AWF18: Sour Heart – Jenny Zhang

AWF18: Sour Heart – Jenny Zhang

‘Praised as ingenious by The New Yorker for its “technical artistry with an unfettered emotional directness” Jenny Zhang’s debut short-story collection Sour Heart interrogates the immigrant experience in eight linked stories…’

AWF18 6 Jenny Zhang.jpeg

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black

Full notes by Emma Johnson

Jenny Zhang’s work has been described as ‘obscene, beautiful, moving’ – familial co-dependence, suffocation, love and cruelty all intermingle in vivid prose. In keeping with the nuances of the book, this session examined burdens and privilege, pushes and pulls, the grey areas of Jenny’s experience. But, also like the book, it was not cloying or earnest or too serious, for Jenny is funny. The audience was treated to an intelligent and illuminating two-way conversation, where Rosabel Tan asked questions that engaged both with Jenny’s work and the wider societal context in which it was created and received.

Sour Heart is a collection of seven loosely connected stories of six young girls from the immigrant community, young girls on the cusp of puberty. So why focus on this period? Because the time a young girl can be innocent, Jenny explained, the time when the body is just a vessel that gets you from A to B, is incredibly short. It is not long before ‘someone makes you aware it is something else’. This brief span of time is ripe for literature – where there is a freedom, a blissful ignorance of labels like Asian and immigrant.

Rosabel traced the lineage of Sour Heart – it is a descendent of that ‘singular story of immigrant struggle then success’, of ‘an Asian angel making it in the white world’, but this work was refreshing in that it ‘resists this as the primary narrative’. The drive for her approach, Jenny explained, was that she felt there had been a white fetish for the pain of the immigrant experience, and that ultimately the American Dream was bullshit – its messages of tolerance, understanding and that anyone could make it were certainly not reflective of her experience. She had tried so long to love it, but ultimately, there was only so much abuse one can take. So, she quipped, she had to ‘have boundaries with this bitch of a country’.

The conversation turned to the problems of lineage: the guilt that second generation immigrants carry for the sacrifices their parents have made. But Jenny interpreted this lineage problem in another way – through language. She spoke of a private language established between herself and her parents, the mix of Chinese and English particular to them that reflected their interests, which she, as the last bearer of this language, will not be able to pass on.

And how has she grappled with what Rosabel termed the ‘mythologising of the book’, where certain aspects are focused on and others ignored by critics, and an identity is forced upon her by others? It was made clear that the burden of writing stories in an area where there are very few examples is exhausting and potentially disruptive to the creative process, with seemingly competing impulses – to not let people down in her community and a wish to not be provincial or to ‘ be used as a proxy in some sort of cultural war’. There is a particular pressure when you are one of the few.

She also pointed to a disrespect and almost willful ignorance by those claiming that in this current climate, her voice was ‘needed now more than ever’. As she articulated, this not only suggests that immigrant experiences are only relevant when lives are imperiled, but closes down the conversations. It also conflates the experiences of undocumented Latin Americans with those of the community she is describing.

This funny, insightful and honest conversation will no doubt encourage many in the audience to read Jenny Zhang and head along to her reading on Sunday.

Sour Heart
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing

Jenny Zhang will also appear in Strangers in a New Land
SUN, 20 MAY 2018 12:00pm – 12:50pm
Limelight Room, Aotea Centre


AWF18: Festival Gala Night – True Stories Told Live: Under Cover

AWF18 Festival Gala Night- True Stories Told Live: Under Cover 

The authors in this session were Susie Boyt (England), Lisa Dwan (Ireland); Gigi Fenster (South Africa/NZ); Alex Ross (US); Damon Salesa (Samoa/NZ); Tom Scott (NZ); Shashi Tharoor (India); and Jenny Zhang (US). Each of them have sessions later on in the Auckland Writers Festival programme. 

Tara Black illustrates, and Briar Lawry gives us her take on the session. 

AWF18 0 Gala 1

AWF18 1 Gala 2

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black

Briar Lawry words 

The ‘True Stories Told Live’-themed Gala Night is by now a core part of the Auckland Writers Festival to look forward to each time May rolls around. This year’s theme, Under Cover, made for some riveting listening that would prove, as Festival Director Anne O’Brien said in summary: ‘some of them make you laugh, all of them make you think’.

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. In front of a packed ASB Theatre, O’Brien gave a world of welcome, and acknowledged the contribution of both the ‘generous and highly discerning funding partners’ and the support of individual patrons. She shared a few stories, the ‘profound moments’ provided by the festival so far – often relating to the great lengths taken by many of the festival guests to get here, to our far flung corner of the world.

She made one particularly significant comment: ‘We cannot change the privilege that we are born with – but we can change what we do with the privilege.’ This felt particularly relevant, given the predominantly Pākehā make up of the audience, especially when contrasted against the relative diversity of the writers of the night’s line-up. With the likes of Chinese-American writer Jenny Zhang, Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor and Samoan Kiwi Damon Salesa on stage, the stories being told frequently uncovered experiences unknown to the audience at large. (To be clear, I count myself among that ‘audience at large’ – while I am perhaps on the younger side of those in attendance, I am still a Pākehā woman.)

Things kicked off with someone a little closer to home and attendee demographic, with Tom Scott regaling the crowd with the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s summitting of Everest. He leaped between the hilarious, the meaningful, and the charmingly lewd. From Hillary’s blokiness to Norgay’s prayers of forgiveness as they continued the climb up this sacred peak, it was a rollicking start to the storytelling.

Jenny Zhang was next up, with an easy-going speaking style and a tale of life as a ‘latchkey kid’ and new arrival to New York City as a primary-school-aged child. ‘The curious case of the abandoned underwear’, she described it, going into the detail of an incident of a pair of knickers tripped over in the classroom. This small moment was skillfully connected back to Zhang’s arrival from Shanghai a couple of years earlier, with beautiful moments of remembering laid out for us to enjoy – looking up at the sky while crossing the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn and thinking oh my god, the moon has followed me here – I’m so special.

Her story wove into days of being shut away at home for her lonesome safety, while creating elaborate potential futures, on which she mused ‘I was so delusional. I was so happy in my delusions.’

Taking ‘under cover’ to mean assuming a persona or acting, critic and author Alex Ross assured us that acting is ‘something for which I have no talent whatsoever’. But, as he pointed out, there was ‘the sense of assuming an identity before coming out’.

Ross led us through the story of his return to his secondary school to speak to the Gay/Straight Alliance club – something that he, a closeted child of the 80s could never have dreamed of existing at his ‘conservative, Episcopalian, all-boys’ school. His era was one when ‘the word gay wasn’t as common as the word fag’, he said, so to have this opportunity to be invited with open arms – to a talk in the school chapel, no less – was something else.

Susie Boyt had a more practised delivery than those who came before – each word feeling a little more rehearsed, but not at the detriment to her story. She spoke of the oddities of life as a writer and the gaps betwen writing, reckoning that ‘the life you’re living when you’re not writing becomes so far-fetched’. She also made the quite fair point that the phrase ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ is ‘actually quite comforting when taken literally. How’s that for under cover(s)?

Damon Salesa’s story of his preteen pilgrimage with his father to Manuʻa in American Samoa hit the balance of humour and gut punches, as he spoke about the experience of being in the direct line of the devastating Cyclone Tusi in 1987. The candid Kiwi kid matter-of-fact humour – ‘when you grow up in Glen Innes, and you hear American Samoa, all you hear is America’, with a touch of his Pasifika roots ‘I had a very Samoan problem – my jandal got caught’.

Salesa’s poignant reference to a woman from the village covering him and his young cousins with a shower curtain as limited protection from the elements brought home the ‘under cover’ intentions of the night – while his description of flying the US flag upside down to indicate distress brought a dose of haunting reality to his piece.

South African-born and now Aotearoa-based lawyer and writer Gigi Fenster had the audience in stitches as she waxed lyrical about her daughters’ tattoo planning – and how low her bar could or should be for tolerance of these specific ways of taking ownership of newly adult bodies. She was unafraid to poke fun at herself: ‘when it comes to bellybutton and tongue piercings, I am a bougie snob’, and played up the under cover aspect in her contemplating her own double life of lawyer-ing and writing.

Lisa Dwan was a bright and delightful presence on stage as she explained her curious instances of the universe knocking her and Alec Baldwin (and his wife, Hilaria) together. ‘No one knows’, she intoned at the start of her story, ‘what fecking path life is going to put you on’. Certainly the lightest and fluffiest in tone of the stories being shared, Dwan’s inherent performative talent meant it didn’t feel that it was out of place – just a shift from what had come before.

The final guest to take to the stage was Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and writer. His story was, he said from the outset, not a personal story, but one with a personal connection. It was certainly the heaviest of the stories, in his describing of the ways in which First World War-era India was made hollow promises by the British. The specific instance referred to was the horrific Amritsar massacre, where over 1000 were gunned down due to being in a gathering of Indians together – while all they were there to do was celebrate Baisakhi, a Sikh spring festival.

While he gave the atrocities their due emotional resonance, he did manage to add pops of levity before getting to the really awful stuff – the comment ‘The sun never set on the British Empire, because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark’ elicited laughter from the audience – and it wasn’t until he told the full story that it became clear just how true that comment was in connection with this tragic event.

As is always the way with these gala nights, it was the perfect way to kick off the festival proper. The emotional ups and downs are a certain precursor of the events to come – and it provided a chance to catch a glimpse of some writers perhaps previously unknown.

Reviewed by Tara Black in pictures, and Briar Lawry in words.

Each person named above is linked to their bios, which will in turn take you to the sessions at which you can catch these eminent writers.