wen, and we learn about Su Lan’s years as a young newlywed. Later, we hear from Yongzong about his rocky love affair with Su Lan. For Liya, the disparity between the woman she discovers and the woman she’s known as her mother is profound; and while Jin’s main narrators intersect we rarely see them interact. It is a skillful sleight of hand. Jin favors the reactions and repercussions of those moments as opposed to the moments themselves. She focuses our eyes on the space around the characters, creating a story that gains intensity from its gaps.
What emerges is a kaleidoscopic character study of Su Lan, whose need to shed her past leaves her daughter bereft of a future. This compulsion reverberates, and the ruins of Su Lan’s relationships echo in the public sphere—which is part of the novel’s genius. In their desperation to shed and obscure their own personal histories, Jin’s characters mimic the political and cultural denial of the Tiananmen student protests—denials Liya encounters when her search for her mother’s past and her father’s identify send her from Shanghai to Beijing.
When I spoke with Meng Jin we discussed how she found her way into this subtle, gorgeous novel, the gifts she discovered from multiple drafts, and how she used a historical moment as a springboard to tell an otherwise intimate story. Little Gods is one of the most composed novels I’ve read in a long time, and it is astounding—and heartening—that Jin claims she taught herself how to write over the course of producing it. “I learn so much with everything I write,” she told me. “Everything teaches you how to write it.”
This novel is so layered and nuanced—I know you worked on it over the course of many years, but tell me where you started?
I started writing the novel six years ago now, maybe—it’s hard to keep track because time keeps moving. I started writing it before I really knew how to write at all. I never really followed my writing teacher’s advice to be good at writing stories before I tried to write a novel.
The first three years of writing the book was comprised of trying basically anything I could get my hands on. Anything that excited me. I was trying to figure out what the story was, but at the same time trying to figure out who I was as a writer. I know people say, “You’ll find your voice.” I don’t think I had that experience, but at the beginning there was a lot of showing ideas and drafts to people and asking, “Is this working? What do you think?” And then at a certain point, I didn’t have to ask those questions anymore because I didn’t really need—or want—their answers. I had a sense of whether what I’d put on the page was successfully doing what I wanted it to do.
There is a lot of suspense in the novel that comes from the structure. We get a layered, multi-faceted portrait of Su Lan. At times I wondered if you were writing to find out the mystery of who she was.
I think the book really clicked into place when I figured out what it was about… I was mostly writing in third person about Liya and Su Lan’s relationship. And I had these other characters in my mind—Zhu Wen was always an important character for me and I wrote her in third person as well. And then I did an exercise. I originally didn’t think I was going to write Yongzong’s section at all, I didn’t think I was going to give voice to his character, mostly because I’ve always been interested in women, not consciously or in any very directed way but I just haven’t been as interested in male characters. But I started writing his section as research into my imagination and it came out in first person. First person made sense for his character because he’s a person who’s trying to tell himself a different story than perhaps the story the reader is getting. There’s a sort of dark, dramatic irony there.
After I wrote his section in first person, it felt more urgent to me. It also brought out all these aspects of Su Lan that I didn’t know before I wrote his section. It wasn’t just the story of Liya and Su Lan, but how people are unknowable to each other and how different facets of ourselves burst through in different periods of our life and through different relationships.
It’s amazing to think that Yongzong almost wasn’t in the book. I was so captured by his voice, and he has one of my favorite lines. Watching the student protesters he says, “Death pulsed with possibility.” It’s full of suspense and really speaks to this idea that we can become someone altogether different. Yongzong is the most successful character when it comes to shedding his history—even more successful than Su Lan.
Yeah, and that’s what draws her to him. It is that potential and that ability, but I think it requires a certain ruthlessness and lack of self-awareness.
Along with the structure, I was smitten by how you weave the thematic elements in the novel. Su Lan’s obsession with time and theoretical physics permeates the novel. I’m thinking about the scene when she paints the room white—including the floor and ceiling so she’s in a field of space without a past, present or future. How do you approach theme in your work?
For this book, I rewrote it many times from scratch. Not completely from scratch, but I would start typing or writing by hand with each new draft. I wouldn’t go in and tinker with an old draft. Like I said, I was also learning to write and every time I got to the end of the draft, I felt like I’d become a different writer.
And with each draft comes more knowledge of what you’re actually trying to do, what themes you’re interested in pursuing—or not even interested in pursuing but which themes resonate with the story. I feel like I’m always thinking about wavelength—where you have two different wavelengths and sometimes they meet, and sometimes they don’t ever meet. And when I’m thinking about something you would call a theme, I’m trying to get a feeling for whether it’s resonating on that same wavelength. If it’s going to meet the plot or the characters, or the story in a way that’s going to mutually amplify rather than compete or confuse those things—if that makes sense.
I think as writers we often know—we have a feeling for what isn’t working, right? What we aren’t satisfied with yet. With each revision, I tried to be a little unsparing with myself. If I could revisit it with more knowledge of what the book is about and what’s important in the story to me, then I can incorporate that knowledge into the revision. I’m quite an intuitive writer and I’m driven by feeling and a sense of “this has the right shape, this has the right movement, this has the right feeling.”
Although this is a very intimate novel, you bookend it with two exquisite chapters that are much broader in scale. The first chapter is on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre, told in the third person. The novel concludes in a similar way, only this time instead of zooming in, we zoom out. It feels as though the past is disintegrating and the writing is very dreamy.
The ending came to me in one piece and it just made total sense. I was on a residency in Shanghai for three months and very intentionally didn’t reach out to family. I tried to create a relationship with the city on my own as an adult. I think part of what I was trying to get at is this feeling I have whenever I return to China, which is that it’s changing so quickly, literally. There’s so much construction and deconstruction happening all the time and for someone like me who leaves for a period of time—it can feel hallucinatory.
Tell me a little about opening the novel with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Is that something that was always part of the story or is it something that you came to later?
Actually it was definitely the seed of the story; the idea of a girl losing her father on the night of June 4th, 1989 in Beijing was the idea I was running off of the entire time I was writing the book. But I would say the more I wrote, the less significant that particular event became. At first, I was really interested in learning more about the history of that event. It feels like this moment in contemporary Chinese history that is a sort of petrified, defining historical moment for China. I was drawn to it by an instinct to un-petrify it. To make it more than this one image in the popular imagination—because in the Western imagination it’s just this one image, and in the Chinese popular imagination it doesn’t exist.
But I realized while I was doing the writing that the novel wasn’t the right form for it. And that really what a novel can bring to un-petrify an historical event is a sense of dailyness and of consciousness. How it feels as a normal person to experience history. And that’s what I think the power of fiction is: to create these moments where you can reproduce a sort of mundane feeling of reality using the constraints that fiction allows you. When I’m telling stories as a novelist, I’m really interested in preserving that feeling.
Do you have any advice for people who are trying to teach themselves how to write a novel by writing a novel?
Just keep going? Try whatever works. And also reread the books you love. Think about them. And don’t be afraid to write the book that you want to read.