Girls Who Know: Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart

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In Brooklyn writer Jenny Zhang’s 2014 chapbook, HAGS, Zhang offers the following conversation:

You know everything, my mother used to say to me. You can say everything exactly as it is. You always say I know I know I know, but you must DO. Why don’t you ever DO?

Isn’t knowing enough, I cried. Most people don’t even know, I said, weeping in the car. At least I know.

The stories of Sour Heart, Zhang’s first collection of fiction, are filled with girls who know. Each touches on the shame that comes with seeing too clearly, talking too loudly, and being angry and sad in a world that wants a decorative girl, if it wants a girl at all. Shit-talking, sharp-eyed, first- and second-generation Chinese immigrant girls are telling the stories here. Characters reoccur, adding different points of view to events that carry different meanings for each. This echoing makes a strong statement on the mutability of history and how powerfully influential the stories we tell about ourselves can be. Jumping from Brooklyn slumlord apartments to smelly family homes in Shanghai to lonely suburban single-families, through family histories and overheard gossip, Zhang’s stories probe the nested worlds immigrant children navigate.

Sour Heart never shies from anger, failure, or shit. Zhang’s characters are poor, or recently poor, or terrified of being poor again, and the girl protagonists of all these stories struggle for control over their own feelings and the various obligations of being a daughter in their family. The indignities of poverty are here—the story that opens the collection details the strategies needed to take a shit when your apartment toilet barely works. The deluge of demands that poverty creates, explicitly or not, internal or enforced from outside, is made even more suffocating by the crush of bodies in households already stretched in too many other ways, with family histories so tragic and seemingly inescapable that legacies haunt whoever knows the details. As in Zhang’s nonfiction work, the tension between expectations based on race, immigration status, gender and family roles, and the (often ugly) realities of life in America is thick but never murky. In defiance, the characters in Sour Heart get creative with profanity and insults, they steal and scam, they talk about the needs of their bodies. They get angry and try not to be destroyed by that anger—it is that struggle that drives most of the book.

Zhang picks at the concept of family—it’s got to be more than just obligation, unpayable debts, and unbearable need, right? In “You Fell Into The River and I Saved You!,” lonely Christina tries to reconnect with a cousin in Shanghai:

We both laughed at how something like this could have happened, and after that I no longer looked at her and wondered what it would have been like to know her instead of just knowing that she was my cousin and I was hers because our mothers told us so. We had endured something together. We were family now.

Or maybe it is some kind of inevitable reenactment of past survival strategies as described in “Our Mothers Before Them,” in which a daughter becomes a vessel for her mother’s thoughts:

She was only ever going to scold them, make them feel diminutive, make them feel like they were never good enough, make them know this world wouldn’t be kind to them… That’s how we’ll be with our own children, proud that she had realized this. Because we’ll learn from our mother who learned from her mother who learned from her mother before her who learned from her mother before her and all the mothers before them.

The trouble of demanding truth in a family context is most evident in my favorite story in the book, “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” In it, main character Stacey recounts the invasion of her family by her grandmother, a woman obsessed with being the most important person to her grandchildren. Stacey rejects the cognitive dissonance required to be a part of her grandmother’s story. In the absence of Stacey’s always-working parents, her grandmother monologues alternate histories of her own life, of Stacey’s life, of her little brother Allen’s life while she babysits them:

“And when your brother was little,” my grandmother shouted with her hands in the air as if waiting to receive something promised to her, “he suckled on my breast because your mother’s milk dried up, but my breasts have always produced milk whenever my grandchildren were born. Your cousin drank from my nipple too, but no one drank as hungrily as your brother. He drank until it was all dried up. And when it hurt for me to produce any more, he would cry out in anguish for it. I had to pray to the gods for more milk so your brother could go on.

The next line encapsulates Stacey’s frustration at being captive to these stories: “‘This is disgusting. This never happened,’ I said. But as usual no one was listening…” The story ends with Stacey having a dream-like encounter with her grandmother, finally, horribly shorn of her megalomaniacal stories. The question of the value of knowing hangs over the end of the story with a deeply-felt ambivalence that I am still thinking about.

Zhang’s sibling portrayals stand out in worlds where everyone is doing the best they can and comfort is rare. In “The Evolution of My Brother,” the gentlest story in the collection, Zhang documents a kind of physical, adoring, and weird relationship rarely seen in fiction. The strange resentments and rituals that make up long days alone with just your brother (or sister) for company read like a memory.

When we went to wash our hands in the bathroom, I remembered the mirrors and shielded his eyes with my hands as we were going in.

“You’re my robot and I control everything you do!”

“Okay, Jenny!” he shouted back.

Zhang has more faithfully telegraphed the blind faith of the little brother and the big sister as both protector and sadist than any writer I’ve read.

I would set fire to any tree harboring branches that might one day fall on your head, cut the arms off the first kid who tries to punch you in the face, pave down and smooth over the bumps in our street where you always trip, go into your nightmares and vanquish the beasts who chase you so you never ever have to be afraid. But what right did I have? When would I finally get it? That I was the one he needed to be protected from?

The pain of losing that connection while trying to become yourself is in the story, too, and the bittersweet nature of looking at the brother you’d murder for or the sister you worshiped and seeing a stranger who’s doing okay, a person who survived differently than you, and missing the feeling of that grubby hand in yours.

Zhang lays out how different childhoods within the same families can be, especially when one sibling was born after the family became more financially secure. In “The Evolution of My Brother,” she writes, “…whatever happened to them in the year before I was brought to America was somehow related to their refusal to ever order beverages at restaurants because paying an extra dollar or two for something they could get in bulk cheaper activated some kind of trauma inside them. It really did. But what was even more astounding was that they never stopped me or my brother from ordering those drinks, though I rarely did anyway because… because of what? Because I was closer to that time of their lives when they had suffered and lived without much energy to dream?” How brothers and sisters translate, restate, and reimagine for one another is critical to how Sour Heart’s protagonists see themselves. It’s refreshing to see that relationship given weight.

Sour Heart goes deep and dark into the private worlds of children, shining a light on how twisted kids can get with imperfect knowledge and a lot of alone time. Zhang has a knack for both relaying pre-adolescent decision-making with clarity and undermining the idea that time softens edges of creepy memories. It leaves the collection with a few nightmarish tales about friendship and power. “The Empty the Empty the Empty” is the most explicit, and had me cringing but also feeling relieved of some unspecific humiliation.

Confessional without the shame of confession, the best stories in Sour Heart feel like they are being poured from a girl heart right to your ear. Zhang uses repetition to great effect. Sometimes like a cudgel, sometimes like a small, sharp stone in your hand, repetition makes you feel the psychic weight of certain words and ideas. Coupled with an ear for natural dialogue (and inner monologue), the stories almost beg to be read aloud. But, as spending time immersed in another person’s thoughts can be wearing, it may be best to take a break between the stories of Sour Heart to give the details room to breathe.

Carrie Jones is an editor who makes your wor(l)ds better. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets at @carrietryharder. More from this author →