Photography Braudie Blais-Billie

jenny zhang's radical stories examine the asian-american immigrant experience

Her debut collection of short stories is an intimate portrait of Chinese immigrant communities in America.

by Braudie Blais-Billie
11 August 2017, 4:27pm

Photography Braudie Blais-Billie

Reading Jenny Zhang's writing is a gooey, itchy, tangible experience. From the blistered inner worlds of her thoughtful characters to the often tabooed nuances of race, gender, and class, the 33-year-old writer explores the discomfort of reality. Her debut collection of short stories, Sour Heart, is the first book published on Lena Dunham's new Lenny imprint at Random House. The work portrays a handful of Chinese immigrant families making ends meet in New York, who every so often cross paths to lend a helping hand. Each story is told from the perspective of a young girl navigating her own growing pains as an Asian-American living in New York.

"The protagonists are very breathless and prone to going on and on," Zhang explains. "That wasn't hard for me to access, maybe that's why I wrote about childhood. I used to have a hard time keeping myself tightly controlled—I was always just spilling out." Sour Heart's endearing messiness allows for an ingenuity and wonder often missing from the mainstream perception of the American immigrant. Zhang—an immigrant herself who moved from Shanghai to New York at age five—manipulates tired Asian-American tropes into challenging meditations on alienation, community, and unconditional love.

Though Zhang, a graduate from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is formally educated in fiction, Sour Heart is her first book in the genre. Over the years, she's published the chapbook Hags, a collection of poetry called Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, and has done nonfiction pieces for places like Rookie Mag, Buzzfeed, The New York Times Magazine, and Jezebel. She even chatted about the weirdness of Rivers Cuomo and growing up Asian with Mitski for Yours Truly. "Mitski is a great inspiration for me," she gushes. "She is where she is because she's incredibly talented, but also because she works so hard. She's the best person."

With Sour Heart finally out, i-D speaks with Zhang about language, freedom, and the flexible concept autobiographical writing.

I know Sour Heart was about thirteen years in the making. How did these stories come together and reveal themselves as a collection rather than one-off pieces?
I tried to explore as many ways in which family operates in both our nuclear families and our extended families. I just got to a point where I thought I explored it all. This book is about mother-daughter relationships, sibling relationships, grandparent-grandchildren relationships, and all the other branches of family. Maybe the one thing I didn't really get at in this book was father-daughter relationships. I somehow felt that I was wanting to write about that in another, longer book.

It also felt like I was writing about these characters who were all in the same part of New York around the same time. My father came here to get his PhD in linguistics. In my experience, it felt like we knew every single mainland Chinese-American immigrant who immigrated between 1988 and 1990 or something. We all kind of rely on each other and need each other. It's this thing where there are very instant connections and because you're kind of alone in this country and don't have a community, you build one really quickly. But also people disappear—some move away, some don't make it and go back to China, some don't make it but stay in a different neighborhood than where you moved to because you "made it." I just felt like there was this community and the gates were ajar and people were coming in and out. I wanted to capture that.

Your relationship with language is something you've talked about a lot, both how it nourishes you as an writer but also how it was such a point of pain in your youth. Can you talk a little bit about the role of language in these stories?
I thought that fiction, especially first-person narrated short stories, was a good vessel for exploring all the different ways in which language affects us internally and externally. I wanted to be able to show what the internal worlds of people who don't seem very impressive externally are like, especially when it comes to immigrants where English is their second language. I remember I was in graduate school, I had this Italian teacher who was really brilliant. He mentioned once in class that it's this horrible experience to learn a new language, especially if you really value being eloquent and intelligent because you can't be those things in the first stages of learning a new language. People just assume you're dumber than you are. I never thought of it that way, but once he said that it crystallized for me that that was a source of angst for me as a young girl and teenager.

I also wanted to explore the inventiveness and creativity that comes out of not knowing a language well. I wanted immigrants who are still acquiring English to be considered the realm of linguistic invention instead of the realm of poor language. I also wanted the reader to feel the blur, confusion, and swirl of languages that these characters feel. Because these stories are told retrospectively by these narrators looking back at their childhoods and in their memories or their parents, everyone is speaking the same language. But I wanted the confusion and the intermixing of languages to deliberately come through as extremely messy and hard to separate.

I absolutely fell in love with Cristina's innocence and devotion to her parents in the opening story, "We Love You Crispina." Who was the last character you fell in love with, and why?
I do have a really strong affection for Cristina. Honestly, I fell in love with her family—they're probably the most different from what I grew up with. "We Love You Crispina" was almost an aspirational story of when I was growing up, the kind of life I thought I wanted to have. The parents care a lot, but they don't care about their daughter doing well in school, for example. They're not pressed about a lot of the things we usually think of Asian-American immigrants being pressed about. They're very willing to spend their last $20 on three ice cream cones and some frivolous meal.

There are so many stories about young girls rebelling against their parents or their mothers. I like this idea of this young girl who's afraid to rebel just because she wants to stay in love with her parents. I like the idea of a young girl who idolizes her parents and has to realize that as she gets older, the only way she can see them as full human beings is to slowly realize all the ways in which they're flawed.

An issue you've discussed in interviews and your Buzzfeed articleThey Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist is the fact that some readers often think you're always writing about yourself. With work like Sour Heart out in the world, how do you protect and separate yourself from the self people see in your fiction?
I read some articles or reviews that mentioned, in a positive way, that Zhang has interwoven autobiographical elements into these stories, and so it adds a flavor of authenticity. It was just really interesting to read that because I forgot that when you're writing about a marginalized group of people—in my case Chinese immigrants, a group of people most Americans don't have deep intimate knowledge of—you have to always prove that what you're saying could have really happened. Which I don't think is quite as true for white writers. Obviously, some of the most beloved works of literature that were written in the English canon are not autobiographical. Would people prefer if Nabokov was like, "Lolita was drawn from my life"? I feel like they wouldn't.

So, I'm dealing with that by trying to remember what writing is. I'm trying to remember that all writing, in some way, is autobiographical. We can never escape our subjectivity. I always think about Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote fairytales. You can't call The Ugly Duckling autobiographical because it was about a swan, but it was completely based on his own childhood and his own experiences of trying to make it in the big city and how he saw himself as an ugly duckling who was meant to be a swan. I'm just trying to have a more elastic definition of autobiography. It's not really a dirty word, it's just used in such a limited way.

A huge tension throughout the book is between the isolation your protagonists feel and the visibility of their bodies: Mande from "My Days and Nights of Terror" constantly feels unsafe because of her small size, Lucy from "The Empty The Empty The Empty" is sexualized against her will, and Cristina is plagued by eczema. Is this tension something you've reconciled in your own life?
I don't think I've figured it out. Women will always be dismissed, but their bodies will always be available for public scrutiny. It's really interesting because a woman's body is such a spectacle and it's so heavily enforced. I don't know that I've found a way to deal with it. I think that women writing about the body, including myself, I think we want to have some control over a site that has often been controlled by others. We want to be able to not be wielded in the way that women's bodies have been wielded almost politically.

I guess I wanted to be able to write about it on my terms. I'm one of those people who never forgets having a body. I'm always aware that I'm in a body and I'm always aware of when it's betrayed me or has become upset, neglected, or badly treated. It seems weird to describe characters and their personalities and not describe their physical bodies. It seems weird to have characters who don't eat and shit.

In "The Evolution of My Brother," Jenny's conflict isn't one of stability or safety like the other families, but of freedom—she wants to be free of the responsibility she owes to her family, especially her little brother. As a writer, what is your relationship with freedom?
I'm constantly trying to behave as if I were completely free, and then realizing that there will always be restrictions or that it will always come at a cost. That's kind of what that story is about—Jenny realizes that she wants to break away from her family, but she can only do it because her parents have literally paid for her to go to school and do what she wants. She realizes that even though she's grateful that they've done that, it also means she's indebted to them and that they didn't get to have what she had, so she feels this shame later on in life.

Maybe this is a stretch, but it is true in some sense that each generation pays for the next to have the freedoms that they didn't have themselves. In some ways, I get to write more freely because of the groundwork that the early-Asian American writers that I read and loved—Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri—started and the ground that broke. In some ways, they didn't get to be as completely free because they had a greater burden of telling a story that's never been told before. For me, I still feel that, but also there are some things I can skip over because I feel like they were covered, people know about this. I want to move on now from these stories. I hope to write even more freely after [ Sour Heart].