Identity

Jenny Zhang, author of ‘Sour Heart,’ on the beauty of poop and the immigrant experience

Dec 18, 2018

Sour Heart, winner of this year’s LA Times Book Prize, has made a splash for its striking portraits of Chinese immigrant families in America.

Reading the short-story collection from Chinese-American author Jenny Zhang is like peering into the mind of a brash teenager coming of age in a chaotic immigrant household.

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It’s a body of work characterized by unrelentingly grotesque scenes, devastatingly beautiful prose, and lots of scatological humor. Most of the protagonists are young Chinese-American women.

The book was picked up by Lena Dunham’s imprint, Lenny, as its inaugural publication and quickly earned praise for its rawness.

We caught up with Zhang at a small Hong Kong cafe, where we talked about writing, fame, and growing up Chinese-American. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.


Dolly Li: So what would you like to drink? They have raw egg in boiled water.

Jenny Zhang: Really? I think I’ve had something like this before. It was a poached egg in boiled water, but there was also sugar. It was a snack my babysitter used to make in the States.

Gavin Huang: Oh yeah, my mother said she used to make something like that, too, but I always doubted whether it was really a thing. And I think that’s the case with a lot of stories our parents tell us, right? We’re not sure if they’re totally true, but you take their word for it. You’ve actually incorporated those stories into your writing, especially when you touch on heavy topics like the Cultural Revolution. Did you find it difficult to tell other people’s stories?

JZ: I had a really hard time actually. In the end, those stories are the first-person retrospectives of now-adult women looking back at a time in their childhood when they heard these stories of a country they either never knew or no longer remembered. So the recounting is supposed to be blurry and inaccurate.

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We all take the stories we hear from our elders and apply a hazy lens of retrospective and nostalgia to it just because they seem so epic and different from anything we’ve experienced. I built that into the story. What I describe is not meant to be history, but rather recreating the feeling of hearing the same stories over and over again about what your parents went through.

We all take the stories we hear from our elders and apply a hazy lens of retrospective and nostalgia to it.

DL: What stuck out most about retelling those stories?

JZ: I think what was most interesting to me was how much I as a small child, who had no idea what it really meant, envied my parents because I thought they were so free. There were no schools. You were out on the street every single day. You could beat up adults. And that was encouraged? You could literally throw things at each other.

I think I felt that way because growing up, I spent all my time indoors. I was so sheltered that the idea of being able to go wilding in the streets seemed like the best life ever. Not having to go to school where I hated everyone and felt like a loser, that seemed amazing. I craved that revolution would take over the United States and schools would be closed for two years. Later, when I learned more, I remember feeling so ashamed that I ever thought it was the best life possible.

When I learned more, I remember feeling so ashamed that I ever thought it was the best life possible.

GH: You did some labor organizing back in the day and worked with home nurses in San Francisco. Do you think the experience has influenced your writing?

JZ: That’s a good question because I feel like it’s very American to separate art from politics. That doesn’t seem like a given in most other countries in the world, but I feel like it’s very American to think there’s some kind of pure idea of art and poetry, that it should not be tainted by the provincial concerns of politics and ideology. I never agreed with that, but that was how I had been taught in school.

But when you’re out organizing and working in the community, it’s not very practical to take a really long time to communicate things.

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The one thing I always wanted to do was write something that my mother could read, and I mean that literally. I know a lot of our mothers can’t read in the language that we read and write in, and I always felt like no matter how obscure, avant-garde, or conceptual I stupidly thought I was trying to be, I still really wanted someone who had the barest level of English to be able to gain some pleasure from the work, and I did learn a lot of that from organizing.

The one thing I always wanted to do was write something that my mother could read.

GH: So it’s less about having your writing be politically important than about being able to reach a broader audience.

JZ: Some writers don’t wish to be described as populist or appealing to a great group of people, but I guess that doesn’t really bother me. Of course, populism can also be wielded by terrible people, so I don’t want to be blindly advocating that. It’s more about getting our ass out of the academy and this elite world of literature and art, and not being so enthralled by the same five people who buy, produce, and trade art. It’s about appealing to someone who may never own a book, library, or piece of art.

It’s about appealing to someone who may never own a book, library, or piece of art.

GH: You use “sh*t” a lot in your writing.

JZ: I always liked scatological literature that straddled between smut and seriousness. It seemed like in the Western canon, it was mostly white men who did that, and they were lauded for it or positioned as experimental. So why not join this category of literature with my own contributions? Why would I in any way have to be limited?

And the other thing is I’ve always thought of it as a Chinese sensibility. Chinese people are pretty obsessed with what they put in their bodies, what happens to their bodies, and what comes out of it.

GH: Like in Chinese, it’s common to specify whether you’re taking a dump or a piss when you go to the bathroom.

JZ: Yeah, there’s an explicitness to it. I guess I was informed by that.

Chinese people are pretty obsessed with what they put in their bodies, what happens to their bodies, and what comes out of it.

DL: Your book’s going to be translated to Chinese. How do you feel about that?

JZ: Pretty scared. It’s been pointed out that my book is very American, very Chinese-American. So how do you translate Chinese-American stories, written in English, to Chinese for Chinese people? I don’t know. I can’t even wrap my mind around that. It really would be someone else’s creation at that point.

Jenny Zhang reads from her book at an author talk in Hong Kong on Nov. 3, 2018.
Jenny Zhang reads from her book at an author talk in Hong Kong on Nov. 3, 2018. / Photo: Dolly Li

GH: You said something interesting at an event recently, that you didn’t think anyone was entitled to speak or be heard. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JZ: I guess I just said that because to me, I still don’t feel entitled to be heard. And I can’t advocate this for anyone but myself. I know throughout history, there’s been a very, very specific type of person who consistently gets to be heard, so it seems like the corrective would be to have all the people who were always silenced to be able speak.

But for myself, I still feel like when I speak, I’m creating some kind of silence because then someone else isn’t speaking. Just because we want to hear from eight more Asians than we did 20 years ago, does that mean anything, really, for anyone but those eight Asians? I guess I’m just always aware that my existence can displace another.

Just because we want to hear from eight more Asians than we did 20 years ago, does that mean anything, really, for anyone but those eight Asians?

DL: I wonder if people who contribute to a space where they’re not the dominant voice are just conditioned to assume they don’t have a place or platform.

JZ: For me, it goes back to power. Is there some other form of sharing and communicating that does not anoint one person as the speaker, leader, or voice of a people? Is there some more collective way of sharing art?

It’s not that I don’t think I don’t deserve to speak. It’s just that I don’t want a person to suddenly be powerful just because someone speaks really well. Power really frightens me because I’ve never seen it used humanely.

Chinese immigrant communitiesChinese immigrantsComing-of-ageInterviewJenny Zhang

Credit

Featuring: Jenny Zhang

Produced by: Dolly Li

Shot by: Joel Roche and Hanley Chu

Animated by: Ray Ngan

Mastered by: Joel Roche