Finding Hope, Meaning, and Purpose in a Jenny Zhang Story
Channler Twyman on the Fragility of Belonging to Someone Else
After a year of setbacks, disappointment, and a depressing job market, I moved in with my mom full-time after ten years of stumbling blindfolded through the wilderness of adulthood. While it felt like the premise of some new-age sitcom, I knew moving back in with my family was not going to be all zany antics and pre-recorded applause. In fact, part of me was dreading it.
Quiet as it’s kept, there are few unspoken rules shared among children raised by Black single mothers. One is never to share anything that may reflect badly on the parent who stayed. Another is that despite the ways we glorify their sacrifices and place them on pedestals so high you need ladders to climb them, we know better than anyone that our mothers are not superheroes. Their bones do break, they come home exhausted, and they don’t like giving so much of themselves to other people all the time. Our understanding of them is so intimate because at some point we have all had to shoulder the burden of the things our mothers didn’t have enough strength to carry on their own.
Aside from a few weeks in the summer, I don’t remember a time during my childhood when my sister wasn’t attached to my hip. Unlike my mother and me, my sister is a tidal wave of extroversion which meant that her need for attention was often greater than our capacity to give it.
Her father was present but not enough to make these strenuous times easier. In our hometown in Southwest Georgia, we had family in nearly every neighborhood. We couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone we knew or someone who knew us. When we moved to the Atlanta suburbs, we had to forge new relationships and community from scratch—another task my mother had to take on to help keep us afloat. With our mother doing her best to guide our ship on the fumes she ran on, I was tugging my sister along by her hand, pulling her forward into a future with no discernible destination.
It was this way for years. Our non-nuclear family made do with what we had while enduring a string of layoffs, firing, rehiring, school hopping, and heartbreak along the way. During that time, I had no identity outside of Channler the big brother. When I realized I was queer, there was no avenue to express these burgeoning feelings I had about myself and other boys. My mother was busy being superwoman and the rest of my extended family was not progressive enough to talk through the layers of being queer in a Black body, not to mention I switched schools so often that I didn’t have a strong support system of friends, queer or otherwise.
Like most kids feeling isolated and desperate to form an identity separate from the people they grew up with, the internet was my saving grace. I’d spend hours on community forums, Twitter, and Facebook group chats talking about the things I loved with other people who loved those things just as much, free of shame and judgment. It was my escape from the perpetually changing financial circumstances that constantly affected the interpersonal dynamics of our family. My mother made it clear she did not approve of how I spent my free time—mainly because she didn’t understand it. Always asking who I was messaging on my phone and why. Questioned my preference of spending hours messaging strangers over time with my own family.
“You don’t know these people,” she’d say and go on about how it wasn’t healthy to be on my phone so often. “It’s an addiction.”
I finally created a space just for me to exist without the attachment of belonging to our family and the first chance she got she made me feel wrong for being a part of it. I’d shut down. Avoid talking to her about anything because it felt like she ignored that I was floundering out in orbit, disconnected from the world and myself. I’d finally found a way to tilt right on my axis regardless of how imperfect the method may have been.
By this time, I was nearly off to college. A fresh start hundreds of miles away from the watchful eye of my mother and away from the attachment of being a big brother. Even then, the more I distanced myself from my family the more my mom and I butted heads. I used to loathe going home in the summers because it felt like I regressed. I turned back into a person dependent on his family for everything. Being unable to exist without their constant attachment to me made me feel like I was trapped in a prison with no light or a release date. I remember fantasizing about going to school one day and simply never coming back.
After graduation, realized I would have to create another new identity for myself—Channler, the college graduate. Even scarier: The adult. What had I been doing the past four years? I went into college wanting to be an international relations major. I was supposed to traverse East Asia in finely pressed linen suits. Rub shoulders with the president of China and the Prime Minister of Japan. I was going to be the man who spins around in the big chair, the person behind the scenes of creating long-lasting and sustainable infrastructure of commerce and foreign policy across the land.
But somewhere along the way, the placement of a good metaphor just became too irresistible to ignore. One day I’m learning about the sewage infrastructure of pre-Meiji era Tokyo and the next I’m excavating the intentions of a classmate’s poem about a dead squirrel. Unsure of how to move forward, I applied for a creative writing MFA and was rejected from every school I applied to.
I was devastated. What use was the formation of Channler “the writer,” if it didn’t benefit me or my family financially? What good was it if it led me right back to where I started? I couldn’t go back home empty-handed. I couldn’t go back and merely be somebody else’s again. Then, I read Jenny Zhang.When I write, I’m carrying so much care inside of me. I’m not writing to feel more alone, I’m writing to connect further to all the people who have loved me.
Zhang’s story “The Evolution of My Brother” gave my conflicting feelings language. The story follows a young girl, also named Jenny, who laments the loss of her childhood and the adoration her younger brother once held for her despite spending so much of the story yearning to be independent of her culture and her family. “And now that I am on my own,” Zhang writes, “the days of resenting my parents for loving me too much and my brother for needing me too intensely have been replaced with the days of feeling bewildered by the prospect of finding some other identity besides ‘daughter’ or ‘sister.’ It turns out that this, too, is terrifying, all of it is terrifying.”
What captivated me about this story is the narrator’s unflinching honesty about the conflicting feelings she had growing up as the eldest daughter in a family of immigrants. While she ultimately reflects fondly on helping raise her younger brother, she also discusses the ways she felt suffocated—how she never felt like she had space to be her own person. If she wasn’t weighed down by her family’s expectations she was weighed down by their culture, their dreams, their sacrifice, or the watchful eyes of her brother.
Like many people of color, Jenny was enamored with the fantasy of whiteness, the idea that it is normal to isolate yourself from the people who raised and nurtured you. That it’s okay to always look forward without a second glance back, to free yourself from the shackles of community. Then she got a taste of that freedom and it left her stranded—gasping for air at the idea of belonging to no one.
Zhang’s words have lived in my body since the day I read them. Her work urged me to interrogate my desires and ambitions in the context of community. Do certain markers of achievement I aspire to have bring me closer to the people I love, or push me farther away? The desperation I had to separate myself from my family inhibited my writing. I thought my writing need only represent the struggles I’d gone through. It was a means to ensure I was less dependent on my family–less connected.
When in actuality, it’s always been family that’s guided me back to myself. It’s through their love and adoration that I see myself more clearly. My achievements will always be a reflection of them and everything they’ve poured into me. It was only when I began to accept that my art was bigger than me—that everything I did was bigger than me—did it begin to flourish.
There are so many Black queer and trans people whose dreams and goals were hindered because the people who raised them found them to be expendable. I have never once doubted that my family wanted me—and needed me, as much as I’ve needed them. When I write, I’m carrying so much care inside of me. I’m not writing to feel more alone, I’m writing to connect further to all the people who have loved me.
The more I come to know myself, the better I understand my mother and everything she went through to raise us. Now that I’m back home, there are certainly moments that stir up the resentful feelings I once felt. Old habits that scream out trying to convince me that isolating myself from the world is inherently protecting me from it.
Despite the missteps we take in trying to show we care, it’s all love. Even though there I days I feel the weight of being a part of my family stretching the threads of my patience and compassion to the brim, I know it’s an honor to belong with them. It far outweighs the struggle of going through life alone.