Truth Turns the Heart: Chinese-American Comic Jenny Zhang
Jenny Zhang’s bodies are not pretty. They cry and bleed and shit. They discuss their ablutions in the kind of graphic detail that will turn strong stomachs and guarantee every interviewer everywhere will be compelled to ask the author: Why?
“I was always drawn to humour,” says Zhang. “And I was always drawn to scatological writing. When I started reading Joyce and Beckett and the French poets, I noticed they used it like it was a literary form.”
Some people, she says, like detective novels. “I like scatological writing. I really responded to it. I don’t know why.”
The phone line between Auckland and New York is shonky. Zhang shifts from the ergonomic chair in her bedroom and comes back – strong, clear: “It’s a very olde worlde Chinese sensibility to want to be very frank and explicit about the body. And I think it’s a very American thing to speak about what happens in the body, and bodily functions, in euphemisms. To speak of death and birth in very euphemistic ways, and to use metaphors, rather than to be literal.”
Zhang was born in Shanghai. Her parents moved to New York when she was a toddler and she joined them when she started school. Sour Heart is her first fiction book, a series of short stories centred on the young girls of New York’s Chinese American community.
It’s the first title from Lenny, the Random House imprint from Girls creator Lena Dunham. On the cover, Dunham writes: “I was stunned, moved and – quite frankly – a little jealous.” Author Miranda July wades in, “startling brilliance”. And on Twitter in New Zealand, Ockham judge Jenna Todd says: “Sour Heart is my favourite book of 2017 and that’s my most anticipated event at the Auckland Writers Festival.”
In February, Zhang won the PEN America prize for debut fiction. When Weekend calls, she’s preparing to speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and will make three appearances at the Auckland event.
Shifting from private to public is strange, says the 34-year-old, who has previously published two volumes of poetry.
“It’s kind of like when you take a lot of photos on vacation, and over the years you look back and those photos cast a glare over everything and you forget everything else that happened and your memory becomes very selective.
“This is what publishing is. You make something, and you relinquish it a little bit. It is mine, but it’s also now other people’s. It’s hard to connect it back to me sometimes.”
Sour Heart opens with a story about a girl who lives in a one-bedroom apartment: “We woke with flattened cockroaches in our bed sheets, sometimes three or four stuck on our elbows, and once I found fourteen of them pressed to my calves, and there was no beauty in shaking them off, though we strove for grace …”
“My family occupied various economic strata as we started out in America,” she says, diplomatically.
“I also think about a collective autobiography and a collective memory and a lot of my memories, they’re not really mine, they belong to this cohort of families that I was enmeshed in when I first came to the US, and our stories, their stories, they all blend in a little bit and I think that I took liberties and I also was indulgent with my imagination.
“But I also started from a feeling that is … true. Which is kind of a feeling of a kind of desperation that comes with not having money. A kind of desperation that comes with not just not having money but not having a safety net, not having another generation of grandparents, or a parent above, who could help. That feeling of, like, beneath our feet is just nothing. It’s just a drop. So if we were to fall, there’d be nothing there. I think that was very true. That’s the part that feels true to me.”
Sour Heart is disquieting in its depictions of adolescent sexuality.
Zhang says she was interested in power, the idea that a child is reliant on adults for guidance, and if that guidance goes askew, a child might cause another child pain and while the world wants bad guys, maybe the story is more complicated.
“So those were kind of the situations that I saw a lot when I was growing up, where it was really hard to say ‘this is the bad guy, this is the reason why people are in pain’. And so I was trying to explore that unsettling feeling when you can’t immediately identify the good and bad actors in a situation that has produced pain.
“Did I succeed in my social experiment to expose all of that? I hope I did for some, and perhaps I didn’t for others.”
There is a memorable line in Sour Heart where a character says “on the inside I was vast, on the outside I was a known idiot”.
Zhang says immigrants who don’t speak the language of their new home “always end up sounding and seeming basically more stupid than you really are and you can’t really convince people otherwise, because of people’s stereotypes and assumptions”.
As she was writing, she realised many people feel like this.
“A lot of people feel underestimated. Like they’re perceived as less interesting than they are, or in a very limited way.”
There’s that moment, she says, “where you’re like, ‘what if they’re right? What if I am weak, what if I am fragile, what if I am nothing?’ That line is just what all people are treading and dealing with everyday”.
In the fourth grade, aged nine or 10, Zhang’s father had her summarise articles he had clipped from the New York Times. First she would copy them in full, then summarise them in three sentences, then five sentences, then two paragraphs. It’s an anecdote she has fictionalised in Sour Heart. In real life, “it was the worst. I can’t read the New York Times properly now, because I have bad memories.”
Zhang’s family loved her first fiction book; her father told her he laughed out loud frequently.
“I thought I was surprising them, but they surprised me with their humour and sensibilities.”
In the acknowledgements, she thanks her parents for “protecting me from what I want”, a line made famous by artist Jenny Holzer.
“I love her and the sentiment, but it also sparked something with my upbringing. I think my parents were very afraid of what I wanted, because what I wanted was to be an artist and a writer and what they experienced was that that was not just a hard life, but literally a deadly life, because of their experience in China, in the cultural revolution, where artists were literally persecuted, literally beaten, literally killed, literally jailed and imprisoned.”
Her mother and father came to America, she says, with “as many advantages as someone in their position could … and yet they still had a very hard time ‘making it’ and so to them, what I wanted seemed very dangerous and very extravagant”.
In movies and literature, says Zhang, the protective immigrant parent is often portrayed as evil – too strict, too conservative.
“I wanted to give a little nod, to say it’s not evil, it’s very sense-making to me. Maybe it would have been great to have had parents who said ‘please do anything you want’ … I had a different set of parents who said the world is very, very dangerous and we just want you to be safe. And that was good for my character, too. It was good for me to rebel and learn to fight for what I wanted.”
Zhang is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ programme. The stories in Sour Heart come from a body of writing produced between the ages of 19 and 25.
“At some point I stopped writing about those obsessions and concerns, and I realised I’d moved on to something else. So I looked back, and found this grouping that belonged in the same universe of concerns, and also the same universe of people.”
Characters and settings overlap. It is like reading a novel, but Zhang says the short story model suited her. “There have been some conversations lately about the Novel, with a capital “N”. The idea of men who write really, really, really long novels that are sometimes very deliberately boring …”
Like Karl Ove Knausgard? The Norwegian author with the six-volume, autobiographical Min Kamp, who is also scheduled to appear in Auckland? Zhang doesn’t engage.
“There’s lots of examples, and I love a lot of those books. It’s that who has the audacity and sort of arrogance and entitlement to waste people’s time with aesthetic experiences? And with, with – longness?!
“I think a lot of my favourite books by women are, like, these slim, 120-page novels, and sometimes I think there should be another category. Like, maybe the novel has been colonised by male white greatness and maybe there should be another category of stories?”
She loves David Foster Wallace’s experimental behemoth Infinite Jest and she likes (“not loves”) James Joyce’s modernist Ulysses, but never thought she could write that novel. “I always felt like I was writing smaller things. But I didn’t feel like they were minor.”