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


AWF17: Must Not Reads

This was another free session, and well attended with as many men as women, plus a wide age range. It had all the indicators of being a lively and humorous session with the panel consisting of the wonderful Stephanie Johnson; scriptwriter and film director Roseanne Liang; lawyer, reviewer and author Brannavan Gnanalingam; and Bill Manhire. The session was chaired by writer and editor Rosabel Tan, although I did feel that she was overshadowed by some of her panelists.

fourWe are regularly inundated with lists of books to read before you die, lists to read on a longhaul flight, lists to read to your grandchildren, top 10 Dickens, top 10 authors you have never heard of, Reader’s Digest 14 books you really should have read by now. I feel the vast majority of these pretentious lists are generally designed to put us all on some sort of guilt trip as to how inadequate we are as intelligent readers. So, I was looking for a bit of light relief in the book lists department, especially in the closing hours of a Sunday afternoon at the end of a very stimulating and busy weekend.

And we got off to a great start with Stephanie’s blast from the past – Harold Robbins. Ooooh yes, this was something most attendees could relate to. Her father was a great HR fan, and Stephanie being the voracious reader she was, first picked up HR at the tender age of ten. I trust her father didn’t know. She then proceeded to read out a seduction scene from one of the novels, which had us all falling about ourselves with laughter, in all its illustrative glory. He was a master with words that Harold Robbins, and in less sophisticated times it made him millions.

Roseanne continued the theme with 50 Shades of Grey – oh dear. Truly awful. She asked how many in the audience had read this, a brave few put up their hands. I can say, hand on heart, I haven’t read any or seen the movies. The subject matter put me off, as well as having teenage daughters at the time it was up to me to set the good example. I felt vindicated when I later found out how truly badly written they were. These were Roseanne’s points too, stressing how atrocious the writing is, the awful story, and her disbelief that is this what woman really want to be reading about. She made some great points, and then asked Bill to read aloud a seduction scene in his best seduction voice. Awful in every possible way, but made the point.

cv_a_bend_in_the-RiverBrannavan, bless him, had never heard of Harold Robbins. But then I would say most of us had never heard of his choice of book – A Bend in the River by VS Naipul. I am not entirely sure why he chose this book, other than his comment that a white writer would never have got away with writing a book such as this. Naipul won a Nobel Prize for this book, which in Brannavan’s opinion treats Africa as a pathological place where violence is always present. He made a comparison later in the session to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Bill wanted to ‘dredge up old grievances’ as stated in the Festival programme, with specific mention of old high school teachers and their dubious expertise in adequately teaching poetry. A recently received newsletter from his local garden centre really got up his nose. Time to plant spring bulbs and ‘Daffodils’ by Wordsworth the perfect device. But shock horror, oh no, someone had centered all the lines, rather than printing it in its original format. Bill hates line centred text. And to add insult to the already injured, the whole poem was in italic font. In Bill’s opinion, graphic designers and italic typographers are the true enemies of poetry, more so than high school teachers.

cv_zealotStephanie introduced her second offering – Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, a previous Writers’ Festival guest. This sounded a bit heavy, all about Jesus the man, rather than the pivotal religious figure he became after his death. Stephanie explained that this book, although extremely well written, researched, very powerful and heartfelt, did negatively impact on her own Christian faith.

Bill also had a book in the Jesus theme, and this sounded very bizarre. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Psychological Study by Milton Rokeach. Bill read this when he was a young man, and I am not at all surprised it has stayed with him over the years. Rokeach was a social psychologist, and took three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed he was Jesus Christ. He put them in a room together and observed what happened. Bill said that something like this would not get past an ethics committee today – it was 1959 – but it did leave a great impression.

cv_not_that_kind_of_girlRoseanne stayed with the young women theme in her choice of Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Many in the audience would not have known who Lena Dunham is, so that took a bit of explaining. Roseanne had been a great fan of Dunham, seeing her as an excellent role model for young women with her TV show Girls, but the book fell completely flat because she simply had absolutely nothing to say. Dining out on the fact that she is Lena Dunham and that is it.

There was some discussion on how it is to read books enjoyed as a young person, and reread them some years later. Brannavan mentioned Jack Kerouac’s On the Road which he enjoyed immensely when he was a younger man, and now not so much. Which led Bill to mention Enid Blyton. If there was ever an author that grown-ups found all sorts of things wrong with, and conversely, whose books children absolutely adored – talk about polarising – then Enid Blyton is it. Yes, there was so much wrong with what this woman wanted to say, but oh did she write some great stories! Bill mentioned The Magic Faraway Tree, chock full of imagery and the tree climbing to heaven. But children don’t see the heavy messaging, they simply see a fantasy magical story, and isn’t that what reading for pleasure is all about – taking us someplace else.

This was an interesting session, and always good to get others’ views on books they have read, especially such a well-read and articulate group of writers as this one. The dominant themes were sex and religion, and some politics would have completed the trifecta. For me, I would have liked perhaps that the chosen books were a little more well known, which would have made the audience feel more involved in the discussion taking place, rather than as observers watching an impromptu show.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray

AWF17: Must Not Reads featured Brannavan Gnanalingam, Stephanie Johnson, Roseanne Liang and Bill Manhire. The session was chaired by Rosabel Tan
Sunday, 21 MAY 2017, 4:30pm – 5:30pm