Born in Shanghai, raised in New York and now living in Brooklyn, Jenny Zhang is the author of two non-fiction collections, one poetry collection and the newly released short story collection, Sour Heart. Zhang’s 2015 essay ‘How It Feels’, first published in Poetry magazine, was nominated for a National Magazine Award, and is also included in The Selected Jenny Zhang. Sour Heart centres around a specific community of Chinese-American immigrant families who moved from an affluent world of literati and art-making in Shanghai to the newfound possibilities and fickleness of New York in the 80s and 90s.
Told from the perspective of several young women looking back on their childhoods, each interconnected story explores the blind spots of generational divides that stretch and ache in a new country, and the residual excesses of familial love and resentment.
In Sour Heart’s pages, Zhang’s imagination soars. She shows us young girls who speak freely about their bowel movements, desires, and failures with ease. They dare to be ungrateful and stubborn and petty. And they dare us as readers not to study them with scrutiny, but to live amongst them, breathing the same air.
I spoke to Jenny about what’s to be gained in taking time with your writing, telling stories that are the opposite of what people expect of us, and evolving as a person in spite of social media.
KYD: These stories were written during your twenties, in your undergraduate and graduate years, in college. As you look back, have you learned anything surprising or unexpected about yourself in the process of getting these stories out into the world?
Jenny Zhang: It’s cool to be able to track what I was interested in and to realise that certain obsessions are lifelong, some questions only lead to more questions. It was both a relief and a disappointment to realise that I had more than just one thing to say. For so long I wanted to publish and I also feared doing it – what if I ran out of things to write about?
‘It’s cool to realise that certain obsessions are lifelong, some questions only lead to more questions.’
In some ways, it was good to want something for so long and then to realise that achieving something that remained elusive for some time doesn’t have to end in existential dread. I was surprised by how much faith I had in myself, not that it was super steady and unwavering, but it was always there. Or maybe faith is the wrong word – maybe what I never lost was curiosity?
KYD: I loved how language spoke to the reader in Sour Heart. I’m not a native Chinese speaker, and so when I came across the romanised Chinese (pinyin) in ‘My Days and Nights of Terror’ for instance, I felt the same wordless, itchy curiosity that I might feel if I came across an Italian word in a Ferrante novel, or a Hindi or Urdu or Malayalam word in an Arundhati Roy epic.
After listening to the audiobook recording of Sour Heart, I knew what the Chinese characters sounded like out loud, but I still felt a certain kind of dumbness, like witnessing a childhood friend speak to a parent in their living room, being able to ‘listen in’ on the conversation but not being able to recognise what’s being said.
What cemented the decision to preserve Chinese language, and leave the work of translation to the reader?
JZ: My goal was to faithfully recreate the world of memories and experiences that these characters had and so much of their experiences are marked by linguistic uncertainties, multiplicities, gaps, errors, and confusion. One of the central tensions in this book is the inability to translate, but also the imagination that loss sparks. It didn’t feel right to let the supremacy of the English language reign uncontested in these stories. Also, I think highly of my readers, I think of them as very capable, very curious, the type who are undeterred by the ‘burden of Mystery’, as Keats would say.
‘It didn’t feel right to let the supremacy of the English language reign uncontested in these stories.’
KYD: I’m interested in how much going away and doing research versus life experience or just living, and connecting with family, contributed to the writing of these stories. Did one overtake the other during the writing or editing process?
JZ: I hardly researched at all in writing the first draft of these stories. I didn’t do anything deliberately, in fact. I just lived my life. If I went back to Shanghai to visit relatives, it was purely for the sake of seeing them, not to do research for my book. It was only much later that I began to research, began to see the world and the connections I have in it more deliberately, but I have to admit I don’t like that very much. It feels dirty to approach my relationships with people with my writing in mind. Even when I would read history books with the intention of using what I learned to make my stories better, I would forget that it was a task and just read for fun, and forget to take notes and pay special attention to the parts that had to do with my stories. I’m a bad researcher that way!
KYD: Something that leapt out at me as I read, and re-read, many of these stories in Sour Heart was the recurring theme of unrealised potential. One of the mothers in ‘Our Mothers Before Them’, tells her child, ‘I was supposed to keep making films but I was born in the wrong era.’ In ‘We Love You Crispina’, Christina is reassured about being left back in school that ‘it was better to do something right the second time around than to get away with doing it wrong the first time’.
I was talking to my mum the other day about being one of the first writers and editors in my family – how I had grandparents and aunties and great grandparents who studied literature, who wrote poems in secret, and loved language, but were never able to do anything with their talent because of having families to support, and the responsibilities that come with fulfilling obligations.
How do you personally navigate being ‘the writer’ in your family?
JZ: It feels really unfair that I get to do what I want to do, and unfair that I grew up in an environment where I even had the time and space and opportunity to find out what I loved – which is reading and writing. Like you, I have people in my family who loved literature, as serious study or serious hobby, I have family members who would have been poets and were, in fact, poets even if no one else referred to them as such, but I’m the first to earn money for writing a poem. For my parents’ and my grandparents’ generation, choosing poetry was quite literally risking your life. What did I risk in choosing to write poetry? Being made fun of in school? It’s hardly comparable. I’m often pained to think: why do I get to do this and not them? It feels so arbitrary that out of this long lineage of poets and artists who were never given a chance, I should be the one who was given hundreds of chances. As a child, it was hard to not be cynical and pessimistic when I realised that who gets to make art has so little to do with talent and hard work and so much to do with birthright – where you were born, when you were born, who you were born to.
KYD: You’ve previously spoken about how many of the stories in Sour Heart are ahistorical. How did shedding the need for context help shape your voice, or point of view, in the writing of these stories?
JZ: I don’t think they are necessarily ahistorical but rather fictional. I do think sometimes as a culture, we have a hard time figuring out how to consume fiction, possibly because really great fiction resists utility, ideology and primitive notions of authenticity. My stories do come out of a lived history and even a recorded history but they are not a journalistic reflection or undertaking of that history. That’s just a fancy way of saying I gave myself the freedom of imagination while writing these stories instead of feeling like I had to trace the past accurately into words.
‘I do think sometimes as a culture, we have a hard time figuring out how to consume fiction.’
KYD: By the end of my reading of Sour Heart, I couldn’t help but think of all the women and girls in this collection as real beings who existed out there somewhere in the world. It reminded me a lot of something you mentioned in your By Heart conversation with The Atlantic, encountering characters, regardless of what they may have endured before you met them, in ‘their less extraordinary hours’. I was wondering what you think makes ‘major literature’ versus the ‘minor’ or smaller stories? Is the differentiation pointless?
JZ: I must have stolen the idea of minor literature from [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari, in their essay about the ‘minor literature’ of Kafka. I liked that phrase a lot – its emphasis on the small and the negligible. It’s too far back in my reading memory, so I might be botching it, but I think in that essay they make the claim that minor literature, at its truest and best, stands as a kind of revolutionary resistance against the establishment and the powerful. I know the term ‘minority’ is no longer in political fashion, but I always liked how it had the word ‘minor’ in it. I didn’t see it as a negative thing. I thought being minor was more interesting. As a kid, I liked music in a minor key, rather than a major key. I guess because it always sounded off, kind of sour. What does it mean to write in the language of the oppressor, the language of empire? Is there a way to do it subversively? I’m interested in the antiepic; instead of the Great American Novel, let’s have the tiny american story! I love most stories that are considered too insignificant for a newspaper or textbook. I’m interested in everything that doesn’t make it into a person’s obituary, or going even further, in people who never get obituaries.
KYD: You’ve previously spoken about how many of the characters in your stories are ‘in between the in-between’. What would you say to young writers today who are trying to translate their identities and record something on the page – or screen – that reconciles all these different ‘identity labels’ that the industry is quick to tag us with?
JZ: It is genuinely hard to do! I think social media is not particularly easy on letting young people grow. How does one grow if one is not afforded the space to be uncertain, to experiment, to try, to be wrong, to change one’s mind? If you can have a private life with your art and build a community with people you trust who want to see you grow and vice versa, then you might have a chance at finding a home where you can be all your ‘selves’. This is the dream, right? It’s rare, difficult, and worth trying for.
Jenny Zhang will be appearing at Adelaide Writers Week, which runs from 3–8 March 2018.