‘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…’
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.
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