“Self-Portrait With Ghost”

Self-Portrait with Ghost

Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind
her, wiped the record clean.
–Grace Paley, “Wants”

I saw Gugu in the street. She was sitting on the bench outside the public library.

What are you doing here? I said. She had been dead for sixteen years. Even when she was alive, she had never crossed the ocean to see me, though not out of malice or disregard. I know she’d meant more to me than I had to her. She’d meant more to me because for so long, she had pursued death with a near religious fervor. She was the first person of that type I’d known.

She looked at me sullenly. I might have expected death to change her, to fill her, perhaps, with a light so abundant it could be shared. But she looked just as she had the last time I’d seen her, twenty-odd years ago in Jinhua: chubby-cheeked and slow-moving, as if in an aquarium, her hair cropped close like a boy’s. She was wearing slippers and a long blue robe, like she was still afraid to leave the house.

I guess I wanted to see what you were reading, she said. Nowadays, I mean, now that you’re a writer.

I said, Okay. I opened my backpack for her to see. Inside were two monographs on traditional Chinese poetics, one through the lens of memory and the other through the lens of place, and an art book on Song dynasty landscape painting. They were written by men named James and Stephen, the kind of books whose mere existence had for years intimidated or infuriated me or both. They were heavy. My back was sweating from carrying them up the hill in the full sun.

They’re in English, Gugu said regretfully, fingering through the pages. I guess you never learned how to express yourself properly in Chinese.

I realized then that Gugu was speaking in English, a language she didn’t know. I felt at once grateful and ashamed. I had had these books for six months and still hadn’t read them. They were twice overdue. I had planned to return them so I could check them out again, which was allowed only because no one else in this city of readers wanted them. According to the catalog cards in the back pockets, they hadn’t been touched in sixteen years.

The power of painting, Gugu read out loud, is to function as a substitute for the thing it represents, by arousing in the viewer those emotions that the actual scene would arouse. The forms of nature possess not only physical substance but immaterial qualities of attractiveness or flavor; and it is by these qualities, rather than by outward appearances, that the spirit of the sensitive man is affected.

She turned to me: Very interesting. You know, the more you write, the more I can see that unlike me, you are fundamentally uninterested in the difference between reality and unreality.

She turned to me: Very interesting. You know, the more you write, the more I can see that unlike me, you are fundamentally uninterested in the difference between reality and unreality.

But my novel was all about subjectivity, I said. Each character tells their version of reality and the various realities add up to something that looks more like unknowing than a solution. And what about that story with the ambiguous “I,” or the one about paranoid grief, or the one set in a city that is kind of like this one but not? In all of them reality shifts somehow to question the very nature of what we privilege as real.

She stood up and walked to the book return bin. She was limping slightly, as she had been when last I saw her. This puzzled me. By the time she’d succeeded in dying, the injury from that attempt must have been long healed. I moved to help her but she continued on without pause. With a smooth motion, as if she had done it many times before, she slid the books into the metal mouth one by one.

I tried not to mourn the books. I could still read them. Whenever I desired, I could request them on an online portal, and within days they’d be delivered to my neighborhood branch. If I wanted to, I could go inside now and ask the librarian to retrieve them from the bin. The public library was a benevolent institution; already it had forgiven me without fuss for what others might not: absence, neglect, coming only when it suited me and usually in the service of some stupid story.

Remember that story you made up, Gugu said, in the summer of 1999?

I was surprised. It had been one of many unglamorous hours after lunch, when we were supposed to be asleep. The girls were shut in the air-conditioned room: Gugu at the computer, playing her games, while her four-year-old daughter and I goofed off on the bamboo bed. The story itself was a derivative collage of narratives pilfered from Saturday-morning cartoons, an inane tale about a crazed mouse who robs a piano shop. That was all I remembered about it, and how when the police, searching for the culprit, questioned bystanders for leads, they were met with incredulous stares. A mouse? reasonable people asked. Why would a mouse want a piano?

It was such an accomplished story, Gugu said. Funny, gripping, springing fully formed from the imagination. At the time I thought you might have a talent for writing. Now I wonder if I pushed you the wrong way.

I was very impressionable, I said.

In fact, at age ten, I’d been exhilarated to hear Gugu call me a writer, though I knew enough not to repeat it to other adults. You can’t trust Gugu, they’d have said, or: Do you want to end up like her? Even her daughter had rolled her eyes, tugging my arm for the next story. But Gugu’s praise brimmed in my throat; for decades it stifled me.

I wanted to keep the realms separate, she said. But you conflate them with abandon.

I said, That’s unfair. I try to be deliberate.

It’s not enough, she said. From my vantage the status of the real and unreal is totally clear. One exists, and the other is dangerous. There is no thinning of boundaries. A reality that is really in flux is a state of terror. You can complain about the rigidity of contemporary life but it’s thinking like yours that creates problems.

Like that, she started to walk away. I sat down on the bench where I’d found her and considered her accusations. It was true that I felt strongly about human experience not falling neatly into binaries. It was true, perhaps, that this way of seeing made light of how Gugu had lived and died. But I had never intended to offend her.

I watched her limp up the block, up another hill. I’d had so many questions I wanted to ask; instead, I’d wasted all my time defending myself. I wondered, for instance, if pain still hurt her. I wondered if in death, she contained every version of herself she’d been in life. Was she limping now, in my vision, only because I’d known her that way? How would she have appeared if, like my grandmother or father, I’d known her when she was well?

I wondered if, when she spoke now about the things she saw and heard, she was still called crazy. I imagined ghosts were more charitable. I imagined Gugu sitting around a fire with new acquaintances, speaking her strange mind. The other ghosts would laugh and nod in appreciation, or they would shake their heads in sympathy. In either case they would accept her stories at face value without questioning which parts were real and which parts were fake, at least not in a narrow sense.

There you go again, Gugu said, and I heard her voice as clearly as if she were still standing beside me.

Right, I said. I was falling back into the same patterns of thought she had just exposed.

How would you write this, then, I asked, if you were me?

She didn’t respond. She was far away now, her body cresting the hill and starting to disappear down its other side. It was an unseasonably hot day. Insects buzzed in the tufts of grass lining the sidewalks, and the ridges of the mountains in the distance shimmered from the heat. Gugu was a black smudge shrinking in the haze of afternoon light. I thought of the books inside the bin, which might help me see things differently, which might free me, even, from the muddling instincts of postmodernity. I stood up and started after her. Wait for me, I called out. I walked briskly, but no longer in a hurry.


Excerpted from the book SELF-PORTRAIT WITH GHOST by Meng Jin. Copyright © 2022 by Ge Jin. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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