The front jacket flap of Meng Jin’s second book, short story collection Self-Portrait with Ghost, bears the line, “So she has summoned me in, to read her life, so what is boring and endless might achieve the grace of plot.” It comes from the story “Suffering” and speaks to the project as a whole. The characters in these stories are working through their lives, and in the process, they’re seeking a sense of who they are—they’re attempting to craft, or have someone else craft, their self-portraits.
This project of self-definition takes several forms. In “Suffering,” someone is poisoning Ling’s facial cream. A first-person narrator shares Ling’s story, complicating it and pulling back the veil on narrative choice and manipulation. The title story has a ghost, dead for sixteen years, visit to critique the narrator’s reading material and conflation of the real and imaginary. In the end, the narrator asks to borrow the ghost’s sense of plot: “How would you write this, then, I asked, if you were me?” The self, and its portraits, are haunted—by the role of art and language in mediating experience, by the desire for another narrator to take over the story, and by the cracks in reality that allow for the imaginary to slip in.
These are magical stories, full of hard questions, unforgettable characters, and moments of pure delight. Jin has crafted a collection of stunning formal variety that holds together with impeccable cohesion as it explores reality and subjectivity. Written during the Trump years, these are stories for all time.
Jin is the author of Little Gods, a finalist for both the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and the Los Angeles Times’s Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2020; Pushcart Prize XLV: Best of the Small Presses; and elsewhere.
We spoke over Zoom about letting delight guide the writing process, leaning into dailyness, and forming one’s own rubric for what makes a good book.
The Rumpus: I was reading some interviews that you did for your novel Little Gods, and you mentioned a few times that you sort of learned to write by actually writing that novel. What lessons, if any, did you take from that project into this one?
Meng Jin: I think a lot of people learn to write through their first book. What I got by the end of writing Little Gods was a sense of who I was as a writer and my sensibility, as well as a certain approach. When I started writing Little Gods, I just wanted to write a really good novel, but by the end of writing it, I’d formed an opinion about what a good novel was and the way I wanted to write. One of those things that’s stuck with me—one of the threads of the way I want to write, that I hope to continue to pull through my writing, and grow—is a type of storytelling that is interested in dailyness. It’s decidedly not interested in what you could call the grand heroic story.
A friend recently shared with me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” In it, Le Guin imagines back to a semi-romanticized vision of hunter-gatherer days and argues that we’ve only been telling the hero stories that come from hunting—the climactic action of facing a beast, conquering, and slaying it. And the stories that we haven’t told as often are the stories of gathering: picking berries, making baskets, caretaking and tending to daily life. This is also a way of framing male and female stories. That essay has been percolating in my head and giving me new language to understand my interest in dailyness and the texture of life, and my growing distrust of the very seductive stories of heroic journeys that lovers of literature are often drawn to in the beginning of their reading life. This interest is something that I articulated and solidified while writing Little Gods.
In this collection, I continue trying to understand how to write stories that don’t offer the heroic arc, or that somehow subvert or question it, but are still captivating for the reader.
Rumpus: In choosing details, you really zoom in on moments that gain power or meaning through the attention that is paid to them. You have this dailyness, but you’re also playing with some magical or speculative elements. How did your interest in dailyness jive with your interest in stretching what reality is in these stories?
Jin: The quality of attention changes the nature of an observation. I feel this in my daily life. I think often about how we’re living in secular, deeply disenchanted and disillusioned times; at least for me, it can feel very, very hard to believe in anything—because everything you believe in seems to betray you, to hurt you, to contain a secret lie once you look a little harder at it. In this situation, it feels like the only thing we can do is to choose what enchants us and to choose what we will be enthralled by. Because I do have a need to be enchanted, and choosing to be enthralled by a very small moment of beauty feels truer than choosing to be enthralled by a grand narrative of America, for example, or nationalism, or any of those other beliefs that are posing as sources of enchantment in our world.
Choosing to be enthralled by a small moment of beauty feels magical to me. It transforms daily life. I’m not a person who actually meets ghosts on the streets. My grandmother cannot actually walk out from her house in Zhejiang and wander into the hills of San Francisco. But in moments when I can find enchantment in the ordinary, it feels like the world has expanded from within and the possibility is there. Maybe that’s what magical realism means to me.
Rumpus: How much of your revision process is about looking for ways to unearth the enchantment in these stories?
Jin: For me, writing and revising aren’t really separate from each other. I revise a lot, but it’s hard for me to actually pinpoint a revision process.
But writing itself, which includes revising, has been the way that I’ve been able to enchant myself and the way that I’ve been able to find beauty in the world. For better or for worse! I’m still working through it. Because story and language are flawed, there’s a tension in my need to go through story and language to feel enthralled by the world. In this collection, I’m playing with and questioning my own distrust of language and story.
Rumpus: In “Phillip Is Dead,” the narrator says, “Whenever I found myself looking at something I didn’t understand, I whipped out my camera and placed the lens between it and me.” How much do you view art as a mediator of experience, and did writing this collection affect your understanding of the role of your own art in your life?
Jin: You’ve articulated what is perhaps the central question beneath all the seemingly graceful plots that are running through this book. I do have an ambivalent attitude toward art and specifically storytelling. Adorno said that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz—I feel this, and also, the contemporary corollary: that fiction is impossible after fake news. As a fiction writer, once you understand that what you’re actually doing is making shit up and manipulating readers’ feelings so they believe in something that is basically false . . . it doesn’t feel very honorable. The reason why so many of these stories have metafictional elements is that I was trying to write in an ethical way while feeling like a professional liar.
Eventually, I found a form of storytelling that I hope enchants the reader and draws them in with some elements of traditional storytelling—perhaps a traditional heroic arc, or the signposts of a heroic arc—and then pulls back the curtain and shows the reader the writer fiddling at the dials, turning up their feelings right here or slowing down the mood over there, attempting to create meaning and cohesion from chaos. For example, “The Odd Women” very explicitly plays with the arc of a superhero story—one of the titular odd women travels the superhero arc and finds it uncompelling. I was trying to move into a mode of storytelling that captures the paradox of how it feels to be alive today. I wanted to write stories that let me have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted the reader to feel things and also to know that they’re being manipulated, that I’m the one making them feel the things.
Rumpus: What was your relationship to the news as you were writing this fiction?
Jin: Honestly, sometimes I worry I’m hiding from the real world inside my fiction. It can feel like escapism—and it is a privilege—to be able to escape into the enchantment of language and my fictional worlds.
Rumpus: At the same time, these stories do feel connected to what was happening in the real world. One story that deals with news fatigue is “In the Event,” in which the narrator listens to a disaster book and keeps increasing the playback speed. This story also deals tenderly with love as a stabilizing or protective force, but also a way of hiding from the world. The narrator says she used to really be plugged into the news but has shifted away from that and is getting the news through her partner.
Jin: One of my recurrent obsessions in writing is to capture what can often feel like the petty and the very small dramas of the self that still preoccupy us so much, even when the world is literally on fire. This circles back to your very first question, about what I learned while writing Little Gods. I was thinking about this very consciously when I was writing Little Gods, because I felt that when people imagine grand historical events happening in so-called “exotic” or “faraway” places, they can forget that there were little petty humans inside these stories. They forget that often, history might pave the myriad paths we can take, but our own silly decisions determine which paths we take, and what actually makes our decisions are often really little things, like love and desire and resentment and all the confusing and irrational feelings that can come with being in relationships with other humans.
In some ways, after the pandemic, I felt like I didn’t need to hit people over the head with this anymore. Everyone gets it now. We all know that we’re living in historic times, and if there are people alive in the future to read about us, we’ll be in the history books—we’re in the big story! But in the moment, we’re also worried about vacuuming and negotiating who’s going to put away the dishes.
Rumpus: Yeah, and trying to find little petty things to occupy our time with, like bad reality shows and buying up all the flour in the grocery stores to make sourdough bread.
Jin: Yes, that’s a great example of a drama of the self that has occupied us in these times!
Rumpus: All of the stories in this collection are so different from one another, and a lot of them I would characterize as risky in the sense that they’re trying new things. I’d love to hear whether any of them were particularly tricky to write.
Jin: The story that was hardest for me to write was “Suffering.” I wrote the first draft of that story before I’d even sold the manuscript of Little Gods, so that story went through many, many, many drafts. It was one of those stories that made me go, “Okay, I guess this one doesn’t work, I’ll put it to the side.” But I kept coming back to it, and then the narrative “I” appeared, and the story suddenly felt possible again. I kept on working on it and trying to understand what this “I” was.
Rumpus: The narrative “I” really did incredible work throughout that whole story. It blew my mind as I was reading it, but of course it wasn’t the only story that did that. I would love to hear about the process of putting together the collection as a whole.
Jin: It was really fun. It felt like play in a wonderful way. Perhaps because stories are shorter, you can be riskier with them, or riskier in a different way. If I was trying something potentially jarring in a story, like with the intrusive “I” in “Suffering,” I’d think, “If I lose a reader here, that’s okay. They can just stop and go on to the next story.” At a certain point, I started to feel like I had stories that were speaking to each other and generating something new in the conversation. When I started to imagine putting them together, it actually helped me understand where to go with some of the stories that I was still unsure about.
Circling back to your question about revision—for me, that’s always the sign: When you have many separate problems, and one answer somehow fixes all of them or gives you a path forward in all of them then you intuitively know that’s the right way to go. When I started thinking about these stories as belonging together in a collection, I started to understand how to finish writing them: Suddenly, narrative and stylistic choices became clear. I felt more certain in risky choices I had made, because I knew the stories weren’t standing on their own. I knew that if I opened the door in one story, I didn’t have to necessarily walk through it. I could walk through it in another story, or offer another exit, another door. I didn’t have this pressure that I sometimes have felt while writing a novel, of wanting to make all the disparate things cohere in this one elegant container. I could have multiple containers.
Rumpus: What are the sources of inspiration or excitement in your creative life right now?
Jin: I’m always inspired by nature, and recently I’ve begun to consider my love of nature through a Daoist lens, which has also given me new frameworks for considering nothingness and absence. Another lens that I’m really trying to move toward as a writer and as a person is to filter my life through delight, pleasure, and joy as much as possible.
In my teaching last semester, I taught a class called “The Good Stuff” and assigned my students and myself a delight journal after Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. I actually would have failed my own assignment. I’m terrible at journaling! But I’ve now started to keep a shared delight journal with my writing group for accountability, and it is truly delightful.
It’s deeply exciting for me to be attentive to my delight, and to others’ delights. In “Phillip Is Dead,” the narrator says, “Pain was how I recognized another.” When I was younger, I also felt I could only know a person through their pain and suffering. I felt like something was true if it contained some seed of trauma—which is kind of messed up! Now I’m starting to try to be alive to sources of pleasure and delight and joy. I’m starting to understand something very simple and (I think) true, that what brings a person pleasure—and the ways a person chooses to create pleasure and share pleasure—makes up who they are as much as what causes them pain.
Author photo by Andria Lo