In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?
There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:
Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.
Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
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— Writers to Watch: Spring 2020