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Meng Jin’s ‘Self-Portrait with Ghost’ explores dignity, joy and the present through short stories

Meng Jin, author of "Self-Portrait with Ghost"Andria Lo

Meng Jin’s “Self-Portrait with Ghost” explores what it means to be alive right now through 10 intimate and thematically linked short stories. The collection was released July 5, and each story centers on Chinese women and their relationships — romantic and otherwise. In the first, “Phillip is dead,” the protagonist discovers a former flame has died; in “Suffering,” a widow named Ling is courted by a wealthy man and suspects someone is trying to poison her. Jin said she intended the tonal progression through the magical realist stories to move from a “cynical self-consciousness” to “a hopeful and loving one.”

Jin is also the author of “Little Gods,” her debut historical fiction novel that follows a Chinese physicist near the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in China. She was born in Shanghai and currently lives in San Francisco. But she’ll return to Cambridge this fall as a visiting lecturer of creative writing at Harvard, from which she is also an alumna. She’ll appear with novelist Taymour Soomro — whose own debut, “Other Names for Love” also came out in July — at Harvard Book Store on Thursday.

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Q. Why did you write in first person for the beginning of the collection?

A. I came to literature with a love of these grand narratives told by an omniscient narrator, like Tolstoy, for example, [and] Gabriel García Márquez. When I started writing, I tried to write that way. But the more I wrote in [the] third person, the harder it felt to get to a voice that was honest and urgent for the time that we’re living in now.

The contemporary literature that I love is very tinted with subjectivity, so I guess I couldn’t figure out how to write in a way that felt honest without going into [first person]. I think that was my way of entering the core of dignity of whatever character I was writing.

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Cover of Self-Portrait with GhostCourtesy of Mariner Books

Q. You wrote these stories during the Trump administration and the early pandemic, but we’ve experienced a lot of collective trauma since then; how do you feel about these stories coming out now and speaking to us in the present?

A. I don’t think that the stories are responding directly to the news cycle, but at the time that I wrote them, they felt like I was looking at where I was in the present, rather than looking back to the past or to a country that I left behind [like in my first book]. And now, [this collection] already feels like a historical document.

It’s been really hard to just process and even remember all the things that have happened in the last five-ish years. And when I look at these stories, I’m glad that I preserved some of the feelings in the stories.

Q. How was the process of putting this book together different from writing “Little Gods”?

A. When I was writing my first book, I had no idea if it would ever see the light of day or what would happen if it did. It felt like my only chance to create something, and I felt this immense need to make it contain everything. With these stories, a lot of that pressure was off, and I felt a lot more playful and joyful, which was an interesting counterbalance to the time in which I was writing them. “Little Gods” is really interested in grief — I wanted to capture that feeling of living with the grief of immigration. But after it came out, I started to feel like grief is in the air. We’re breathing it. We’re eating it. We’re [expletive] it. It’s not that I didn’t want to look at suffering, but that I wanted to be able to hit a different note with it and make my writing lighter, more joyful, more rooted in pleasure.

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Q. In the first story, a photographer character struggles with seeing the world only “through its potential for capture,” and chooses to pack her camera away to live in the moment. Do you ever struggle with looking at life through its potential to be written about? And do you ever have to put your “writer brain” away?

A. Nowadays, I think I have maybe the opposite problem. I don’t find life as enjoyable if I’m not forming it into language. It’s one of the few ways I know how to feel pleasure in being alive. But one of the ways that I’ve tried to address it is by writing for things that I know aren’t going to be shared with anyone.

Meng Jin and Taymour Soomro will be at Harvard Book Store (1256 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge) on Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. The event is free to attend and registration is not required. For more information, visit harvard.com/event/taymour_soomro_and_meng_jin.

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Interview was edited and condensed.


Serena Puang was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.