Jenny Zhang: “I Didn’t Want to Give in to the White American Gaze”
The Sour Heart Author on Family, Language, and Collective Memory
Jenny Zhang is a writer, poet, and essayist whose debut collection of stories, Sour Heart, is the first book out from Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint at Random House. Zhang’s narrators are young Chinese girls navigating home and school as new immigrants in 90s New York. These are coming of age stories, but also narratives of how history, poverty, race, and class affect whole families and communities, told retrospectively through the voices of the women these girls will one day become. I’ve been an avid reader of Zhang’s writing since our days as staff writers for Rookie Magazine, and I was grateful to speak with her about how she takes her own experiences as a young girl, and immigrant, and spins them into tall tales, stories—the stuff of dreams—and nightmares.
Monika Zaleska: You attended to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a fiction student, but many people know you first as an essayist and poet. Were you writing fiction all the while you were publishing and performing your poems?
Jenny Zhang: I wrote these stories in my undergraduate and graduate years, but even then I started writing poetry on the side, to give myself an opportunity to make something that wasn’t immediately going to be consumed and commented on. I never really shared it with anyone; I never really took any classes or studied it. I just submitted what I had to the Octopus Books contest open reading period, and they said they wanted to publish my poetry book. Then I started to publish more and more poetry because people would ask me to do readings or ask me submit something for their journal. I wasn’t having the same ease and success in my fiction career, but I kept at it. Poetry was my dirty little secret when I was a fiction writer at Iowa, and then fiction became my dirty little secret when I started writing more poetry and working for Rookie.
MZ: Your protagonists switch between English and Chinese throughout their narratives. Sometimes Chinese characters appears on the page and other times it’s just implied that they aren’t speaking English. How did you approach this linguistic issue? You’ve also spoken about the issue of “authenticity” versus “believability” when writing as a woman of color, where your experiences are valued for their “authenticity” while your authority as a writer or the “believability” of your stories is called into question.
JZ: One of the most common things people would say in my MFA program was, “I don’t think Chinese people talk this way.” I always found that so befuddling. How am I, a Chinese person, less knowledgeable about how Chinese people talk than you, a non-Chinese person? Then I realize what they’re really saying is “I’ve never met a Chinese person who speaks this way” and there’s a lot of reasons for that they’re not investigating.
I remember my parents came to my graduation at Iowa, and we had this really nice party for my friends and all our parents with wine and cheese. Everyone was having a great time, and then I suddenly realized that my parents weren’t talking, that they were hanging back. It really saddened me, because, when I’m with my parents, we’re talking nonstop. They’re so funny, and their sense of humor is the greatest in the world, and they’re so incredibly articulate. Then I thought, “Oh, none of that can come through, because in order for that to come through, everyone at this party would have to speak both Chinese and English, and not just both Chinese and English, but actually this language of three that my parents and I speak.”
“How am I, a Chinese person, less knowledgeable about how Chinese people talk than you, a non-Chinese person?”
I realized after that party that I wanted to be able to convey how I experienced my parents in fiction, if not in real life. I try to convey these characters in the way that they see themselves, and in the way that their loved ones experience them. These daughters of parents with varying degrees of English fluency—they don’t see their parents as having broken or accented English—they understand what their parents are saying. I tried to not make it clear in dialogue if they’re speaking Chinese with the narrators’ translating for the reader, or if they’re speaking in a combination of Chinese and English and switching effortlessly between the two. It was really important, for example, that none of the Chinese alphabet characters were italicized or set off formally in any way. My editor Kaela Myers was amazing and encouraged me to do that. I tried to create internal linguistic rules for each story that weren’t subservient to English.
MZ: Nonfiction has increasingly become a place for you to discuss your aesthetic and political concerns—I’m thinking of your Buzzfeed essay on cultural appropriation, your Poetry Magazine piece about “overexposed” feelings in art and poetry, and your post-election New Inquiry piece. Does writing nonfiction help shape the political concerns of your fiction? Conversely, does writing fiction move you to express your aesthetic concerns more directly through criticism?
JZ: With nonfiction, I had to learn how to be a clear communicator, but it was also a relief to be able to articulate some of my political ideas and beliefs. I also try to do that in my fiction, but I’m more interested in asking questions that lead to more questions, mysteries that lead to more mysteries, rather than immediate answers and solutions. Sometimes I worry that people who read my fiction think that I am making some kind of thesis statement. Like, for example, in the first story in this collection “We Love You Crispina.” The characters experience racism as Chinese American immigrants, but they are also extremely racist; they have crude, anti-black attitudes. They think, “We’re not like those people. We’re like the good immigrants” and try to distance themselves from the mostly black and brown people in their neighborhoods. I didn’t want someone to read that and think I was condoning that, or that I was like delighting in that somehow, just because I’m writing about it. But I have a body of work in nonfiction where I articulate my views about racism and misogyny and white supremacy, which can hopefully be a companion to my fiction.
MZ: In Sour Heart many of the stories deal with family memories of China. “Our Mothers Before Them” is partially set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. As a fiction writer, but also as someone who grew up hearing stories about this history, how did you go about researching and writing about this era?
JZ: I really agonized over it. I really fretted over getting it right. I didn’t want to seem like I was just regurgitating a Wikipedia article or that I wasn’t respectful of the fact that this history affected people extremely deeply and terribly in many cases. I did a lot of research, but I’m not going to privilege historical scholarship over the stories of people who really lived through it. I can’t read in Chinese, so I know that whatever research I did in English is extremely limited. I also just lived. I spent time with my family members. And when I spend time with them, they inevitably tell me stories of the past because they feel safe and close to me. From being around my family, from going back to China, these stories started to swirl around in my head and become this jumble, this collective memory that now I’m part of even though I never lived through it, and was never there. It’s just part of me now.
The stories of the Cultural Revolution are told by the children of the parents who lived through it, and so it makes sense that their telling would be just as jumbled as my knowledge of it—some of it will be projection, some of it will be not necessarily completely faithfully accurate. I just tried to recreate that vibe instead of trying to write historical fiction about the Cultural Revolution. What’s so interesting is that when you do read books about the things that your elders have told you, you’re kind of trying to fit their stories into these history books. But at some point you have to accept that people have different experiences of the same history—just like some people will look back on the Trump presidency and be like “Yeah, it was a normal period of life” and some other people will be like “That was a hell of unimaginable proportions where I feared for my life everyday.”
MZ: I wanted to ask you about the bonds between children and parents in Sour Heart. Sometimes your young protagonists feel like their parents are talking through them like air, or don’t pay any attention to them. Other times, the burden of their parents love and sacrifice becomes so overwhelming that they feel like they can’t break free of their families. Then, rarely, there are these magical moments, when everything is safe and right with the world, like waking up all in one bed and staying there until afternoon.
JZ: When you’re the child of immigrants who have done so much and sacrificed so much so that you can be safe, so that you can be fed, so that you can have a life with the freedom to choose your future, in a way that your parents didn’t—it’s an incredible gift and an incredible burden. You’re brought into this world in debt, and you can’t really pay off that debt and you’re not really supposed to. You know it’s natural for parents to want to care for their children and give them as much as possible. But when you hear your parents talk about how their childhoods involved so much suffering, almost gruesome suffering, how can you as a child not feel embarrassed? How do you not feel like you want to give up everything you have, as if that that could somehow repay the debt? When I was ten, I would feel ashamed that I got to go to school, because when my parents were ten, schools were shut down and they were literally wilding in the streets or working on a farm, because the urban youth were sent down to the rural areas to work as farmers. My parents would tell me stories of their friends literally being worked to death in the fields.
My early years in America were marked by struggle and poverty and not knowing what tomorrow would bring. Because we were poor, we did have to live in one room together for a long time, and I resented that a lot. Other girls at my school had their own bedroom that they got to decorate with posters. I resented that and was envious of people who didn’t have to share a bed with their parents. But it’s also hard to look back at a time when things were difficult and not romanticize it or imbue it with a kind of beauty and light. I never felt as safe as I did mornings when I woke up with my parents in the same bed, at an age when you really shouldn’t be waking up in the same bed as your parents.
“How do you not feel like you want to give up everything you have, as if that that could somehow repay the debt?”
It’s such an extraordinary thing to grow up with a family where you depend on each other so much because the institutions that are supposed to protect you are not quite there, and I wanted to capture that in these stories. So often in stories about immigrants, they’re about second-generation children who rebel and hate their parents and feel so much shame about the culture and country their parents came from. I didn’t want to give into a white American gaze that wants these stories about immigrants hating themselves. I wanted to show families that love each other. The burden is not that they want to be white, or that they wish they didn’t have families with such unreasonable expectations for them. The burden is coming from a family that loves each other too much. I didn’t want to show these Chinese immigrants as outsiders. In their world, they’re insiders.
This interview has been edited and condensed.