Making and Unmaking Yourself in ‘Little Gods’

Meng Jin’s debut novel takes place in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Making Little Gods was a two-way relationship for San Francisco author Meng Jin. 

The novelist’s debut has made must-read lists by Vogue, The Lily, and TIME Magazine, and Jin is currently set to make two San Francisco appearances this week: One at   Kearny Street Workshop on Feb. 7, and one for Charlie Jane Anders’ recurring series Writers With Drinks at the Make Out Room on Feb. 8. Little Gods centers around a single family in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which ended in a massacre with government troops firing at protestors. 

The protests themselves don’t play a main role in the course of the novel. Most of it is dedicated to resurfacing the memories that our main character has tried to keep hidden: Su Lan is a talented physicist from a poor village who has moved geographically and financially, first by earning the highest score on the gaokao in her class (a nationwide test in China that determines students’ college choices) and then by moving to the United States, where she continues to — very intentionally — strip herself of her past selves. 

“I was interested in the ways we make and unmake ourselves,” Jin tells SF Weekly. “Su Lan is obsessed with reinventing herself and almost willing into being the future she desires.”

Photo courtesy of Custom House.

Despite Su Lan being the book’s heart, her impending death is announced in the first few pages, right after she gives birth to her only child: “Su Lan will live for another seventeen and a half years — not an insignificant amount of time. Enough to turn an infant into a woman, Chinese into an American. But the nurse’s feeling is correct. Today, Su Lan begins to die.”  

The rest of the book is dedicated to the memories that resurface following the tragedy, as her daughter and those who knew Su Lan (or at least, thought they did) recall their encounters with her, and bits and pieces of life begin to take shape for the reader — but not necessarily for the characters who don’t have the advantage of our bird’s eye view. That’s an element Jin was quite purposeful about, because that’s how we understand and know people.

“A person is ultimately unknowable to the people who are closest to them,” Jin says. People change depending on the gaze they’re put under, by perception or by intention. Su Lan is a mother to Liya, a source of jealousy for Yongzong, a best friend to Bo Cai. Her own self remains hidden — Su Lan’s perspective is never revealed. Gabino Iglesias, writing for NPR, called this “one of the most complex character studies I’ve ever read.” 

While we don’t get Su Lan’s point of view, we get all the ways she’s mythicized in other eyes. Some of this comes across in Su Lan’s role as a female physicist — one of the few in her field. Jin decided to have Su Lan be a scientist in part because of immigration histories (the timing of Su Lan’s emigration to the United States in the novel matches up with the timeline of America’s push for recruiting technical Asian workers in the sciences). But it also came across in Jin’s personal interest in physics, one that manifests in the book via metaphors.

“I just found the language of physics so beautiful and compelling. And as an artist, when you find something beautiful, it inspires something beautiful,” Jin says. “It makes you want to make something beautiful yourself.”

But Su Lan’s other dimensions come across in her journey through migration and displacement. Su Lan tries so hard to leave her past lives behind. It’s a narrative thread that Jin says comes partly from her own experiences — Jin was born in Shanghai, and moved to the United States when she was five. In her early childhood, she moved across multiple places mostly east of Missouri, went to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. and Hunter College in New York City for school, before finally moving to the Bay Area three years ago. (“It’s been an absolute joy to be here,” Jin says. “I’ve never lived in communities where Asian-Americans are more than a tiny minority.”)

Jin says that for her, knowing who she was wasn’t always easy. “That’s true not just for me but for so many people in the world,” she says. “Migration and displacement is a fact for so many people in the world we live in today. When the question of who you are is not immediately clear, then the natural follow up is, ‘How can I make it more clear to myself?’”

Jin thinks that’s why the question of making and unmaking identities became a point of obsession for her — until it no longer wasn’t, and Jin felt like she was a little closer to an answer.

“For me, I felt that I knew that the book was done when I was no longer the person who needed to write it,” Jin says. “I guess some cloud of questioning that was inside me changed form by the end of the writing. I don’t want to say it dissipated completely. But the questions are different now.”

Kearny Street Workshop Presents Meng Jin and Mimi Lok, 7-9 p.m., Feb. 7 at Kearny Street Workshop, ARC Gallery & Studios, 1246 Folsom St. $8-$20

Writers With Drinks featuring Charles Yu and Meng Jin, 7-9:30 p.m., Feb. 8 at the MakeOut Room, 3225 22nd St. $5-$20

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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