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In Meng Jin’s ‘Little Gods,’ the inescapable pull of a family history

Meng JinDavid Wilson for The Boston Globe

Meng Jin’s debut novel begins with a scene inspired by her own life. “I was born in the spring of 1989 in China,” she said, “and my father told me when I was a child that if it weren’t for the fact that I had just been born, he would have been in Beijing protesting with the students.” In the book, “Little Gods,” a baby is born the night of June 4, 1989, as the tanks roll in to Tiananmen Square and her father disappears. “I started to imagine my birth had saved my father’s life,” she said. “So that was the seed of the story.”

The novel is told in multiple voices; the first one Jin tackled was that of the fatherless baby, now a young woman named Liya, who returns to China to unravel the story of her parents’ lives after the death of her mother, Su Lan. “I tried so many different things in the beginning,” Jin said. “It really came together when I figured out that the story was going to be about Su Lan, and it would start after her death, and she would be a sort of intentional absence in the narrative.”


Su Lan, the woman at the book’s center, is a physicist, a discipline the book’s structure echoes. “I started to think of it as a black hole, with planets objects orbiting around it, falling into it, magnetically drawn to it. I wanted to how she was a different person to different people. I think that’s true for everyone.”

A Harvard alumna, Jin briefly considered becoming a physics major. “I still think that physics is incredibly beautiful,” she said, “but I quickly discovered that I was much more interested in the metaphorical potentials of physics than in doing math problems.”

Meng Jin will read at Harvard Book Store on Friday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m.