Meng Jin graces us with her second book, Self-Portrait with Ghost, filled with stories about understanding the self, the aftermath of grief and the oddities of, well, life.
Meng Jin graces us with her second book, Self-Portrait with Ghost, filled with stories about understanding the self, the aftermath of grief and the oddities of, well, life. The way she writes builds intriguing characters you can relate to but also provides a peek into raw moments of life that perhaps you would not normally be invited into. Harboring unapologetic and complex souls as in real life and some otherworldly, these stories study the self, solitude and looking back on relationships and moments that define personal identity and existence. Throughout the stories we travel from China to San Francisco, two places Jin knows well. You’ll be able to tell that this book was written during the pandemic, because the stories capture the confusion, helplessness, hopefulness, sentimentality and nostalgia of that time.
The way she writes about death, grief, love, and how the mind works when viewing our reality, was intricate and perfect in the way Jin captured the feelings and rawness of being simply alive.
Every story shows how everyone around you has so many stories, histories, and experiences within their one being. I was so impressed how you gracefully conveyed the richness of the characters, their memories, feelings and sometimes future selves in a few sentences. Can you speak about what inspired you to write these beautiful stories?
Meng Jin: Thank you. A richness of being and a richness of selves is always what I hope to capture in my writing. But I don’t know if I can really pinpoint one source of inspiration, except for of course the very broad and basically useless answer of: life? Or, perhaps, how it feels to be alive. Recently I was listening to the poet Rae Armantrout wonder out loud (on a podcast) about the idea of poetry as witness. This feeling that we’re all living with, if we are really alive in this strange moment in space-time, that the world we know is disappearing, perhaps forever, because of climate change, and that one thing writers can do is to bear witness to the disappearing world, and disappearing ways of life, in language. Sometimes that’s how I think about my writing, as simply witnessing. I don’t know if it is true or good, but it comforts me.
PBC: I found it fascinating that in the first story, “Philip is Dead,” when the protagonist finds out an ex-lover passes, she is surprised, not because of his death but because she had forgotten about him entirely. In one moment, he is brought back into her consciousness and then swiftly taken by death. He was someone that guided her to who she became but was also a dark presence. Do you think we discard people who served their purpose in our lives, or that we have complex relationships that can have negative and positive implications on our existence?
MJ: Hmm, what an interesting reading of that story! I don’t know if I thought of Philip as someone who guided the narrator to who she became—for me, his influence was more coercive and traumatizing. The narrator dismisses and trivializes her trauma, but I think she is (like all narrators) deeply unreliable. Trauma can form a chasm for change, and even creation, growth—but in this character’s case, I think what she made of herself from that chasm was her own, not Philip’s. I don’t say this to invalidate your reading—now that the story is published, it belongs as much to you as to me. But you are right that there are many characters in my stories who wonder about forgetting, and may relent to memory’s instinct to forget a fraught relationship, and who struggle against that forgetting. I think letting past relationships fall away is a natural part of human life, but it is also probably exacerbated by displacement and immigration, which are often forces running through my characters’ lives.
PBC: The stories that really spoke to me will also haunt me. “Self Portrait with Ghost”, “Philip is Dead” and “The Garden” are haunting accounts of those who have passed or hover between the veil of life and the beyond. What draws you to tell stories about ghosts, death and the looming of death?
MJ: My interest in death is the same as my interest in life. Death is what gives form to life. Perhaps it is what gives meaning to life. And during the lockdown phase of this pandemic, which I and my communities observed fiercely, death became even more abstracted: a rising number on a chart, a phone video of murder, a Zoom funeral. This reminded me of the way I’ve nearly always experienced death, as a person whose family mostly lives on the other side of the world. Suddenly, everyone in the world was living in this heightened isolation, with an ever-shifting present reality, and death at the door abstractly—and me too! These were features of my childhood that felt literally dredged into the present on this massive, world-level scale. It was like the arrival of a ghost! I felt newly haunted by old concerns.
PBC: Throughout this book there is a thread of hope underlying the emotional rawness and sometimes ugliness of reality, especially in “In The Event” and “Selena and Ruthie.” They are these beautifully written stories about women's lives: the dark, the mundane, the everyday thoughts. When we come to the final parts of the stories, you beautifully weave this darkness, this shared underbelly of life with that thread of hope. It is utterly refreshing and enthralling to read.
MJ: Thank you for using the word “hope.” Some of my loved ones think of me as rather despairing, melancholic, etc—but I’ve always found the world to be immensely, overwhelmingly beautiful, and it is beauty, not despair (I find it boring!) that drives me when I write. And I do think writing, and any form of art-making, is an act of hope: it imagines a future in which people have enough peace and leisure to pick up a book and read.
PBC: Several stories follow characters who look back on relationships while moving through the world as complex beings, grappling with the past all while welcoming the unknown future. As you wrote this book during the first year of the pandemic and while the world politically and personally was in disarray, how much of this book mirrored how you felt about your own life?
MJ: Oh, I think I answered this question is already in your question about haunting! But of course, the “self-portrait” of the title is meant as kind of an honest trick—it reflects back on the reader the questions they may implicitly already be asking, how much of these fictional stories are true? My hope is that the reader then begins to wonder why they are asking these questions, and thus, to reflect themselves on the relationship between art and life. The only honest answer to that question is: all of it, and none of it.
PBC: "The Garden” was one of my favorite stories within the book. The detail and obsessive passion for the mundane completely enamored me. The character is fixated on a fruit tree, the loquat, that reminds her of her childhood and of her grandmother. As soon as the fruit came up, I found myself googling it, and gasped, as I saw these in California when I lived there but did not think to venture into what they were. I love how you share threads of your cultural heritage throughout the book as well. Can you speak to this story, the fruit, and did this intertwine with your homesickness during this time?
MJ: Oh, I hope that now you will pick some loquats and eat them next time you see them, they’re delicious! “The Garden” is the story that deals most directly with life under lockdown, and I hope, the experience of consciousness during lockdown. During this time, I started to feel less like an immigrant and more like an exile, because the borders were literally closed. I was homesick. A good remedy for homesickness is food—lots of immigrant chefs and food writers have talked about this, and also, of course, Proust, with his madeleine dipped in tea. The loquat is my lockdown madeleine. If you ever eat one, you’ll know the taste of my homesickness.
PBC: You write your characters mostly in China and a few in San Franciso, two places you know quite well. I read in an interview how you imagine yourself in these fictitious situations and imagine how you would react to them. As COVID kept you away from going to Shanghai, one of your homes, did writing these characters into existence help with the homesickness?
MJ: Hmm, I don’t know! Sometimes I wonder if it’s easier for me to engage with fictional characters than with real people, and if that is a moral failure. Certainly writing is one way I have attended to my homesickness, but I don’t know if it helps or hurts.
PBC: As someone who lived in San Francisco and moved during the 2017 fires, I was captivated by the story "In the Event,” as I felt as I was reading some of my own thoughts. You can almost feel the helplessness and hopefulness on each page, and at the end of the day we just want to keep going. As much as we want to be prepared for the worst, we really never are. It shows that as much control as we think we have, life will do as it may. Do you think many people think they are in control of their lives?
MJ: I can’t really say what other people think, I can only really speak for myself. In my own life, a feeling of powerlessness, or lack of control, feels and has felt true. In a political context, this can be scary, infuriating, devastating—when I see injustice, and feel that I can’t do anything to change it, or that the things I can do have little power, it feels all kinds of bad. But on a cosmic scale (ie, the heat-death of the universe, which “In the Event” considers), this lack of control is a simple fact. There can be a strange freedom and lightness that comes with acknowledging that. This balance between passivity and action—the cosmic scale, and the scale of an individual life—is very delicate, and one that I am still trying to find.
PBC: In your acknowledgements at the end of the book, I could not help but notice that titles, characters’ names, and even ideas were inspired by other writers and their work. We tend to forget that authors we read are book lovers themselves, being inspired by the very same authors we idolize. Are there any authors that really inspire your journey as a writer? Are there songs or artists that inspire this similar feeling?
MJ: Thanks for pointing that out! Yes, writers don’t exist or create in a vacuum. One of the myths I am always trying to disrupt in my writing is that of the wholly self-made person—a very American myth! There are the writers I mention in my acknowledgments, of course (Natalia Ginzburg, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and many many others). And there are also my friends and contemporaries, whose work and friendship deeply influence me. Finally, there are the people who have kept me alive, literally, the women who raised me, who I dedicated this book to. I think of them as artists of life who have influenced me beyond compare.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meng Jin is the author of Little Gods. She was born in Shanghai and currently lives in San Francisco. A Kundiman Fellow, her narrative prose can also be found in Vogue, The Best American Short Stories 2020, Pushcart Prize XLV: Best of the Small Presses, and elsewhere.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Meng Jin’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Little Gods, was praised as “spectacular and emotionally polyphonic" (Omar El-Akkad, BookPage), “powerful” (Washington Post), and “meticulously observed, daringly imagined” (Claire Messud). Now Jin turns her considerable talents to short fiction, in ten thematically linked stories.
Written during the turbulent years of the Trump administration and the first year of the pandemic, these stories explore intimacy and isolation, coming-of-age and coming to terms with the repercussions of past mistakes, fraying relationships and surprising moments of connection. Moving between San Francisco and China, and from unsparing realism to genre-bending delight, Self-Portrait with Ghost considers what it means to live in an age of heightened self-consciousness, seemingly endless access to knowledge, and little actual power.
Page-turning, thought-provoking, and wholly unique, Self-Portrait with Ghost further establishes Meng Jin as a writer who “reminds us that possible explanations in our universe are as varied as the beings who populate it” (Paris Review).