Jenny Zhang Doesn’t Care if You Feel Comfortable
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White Americans want stories about “good immigrants.” Too bad.
The American Dream is a self-flattering myth, and too often America’s literature of immigration whitewashes the experience, as if the indignities faced by immigrants are temporary, a smooth trajectory from foreignness to assimilation, and the rewards always worth the sacrifices. From the first story in Jenny Zhang’s new collection, Sour Heart, these tropes are challenged. We see just how much dirt is underneath, how low the wages really are, and how ambivalent the immigrant feels, but it is also a collection that chimes with the voices of young Chinese American girls who are lonely, brash, crude and loved — full lives that don’t offer neat conclusions, or let anyone off the hook, but demand the reader’s attention to the end. Zhang’s Sour Heart is the first book to debut on the new Lenny imprint at Random House. She is also the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and the chapbook Hags.
Adalena Kavanagh: What is the genesis of this collection? Where and when was it written?
Jenny Zhang: I wrote the first story in this collection when I was a sophomore at Stanford. I holed up in my dorm room for a long weekend and wrote a shaky first draft about two codependent siblings who drift apart. I called it “The Evolution of My Brother” and included actual photos of me and my brother. You know, I was young and bratty and trying to fuck with people who assumed my fiction was thinly veiled memoir. I thought I would beat them to the punch. I thought I would shame them by being deadly earnest. I wasn’t wrong or right, but I was young and trying out different strategies to deal with being seen as incapable of doing more than faithfully transcribing my memories. From that point forward, I couldn’t stop writing stories about young girls and their relationships with their families. I found that people were either delighted or horrified with what I had written. Eventually in my second year of grad school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I realized I was writing about a community of people, that these stories all exist in the same fictional universe. The center of each story brushes up against the periphery of another, just like in real life. After grad school, I didn’t know what to do with these stories. Every agent asked me the same question after reading my stories, “but are you working on a novel?” and I wavered between feeling like a failure and feeling true to myself. It is true that I was and am interested most in “minor literature,” small lives, writing and living in the margins. “Pity us who fight always at the boundaries,” Apollinaire writes in his last poem and I took it personally. I felt very much like a misfit of misfits — why couldn’t I write a novel? Why couldn’t I write short stories that were actually short? There was a class at Iowa called “The Long Short Story” that I couldn’t bring myself to take because I felt exposed by the title. Why would anyone write something so useless and unpublishable as a long short story? But one has to have a vision for their writing that is not dictated by the realities of publishing.
During that time, I published a book of poetry (on a whim I submitted some poems to a contest) and turned to writing non-fiction and started to build a name for myself through my pieces for Rookie. People were surprised to find out I went to Iowa to study fiction. It was my secret and I liked it that way. It freed me to write without an audience, without too many conflicting voices in my head. When I finally got an agent and sold my collection of short stories a year and a half ago, I had to finally look at them again. Really look at them. It was like opening up a time capsule to my brain and I saw clearly the limits of what I knew at 22, 23, 24. I had to mutilate most of these stories, cut entire pages out, add entire pages in, change almost every word on the page, but more than just aesthetic improvements, I had to re-envision what these stories were about. I had to change the story in some of the stories. Doing it was really difficult because I basically had to admit that I was limited back then. It had been ten years since I wrote the first version of the stories in this collection. But it was also reassuring to know that I had grown and hopefully in another ten years I’ll look back at these stories and cringe again. I had to also clarify what kind of tone I wanted to strike in this collection. Some of the stories reflected attitudes I no longer felt — for example that belonging to a family can only be bleak, painful, alienating, deadening even. Aging has brightened me.
AK: I’m increasingly interested in the perception of autobiography in fiction. I understand why writers shy away from their work being labeled autobiographical but I also think — so what? If you think weaving autobiography into fiction is less work, then you don’t understand the writing process. Did readers of your work voice concerns about autobiography or were you reacting to an internalized backlash? (I’m especially curious how your work was read in your MFA program.) Have you resolved the question of “autobiography” in your writing?
JZ: I like the response: “so what?” It’s true. So what? Who cares? Why do we need to trace every moment of invention back to an author’s biography? I get bratty about it because I don’t like how selectively the question of verifying autography is utilized. I mean, take Hans Christian Andersen, who is one of my favorite authors. He was writing the story of his own wretched upbringing, his years of poverty and starvation, and the winter he almost froze to death in the story of “The Ugly Duckling” and he infused his own sorrows over a failed love triangle into the fairytale of “The Little Mermaid,” but because he’s writing about ducks and swans and fictional creatures, his work is handed over to the province of the fantastical and allegorical. In my MFA program a lot of people did read autobiography into my writing and I do find it interesting who, at the end of a workshop, invokes the dreaded defense, “but it really happened!” and who doesn’t. I never did but I saw plenty of people purposely reveal that they had written fiction based on their own lives as a way of justifying why what they had written was good. Of course, like you say, writing about things that really happened doesn’t entitle your work to be meaningful, just as writing about things that never happened to you directly doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to write deeply and to convince your readers that something like this could happen and does happen in the fictional universe you’ve created. I’ve created a fictional universe in Sour Heart that can never be fully extricated from the reality I’ve lived in because I didn’t use someone else’s brain to come up with the stories I’ve come up with. This is true for anyone, including men who are writing about ducks. Maybe that seems overly simplistic but after years of wasting energy trying to convince others I’m writing fiction in the most conservative understanding of the term, it’s how I’ve come to understand the writing process.
The other thing is when we encounter something unbelievably horrifying, our impulse is to verify it really happened or to dismiss it. When I was writing about, say the abject poverty that many immigrants experience, sometimes my peers at Iowa would look at me askance and imply or even say outright, “But you don’t look like someone who has suffered much.” I hated giving in to their demands that I make my suffering visible in order to have the right to write about the things I write about in this book. That isn’t to say anyone can write about anything and expect to be rewarded. It’s not that I think crude and vulgar depictions of poverty by someone who has never been poor should be read with an uncritical eye, but I do want people to engage on the level of my writing, not on the level of who I appear to be.
I don’t think the question of autobiography will be resolved in my work so long as women and people of color are seen as memoirists no matter what kind of writing they may be doing and white men are seen are innovative experimentalists no matter how explicitly they’ve mined their personal lives. That said, when writing these stories, I decided I wasn’t going to be afraid of being read autobiographically. Every story is in the first person. I didn’t go to extreme lengths to ensure every character was loveable or even likeable, but I didn’t make them monsters either. They are children, after all, who (hopefully) are still allowed the right to make mistakes, learn, and grow.
“I don’t think the question of autobiography will be resolved in my work so long as women and people of color are seen as memoirists no matter what kind of writing they may be doing and white men are seen are innovative experimentalists no matter how explicitly they’ve mined their personal lives.”
AK: You say, “I found that people were either delighted or horrified with what I had written.” I was struck by your matter-of-fact descriptions of poverty in this collection — that kind of honesty is refreshing. The only time I felt shamed by other writers in a workshop was when I described my childhood bedroom in our tenement apartment in Washington Heights in a short story. One woman visually cringed at the poverty, and at the time I thought I had done something wrong writing-wise but I realized I had just made her uncomfortable, and then I was glad I’d made her uncomfortable. What delighted people, and what horrified them about your work? Do you think people were delighted and horrified by the right things?
JZ: This is why I sometimes side-eye the “reading fiction makes you more empathetic!” argument for why fiction is “necessary” (which is a whole other can of worms, e.g. why does fiction have to be “necessary” or instructive?) because just as many people read fiction to validate and confirm what they already believe. Like: okay, I’ll read about someone’s suffering but only in a way that doesn’t make me feel bad about myself one bit. When something disturbs me, I turn inward: why did I have such a visceral reaction of disgust? What is it in me that cannot stand to keep reading, watching, listening, etc? Some people go straight to blame, like: why did you do this to me? Why did you force me to feel this way? I wonder if the woman who was made uncomfortable by your story asked herself why or if she only asked why you had to write the story that way.
I also find it interesting when people have different standards, thresholds and expectations for different mediums. Like people who love watching TV shows with explicit, graphic violence against women but cannot stand to read it in literary fiction. Or they love it when men make art about women who have been violated and abused but when a woman does it on her own terms, it’s seen as offensive, profane, emptily salacious. What does it mean if you are impressed by an article written by a well-to-do white journalist about Asian American poverty in America, but you dismiss work by an actual Asian American writer who grew up poor? I don’t know — maybe the former truly is a finer piece of work than the latter, but it’s still worthy of investigation. We all have major blind spots.
The question of whether or not people were horrified or delighted by the “right” things is a really fascinating and thorny question. I think every woman or person of color have had that experience of making a joke in mixed company and realizing that the men in the room or the white people in the room are laughing at the “wrong” thing — a joke about rape culture is read as a joke about rape, or a layered joke about racism is an opportunity for white people to openly indulge in racism. I’ve read poems in the past critiquing the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women and afterward, a white man came up to me to say that he loves being with “Oriental women.” All he heard and saw was an Asian girl saying the word “pussy” on stage. There have been plenty of times when someone was more horrified that I would have the audacity to write about something as harrowing as sexual violence than they seemed horrified by the sheer prevalence of sexual violence against young girls. There have plenty of times when I suspected someone liked that I was writing about young Asian American girls behaving terribly because it justified their own prejudices and dislike of Asian people. But there have also been many times when someone spoke beyond the most superficial layer of these stories and was able to dig in deeper, to see that a story that isn’t afraid to be explicit about a young girl’s body is not only a story about a young girl’s body. These stories are also about familial love, loneliness, the ache and pull of a homeland, and other things that may be less flashy, less noticeable especially if the reader is hung up on not wanting to feel any discomfort.
AK: Going back to my second question about perceived autobiography in fiction, I think you also said something important in another interview. “I really felt the happiest and safest in my fictional girlhood. I think the girls in these stories are the same way. There’s the story of their lives, and there’s the story that they’re telling.” Diminishing a work as less fictive because it shares autobiographical details with an author’s life demonstrates a simplistic understanding of truth as it relates to stories, even true ones.
What is it about girlhood that compels girls to create a fictional space?
What compelled you to devote this collection to girlhood?
JZ: I felt large as a girl but was often treated as if I were tiny, fragile, stupid. It was safer in my head, there were less limits, more possibilities. I was drawn to the theatricality of girlhood — there are so many ways to perform femininity, to regurgitate youth, so many lies we must accept in order to be an acceptable girl. Anyone who has ever experienced pain (which is to say everyone) knows the temptation to escape, to forget, to feel into a fantasy life that is free from pain. The irony, of course, is that we just create a different kind of a pain, a more glamorous one. Why did it give me so much joy to pretend to be scrappy Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and play-act the hardships of a young farmer girl out on the frontier when I had actual hardships in my life? Fantasy often isn’t about creating the polar opposite of what you know but what you believe to be a better version of what you know, a version where you are in control. To some extent, as a girl, I wasn’t in control of my body, my safety, and my well-being. Other people were and sometimes those people caused me harm, or didn’t know how to protect me, or were trying to do the best they could with what they had. In my fantasies, I wasn’t helpless, but rather fearless, strong, desired, and respected. That version of me embraced hardship, experienced pain is a kind of romance.
I wasn’t thinking about making a statement or a paean to girlhood when I wrote this collection, but I did want to write without fear — without fear of being seen as limited because I found young girls to be a worthy fictional subject; without of being marginalized because often only white characters are considered “universal” subjects; without fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I wanted to write about children. I wanted to write something challenging and well, why shouldn’t the vessel for serious, difficult, literary fiction be young girls?
AK: Which brings me to something you wrote about a Tracy Emin photograph in your essay, “How It Feels”: “…The photo is so much that it becomes a statement against allowing others to tell your story, against those who would insist on your victimhood.” In these stories were you writing against any particular narratives or attempting to present an alternative narrative? If so, what were you writing against? And if not, was there anything you were writing toward?
JZ: I’m writing against oversimplification, I’m writing against crude stereotypes, a culture that does not extend Whitman’s multitudes to immigrants and people of color. I’m not interested in perfect villains and perfect victims. I didn’t want my characters to have to be “good” immigrants in order to be worthy of having their stories told. Their stories cannot be reduced to: we came, we suffered, we persevered. In these stories, the American dream, if achieved at all, is achieved at great cost, only after immense casualties. There are entire stories that can be told in the humble interstices of the more well-known stories about immigrants and young girls. The English canon is full of vile protagonists, narcissists, con-men, despicable anti-heroes, but once we turn the gaze to what is considered “ethnic” literature or “immigrant” literature, we are less willing to be challenged. I wanted these stories to be truthful about the misery of immigrating and starting over, but I also wanted these stories to be plump with humor, adventure, and daring. Some of these characters are too confident to be lost to a singular narrative of victimhood. Other characters are too overflowing with familial love to be purely pitied. Some of these characters victimize others but are too young to be fully held accountable; nonetheless, they commit acts that are too heinous to be forgivable. It’s easy to root for the helpless and the wretched, but in real life, we aren’t cleanly divided into good vs. bad, giving vs. needy. Everyone is flawed, but some of us are punished lethally for it, and others get away with it ad infinitum. The characters in these stories pay dearly for their missteps, but they are also afforded opportunities. I wanted to create narratives that resist crass moralizing and instead demand to be engaged on a more difficult, nuanced level.
“It’s easy to root for the helpless and the wretched, but in real life, we aren’t cleanly divided into good vs. bad, giving vs. needy. Everyone is flawed, but some of us are punished lethally for it, and others get away with it ad infinitum.”
AK: In the essay, “How It Feels,” you wrote, “I think everyone wants to make something touchable, but most of us don’t out of fear of being laughable.” You’re referencing how your mother described a version of your story, “The Evolution of my Brother,” as ‘touchable’.
Do you ever take into account how your family will react to your work?
JZ: I try not to think about it. That makes me a big hypocrite after going on and on about wanting people to confront the things that make them uneasy and not recede into escapism, but I think some amount of delusion is needed to survive. The director Barry Jenkins once tweeted something my friend Alice Kim said at a panel, “You should write like your parents are dead… or you’re dead…or everyone’s dead,” and a lot of people, myself included, related to that sentiment and felt very encouraged by it. The idea is to trick yourself into feeling free when you write and how can you do that if you are worried about your reputation and what your parents will think? When you are worried about what the world will think? Even among writers, it’s very common to read a friend’s work and think: Is this what you really think about me? Writing to be liked shouldn’t be the goal. Not every story can be a tribute. Sometimes, one wants to be savage too.
As a counterpoint, my friend Durga Chew-Bose, who wrote a beautiful collection of essays, Too Much And Not the Mood, many of which explore her relationship to her family and to daughterhood, said in an interview that she “definitely writes because my parents are alive.” She describes her essays as “devotional” and does not shy away from the “responsibility” of writing about her family. I think there’s room for every kind of writing, and there’s something really holy and remarkable about writing that is “devotional.” To honor the people who inspire you isn’t cheesy or limiting. To hold yourself responsible to anyone who may see their lives in your stories doesn’t have to be limiting. It’s a challenge worth taking. I think, to some extent, we all do try to write like everyone’s dead. In the first throes of writing, I do my best to believe no one’s left on earth. It’s what frees me to write. But after the first few drafts, I start to come back down to earth. I’m not shameless. I know who I am and the expectations placed on someone like me. I can’t lie to myself about the burden of representation. I have it whether I willingly accept it or not. I can’t pretend that my family won’t feel exposed in some way by my decision to write about Chinese American immigrant families, even if it’s fiction. I’d like to be as unapologetic as a white artist and insist freedom of (my) expression is more important anything else, but I can’t. I was socialized to care about the living and I do.
At the same time, I don’t think my family is stupid. They are intelligent and sharp. They are readers. They know what literature is and isn’t. They know how seriously I take my imagination. Véra Nabokov didn’t immediately divorce Vladimir after reading Lolita, in fact, quite the opposite — as legend goes, she saved it from the incinerator. When I try to imagine how my family will react to my writing, I do not imagine them as imbeciles. I imagine them as they are — brilliant humans who love me.
“I’d like to be as unapologetic as a white artist and insist freedom of (my) expression is more important anything else, but I can’t. I was socialized to care about the living and I do.”
AK: The mother-daughter relationships in this collection are almost suffocating, and full of obligation (all of which felt very familiar!) I wonder, is there anything more embarrassing than the family you were born into? Why was it so important to you to write about family?
JZ: There’s such an appetite for stories about immigrant families who hate and resent and misunderstand each other, or sensational horror stories about how unbelievably strict immigrant parents are with their children. Americans gobbled up the story of Amy Chua’s tiger mom parenting a bit too gleefully and without enough context. After that article came out, it felt like white Americans could finally justify why they disliked Asians. It’s easy to point the finger outward but we rarely look inward. I don’t know if white America knows what their parenting looks like to the rest of the world. The Chinese families I knew found the American style of parenting nothing short of cruel and unusual. Just as the West may have a crude understanding of the East, so it also goes the other way around. The glimpses of so-called American parenting literally gave my mother nightmares.
At the same time, it is not easy to be the child of Chinese immigrants. I hate using the word ‘filial piety’ because the term in English is so warped and often weaponized against Chinese people, but it is a foundational aspect of Chinese culture. There is a culture of sacrifice and obligation in China that does not exist on the same level in America. When my parents left China in the 80’s, their attitudes froze in time. They were no longer able to connect to how ideas of parenting were evolving in China but they also couldn’t keep up with American values of parenting. How many times did I wish I could have been born into a different family? Too many to count. And how many times did I feel ashamed for wishing that? Too many too count. Love can be suffocating and burdensome. From the moment I was born, I was loved. It was all I ever knew. As I got older, I resented how much I was loved. I wanted to be loved less by my family and loved more by others — friends, lovers, basically anyone who wasn’t related to me. The more I understood how white supremacy operates in this country, the more I understood I would always be hated. When you grow up knowing you are considered lowly and inferior on the explicit basis of race and ethnicity, how are you supposed to love yourself and the family you came from?
When I tell the story of my family to someone who didn’t grow up Chinese-American, it can feel like I’m selling them out. So many people have offered (well-intentioned!) sympathy, but when they say something like, “That must have been terrible to grow up like that,” I feel protective of my family and my upbringing. I want to say it back. It’s very Western to idealize a kind of love that does not come with any expectations, that still permits both the giver and recipient to be completely free. To this day, I know my parents would go hungry so that I could eat more. They would sell all their earthly possessions so I could have whatever I want. It’s intense to know that they would work themselves to death if it meant I could live well. Now, things aren’t so desperate. But there was a time when we only had one umbrella when it rained — to speak both metaphorically and literally — and there was no question that they would hold it over my head and let themselves be rained on. I can already imagine someone reading this and thinking, Well that’s a stupid example. Just buy another umbrella! Well, some people cannot afford to. Or someone reading that and thinking, How overbearing! It’s really not that big of a deal. In America, we idealize romantic relationships where a man will do anything for the woman he loves, but are creeped out by a parent who will do the same for their children.
At the same time, I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture. Like you point out, many of the girls in these stories are so close to their mothers that it’s suffocating. Some more voluntarily than others — though, when you’re a child, is anything truly voluntary? Parental love can be weaponized and just as lethal as parental neglect. Many of the parents in these stories are simply not equipped to really know what their children are going through. The parents have imported the dangers of their childhood and superimposed them over the dangers their own children face. It’s the best they can do. Many of them are still in precarious living situations and are still trying to survive, stay awake long enough to work three jobs. Sometimes, it can feel like because I’m Chinese, anything I say about my life will inevitably be exploited, used as anthropological evidence. It was important for me to write about family — the complexity of family and the complexity of being a daughter, the pleasures and agonies of depending on someone, being cared for, the pleasures and agonies of freedom, independence, growing up to be more than someone’s daughter. Sometimes all I want to be in this world is my parents’ daughter. All other identities trouble me. Other times, I wish I could belong to no one, come from nothing. It was important I write beyond the tropes of second-generation kids hating their parents and desperately trying to break free. I mean there is plenty of that in these stories but also plenty of love, gratitude, a bond that survives even the traumas of displacement, racism, and poverty.
AK: Did you face any resistance to your use of pin yin (romanized Chinese) or Chinese characters in these stories? When I read the book and saw that I understood most of the pin yin, and some of the Chinese characters, I felt like I was getting into another level of understanding. It made me think about all the times I read books with French words and I just skimmed over those parts, resigned to not getting the reference, feeling just slightly alienated, but not letting it stop me from continuing. Did you think about your audience and how including Chinese could either reward or alienate a reader depending on whether they know Chinese?
JZ: I decided early on I wasn’t going to accommodate non-Chinese readers while also assuming that most readers are smart and motivated and creative enough to read these stories without demanding total transparency and fluency. Even when I read a book that is entirely in English, I expect there to be words I don’t understand. I prefer it. I want to be challenged not coddled. My editor, the great, great Kaela Myers, was completely on the same page as me and encouraged me to be even bolder than I initially dared. We decided that we didn’t want the pin yin to be formatted differently from the English in any way (e.g. italicized) and we decided that we didn’t need to translate any of it, even if it was fairly long. I read a lot of Nabokov and Ferrante when I was editing these stories and I took pleasure in not knowing — the onus was on me whether I wanted to look up a French or Italian word or sentence, or if I wanted to keep reading and have faith that there were multiple levels of enjoyment I could access. American English speakers can be some of the most arrogant and self-centered in the world. I think it’s loathsome to expect the rest of the world to learn your language but refuse to reciprocate. I don’t think there’s anything admirable about demanding complete linguistic convenience at all times.
I’m not alienated when I encounter a language I don’t understand in fiction — I’m up for the challenge. The reader who doesn’t want to be challenged at all won’t enjoy my stories. What is so terrible about not knowing? We watch movies that we are too young to understand and get things out of it, don’t we? Then later, if we so desire and have the curiosity, we might watch them again and get something more out of them. If the mere presence of untranslated Chinese puts a reader off, that’s their problem not mine. And anyway, I’ve heard that all my life. If I’m having a private conversation with my mother in Chinese and someone yells at us, “Speak English!” what are we supposed to do? Because that has happened to me and that has happened to many people in this country. People have been murdered for daring to speak to their parents in their mother tongue.
I think highly of my audience — I truly believe they are capable of making dazzling leaps, that they are not afraid to work to find meaning, that they are curious and smart, they take advantage of a little thing called “google that shit,” they aren’t complete imbeciles who freeze up at the first sign of the unknown. I was very lucky to have an editor who also believe such readers exist. I tried to include many points of entry and occasions for pleasure in these stories. I wanted there to be something of value and enjoyment for the reader who knows virtually nothing about the people and situations I’m writing about, as well as for someone who might not know a lot but is willing to put in the time and work to find out more, as well as for the reader who may be extremely well versed and intimate with what I’m depicting.
Writing a collection of short stories in English about growing up bicultural and bilingual means already so much has been translated. I’ve been plenty accommodating and I say a certain amount of alienation won’t kill you.
AK: You’ve published poetry, essays, and now fiction. What are you working on next, or what do you want to be working on?
JZ: I’m writing poetry here and there. I have a second book of poems that I have been sitting on because a part of me always thinks: who wants to read poetry? Post election, it seems like the American people — at least those of us who were greatly disturbed by the election results — are reaching for poetry again. Poetry is great in a time of crisis. Dystopian despair matches well with poetic idealism. I’m writing a lot of short stories in the third person. I exhausted myself of the first person with this book. I’m also trying to write a novel. It’s about… surprise surprise… a family! But they are grown in this one. They get to do adult things like have sex and join fringe political movements and betray each other. I have no idea how it will turn out.