Author Jenny Zhang on China, Family, Class, and Her Short-Story Collection Sour Heart

Jenny Zhang. Photo: Courtesy of Jenny Zhang

Though Jenny Zhang first made a name for herself as a poet and online essayist, her true passion has always been writing fiction. Born in China and raised in New York, Zhang graduated from Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before returning to the city. Her first book of fiction, Sour Heart (out today through Lenny/Penguin Random House), is a formally innovative short-story collection. Most short stories tend toward enclosure; it’s not a long enough form to develop beyond a character’s limitations, and once you’ve completed the circle, the story ends. But Zhang’s stories open out into each other, creating a thematic network of ideas and concepts. Vulture caught up with the author in Brooklyn last week.

At any time while you were writing this, did it feel like you were writing a novel?

I think I always felt I wasn’t writing a pure short story — or maybe it felt like I was writing failed short stories? Especially in American short fiction, there’s a feeling after reading a really great short story that there’s a punch line. Especially those short stories that you read to begin learning about the form — [Hemingway’s] “Hills Like White Elephants,” or whatever. I felt like I wasn’t able to do that, but I also felt, at the same time, that I wasn’t writing a novel. In the American conception of short fiction, the short story packs a wallop, and the novel is supposed to be this meandering epic. That’s what people expect: They don’t want to read a slight novel. People don’t want to waste their time on anything less than “great.”

There’s an expectation of substance which gets conflated with volume.

An expectation of being almost exhausted by the end of reading one. I felt like I wasn’t capable of doing either. I felt like, in some ways — and this isn’t my own original thought — someone in my workshop said I was almost kind of writing fiction, but in the form of an essay.

The essayists themselves are fictional.

Trying something out, following a lot of questions that lead to more questions. I wasn’t aware of that, but I started to embrace it.

All the main characters in these stories are connected by the first story: They’re all sleeping like ten to a room in this decrepit apartment in Washington Heights. At what point did the form of the book come into focus for you? You begin with one character as a protagonist, and then you slowly reveal that all of them are — that it’s a group portrait.

It was a bit later, after having written all the stories, and having this conviction that they all belonged together, but not quite being sure why. Did they belong together because I wrote them all at the same time in my life, or for a reason more internal to the story? I felt like it made sense because it’s a very common facet of immigrant life, especially for this particular cohort of immigrants, where you come to a country and you end up living with the friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who also immigrated the year before you, and you start pulling in people you know. Even though they might play a minor role in the rest of your life, in that first few years of being in America, you’re part of a family you didn’t choose to be a part of but have to be to survive.

So it kind of made sense to do that and also … the first family [in the book] in some ways is the most “Americanized”: they kind of embrace the American dream of individualism and “we can do anything we want and we should have what we want in life,” and they’re the ones who take the longest to get on their feet because of their commitment to this American notion of freedom. I wanted to start with that family, and then shift to families who are perhaps a little bit more recognizable as stereotypes about Chinese-American immigrants.

It seemed to me this book is not really an Asian-American book, but a Chinese-American book, specifically a mainland-Chinese-American book. In a way, the book is not actually centered on America at all, because the fundamental divide in the book isn’t between Americans and non-Americans, but Chinese and non-Chinese. Was that just a product of instinct on your part, or was it something intentional?

I think it was part instinct and part reaction to my peers in school who wanted me to cater to what they were used to, which was stories that centered whiteness — where whiteness was the default, and if you departed from that, you had to explain it, or you had to in some way refer to it. I didn’t want to do that. When you’re a white writer writing about white characters, very rarely are you like, “Okay, how do I explain this to the black reader? Okay, how do I explain this to the Korean reader?” You’re never thinking that way; you’re never using anything other than yourself as the assumption [of the norm]. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be just as — even though you can’t — but I wanted to be just as free, and I wanted to write from a point that was … I wanted to write like an insider. I didn’t want to make, like, a “global” piece of fiction. You know what I mean?

To be global, you have to be local first.

Yeah, exactly. I wanted to write really deeply inside the perspective of these families — and, to be honest, a lot of the time white people will be like, “Why do they hate us?” And I’m like, “But we don’t even think of you sometimes.” You’re like the 20th thing we think about. And especially for immigrants, like you said, it’s almost like … all they notice are things that are different from the country they’re from. There’s a way in which these characters lump together anyone who’s not Chinese as “other,” just as mainstream, dominant white culture would lump these people in this general category of other. I wanted to show it actually goes both ways.

Part of the process of you centering Chineseness is that you don’t translate all of the Chinese words, right? Sometimes you even use Chinese characters. What was the thinking behind choosing when to use each thing — when to translate for the reader, when to use romanized Chinese words, and when to use Chinese characters?

I tried to do it in a way that I thought was true to each character. So the character Mandee [in “Our Days and Nights of Terror”] — she’s the one who knows the most Chinese because she’s lived in China until she was 7, and she comes much older than the others. So to me, it would make sense that she, in her memory of being a child, would have actual Chinese characters in there. Whereas some other characters, some of them don’t speak a lot of Chinese, so there’s no Chinese characters or pinyin [romanized Chinese] in their memory of how their parents talk. But also they kind of automatically translate their parents, in a way.

The one thing I wanted to make sure to convey was that, in their memories of their childhoods with their parents, all of them remember their parents as fluent. If you’re not bilingual, it can be very hard to convey how you actually speak. Because, it’s not just like, “Now, let’s transition from one language to the other!” Even when I speak English to my parents, I’ll say an English word differently to my Chinese parents and friends than I do to my English-speaking friends — you know, I’ll pronounce “McDonald’s” differently, because it feels right, and that’s what I’m used to. I’ll switch between Chinese and English; I’ll say two words in Chinese, one word in English, one word in accented Chinese, accented English. You know, it’s really too intricate to show — it’s its own language.

I wanted to show that even when you have such a specific language with your family, because you’re bicultural or bilingual, it’s very hard for outsiders to see that, because when you’re around outsiders you speak in the language they speak in. But I wanted to show it from the inside: The way the characters remember their parents, they’re perfectly articulate. Even some of the dialogue that’s in English that’s remembered by these kids, I wanted to make it clear that it’s fuzzy; it may have been the parents literally said those words in English, or it may have been the parents said something in Chinese, and that’s how the child grows up to remember that moment, or it might be a combination.

One character, a father I think — the daughter remembers him saying something, but he uses the phrase “wilding out,” which is not something he would probably be familiar with. You’re meant to assume that’s some translation of a Chinese phrase, right?

Yes. And you’re meant to assume that that’s how she thinks of her father, as someone who’s funny, as someone who doesn’t speak in an antiquated way. Whether that’s true or not, that’s how that character remembers him. It’s true that there’s no way he actually said “wilding out.”

It seems to me this book is very focused not just on race, but on class, and class mobility. It’s very keen about seeing immigration itself as an attempt to change your class, which seems to be something that gets obscured or elided by a lot of upper-middle-class immigrant fiction. I think what makes this book special is that you give the right emphasis: These Chinese people, they come to America living ten to a room in these awful apartments for $200 a month, and they can’t find work. But somehow they crawl out of it, right? They end up becoming the professionals they’re trained to be, and things work out. What’s great about this book is that you get the uplift, but you also focus on what they’re being lifted up from. You’re not squeamish about pointing out how being poor is really shitty — literally very shitty, a lot of the time. Is that something you’ve always been committed to? Just not forgetting where you came from, where your people came from?

Having parents from mainland China, and my extended family there, one of the common ways I was brought up to think about being Chinese is like, “Do you realize this country went from being literally dirt-poor and starving for millennia to, in the course of like two decades, modernizing? Do you realize how long that took so many other places?” It’s not necessarily a point of saying, “We’re the best,” but it is this kind of hyper-unreal reality, and it’s like, I descend from these people who literally ate shit and survived. That kind of creates a deep feeling of hardiness.

But at the same time I did want to show that when you are the child of immigrants who actually chased and succeeded in becoming upwardly mobile, there’s a kind of mystery as to how the hell that happened. That story is part of the mythology of America: We like to believe that that’s foundational to all Americans, but it’s actually a very rare thing, and one of the reasons it’s so mysterious is because people can really hide the help that they’ve gotten — either because they don’t want to admit it, or because they don’t even see it as help. In these stories — I don’t know whether it’s too buried to be obvious — what these young girls are realizing as they get older and are looking back on their childhoods and trying to figure out is like, “How the hell did we go from sleeping ten to a room to having a house on Long Island, you know, in the space of ten years?” They’re starting to realize what class their parents descended from, which is very confusing because, like you said, I’m not writing about the Asian-American experience, but specifically the mainland-Chinese-American experience — and, in particular, this class of Chinese-Americans who are scholars. They would have been, perhaps, the academic class or the elite class.

They’re the intelligentsia.

Exactly, they descend from the intelligentsia. But it just so happened that they grew up in a time when China was literally going through class struggle, and the people who normally would have gone to college and become diplomats or ambassadors or scholars are working on the farms in the fields and not going to school for five years. It’s very confusing, because it seems like they came from nothing, but they do have this lineage — an intellectual lineage, the lineage of poets and scholars. These people have their lives turned upside down, but eventually all of them come to the United States to pursue degrees of higher education, and then their lives are turned upside down again, because it turns out, if you have a Chinese face and you get your degree in linguistics or English literature, you don’t have the easiest time of it when you don’t have any financial support — when you have no cushion and you’re depending completely on yourselves and you’re supporting your family. So one by one, every one of these families drops out of their programs, pursues degrees in business, in computer science.

This is a very common story, and I wanted to show that, but I also wanted to show that even after — I don’t know if you can actually call it class struggle, but after the class struggle of the Cultural Revolution, it’s interesting that these characters end up back where they were destined to be, but it just took them longer. I don’t even know if people who are not from China would care to know about this story, but I cared, and I cared to show it.

I thought it was really important that you keep revisiting the Cultural Revolution in these stories. It’s not just one episode. It gets mentioned early on, and there’s a story: Half of it is set during the Cultural Revolution, and you’re meant to suss out how the story got told to the person who’s telling it. And then there’s the second story, and you actually have an old woman, a grandmother who was actually responsible for sending people to die during the Cultural Revolution. I thought that was insightful: noting that that kind of trauma doesn’t just go away. It keeps recurring — maybe not with the same force as originally, but you can always feel the echoes in your parents in a way. Even when they get angry at you, you can kind of tell the rage isn’t entirely their own.

I remember being in Shanghai a few years ago, and every single day there was a huge fight that would break out on a bus or on a subway car. Every day, I saw so many people literally punch each other out of a subway car. I was like, “Mom, what’s going on? Why?” And they were always middle-aged men, often fighting with each other, or with middle-aged women, people who were my parents’ age. And she was just told me there’s a whole generation of people who had their childhood snatched away and feel very resentful about growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. They feel like their lives were taken from them, and there’s been no reckoning or reconciliation, no sort of restorative justice — not that she used that word. There’s just this generation of people who now are like, “I’ve lived half my life, and I’m angry. What was it all for?”

We think about anger as if it were specific to the individual, but there is collective trauma that creates collective personality traits, or at least a tendency to certain personality traits. People don’t want to talk about that because it’s easier to blame the person for their behavior, and we are responsible as individuals for our behavior, but also these global historical structures, like imperialism, war, capitalism — all of that should be held responsible, too.

I remember in one of the stories, a family’s on a road trip, and the daughter hears her mother and father singing these old struggle songs — these Communist anthems where they’re like, “We’re gonna take down American imperialism.” I find it so pleasantly ironic that they’re doing this on an American highway. Does this kind of thing happen often enough in your life to the point where you’re like, “This has to make it into the book somehow”?

I think being a writer is being heavily attuned to the absolute absurdity of things you take for granted, and I think that having actual parents who lived through the Cultural Revolution who are also interested in literature, they’re also very attuned to those moments. They tell stories often with an eye toward hilarity instead of misery. My mom told me, for example, when I was younger, “Oh, yeah! I organized a penny drive for Americans when I was in high school. Because they told us that America was poorer than we were. And we were literally so malnourished that we couldn’t grow body hair, and we were trying to save these starving, wretched Americans, ‘cause that’s all we knew.” I thought that was so funny. So I started to try to notice anything that had that kind of humor, and once you start noticing that, it really is everywhere.

My parents didn’t like the Cultural Revolution but, at the same time, the song that’s always going to be stuck in my head until the day I die is the Chinese national anthem. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” It’s not something they notice, but there’s a song by Rage Against the Machine called “Wake Up” where they’re just literally screaming, “Wake up!” many times at the end of the song. It creates this weird kind of vertigo. You’re just like: Where is the struggle? Who are the combatants, really? Where do the lines get drawn, when these messages keep on recurring?

When you’re the children of immigrants, and especially ones who have gone through something so fucking unreal in all of its horror, everything is defamiliarized. You’re constantly defamiliarizing things that are familiar to your parents, and they’re constantly defamiliarizing things that are familiar to you.

As someone who read your poetry long before I ever got my hands on your fiction, I know that you’re not afraid to talk shit. Literally talk shit.

I’m a shit-talker.

But I’ve noticed that it’s not just you. At Tony Tulathimutte’s book launch, you got onstage and you were like, “Me and Tony talk about our bowel movements all the time. It’s the subject of half our conversations.” So Tony’s clearly in the same boat. But the funny thing is that Tao Lin is also in the same boat, because during the phase of his career where he’s like, “No figurative language, never any figurative language,” he would always make a point of using the phrase “shit-talking.” As if you were literally talking shit about a person. It seems to me that that’s just a basic aspect of Chinese culture: It’s not about wallowing in shit, but it is about not being squeamish about it. Like, we have these bodies, they produce these materials. Eventually, it all gets cycled back into us, in a way — through crops, through fertilizer.

It’s like the last thing we would have manners about. There’s way more important things to have manners about.

All these characters are from the intellectual class, but they’re talking about pig shit and vomit and dog shit — they don’t feel fastidious about this.

I don’t know if this is true, but to me, it’s because Chinese people were hungry for so long, of course they would care not just about what goes in their body, but what comes out.

When it’s literally a matter of life or death, you can’t afford to be squeamish.

In my mind, scatological writing is a core of the English canon. Like, I love Portnoy’s Complaint, and half that book is about shitting, being unable to shit, being constipated. To me, that’s literary, that’s one of the domains of literature.

Male white writers write about that, and it can turn people off, but I think there’s a bigger turn-off when I write this way, because it really goes against our idea of the Chinese girl as this delicate, sweet lotus blossom. People either get too titillated by it, or they get too disgusted, but I’m not trying to titillate or disgust. This is just part of life! It’s a huge part of going to another country. How many times have we read a story about a white European who goes to Southeast Asia and has horrible diarrhea? And that becomes part of the metaphor for the darkness of this country and the savagery of this land: not being able to stomach the food. I wanted to show that’s true for people who come to Europe and America. Like, I don’t know if your parents are like this, but when my parents don’t eat Chinese food for too many days in a row, they become physically ill. They have to eat Chinese food. They’ve developed diets that can’t be changed in an instant, and one of the issues they had coming to America was being constantly sick; their bowels were in turmoil. And I sometimes wonder, because I did grow up eating only Chinese food for the first ten years of my life, I do wonder, like if, you know … maybe the scatological elements are the most autobiographical of all the parts in these stories.

It’s a relief to know that, even though your characters are just made of words, they produce waste material, because you can’t have life without waste.

That’s completely true.

It seems like the reason you’re able to be so frank about class in this book is related. When we’re talking about class, we’re talking about waste. It seems like this is part of the reason you’re able to cross all of these class lines other fiction writers would stop at. Does that make sense?

Kind of — can you say it one more time?

Basically, I think social divisions, of whatever kind — class, gender, race — they’re always predicated on a kind of moral bigotry. The inferior class — the class that’s rendered inferior, I should say — is always associated with waste material. It’s always associated with the part of the material world that is not organized, not upstanding. The scandalous half.

Right. They’re dirty, they’re filthy. I genuinely like dirty things. I genuinely find the things you’re supposed to flush down the toilet interesting. I feel like I sound like the Penguin from Batman Returns — he’s like, “What you flush down your toilet, I place on my mantelpiece,” or something. I’m genuinely like that. I’m not disgusted by those things. For whatever reason, I look down on people who have neatly pressed pants. I look down on people who have to have this fork on the right side of that plate. I find that kind of … to be honest, I find that repulsive. I find that gross. I think these characters are — I wouldn’t say they find that gross, but I think that they don’t understand what’s so gross about them, especially because they’re children, and when you’re a child, you’re in the process of being told what’s gross about you, but you’re not quite convinced yet. I think every family creates their own internal standards of what is good and what is beautiful and I wanted to kind of show that, and maybe that was me trying to talk about class. It’s very hard to write about class, especially about being working class or poor, without either overly romanticizing it or overly denigrating it, and I tried not to idealize it as either.

In that vein, I noticed you don’t flinch from depicting relations between Asians and non-white non-Asians. Some are pretty friendly: One of the characters’ dads is a teacher, and one of the black students takes her under her wing. But at the same time these immigrants are poor, living alongside other immigrants, and they’re also living alongside people of color who don’t hesitate to rob them. Who don’t hesitate to extort them. Do you feel like, as you break down a lot of stereotypes about Asian people, that you’re proliferating certain other stereotypes about black people or Hispanic people?

I thought about that a lot. Especially because I didn’t want to paint a rosy picture where there wasn’t one. It is just true that Asians have — I think there’s tons of studies that show Asian-Americans think more poorly of black Americans than white Americans do. That they have even more entrenched anti-black views. And we can get into all the reasons why Asian-Americans are held up as the model minority, but to me, it’s very common and realistic that Asian-American immigrants would, in this ironic way, think as lowly of black and brown people in their neighborhoods as white people think of all non-white people. And we’ve seen this: where immigrants are not necessarily against anti-immigrant legislation. I’m not saying that it’s good, but it’s very human nature when you rise up in these class ranks to be like, “I don’t want to look back and associate myself with the people who didn’t make it the way I made it,” and I tried to be very honest in these stories, especially with these parents. They really don’t want to be associated with the “bad kind” of minorities. They don’t want to see the ways in which they’re very similar to the West Indian immigrant population, for example, in some of the neighborhoods they live in. They want to see themselves as different, as better.

And also, it’s very hard to talk about this, because it’s not a justification for anti-black racism, but it is true that in these neighborhoods where Asians are living in close proximity with other non-white populations, violence breaks out. How many working-class Asian immigrant families do I know who said they were attacked, robbed, or had a bad interaction with a non-white person in their first years in America? Every single one of them. And some of them, to their grave, will never get over that. I wanted to be honest about that.

In that first story, “We Love You Crispina,” like you said, the narrator’s dad works as a teacher at public schools, so most of his students are black and Latino. He brings his daughter to school, and she becomes really good friends with this one black girl in her dad’s class. I wanted to show that even as this daughter was trying to break away from her dad’s attitudes about black people, she also imbibed some of it. She asks to touch her hair; she comments on black women’s behinds. That’s how she was raised. She was raised by parents who were like, “Look at those people. They have huge asses,” or “Look at those people. They’re such failures.” And that’s her struggle, and that’s the struggle of a lot of Asian-Americans, and I didn’t want to shy away from that. Writing about something is not the same as condoning it.

You’re a Chinese girl whose parents are Chinese. All the narrators in these stories are Chinese girls. So it’s a group portrait, and the multiplicity allows you to create an image of the Chinese girl that’s not monolithic. One aspect is that a lot of the time Chinese girls don’t like each other. Do you think it’s an externalized self-hatred, or just repulsion between different individuals?

I think when you feel really close to someone, it’s almost like the closer you are to someone, the more you can feel judged by them. They see you too transparently. In one of the stories, there’s this Chinese girl and her frenemy who’s Taiwanese, and one of their points of contention is the Taiwanese girl grew up in America, so she speaks fluent English, and the Chinese girl has just learned a year ago. And the Taiwanese girl’s like, “What’s wrong with you? Are you a dummy?” And that starts things off on a very sour note between them. There are small battles, and there are big battles. In that same story, the big battle is racism — the kind of racism that makes anyone care about having an accent. Or it’s misogyny, the rigidity of gender that makes a girly-girl feel suspicious of a tomboy. But in that moment, when you’re a kid, all you feel is: I’m annoyed at this other kid. You’re not able to comprehend the massive structures that govern the way we behave toward each other.

It’s also another facet of class. I know people who literally don’t yell because, from the age of 7, they went to therapy or to schools where they were taught not to yell — they were taught that whenever you have a problem with someone, you talk about it calmly, and you don’t use these fighting words. Meanwhile, there are people who grew up in households where there wasn’t enough to eat. Learning not to yell is very low on their list of skills. And it makes sense that they yell when they’re upset. These girls are growing up in extremely stressful home environments and school environments and neighborhoods. Of course there’s going to be friction, there’s going to be violence, there’s going to be cruelty, there’s going to be all the stuff that happens anyway in childhood — but even more so when your basic needs of shelter, safety, and food aren’t being met on a daily basis.

The relationship between girls is important, but it kind of takes a back seat to relationships between mothers and daughters. You’re very close to your mother. Is there anything you felt that you could communicate to her in this book that you couldn’t just do directly?

Aw, that’s such a nice question.

I mean, I have a mom too.

Being the daughter of first-generation immigrants, my parents are very protective of me, and because we don’t speak the same language fluently, I can seem very small and sheltered to my mother. Not to say that she thinks less of me or she doesn’t expect much of me, but she doesn’t get to see me excel as a person because she doesn’t speak or read English very well. Even if I’m dazzling, she’ll never really get to see that because I can only dazzle in the English language. I can’t dazzle in Chinese. For example, we never talk about politics, because I don’t know the words for the conversation I want to have. We can’t talk about so many things, and yet I feel so close to her, so our closeness is based on a smaller circle of things that we know about each other, but I still feel close to her.

In writing this book, it’s still in English, but I think it makes me feel like I had the safety to reveal myself and the time to reveal myself and the things that concern me and the things that I think about and the things that my imagination is capable of discerning. Also, I was able to, in some small, tiny way, I think, be like, all those times I was looking at my phone or my computer while you were talking about your childhood and the Cultural Revolution, I was listening. My face had a sulky look on it, because I was 14 when that happened, but I took it in, and I find you to be the most interesting, important person in my life, and I hope in some way that, in writing this book, I was able to perform a tiny little tribute.

This book begins and ends on a note of family reunion. The way you close the book off seems to suggest that despite all of these radical changes that these immigrants have gone through — moving to an entirely different country, working with people who don’t speak their own language, whose language they themselves are not very well-versed in — despite all of these drastic changes, the family unit is still strong enough to withstand these centrifugal tendencies, I guess, the kind of individualism that’s at the bedrock of Western culture. Is that a conflict you would want to see more of? Exploring the possibility that this process of Westernization, of assimilation, it may change you in a way that you may not be recognizably Chinese to people who live in China.

I mean, assimilation is a trap, because you’ll never be accepted truly into the society and culture you’re trying to assimilate into, and you’ll lose your connection to the people you came from. In some ways, you’re trying to get away from the people who want to claim you, and you’re trying to move in closer to the people who don’t want to. But what else can you do? You live in the country you live in, and this is not a particularly hospitable country to aliens, to people who don’t want to embrace this white Americana. I think that I did try to end these stories on a hopeful note, but also the hopefulness comes from … I think a family unit that, at least in this generation, stays intact.

If I had kids, I don’t know what would happen to the part of me that feels very much Chinese and from the old country. I don’t know if it would survive. I think it would die, I think it would end. And I think the idea of breeding generation after generation that’s more and more alienated from the one before it — it’s very sad to me, and I think anyone who has been forced to assimilate understands and fears it. You lose your connection to your motherland, and in its place you have to create a new home, a home that can shelter you, and who you’ve chosen to create your family with. I haven’t gotten to that point, to be honest, and my biggest fear is losing the family I came from and having to create a new one. I don’t know, maybe that has stunted me in some way, but I think I’m so afraid of losing the family I’m from because if I lose the family I’m from, I feel like I’m losing the country I was born in and the people I descend from. And I don’t want to do that.

Author Jenny Zhang on China, Family, Class, and Sour Heart