Jenny Zhang’s ‘Sour Heart’ and writing as a woman of colour
20 Oct 2017
Jenny Zhang is a poet, writer and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Zhang’s fictional and critical work have often included themes of Otherness, objectification, and the experience of girlhood. Her creative use of language and form push a boundary that makes her writing engaged and exhilarating.
Zhang recently released her debut collection of short stories, Sour Heart, with Bloomsbury UK. The collection comprises of loosely linked stories centred around a community of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants in New York City. Told from the perspective of young Chinese-American women, the stories provide a honest, dark, and captivating exploration of immigration, poverty, and coming-of-age.
After an evening with Jenny Zhang at Waterstones, Grrrl Power Liverpool sent over a few questions, and her answers are as fierce as her stories. Zhang talks about the formative experience of being a daughter and young woman, the juxtaposition of being tokenised or marginalised amongst mainstream white publications and giving women of colour the room to develop their writing or art without being continually asked to justify themselves.
Grrrl Power Liverpool: Sour Heart is the first book to be published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint in the US. We’re really interested in and inspired by the dynamic of women just getting stuff done together. How did you and Lena begin working together?
Jenny Zhang: She reached across the internet and solicited me! She asked if I had an editor for my writing, and at the time I didn’t have any sort of professional help—not an agent, not an editor, not a publicist, it was just me and my writing and my five part-time jobs as I wasn’t making a living from writing. The idea of writing for a living seemed farfetched but I hadn’t given up on it either. I find with my women friends, that’s how it is—women looking out for each other.
We’re part of a women-led arts collective, based in the North West of England, Grrrl Power Liverpool. Our main objective is to re-address gender inequality in contemporary art, literature, and music. We’re always interested in other self-identified women artists and writers being transparent with their medium, and making it accessible for others. For our launch exhibition and project in August 2016, we did a call-out and asked self-identified women and non-binary artists, ‘where do you find yourself in the arts?’, so to extend that question to you: As a woman, where do you find yourself in creative spaces?
I find myself often at the margins and also often thrust into the centre, which is very contradictory but perhaps not an uncommon experience for someone like myself, who is very easy to tokenise, very easy for mainstream white publications and the mainstream white media to trot as evidence of them having done their duty with diversity. I find my writing being and flung around as an object in ongoing ideological culture wars, eclipsing the actual thing I made, the words I wrote. And I also find myself at what is hopefully an opening that won’t immediately close up, an opening where we are not so intimidated by the great ideas and art put forth by women of color that we seek to crush them immediately. That opening is miniscule, don’t get me wrong, but it’s there.
A brilliant observation on Twitter from one of your readers was that you write about being a daughter as a primary identity (@heavier_things). What was the reason behind having your narrators as young women?
There’s so much emphasis on girlhood, youth, beauty, and then it’s a leap to motherhood, caretaking, aging. I like symmetry, I like balance. If society is going to be so concerned about making our girls grow up to be mothers, then I want to talk about the experience of being a daughter. It’s not a small experience. It’s a formative one, it’s the first power dynamic women experience, and, if you are lucky, it can also be an early experience of tenderness and love. Not all daughters are loved fairly, and not all daughters rebel. Some grow up not being seen as the daughter that they are. There’s a range of experience worth exploring there.
“someone like myself, who is very easy to tokenise, [it’s] very easy for mainstream white publications and the mainstream white media to trot out as evidence of them having done their duty with diversity.”
The stories are all loosely linked as each one is about a different Chinese family who have immigrated to America. The are linked by their initial shared and poor, to say the least, living conditions. Why did you bring the families together in this way?
Junot Diaz has written about about how some people like to say their life is a novel, but for him, his life is closer to a collection of short stories because it’s impossible to truly draw a sensible line between the kid he was in Santa Domingo and the teen he was in the South Bronx who brought a gun to school, to the MIT university professor he is now. I feel the same. All these selves do not necessarily cohere into a single narrative, but they touch a little, they overlap a little. This collection is a group portrait of a community, and the members of this community cross over into each other’s lives.
“There’s so much emphasis on girlhood, youth, beauty, and then it’s a leap to motherhood, caretaking, aging.”
How do you develop character and voice in your writing?
I don’t know—I haven’t let myself intellectualise it too much! I fear losing whatever magic activates when I write, as so much of it has already been lost.
The concept of ‘sour’ is really intriguing, and, at least in the English language, almost fundamentally linked to food. Because food is so cultural, was this intentional?
No, it wasn’t, but because these stories all leaked out of the same brain (mine), I’m sure it reflected in conscious and unconscious ways things that I’m interested in—sourness, consumption, food, bodies, etc.
You’ve spoken openly about how white supremacy has affected you, as a person and as a writer. What you capture so eloquently in this book is the diversity of New York City, including the tensions between marginalised groups in the same impoverished areas, but we do see nods to gentrification, and the characters sort of make it through. Do you think the narrative of the immigrant – the Chinese immigrant at least – is changing?
I really can’t say from my position as a writer—as whatever I think on this subject is so limited and so bound to my personal experience and the experiences of my community, which is not representative of all Chinese immigrants but rather a very, very specific socioeconomic class of Chinese immigrants (well-educated, comes from the artist class, came to the US in the late 80’s/early 90s for school, from Shanghai, etc.) So I really do hesitate to make any broad statements. All I can say that is I hope narratives proliferate and multiply rather than narrow in and become singular. There is no master immigrant narrative that would adequately capture all the reasons why someone immigrates and all the reasons why someone can or cannot achieve the so-called American dream of upward mobility.
There are some harrowing parts of the stories that delve into the history of China and the effect on the characters. You bring mental health and heritage together. How did you find researching and writing in this way?
At first, I stayed away from researching too much. I wanted to write from a blurry place of a child’s memory of hearing their elders repeat stories from their pasts. You know, when you’re a child, and a parent is ranting and raving or losing their patience very suddenly, you don’t think, Hmmn, I wonder what happened in their lives to make them behave this way? You just think: why are you yelling at me, I didn’t do anything wrong. There is so much undiagnosed mental health stuff that stems from past trauma and I’m writing about communities that have little to no resources to deal with that and so people have taken it upon themselves to repress or to try to outrun their pain. Trauma can be passed down intergenerationally—this has always felt instinctually true to me and now research into epigenetics is confirming this and opening up the discussion about this. Anyway, in the third and fourth and fifth drafts and so on… that was when I started to incorporate research.
“I hope narratives proliferate and multiply rather than narrow in and become singular. There is no master immigrant narrative that would adequately capture all…”
There’s a humour in your stories that moulds itself to be both innocent and dark, something that compliments the undertones of sadness, poverty and Otherness. Parts were hilarious, and then terrifying and then heartbreaking in the space of sentences. How thought out was this?
I didn’t think it through! I don’t think humour should be excluded from fiction, and especially not in stories about immigrants and poverty. It’s very simplistic and wrong to think that people who suffer or are disadvantaged have no sense of humour—they often have the best sense of humour!
You give so much room to the imagery of the body and bodily functions in these stories. What is it about the body that’s so important for you?
Well, I think poverty and immigration takes a toll on the body. It physically destroys the body. I’m writing about children who are literally growing up, their bodies are changing and vulnerable. It didn’t make sense to avoid writing about the body. We live in a society obsessed with young girl’s bodies, but the minute an actual woman is even somewhat explicit about having a body, it becomes vulgar. I think that’s bullshit.
“it starts to feel like we place this burden on women and women of color to justify their every step…”
We’re always looking for new books, ideas, music, podcasts and art by self-identified women to get into or to recommend. Who influences you and what are you currently reading or listening to?
I’m always listening to Mitski. She’s incredible. I love the Downtown Boys and Moor Mother too. I’m looking forward to reading the new poetry of Ariana Reines, I have been enjoying very much the poetry of Harmony Holiday, and the short stories of my friend Alice Sola Kim.
You cover so much in these stories – poverty, history, sexuality, immigration, language – what was your intention behind the collection? Ideally, what would you like readers to take from the stories?
You know—I didn’t ask myself to define what my intentions were. I knew that I would be asked it in every interview, in every conversation. It’s all right to be asked, it’s fair to be asked, but I just knew I would have to perpetually articulate why I wrote what I wrote and at some point, it starts to feel like we place this burden on women and women of color to justify their every step. Give us room to grow, give us room to be inarticulate, to bumble, to make mistakes, to find at least momentary shelter in the wonderfully ignorant bliss of simply enjoying without explaining. I’m not saying: give women what rich white men have! I don’t want what they have and I don’t want everyone to have unchecked power or to be clueless to the struggles of everyone else, but sometimes I think we grind our women artists into a tiny exhausted nub, after they’re done explaining the violence of misogyny and patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism for the nth time, after they’ve found one hundred ways to say the same thing, what is left in their souls for art? At this point, I’d prefer the reader to find their own meaning in what I created. Like, I bequeath my writing to you… Make of it what you will.
More information on Jenny Zhang’s work can be found on her website, here.