On the first page of the first story in poet Jenny Zhang’s debut story collection, Sour Heart, the nine-year-old narrator Cristina writes about waking up to find roaches had crawled onto her body as she slept, in her family’s tiny and squalid Bushwick flat. “And there was no beauty in shaking them off,” Cristina says, “though we strove for grace, swinging our arms in the air as if we were ballerinas.” This image immediately struck me as a perfect analogy for Zhang’s writing—an attempt at grace in even the grossest, most abject of scenarios. And Zhang’s stories, which move from extreme filth to extreme beauty in the span of a line—and there and back multiple times across a single page—are graceful in their leaps and pirouettes, their Kafka-esque cockroach ballet.
This movement from high to low, between high literary and non-literary languages, matches the kind of code-switching Zhang’s pre-adolescent, one-point-five-generation, immigrant narrators perform every day, between English and Chinese—and not just between the two languages but between the two cultures, two identities. As she said during our conversation, her characters are “in between the in-between”—not quite Chinese, not quite American, not quite girls, definitely not yet women. Her linked stories grapple with intergenerational trauma, racial categories and the invisibility of the “Asian” immigrant, poverty, and the often stifling expectations of familial love.
Zhang and I spoke on the phone, her in Brooklyn and me in California. She said she’d been taking the time before the book release to read a lot as writing seemed pretty much impossible right now. She spoke quickly and in the same kind of complicated, extended sentences that fill her fiction.
The Rumpus: Many of these stories show first-generation immigrants living in cramped, shabby, filthy conditions, conditions that have all but stripped them of their dignity as they struggle to get by, to make it in America. How much did you draw on your own family history or childhood experiences to write these stories? If so, did you struggle, as the artist-characters in “Our Mothers Before Them” with the “petty feelings of [your] subjects”?
Jenny Zhang: They do struggle a lot. I was really, really, really sheltered growing up in the sense that as much as my parents could they took the brunt of whatever suffering or struggle was going. It was the kind of thing where they would not really eat for a week but I would be feasting on roast pork or something. There’s a lot of that, and there’s a sentiment that runs through a lot of stories of, How can you ever repay your parents (or whoever took care of you when you were growing up)? And also, Should love even be repaid, and at what point is that sacrifice now a debt that is carried by the person who is sacrificed for? So, yes, I did draw from that feeling for most of these stories.
A lot of writers are kind of mousy people who would gladly fade into the wallpaper, and I was sort of quiet and shy growing up. I was the kind of person that was just a fly in the room, and people like my parents would have these dinner parties and weekend get-togethers with friends who were also immigrants and booze would start flowing and people would start talking. I was just there and I listened a lot. I remember reading about Gabriel García Márquez talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude, and he said he just sat around the dinner table and listened to the women in his family talk a lot. And I did that, too—not in a systematic or sociological kind of way, but those stories were just swirling around in my head for a long time and so I think many of those details came from that swirl of memories.
Rumpus: Language is central to this collection—the narrators of these stories are caught between two cultures, two identities, and thus two languages, English and Chinese. However, the amount of actual Chinese—transliterated or otherwise—that you include in the text is minimal. Over time, I began to assume the parents were speaking to Chinese even when the dialogue was in English. How did you decide when to include the Chinese and went to “translate” into English? What was like to write across this cultural and linguistic divide?
Zhang: I love that it started to feel for you like they were speaking in Chinese. I think I just wanted to write from deeply inside the first-person narrator, the interior space of these narrators. It’s really hard to convey being bilingual or one-point-five-lingual on the page because the code switching happens so quickly. When I speak to my mom in English, even if I’m saying the whole sentence in English, I have a Chinese accent. It’s not to mock—that’s just how we sound. That’s what I’m used to. I pronounce words differently in the presence of Chinese people than in the presence of people who speak only English. I have a different mind in Chinese. I had a whole set of experiences in Chinese I never had in English. I have a different sense of humor, different traumas, different joys, different interests. And I wanted to convey that.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of understanding about how it’s hard to transition between one language and one culture to another, but I also wanted to show how seamless it can be. These families are all very tight units—almost like a gang or a club—and in this club they have their own language, and it’s one that would be very hard for an outsider to penetrate. I wanted to convey this language that’s so deeply coded to outsiders—readers.
I also wanted to show that in their memories, the narrators don’t see their parents as broken or having trouble speaking. In their memories of their parents, their parents are absolutely fluent even if in actual fact their parents did not speak English well or at all.
And I wanted readers, like you, to arrive at their own understanding of what these characters might have actually sounded like. Some readers might think they’re speaking in a mixture of Chinese and English; others might take the dialogue at face value. I wanted the reader to have some agency to interpret it.
Rumpus: I’m also interested in the fact that these stories are written exclusively from the perspective of girls who are not just young but unusually small and very cute. “I was too small to be useful,” Annie says in “Our Mothers Before Them” and then there’s the moment in the final story (“You Fell Into the River and I Saved You!”) when Cristina recalls how Darling “pretended she couldn’t see [her] because [she] was so small.” The narrator seems to be stuck in a kind of perpetual girlhood, a feeling that’s compounded by the fact that all the narrators are young girls. Why write from this position?
Zhang: Some of it just was—that is, it was not necessarily a conscious decision. Some of it is probably that I’m just limited as a person, and I wrote from my own place of often feeling small as a child.
I think also that we like to think of East Asian, straight, cis women as small, as dainty, as fragile. I think also in the world of these stories, the most jarring and traumatic things that will ever happen to these girls—or at least have happened to them thus far—happened when they were really small. A lot immigrated at five, six, seven, or were sent back to China when they were little kids. They go through these huge, momentously painful life changes when they’re small. And so they’re stuck feeling that way.
A lot of them may be physically small and so very easy to dismiss and to be seen as nonthreatening but inside they’re really large, and some of them are also very threatening. Some of them are violent. Some are sadistic. It’s almost like the smallness of their size lets the largeness of their threat go unnoticed. I found that to be an interesting place to write from as a fiction writer—these characters who get to be stealthy undercover operators because they seem little and harmless, but, in fact, they’re kind of pulsing with feeling, with desire, with rage that’s betrayed by their small stature and frame.
Rumpus: It seemed even like a metaphor for the invisibility of the Asian or Chinese American immigrant in US culture.
On a related note: In “We Love You Crispina,” Cristina’s dad says, “‘These people will never let go of the past, will they?’” And she thinks, “I didn’t know if he meant the white people in the movie or the black people but I knew we were not ‘them’ and to my parents that was a good thing, but I wasn’t so sure.” Can you talk more about this moment—about this realization? Why isn’t Cristina sure this is a good thing?
Zhang: I love that you mention that scene. I think they’re watching Gone with the Wind.
Cristina and her family are very poor for much of the first few years of their life in America, so that means they live in neighborhoods where they’re in close proximity to black and brown people—plus her father works at a failing public school. And, well, they’re not white, and they’re not black, and, in America, if you’re not either of those things, our cultural imagination doesn’t quite know what to do. America has a very hard time conceiving of anything other, much less talking with great nuance or understanding of anything other. And I have a hard time talking about it because I don’t even know how to.
In these stories, the characters are constantly outside of everything: outside of the dominance of whiteness and outside of known marginalized groups. And they are mostly defining themselves by what they’re not. And so they know they’re not selfish like white people, and yet they also hold this deeply ingrained racism and anti-blackness. So they’re thinking: We’re not lazy like these people, we’re not violent like these people. But, of course, they share a lot of similarities with both the black and white people they encounter in their lives.
In that story in particular, that family takes to this white American sense of adventure, but they’re punished for it because they aren’t protected by their whiteness. So when they adventure, they fail—they lose their housing, lose their stability. And they are similar to the black people they encounter in their lives because they too are marginalized, are seen as other, and they also share a lot of values when it comes to family, things like that. But they don’t want to see it that way.
In that moment you mention in your question, I don’t think Cristina is aware she’s Asian. I think she’s aware she’s Chinese, and she comes from this country she doesn’t really know or remember. It’s just starting to crystallize for her that she comes from this larger group and that her family is seen in a way they don’t see themselves—as Asian people. Then, also, her father whom she adores is starting to fall in her esteem. He turns away from his own failures to provide for his family or to succeed in the American dream by blaming or talking badly about other groups of people [like the black and brown students he teaches]. Cristina’s starting to see also how Asian people are used in the awful triangulation—they’re foot soldiers for white supremacy, held up as model immigrants, and yet can’t really achieve the status of whiteness.
Not that any of that is going through Cristina’s brain at all, but she is suddenly realizing, if only vaguely, Oh this is how we’re positioned? but also Who are we in this country?
Rumpus: The stories as a whole present a complex relationship with the past. Your narrators at once appear to be intensely nostalgic, fiercely attached to their parents, to both the freedoms and securities of childhood, and also resentful of how their parents and relatives “clung to their pasts and acted like bygone times were better than what was happening in the here and now.” So there’s an ambivalence to history, to what can’t be remembered, and yet obviously this history, both personal and otherwise, is central to each story. Can you speak to this tension? Are the narrators too young to realize the significance of history/the past, or is there some wisdom in their resistance to it?
Zhang: It’s a uniquely second generation—or I guess these girls fit into that weird spot of one-point-five-generation immigrants; they came to the US when they were very young so a lot of them are in between the in-between space. But it’s a very one-point-five generation mentality because when you spend the first six years of your life in one country and then you move to another there are all these adults from the country you were born in who know you and remember being with you but you don’t remember them because you were a baby and it’s really weird to meet someone who’s like, I loved you for six years, and you’re like, Who are you? I’ve never thought of you. You’re no one to me. And these girls are constantly confronted with that.
To me, it’s a feeling that come from one of those facets of girlhood a lot of people can relate to—like, Ugh, the wrong people like me and you’re like, I want this person to like me and instead this other person does. The girls just want to be interesting to boys, to the people they go to school with but instead they’re so interesting to relatives they don’t feel any connection with.
Going back to your question, though: history hangs so heavily over these stories, and all of the adults in these stories carry with them the scars of history. They lived through over a decade of essentially a genocidal, tyrannical, authoritarian regime where they saw or did or knew of people who did unspeakable, unforgivable things. These parents carry that trauma, and no matter how much they try to keep it to themselves—or, in some cases, don’t try—it leaks onto the children, these people who they love and are around them.
For these girls, the idea of China is just that, an idea, and they’re around their parents who’re talking about things that happened in a country they’ve never been to or don’t remember and so they feel a lot of resentment: I don’t want to know this. But at the same time, they have no history in the United States. No one before them had a life in America. They’re like, I can’t be connected to your past because I’m trying to making a life for myself in America—but it’s hard because they come from families that haven’t really dealt with their past. I mean, even now, the Communist Party of China has never really been like: HEY, so about what happened in 1955-1976… There’s not been a national reckoning. Some people go to their graves knowing they turned in family members who died or tortured someone to death. That’s the kind of nationwide level of trauma people of that generation carry. You can’t be free of the past if you don’t talk about it, and these families are constantly trying not to process the past and in trying not to they end up just vomiting it.
Rumpus: In a way, their refusal to deal with the past mirrors the government’s refusal to do so.
Zhang: That’s the problem—it’s not the individual’s responsibility to reckon with historic events that marred an entire country and people, but it’s the individual who carries these scars. Getting out of poverty is framed as an individual thing. Getting over assault or other trauma is framed as an individual thing. When actually, there’s a collective responsibility of institutions or the government that is never fulfilled and leaves these people who are wounded and maimed just wandering the earth. That’s another specter that looms over these stories. It’s just not possible for an individual to overcome an entire system or structure of things that cause pain.
Rumpus: Is real love necessarily suffocating? [Read any story in the book, and you will understand why I asked this question!]
Zhang: [Laughs] I don’t think it should be, but I do think that loving someone deeply is a kind of imprisonment for yourself and the person you love. When you love someone, you’re less free because now you don’t just have to make choices for yourself, but for another person. I think it’s very American—or I’m going to venture to say this, though I’m not sure if it’s too much of a generalization—but I think it’s very American to say, I want to be completely loved and to love and still be completely free. I don’t think that’s possible. I think it’s more of a Chinese and maybe East Asian mentality to see love as also about obligation and responsibility, about protecting someone and giving up a little bit of your freedom so that someone has the cocoon of love you want to give them. That loss of freedom isn’t seen as a bad thing. It’s just how it is. It’s just a given.
The girls in these stories are caught between the two kinds of loving—part of them wants to know why their parents love can feel like they’re binding them or chaining them inside a room, and another part is comforted by that kind of love. Ultimately, that’s the kind of love they expect, so they have a hard time going out into the world in America and realizing that’s not the kind of love they’re going to find easily from someone other than their parents. They’re very ambivalent, and I’m also very ambivalent, about the shackles of love.
Rumpus: You said in an interview with VICE that you’ve been working on this collection since you were a sophomore in college. Can you talk more about how the collection developed and came together over time?
Zhang: I started just writing these stories, starting from “Evolution of my Brother,” (which I wrote when I was a sophomore in college—I believe in a class with my teacher Elizabeth Tallent, a really amazing writer herself), then I guess at some point I started meeting other writers. Just by chance, I met this group of writers I’m still friends with: Anna North, Tony Tulathimutte, Karan Mahajan, and Alice Sola Kim. We all just got hella nerdy about writing, and we would meet every single week and have writing group outside of the classes we were taking and I just started being like, Okay, I’m not crazy. There are people who want to be writers who aren’t weird creepy posers who write bad poetry but rigorous young people who want to write like me. From there, I just started writing a lot then these stories that I also continued to write when I went to Iowa for fiction, all from the perspective of nine-year-old girls. I became obsessed with writing from that perspective. As I kept writing, it became clear to me these girls all knew each other or all existed in the same fictional dimension.
I finished the last story my last year at Iowa then I sat on them for a while. I didn’t have much luck with them. Though I kept trying to submit to agents or writing contests, I was “always a bridesmaid never a bride,”—oh, these are really great, but… I would just always kind of be the runner-up.
I don’t know why but instead of writing a novel like you’re supposed to, I kept going back to these stories. I felt like for a lot of them, the skeleton of the story was there but I had to tear away that flesh and repopulate it… [Laughs] Not to be totally gross about it. While I knew there was a kernel of something I still wanted to work with, I had also grown as a person, and I was interested in other things. So I mostly rewrote all of these stories—some more than others. Most of them practically every other word was changed. For a couple of stories, I deleted twenty pages and added thirty—just rewrote them again and realized these families did all know each other. Unfortunately, it was still not a novel, but it was these linked stories.
These stories have had several lives. This is their final life.
Rumpus: Which story took the most out of you, was the hardest to write?
Zhang: It’s so funny you asked, because if you asked my editor, Kaela Myers, she’d say every one. All my emails to her were like, I’m really sorry, I haven’t slept in ten days, this one is the hardest, I promise the others will be easier, and I’ll get this to you soon.
But I do think the longest story “Our Mothers Before Them” was really hard, as was the last story in the book.
“Mothers” was hard because that was the one that had the most actually set in China—and not 1990s China but 1960s China, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. That was really hard because I had to do a lot of research. I don’t read and write in Chinese. It’s always hard when you’re researching something that happened in a country not in the language of that country, and the cultural revolution is written very differently depending on whether the historian’s a conservative, leftist, or a modernist. There’s so much we don’t know about that time and can never know unless you’re someone who lived through it and then even if you lived through it your experience can be different from the other 1.4 billion people who also lived through it.
My family members who did live through it mostly don’t want to talk about it and get very emotional when it’s brought up, so I made the decision not to ask them about it. It’s not worth it for someone to re-traumatize themselves so I can do research for my fiction. But, because of that decision, I really was like, Am I getting this right? Do I know what I’m talking about? Will someone read this and say it’s obvious this person has no idea what she’s talking about? I ultimately had to make peace with myself that I was writing about something that really happened under the auspices of fiction and that I did the best that I could with the material.
The last story was really hard because it’s the last taste on the tongue before the dinner’s over. Originally when I wrote it, it ended on this pessimistic note—the message was basically that family was a trap. And that’s how I felt when I was twenty-four years old. But I’m thirty-three now, and that’s not true for me anymore, and didn’t think it was true for my characters either when they’re older. It was really, really hard because I had to go through that story and not just revise it but re-envision it.
I don’t recommend not letting go of old drafts. I recommend writing new things. I think that’s easier. But I did it the unrecommended away.
Feature photograph provided courtesy of the author.