Sour Heart author talks to Karen Cheung about epic domesticity and the politics of taste
Days before Jenny Zhang’s scheduled readings in Hong Kong, I stumbled upon a list she had curated of her favorite things on the internet: it was, I’m sure, the only time I’ll ever see our homegirl Faye Wong on a list with Frank O’Hara. I find out from the same article that Zhang has a habit of texting her friends during poetry readings: “HELP SOS CALL 911 ALERT THE COAST GUARDS GET ME OUTTA HERE.” Sometimes she does this at her own readings. Zhang’s poems struck me as best experienced not live but on the page: there are short forms, lowercases, punctuation marks gone awry, poetic misspellings, as if you were reading the intimate diary of an unsettlingly wise and eloquent teenager. With her sweet, gooey voice and once-pastel colored hair, you’re almost tempted to think of her as a manic pixie dream girl. Except you don’t.
Because then she writes about how girls of color feel when they realize the cotton candy dye isn’t a trend meant for dark Asian hair and that even after three rounds of bleach the pink turns to dark magenta in a week. Then you remember her damning verdict of the appropriation of minority voices by white writers in America: “They pretend to be us while pretending we don’t exist.” Then she tells the audience of a panel discussion that she’s always found it boring to be sweet, that sourness – and people who are “hard to love” – fascinate her more. Then you flip open her heart-wrenching short story collection, aptly named Sour Heart, and realize that she’s opened the book with an extensive description of, of all things, turds.
Most now know Zhang as the winner of PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Novel with Sour Heart, but years before that, she gained a readership among young American girls with her work at Rookie, where she spilled her guts on topics ranging from her embarrassing teenage love of Weezer and Rivers Cuomo’s Asian fetish to Black Lives Matter. Zhang began writing decades ago as a way to cope with the displacement of immigrating from Shanghai to the United States when she was five: when she wrote, she felt fluent again, freed from judgement for having broken English or an accent, she says. “I think writing was one of the few places where how I felt inside could match how I was perceived.”
In writing, Zhang found the voice that she once thought she had lost; now, she’s giving one to many other young Asian and Asian-American girls.
Zhang is in Hong Kong – her first visit – for the city’s International Literary Festival. Before her visit, she posted on Instagram: “seeing my bio in Chinese fills me with joy and 😭 .” A Chinese translation of Sour Heart is currently in the works. Even in the English original, the protagonists speak a combination of English and Chinese, and Zhang has taken the unusual step of placing pinyin and even Chinese characters in the dialogue, without italics or explanation of their meanings.
“I didn’t want anything to stand out in the typeset or typographically, I wanted it to all look like one language, because that’s how I experienced speaking to my family,” Zhang told me on her Hong Kong visit. For her, this language was neither fully Chinese nor English but a mix of the two, with its own idiosyncratic vernacular, so she tried to stay faithful to her memory and recreate it in a way that was familiar. “Because these stories are so domestic and so focused on the internal world of a family unit, I wanted to be fuzzy and not delineate so clearly.”
This domesticity takes center stage in Sour Heart, which features six young immigrant girls and their families in America around the 1990s. The New Yorker calls the book a “feminist bildungsroman,” and Zhang recognizes that the decision to focus on writing about families could be a subversive act itself. Often, she says, the great subjects in writing are war and political ideology, “things that are, not by coincidence, realms that are dominated by men, in close alignment with patriarchy,” while domestic life is treated “as provincial, as more minor.”
“Taste is seen as sort of subjective and personal, but it’s very political and there’s a lot of soft power in what kind of tastes are validated and accepted. There is a relegating of any kind of writing that deals with emotions,” she says. But she doesn’t respect that, she laughs.
“I think that the interior world of a person and their family life and their domestic life is deeply, intricately connected to their political ideologies and the bigger forces that move in the world. And I think that I wanted to make these, what are usually considered to be smaller subjects, feel really epic.”
Zhang does exactly this in Sour Heart: while grand themes of immigrant literature, such as the Cultural Revolution and poverty, do make appearances, they lurk in the background or set the scene. The real MVPs are domestic violence, puberty, and codependency, portrayed with sensitivity, brutal honesty and a touch of whimsy for hyperbolic effect – after all, the narrators are young girls. The first story, ‘We Love You Crispina,’ ends with a family pushing their old car into the Harlem River – they didn’t have the money to tow it to a junkyard. As the narrator Christina mutters a prayer towards an overhead airplane begging it to watch over her family, the automobile floats back up “like a monster of our own creation,” a moment that is at once desperate and horrifically funny. But by then, you’re so invested in the family that you’re closer to crying than laughing.
Other times, we watch unfulfilled dreams and trauma manifest in devastating ways, like the emotionally demanding mother who takes out her self-pity on her children by belting out karaoke tunes at family gatherings or the grandmother that makes her grandchildren believe they would perish without her so that she can still feel useful. In Zhang’s works, women are not saviors or sinners, concepts or caricatures; they exist so fervidly that reading about them is like looking directly at the sun: glorious, blinding, oftentimes painful.
These characters stem from Zhang’s experience with the Shanghainese women in her family, and how their relationships are distorted in a patriarchal society: she confesses to an audience in Hong Kong how she remembers realising that her mother was beautiful, and not wanting to that to be acknowledged by others, as if she wouldn’t belong to just her anymore. “I was just very interested in the relationships between women… and the ways in which these women and the girls shape each other and push against each other but also try to please each other,” she says.
But more than that, it may be that her struggles with feeling seen as a woman of color in the US shape her fiction. Despite having studied fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she had initially turned to personal essays. “I think especially when I was younger – and I think this is a common experience – because my ‘I’ was deemed very insignificant and unimportant and unworthy, it was a constant project to give it worth and to insist on an ‘I.’”
There were also circumstantial factors: the publishing world, Zhang says, tends to think that “if you’re not a white man, then the best thing you can offer up is your personal experiences and especially your personal traumas.” But even her essays on gender and race became double-edged swords: she soon realized that her autobiography was commodified and used in ways she hasn’t consented to, especially by publications that had published very little work by non-white man. “I don’t want to be a shield for these troubled and rotten institutions who have done nothing to correct their legacy – I don’t want to be a band-aid or a salve.”
Now, she says, she’s more drawn to fiction “because I feel like I don’t want the barrier between my life and my words to be so thin.” Her work is already often mistaken as autobiographical even when it isn’t; with her relative success, she is also aware that she can no longer write as though no one would read it, as she had when writing was merely a solace. While it’s exciting to be able to share her work meaningfully, she says, “it’s also a lot of pressure because it intrudes on the solitariness, the need to isolate myself… in the end writing is always going to be a very internal and solitary act, so that will always be a challenge and a pleasure.”
We spend the last couple of minutes together laughing about our adolescent problematic faves. It wasn’t just Rivers Cuomo – everything she liked in the past was probably problematic, she says. “It’s also part of the edifices of my life. Growing up it has shaped me, both the embrace and turning away of it has shaped me… I consumed what was available in the culture that I grew up in, and now I can only hope to play some very small part in shaping the culture into one that might be more interesting and humane.”
I think about her beautiful tribute to Tracey Emin, the delicious way she uses the word “fuck,” her celebration of “heroic sluts” and banshees (“the female kicking and screaming / the female hysteric”) in Hags, written after Zhang stayed up all night watching Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster on an anti-abortion bill in Texas. I think about what she said of Faye Wong’s cover and performance in Chungking Express, and how it made her see “a world where girls like me were stars.” Even though I live across the Pacific, I think about how wonderful it would have been if, during my own teenage years, I could have found myself among the girls in Sour Heart rather than Holden Caulfield. I tell her it gives me hope that a novel about young girls and “smaller subjects” could win a prestigious literary award. But what I really wanted to say was: thank you for making us feel seen.