Two years ago, I read Jenny Zhang’s essay ‘They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist’. I remember pausing after the second paragraph. “She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace,” Jenny writes, “but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States.”
Jenny is the author of the short story collection ‘Sour Heart’—for which she won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and L.A. Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction—the poetry collection ‘Dear Jenny, We Are All Find’, and the e-book ‘The Selected Jenny Zhang’. Her writing has appeared in ‘The New York Times’, ‘Harper’s’, ‘Poetry’, ‘Buzzfeed’, ‘New York’ and ‘Rookie’.
The stories of ‘Sour Heart’, told through a chorus of Chinese American girls growing up in New York City, explore the ways parents and children need to be protected, not just from the world but from each other. They ricochet from joyous to terrifying, from sentimental to cruel, cruel violence. It is impossible to read Jenny’s work and not feel something. Beneath the playfulness, the abjectness, is a deep sense of responsibility to her community, to her parents, and ultimately, to herself.
In a conversation punctuated with laughter (and the distractingly “yummy” smell of cumin seeds), Jenny and I discuss ‘Sour Heart’, her relationship to New York City and Shanghai, and carving one’s own path.
Jenny Zhang in Monk House during her visit to Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“I wanted to show this other New York. It’s not that people don’t believe it exists. It’s just they don’t care to know that it exists.”
Sour Heart is a very American book. It’s very New York. Why was it important to set the stories in New York City, as opposed to different parts of America?
I didn’t really think about it, to be honest, when I was writing the stories. I was writing about the place I knew best, and in some ways, the place I knew best wasn’t even New York because I had such a shut-in childhood where I wasn’t allowed to leave the house very much. In some ways, these stories could have been set anywhere because so much is set inside a house, school or classroom. It is also about this community of Chinese migrants who are extremely paranoid and sceptical of the place they’ve landed in and extremely afraid for their children to wander around this city.
New York is the backdrop to so many aspirational stories, and often in a very glamorous way. There are so many books about the Brooklyn literary scene or a very specific cultural, elite life. My friends, people who went to college and live a pretty good life, will say, “How could anyone ever afford to have a kid in New York City?” And I’m like, “Well, literally millions of people do, and they’re not rich.” They don’t make over $30,000 a year and some have two or three kids. I was one of those kids.
I wanted to show this other New York. It’s not that people don’t believe it exists. It’s just they don’t care to know that it exists. Someone who comes out of an Ivy League college and moves to New York in search of some kind of Joan Didion aspirational life is going to have different struggles to someone who comes to New York City from another part of the world with $5 in their pocket. I grew up with mostly people who came to New York from China with $5 in their pocket. I wanted to tell that world’s stories because they usually aren’t told and when they are, they’re told so unimaginatively. We deserve better. My community is so interesting and funny. I wanted to mythologise that.
Many of the stories in Sour Heart explore the push and pull of home. Did you ever feel the need to escape from New York, escape from your family, or escape from home?
When your life exists between the margins, you’re always not enough of one thing and too much of another. These girls, when they are in America, they’re too Chinese, too alien or too “other”. They’re not seen as American enough. When they go back to China, they’re not Chinese enough. They’re a disappointment to their Chinese family. They’re too American or too alien. They’re double aliens and wrong wherever they go. I think I have a little bit of that feeling. Something about me always feels discordant with my environment.
At the same time, I try to think about home as not a place, but as relationships with people. I feel at home when I’m talking with my mum about the things that we’re comfortable talking about. I don’t feel at home when I say something that she doesn’t agree with, that we’ve never processed. Home is this ephemeral thing that happens between two people, or between a community.
But also, I think it’s unreasonable to always be one hundred per cent comfortable, even when you are home. We romanticise home as a place of complete comfort and safety. Actually, it’s not that. Sometimes home is really dangerous and the nightmare you don’t want to go to.
At Sydney Writers’ Festival you mentioned, “I wanted to see if I could write like I was free” and “I just want a life where I can be free.” Can you expand on that?
I’m always hyperaware of my impact. I’m hyperaware that every time I speak I’m also creating a silence. Taking up space is good but then you also take up space that other people don’t get to have. I’m very aware of my perceived youth, my perceived safety, and the ways in which I am often the go-to person when a white institution wants to achieve “diversity” or show that they’re not bad, racist or close-minded. I’m aware of all those privileges that I have.
Because there are so few stories of Asian-Americans and people in the Chinese diaspora, whatever story that is championed can become the story. Maybe Sour Heart is the only fiction book someone who knows nothing about Chinese-Americans reads. I wouldn’t want them to form all their ideas about Chinese-Americans through my book. First, it’s fiction. Second, it’s not a textbook. Third, you’re not supposed to form any generalities about a group of people until you’ve done extensive research.
But I know the reality, that I’m going to have to accept that I’m a representative. All that weighs on me and stops me even before I begin. When I sit down to write, I try to clear all of that from my head. I have to be able to make mistakes. I have to be able to be vulgar. I have to be able to be extravagant. I have to be able to be sloppy. I have to be able to write irresponsibly. I have to be able to do all of that, at least at the beginning. When I’m done writing, then I can look back and be like, “Is this responsible? Am I okay with putting this out into the world? Will this cause more harm than good?” Those are really hard questions I will grapple with and still grapple with.
I couldn’t get some stories published because editors of literary journals would say, “We only publish adult literary fiction.” It’s okay if you don’t like my writing but it is adult literary fiction. When I wrote these stories, I was almost “free”. After, I realised, “Oh, the literary establishment sees these stories as very different from how I see them.” The next time I wrote a story about a young girl I would have that voice in my head that told me, “You have to prove this is real literary fiction.” I lose a little bit of freedom each time because I lose that innocence and naïveté. I lose endless possibility. I realise I’m surrounded by boundaries and restrictions. That’s what I mean by “I try to write as if I’m free.”
We need to talk about these things. It’s something I’m becoming more conscious about as I become a little bit more “known” and aware of the privileges I have as an East Asian. I really respect the way you acknowledge the work of black women. In an essay ‘Far Away From Me’, you reference bell hooks. What is your approach to writing about racial politics more broadly?
I was on a panel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about intersectionality. It actually became quite problematic because the title of the panel was taken from this essay called ‘MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!’ by Flavia Dzodan who is Latinx. She was writing about intersectionality and the ways in which the most vulnerable are continually stolen from and their ideas are taken but not given credit. And it happened to her.
At the time, I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of weird that we’re using this person’s catchphrase,” but I didn’t think further than that. Jamila Rizvi, who moderated the panel, acknowledged that we were here because of Flavia, and Aminatou Sow, one of the panellists, addressed directly the bitter irony that the author of the very ideas and words we were discussing was not on stage and had not been paid for her work, whereas we were. Afterwards, I thought, “How would I feel if I had written something that went viral and I wasn’t invited to talk about my essay, but four random women were?” It made me think I have to keep being a student in the world. I have to keep reading, citing and giving credit, acknowledging I’m an amalgam of all the women, thinkers, scholars and activists before me.
The panel ended with a question directed at me, I think, by another Asian woman about our role as the racial minority that is often lauded as the model minority and often used against darker-skinned minorities and black people. I was like, “Of course the light-skinned East Asian woman on a writers panel about intersectional feminism that included Nakkiah Lui, a leader in the Aboriginal community, and Zinzi Clemmons and Aminatou Sow, black women who have fought valiantly for accountability and justice—gets the last word on this.” I felt really uncomfortable with those dynamics.
Afterwards, all these very well-meaning older white women were like, “You were so amazing! You were so calm and quiet. We loved how you were powerful even though you were so soft-spoken.” Part of me was like, “Yes of course you relate more to me than to the other people on the panel. I look safe to you and you probably don’t relate to people who are subject to systematic state violence. Someone like me who isn’t, who speaks about racism “reasonably” and calmly, of course you would relate to me and champion me.” Just by participating in the panel I recreated all those dynamics.
“It’s really hard to create a life that has no model. It’s really hard for me to carve my path. Every step is like a fresh footprint. I’m not stepping in anyone else’s footprints. I don’t know where I’m going because I’ve never seen a life like mine happen.”
Your parents tried to dissuade you from becoming a writer. Have there been moments where you felt that conviction waver and how did you push past it?
I really, really, really understand where my parents are coming from. If I had lived the life that they lived, I would have the same mentality. They really wanted to protect me. It’s like the story in Sour Heart, ‘Our Mothers Before Them’, where the mum is so hard on her kid and it’s because the world is hard. It’s natural as a parent to want to protect your child from the horrible injustice of life.
It’s very lonely to rebel. It might look sexy and cool. My friends joke, “Jenny, you always have to do the opposite of what everyone else does.” And I’m like, “Yes, but also, it’s really lonely.” It’s really hard to create a life that has no model. It’s really hard for me to carve my path. Every step is like a fresh footprint. I’m not stepping in anyone else’s footprints. I don’t know where I’m going because I’ve never seen a life like mine happen. It can be very bewildering and scary and very easy to lose faith.
I’ve tried to keep those struggles as private as possible. My parents were already so worried about me. If I showed them that I was suffering just as they predicted, they would have done everything to stop me. I wanted them to think that I was doing okay. I had to fake it, not just for myself but for them. I had to fake it so that I wouldn’t be bombarded with their constant worry and planning to protect me. It’s more important now for me to deal with those moments where my conviction is wavering and under threat. I have to deal with them alone, with my friends and with my community of other women of colour writers and other Asian-American writers and Asian diasporic writers.
I don’t want my internal struggles, my pain or my moments of self-doubt weaponised by white people who have a fetish for immigrant trauma. I don’t want to give them that story of me feeling like shit and prevailing against all odds to become a success. That’s also part of it. I know how commodifiable that story is and how symbolic that story can become.
“Being bilingual isn’t just knowing two languages: it’s having two different identities. You have a whole different personality in one language. ”
I love the way you write about language in Sour Heart. There’s a character who mentions the Chinese between the Chinese she speaks with her parents and the Chinese on CCTV. Why was it important to write protagonists with different fluencies in Chinese and English?
I think that the way we understand bilingualism is so limited. Being bilingual isn’t just knowing two languages: it’s having two different identities. You have a whole different personality in one language. I might have a much more vulgar sense of humour in Chinese. I might be more aggressive in one language. It’s not just language. One’s being is tied up in language. Memories are tied up in language. I’ve never fallen in love romantically in Chinese, but I have in English, and that’s significant.
There can be this exoticising, anthropologised interest in language but only if it’s in a far-flung place. Why doesn’t anyone consider the fact that when you are a second-generation immigrant and you speak this very specific mixture of Chinese and English that’s also a dying language? After I die, my children, if I have children, they won’t speak that blend of Chinese and English. And it’s not a blend. It’s actually its own language. I’m the last remaining person who will ever speak that. Why is that not significant? And that’s not just true for me but so many children of immigrants.
There are entire cultures of second-generation kids who can speak their “mother tongue” only when it comes to food and gossip. They can be fluent in gossiping and food, but they don’t know the words for politics. Two years ago, I was like, “Oh my god, how do you say white supremacy in Chinese?” I had to figure it out because I was volunteering for this community organisation that worked with Chinatown tenants. I didn’t know how to translate these words. They never have come up in my conversations with my grandparents. Whole groups of people live that really interesting linguistic life. I don’t see people glamorising that, romanticising that, having an interest in that. I find it interesting, so I tried as much as I could to include the glossolalia of Chinglish as I know it.
You spent the first years of your life in Shanghai. How has your relationship with the city changed?
It’s the place of my birth and I have so many family members there. I don’t remember my life there, but I’ve been told so many stories that it’s as if I did remember. Shanghai is really interesting because it’s changed so much. Unfortunately, globalisation, and basically white supremacy, have nearly turned it into a place that is inhospitable for anyone who is not a European or American businessman or an incredibly rich Chinese person. The old world and the old ways of living are being stamped out by capitalism and globalisation. There’s designer shops everywhere and all the advertisements feature white Westerners. It makes me really sad to go back there and imagine being a young girl growing up in a city that’s changing so much, and all the images of beauty and success are white. That is hard for me.
But also, I’m an outsider. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up there. I project a lot onto that place because it’s the place of my mythological origins. I need it to mean something to me. I’m very aware that when I go there my projections butt up against the reality of that place. It’s really good and I get very humbled there. When I go back, for the longest time, I was considered a loser. Why don’t I have a job? Why am I not married? Why don’t I have kids? We don’t care that you got published in N+1, that means nothing to us. It means you’re still unemployed because you don’t have a full-time job. I think it’s also really great for me to go back there because it reminds me of where I come from.