SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Little Gods," the book by Meng Jin, is about a daughter, Liya, who loves her mother, Su Lan, but still finds her a bit of a stranger. Su Lan, a brilliant physicist, dies when Liya is just 17 and away at school. Liya finds a scrap of paper among her mother's meager possessions in her small apartment, and it sets her on a journey to China to discover what impelled her mother across an ocean to explore the universe and maybe her own heart.
"Little Gods" is Meng Jin's debut novel. She's also written short fiction for Ploughshares and other publications. She joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.
MENG JIN: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: Su Lan tell us one of the narrator she's always had a talent for leaving. What's she mean by that?
JIN: Well, Su Lan left her own childhood home when she was a teenager. And it was a really freeing experience for her. And that experience taught her that the easiest way to get rid of a problem is just to leave it. It drives her to want to remake her life by erasing the parts of the past that don't fit with her vision of who she is or wants to be.
SIMON: Help us understand how Su Lan sees the world with her special understanding of science. The second law of thermodynamics is almost a personal creed for her.
JIN: Yeah. For her, the second law of thermodynamics, which is about entropy and irreversibility, she connects that idea of chaos to the idea of time.
SIMON: This is sometimes - not to pretend I know what I'm talking about when it comes to physics, but this is sometimes considered the the law of randomness, isn't it?
JIN: Yes. It's the law that the universe will go towards chaos and not towards order. But Su Lan connects the idea that we only experience time as it is because of irreversible events. And because she's so obsessed with her own past, she becomes really attached to the possibility of reversing the second law of thermodynamics and making time run backwards.
SIMON: Now as Liya begins to look into her mother's life, an old family friend tells her, your mother never lacked for dream. She never saw herself as a peasant. And that comes as news to Liya, doesn't it?
JIN: Yes. In America, Liya saw her mother as a very different person than the person her mother was before she left. In America, Su Lan becomes invisible willfully because that's the way that she has figured out how to survive, whereas in China, coming from a small village to a big city like Shanghai, the way she knew how to survive and the way that she was able to be successful wasn't by making herself stand out.
SIMON: I gather you were born in Shanghai?
JIN: I was. And I emigrated to the U.S. when I was 5. I'm in San Francisco now.
SIMON: You observe, at one point, people born in China who spend most of their lives outside of China begin to carry themselves differently.
JIN: I have observed that. I mean, I've observed it when I go back to China. Often people will ask me, oh, are you Japanese? Do you live in Hong Kong? Are you from Hong Kong? And more often now they guess that I am raised in America because that's more and more common now.
SIMON: I guess the Overseas Chinese, is the term I've heard, have - just carry themselves differently after a while?
JIN: Well, I think that, you know, place changes you. You know, every person constructs him or herself from the materials that are available to them. And if your context is largely American because you've spent much of your life in America, then it's going to change the way you see yourself. But also, it's going to change the way you hold yourself and the way other people see you.
SIMON: Yeah. I wrote down the phrase your character utters for that - they wear their attributes in a new way.
SIMON: The more Liya finds out, the more she begins to understand her mother created something for her, that she thought her daughter would grow up more free that way.
JIN: Yeah. I mean, I think that after Su Lan comes to America and realizes that her own vision for her future is not necessarily going to come to fruition, she decides that she can make it happen for her daughter, that she can give her daughter a fresh start with no history to be entangled in.
SIMON: That's one of the things parents do sometimes, though, isn't it?
JIN: Right. They displace their own dreams onto their children.
SIMON: Without giving away the end, was Liya's mother, Su Lan, always standing right there in front of her? Now, she's very young - painfully young when we think of it, 17. But she goes on a journey to, in a sense, discover her mother. But when the story comes out, wasn't a lot of that always there for her to see?
JIN: Yeah. I think that children often don't see their parents as full people. They see them as parents first, right? And that's really what Liya discovers throughout the book, is that her mother was a person with as much strange individuality as herself.
SIMON: Meng Jin, her debut novel, "Little Gods," thank you so much for being with us.
JIN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.