I’M NOT ENTIRELY SURE how I first met Jenny Zhang, but if it was like most of the people I met in Iowa City in 2010, it was almost certainly an awkward group introduction, the kind that happens at readings and parties where you’re the unknown person faced with learning a dozen names in as many seconds. I was a part-time Iowa resident, there on weekends visiting my wife, Thea Brown, who was an MFA student studying poetry.
That year, I was living, teaching, and bartending in Madison, Wisconsin, 176 miles to the northeast, where I was a fiction fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. I’d drive to Iowa City on the weekends where Thea and I had rented the first floor of a little house for what strikes me now as an unbelievably humane rent.
Those weekends in Iowa were long and full of activity: readings and house parties and bars packed with writers and PhD students. Not long after meeting Jenny, I saw her read a story. It was beautifully written and read, but the piece featured a dog with terrible diarrhea — which may sound incongruous. Of course, anyone who’s read her poems, essays, and stories knows that, in her hands, the untoward is often so lucidly and beautifully explicated as to become changed. It helps, too, that in much of her work, Zhang’s tone is candid rather than ironic. In her work, it seems to me that a dog shitting isn’t an objective correlative. It’s not a symbol. It may or may not speak to theme. It’s just a dog with the trots, but there’s much to pity in the predicament: a sick animal, a flummoxed protagonist, a disgusted secondary character. It’s a piece of writing that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Five years later and many hundreds of miles away from Iowa City, just a couple of weeks after she sold her first book of fiction, I meet Jenny Zhang at her Williamsburg apartment to perform this interview.
It’s chilly in Brooklyn, and as soon as I enter Jenny’s apartment, we’re yakking about the neighborhood and the nature of freelance work. We don’t know one another well, but I’ve been reading her work in Rookie and elsewhere (and there are many, many elsewheres — Zhang is prolific and thoughtful and, lucky for you and me, very much in demand). The conversation is so easy and casual that I forget to turn on my digital recorder until we’re well into a conversation about chasing down freelance checks — a real pain in the ass for anybody who is trying to pay the rent with their writing.
So, that’s where this interview began: with Jenny Zhang and I talking on her couch, five days before Christmas, catching up about work and writing and life. For over 90 minutes, we talked about poetry, fiction, publishing, reading, teaching, funerals, the role of poets in a society, the relative misery of day jobs, intimacy, profanity, and even poop. We talked about our work and our families. Zhang tells me about her recent essays and says a bit about how she’s spent her time over the half-decade that’s elapsed since we met.
Here, then, is the conversation, trimmed and cleaned up by me and Jenny via email (mostly, we cut the throat-clearing and the hemming and hawing). We began recording in the middle of our conversation and ended the recording when I realized that I’d told her that the interview would probably take an hour and that we were pushing two …
— Nate Brown
NATE BROWN: I can’t remember exactly how we met, but I saw you read a couple of times not long after Thea and I moved to Iowa City, and I remember those readings.
JENNY ZHANG: Yeah, we probably didn’t cross paths too much, but then I feel like I saw you more in the summers.
NB: Yeah, Thea’s first year I was doing a fellowship in Wisconsin in fiction, and I was traveling back and forth to Madison, but that summer of 2010, I moved to Iowa City full-time.
JZ: Was Thea teaching at one of those summer camps?
NB: Yeah, that Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. The one run by Stephen Lovely.
JZ: Yeah, I did that, too.
NB: Those were good summers.
JZ: The summers were really great.
NB: They were hot and slow. I did a lot of sitting on my porch.
JZ: Yeah, totally. I feel like the energy of the school year also is not totally there. People are a bit chill, which I like.
NB: And the weird, bro-ish undergrad culture wasn’t really there in the summer.
JZ: Yeah, thank God that went away in the summer. That was horrible.
NB: It’s funny, people sometimes ask us now if we’re ever freaked out living in Baltimore, because it’s got such a reputation for violence and crime. And, don’t get me wrong, Baltimore has its problems, but it’s like A) No. We’re not freaked out to live there, and B) It was scarier in some ways, I think, for Thea to walk down the street in Iowa City and have some big, drunk dudes yell at her and then have them follow her and tell her, Don’t be scared!
JZ: Oh, my God.
NB: That sort of thing happened a couple of times in Iowa, even though Iowa City’s a really great town — a place I’m nostalgic for.
JZ: I was scared at various points in Iowa. I wouldn’t really go out on game days. It was disturbing to see, literally, four men sort of hauling along some incredibly drunk — almost to the point of passing out — girl. I felt like I was witnessing pre-crimes all of the time.
NB: I don’t think I’ve ever seen more people throw up than in Madison and Iowa City. Far be it from me to judge someone for drinking too much, but when you’re outside of a frozen yogurt place and two different undergraduate women are barfing in the gutter —
JZ: Oh, it’s always the frozen yogurt places.
NB: Yeah, what is that about? Some friend or boyfriend is always patting somebody’s back and saying, Oh, you’re gonna be fine. You’ll make it to the bar. And you’re just walking down the street thinking, Make it to the bar? That’s not what’s good for anybody right now!
JZ: Yeah, that culture was really scary.
NB: I don’t mean to categorically shit on everybody, but that particular culture — the all-day drinking and partying — is so disturbing. And I have to think it’s wrapped up in commerce, too, because they sell a ton of stuff on game days. Business booms.
NB: Tickets, food, apparel, gallons of booze.
JZ: I taught those undergrads who would wake up at 6:00 a.m. to tailgate in yellow Iowa game-day gear and often, you know, they were trying to write about their lives in these creative writing classes I taught. I was such a gawker. I wasn’t living it but I was getting a glimpse into the way that they thought and into what they thought was deep and interesting, and sometimes those glimpses would leave me disturbed.
They’d write these stories where I would just see a character being, like, date-raped by an acquaintance and I would say something like, Why does this character fall in love with a complete brute? Why the class consensus, “Aw, it’s a classic love story. It’s so sad. She gets her heart broken”?
And all I would see in the story is a rapist raping a girl, and it would be so disturbing because none of my students would see it the way I saw it, which made me think, Oh, I’m seeing harm in your lives and yet you see this as a love story. Like, some man who takes you into a room at a party when you’re wasted and then laughs about the sex you had. I see that as horrible — a nightmare come true.
NB: Maybe it’s a chicken-or-egg problem, but doesn’t depicting a sexual situation like that acculturate students to thinking that that’s what love looks and feel like? If all you really know of sex is drunken, barely conscious rape, what else might you think about love, relationships, and your body?
Is a story like that an indication that love, for college students today, looks a lot like date rape to the outside world? Or, do stories like that perpetuate a kind of myth about what college and sex are like? Am I overthinking that?
JZ: I don’t know. That’s such a good question. Narratives inform the way we think about things. We have certain expectations for certain mediums. What we might put up with narratively in say a reality TV show medium or Hollywood film medium, we would not in fiction writing. And I myself expect a certain level of introspection and self-awareness in fiction that I don’t for other narrative forms, which reveals my own biases. When I would show my students what I thought was a good story, their reactions were often, This is so weird. Why is this so weird?
NB: Yeah, I got a lot of that, too. Weird or sad —
JZ: Or they’re totally confused. It made me feel like, Wow, we really connect to different things, but also, if you kept going past the initial reaction of This is so weird and actually talked about what the story was about — I don’t know — it wasn’t that far away from things that they felt and understood in their own lives.
It’s like, well, this is just a story about realizing that the thing you always wanted was never going to save you. Or this is a story about hurting people you profess to love. Or this is a story about not being seen for who you really are. Once we got there, then the stories weren’t as alien, but some of the students preferred being entertained. At least, that seemed to be the initial impulse — to be entertained. And I relate to that. I want to be entertained when I watch reality TV shows, for example. That is an expectation that has to be fulfilled immediately. Otherwise, I turn off the TV.
NB: I had a student the first time I ever taught — I was an MFA student at Wisconsin and I was 25 and scared and shitting my pants — and this student turns in a story about four college students on game day walking down State Street in Madison, and they run into this character who asks them for money.
The character is a black man, and the kid who wrote the story, my student, makes a proper name of that description and just refers to this character as “Black” throughout the story.
NB: I thought one of his fellow students would bring this up as problematic, but nobody did. So, I’m like, Guys, we’re walking around this big thing in the story, which is that the only person of color — and this was in 2006, so I may have just said the only nonwhite character or the only black character since I’m not sure that the phrase person of color was in common parlance yet.
JZ: Yeah, it may not even have been used yet. There’s still part of the country where, if you use that phrase, they think it’s a slur. Like Person of color? How can you say that! How can you be so discriminatory?
NB: Right. So, I’m sure I either said, like, the only black character or the only nonwhite character, but as soon as I say this, so many faces drop.
I point out that this character is just called “Black” and ask my students how that’s problematic, and then one of my students points out that, actually, it’s a proper noun. The character’s name is Black.
JZ: His name is Black?
NB: Right. And I’m like, Okaaaaaay, let’s get into this. What might that mean?
I was thinking I might get some critique of the usage as lazy or glib or racist, but they were sort of entertained by the jauntiness of it somehow, as if it was a bold move to name a black character Black.
So, I pushed on it a bit and tried to really pull that story apart, as if it were really worth all of the attention and effort! I was asking super flat-footed questions in an attempt to come up with some alternative readings. Like, Well, why might a nonwhite character tell a group of white characters that his name is a color descriptor? Like, why might a person do that?
And some of my students said things like, What are you talking about? It’s just funny! It’s just a funny story about a guy named Black asking a bunch of drunk college guys for money!
And I was like, No! This is like some terrible fucking Mr. Bojangles nonsense!
As a 25-year-old TA, I’m there trying to lead these students into something — anything — other than this simple har har har reading of that story. Who knows? Maybe that character didn’t want to give those white kids his real name. Maybe he didn’t want to give that part of himself away. Maybe in presenting his name as “Black,” that character was keeping some necessary distance between himself and the drunken college bros walking down the street. Or maybe he knew that these young, white characters in the story were only going to see him as a stereotype anyway, so fuck it, you know? Why not just tell them your name is Black?
I was trying to pull so much weight. I wanted to pull them through the obvious crappiness of the story and the obviously demeaning way in which that character was handled and into a more nuanced conversation. Which was a real stretch. A stretch that ultimately wasn’t very helpful because, of course, none of those readings were in keeping with that the author — my student — had intended. Which was, I guess, just to be “funny.”
NB: And they hated it — and me, I think — for pushing so hard on that.
So, at the end of the workshop, I’d give each writer the opportunity to ask one clarifying question or a follow-up, you know, but I’d told them that they weren’t allowed to argue or to make justifications regarding anything that had come up in workshop. Of course, the first thing out of this particular writer’s mouth was, No no no! That actually happened. This guy on State Street actually told me his name was Black!
And I got so angry. I thought, Come on! Reflection’s important! Think about what that story means about you, not about a guy you once ran into on State Street and who you subsequently made a character in your creative writing assignment.
I’ve never felt like it’s ever been hopeless to talk about really difficult things with students. There’s real value in working through difficult subjects. But I feel like I didn’t know then — and I still don’t know — how students go from what you’re describing with the date rape to what you might call a more sophisticated reader — or, no. “Sophisticated reader”? Fuck that. How can your students move beyond their own biases and blind spots to being basically kind, empathetic human beings and writers? How do you become a kinder person who happens to read and write? How do you get students to look past their mere experience — which can be so fraught and flawed — as content for creating good stories and poems?
JZ: This is when it gets really intense to teach an intro to creative writing class — because you’re not just asking them to change their habits as a reader, you’re asking them to change the way that they relate to humanity and the way that they think about themselves. You’re saying to them, Not everything that really happened can be interesting or moving. You push them to connect to something beyond themselves. Not every death sends every human being who hears about it reeling. Not every hilarious incident is worth recounting exactly as it happened.
And when you tell someone their true stories and true experiences aren’t enough in the context of creating a fictional world and a fictional narrative, they can be defensive, hurt, ready to fight you. And I get why. It’s a cruel thing to say to someone.
When you ask students who don’t read and write much fiction to write something, their impulse can be to respond by imagining and recounting the wildest, funniest, or weirdest thing they can think of because they think just being weird is being artful. But then, when you push them to consider that the point of writing something, maybe, is to be a tiny bit reflective or to be a tiny bit interested in uncovering some kind of truth, then it becomes a burden. It’s like what are they supposed to do? Look back at why they get up at six in the morning and start drinking and grilling and get so wasted that they injure their bodies and, you know, that they’re paying like $30,000 to do this? They’re supposed to look at themselves and see themselves as robots?
They hate for you to imply that of course, and it is awful to imply that, but the students who are able to think about that without shutting down and being defensive, they’re the ones who usually end up being interested in reading and writing.
NB: Right. I do see how criticizing their stories seems, by extension, like a criticism of them, personally. Even though, to tell a student to investigate their own assumptions or what their own curiosities are —
JZ: Like by asking, Why are you interested or not interested in this?
NB: Right. They can be really defensive about that question, and I see why. It might seem like you’re asking because you want to invalidate that writer’s particular experience, but I don’t think the process is all that different from what you’d do in an astronomy or a chemistry class.
In those cases, my assumption would be that, whatever you learn about a chemical reaction or how black holes seem to eat everything, terrifyingly, that the knowledge you gain would change you in some fundamental way. That you’d come out not just more educated about a chemical process or black holes, but maybe it would encourage you to think more broadly about the entire world and how it functions and how you individually understand it.
JZ: There’s a way in which people get defensive over things they’re not curious about. They always say, What’s the point? as in, What’s the point of learning this advanced algebra? or What’s the point of learning physics? or What’s the point of reading this story that’s weird?
NB: But in the case of algebra or physics there seems to be some kind of practical answer that people don’t always see in a story, right?
If you’re doing something vocational like welding or something white-collar like accounting, the answer to question What’s the point? is going to be something along the lines of: I want to get a job at this big company and work in marketing and I need to know this software in order to do that.
I feel like people don’t ask after the point of, say, learning how to perform a mail-merge in Excel. If you’re learning how to do that, you’re doing it because you’ll be doing that exact thing for an employer at some point.
JZ: The next point is very close to the first point.
NB: Right. Like, Question: Why am I doing this? Answer: Ooh, so I can do this in the future a lot.
NB: And I guess that’s not bad?
JZ: No, it’s not bad if you’re someone who has points that you want to get to. Or someone who has points they have to get to for survival. It’s also a kind of privilege to ask What’s the point?, and when people ask that about literature, I assume they have particular things they want to get to. They want to get married. They want to buy a place. They want to be a homeowner. They want to have children —
NB: What a nightmare —
JZ: They want to have money for retirement —
JZ: Also — and not to be the annoying teacher I was when I taught undergrads — but I feel like the whole point is never to ask What’s the point? of any of this. Because, frankly, we’re all going to die. We’re all going to be dead.
So, when you ask What’s the point? of something — like how far the galaxy extends — it’s no different than asking, What’s the point of sitting down tonight and watching Netflix? From a wide-enough angle, it’s all the same question in a way, and people who don’t wish to think that way hate applying that question more broadly because it’s perhaps too painful or too endless or too nebulous a question. People can get really defensive when you pose all the different and various ways that a person could ask What’s the point? And I can see why. It can be terrible and terrifying.
NB: I love the idea that the question itself can have a really petty application in the classroom but can also have this broad, universal application that might incite existential dread.
Not only does that reemphasize that, really, our time is short, but this gets to something about hard stops in conversations about writing, as opposed to conversations that can be seen as evolving or continuing. Like, a hard stop might be the claim that there’s only one way to write a story or to develop a character. There’s not a lot of wiggle room when you have firm rules like that or come to hard conclusions in conversations. I’m more interested in how writing continually evolves and how it can really surprise you, which is why I’m personally skeptical of virtually any hard-and-fast writing rule that a writer or teacher may propose.
I was at a memorial service recently and heard a eulogy that was so moving. The entire thing was so warm and sincere — and while I hate putting it in these terms, because it sounds like such a cliché, I just sat there and thought, Wow, people really loved this man and they’re here and they’re really raw and they loved him so much that they’re not afraid to be that raw in public and they’re not afraid to be honest about how they’re feeling. It was exactly the sort of memorial you hope you get someday.
The man who’d passed away was a literary agent, and so the room was packed with writers and readers and professors, so everybody who got up to speak was incredibly eloquent — it was just an absurdly beautiful assemblage of thoughts and memories. In any case, this one writer stands up and eulogizes his friend and former agent, and he ends on this note — and I wish I could remember it exactly —
JZ: Yeah, probably hard to track that text down.
NB: No kidding. Can’t just email the guy and say, I saw you in a moment of great vulnerability and pain and was hoping you could email me a transcript of your remarks.
JZ: That could be awkward!
NB: Yeah, so I’ll paraphrase. The gist of it was this: he started with what seems obvious, that he’d lost this bright spot in his life, but he went on to admit to everyone in the room that he was never going to get over this terrible loss. It wasn’t going to end with him sitting down after having eulogized his friend. It wasn’t going to end once he got home. It wasn’t ever going to end because he wasn’t ever going to not miss his dear friend. It was going to be a pain felt pretty much until he, too, was dead.
It seemed less of a sentimental motion than it felt purely like an admission.
JZ: That’s so open.
NB: In part, because the eulogizer works in the news business, it also seemed like looking at something so different from what he presents publicly.
JZ: I feel like these rituals are supposed to get us from one point to another — like, from the shock phase to the grieving phase to the I’m-about-to-move-on-and-live-my-life-again phase, you know? I was actually at a funeral yesterday, and I don’t know why but I kept referring to it in conversations with other people as a “wedding.” I kept saying, I’m going to a wedding.
NB: Jesus. That’s so odd.
JZ: I’d never been to a funeral, but I’ve been to so many weddings and in my mind they were kind of conflated. I kept saying to people, Oh, I’m going to a wedding or I got back from a wedding and then suddenly catching myself and apologizing and saying, Oh, God, I mean funeral. I’m going to a funeral.
But they’re sort of the same in that they’re these rituals that you need in order to get from one moment or one space to another. It doesn’t happen for a lot of people without a public ritual. You can’t move on from utter devastation and grief and loss until you all get together and you’ve all cried in front of one another and have all said things you normally wouldn’t say in front of one another.
So, that journalist who gave that eulogy you described is saying that there’s no end, and that our whole lives are somehow in this transit between being and loss. That can be a hard but moving thing to hear when you go to these rituals where you’re actually looking to be moved but sometimes aren’t, at all — or where you are only moved because you’re looking for it. When someone actually moves you, it can hit you way, way, way hard.
NB: Isn’t that the difference between real sentiment — actually experiencing something deeply — and sentimentality, which has the gloss of feeling but somehow seems false or overdone?
NB: So, can you attain that — can you really, sincerely move someone — without risking sentimentality? I mean, can you, through your poems or stories, illicit real sentiment without risking looking like you’re aiming to make others feel a certain way? I think this is a major question for writers, and I worry about this in my own work all the time.
JZ: It’s really hard. And for writers, it’s also related to the moment when the writer is trying to defend why the reader should be moved or interested in something by saying, But it really happened.
It can be the most painful thing to counter that with the statement, Even though that horrible thing really happened, it’s still sentimental. A writer has to constantly face up to the realization that something meaningful to them may be meaningless to someone else. To write with the goal of evoking genuine emotional reactions from the reader is to constantly put the worthiness of your experiences up for scrutiny, debate, judgment.
Weddings and funerals are also a good site of observation for this problem. I was thinking about this yesterday, talking to my friend Durga, and she was saying — and it sounded so dramatic when she said it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and it makes so much sense to me: For writers, every day is a funeral.
NB: Holy shit.
JZ: Right? It sounded so dramatic when she said it, but the thing that I’ve felt alienated from when I’ve been to certain weddings and now, this one funeral, especially when it’s the wedding or funeral of people who are not writers and who don’t think about narratives, like, every day —
NB: Which is like 98 percent of the population —
JZ: Yeah, essentially the entire world. But it’s the one time in some people’s lives when they’re trying to be writers. They’re trying to move others with words, consciously.
It’s only on the occasion of someone no longer being here that we feel free or compelled — or even obligated — to speak as beautifully and as poetically and as grandiosely as we can about their lives. Or, on the occasion that our child or our sibling or our friend is getting married that we can praise them and try to make them cry in public. The kind of writer I’m trying to be, or that I fantasize about being, is the kind of writer who is trying every day to think and write like that.
Every day, I want to write about people in a way that most people might think is appropriate only after they’ve died or had a child.
NB: Is that not taxing?
JZ: It’s so taxing!
NB: And lofty, too? Right? To set out to look at the world that way and to write that way each day. My God.
JZ: Sure, and it’s embarrassing to even admit it, but I think that’s what my friend was saying when she said that for writers, the goal is to treat every day like it’s a funeral because that’s how, as your ideal writer-self, you want to write about everything, always, in those terms.
NB: This reminds me of an essay of yours published in Poetry in which you write that we live in a world in which it’s possible to be the high school jock who physically abuses a person living with a disability and then, later, when that person dies, to publically mourn him.
My question, then, is this: Is that mourning to prove to yourself merely that you’re a good person? Or is it to show the entire world that you didn’t mean to be as cruel as you’d been? Is it a denial of wrongdoing or an apology?
JZ: I think this is connected to what we’re saying about sentimentality. Maybe it’s the height of sentimentality to find meaning in a person’s life only when something major has happened. You know: Death, marriage, creation or destruction of any kind — like birth or war. To find yourself only moved when something really huge or catastrophic has happened feels like the very height of sentimentality.
NB: The things you just listed are, topically, the “great” subjects of 20th-century literature, right? I mean, specifically, the sort of white-guy-lit most of us encountered in high school English classes. Maybe I’m being reductive, but those are things we’re told are important in life and that we’re pointed to as great literature in school.
JZ: Not every reader only has an appetite for the “great” subjects. And now people with different appetites are finally being seen as a viable reading audience and also as viable creators of new writing that speaks to these other appetites. We need to really pay attention to and care about that change.
The surge and craze around Elena Ferrante speaks to this blind spot that book publishing has long had. Her books pointedly are about the small lives of small people who are living through big times, catastrophic turmoil, war, revolution, upheaval, violence. But she writes about these small lives with the same kind of plot twists and cliffhangers that one would do in a biopic, as Hollywood would do for a big-budget glossy film crammed with movie stars. Right now, people are thirsty for the kinds of narratives that have long gone ignored. Not everyone is interested in a fat tome about war.
NB: That actually seems like a tall order on behalf of a writer. Which is to say, to ask a reader to feel something about a topic as grand and as horrible as something like war is also somehow to ask the reader to engage in an ugly fantasy.
I’m very much of two minds about this. On the one hand, I get why huge topics are addressed time and again in poetry and fiction, and I know there’s so much good art that responds to these things, but I don’t know that I want to have the imaginative capacity to put myself in that space as a reader time and again.
This is going to sound crazy, but in a way, it’s easier to imagine going to war yourself and wondering what you might feel about it than it is to read a book about it and to sense that you’re being directed to feel a certain way about it.
So, recently, I’ve found myself drawn to those smaller, realist narratives like Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House, which is one of the best things I read in the past year. And I like it for exactly the reasons you point out that the Ferrante books are so moving to people: these characters believe their lives to be little, but in their experience, there’s a universe of nuance and feeling that’s so honest.
I found myself reading that book and asking myself the question — and I cannot believe I’m saying this, because it sounds so fake — but I found myself wondering, like, Holy shit. What would I do in that situation? That’s real compulsion, and it didn’t spring from a narrative about any gigantic, global catastrophe. It occurred because I felt like I could trust something that was just below the surface of the text. I was just willing to run with it because it didn’t feel like a device even though, of course, it’s leading me toward certain conclusions and feelings. It’s a novel, for God’s sake. In so many ways, a novel is nothing but a big, wordy device.
There are other books about all kinds of things, including war, that I love but that don’t do quite that. Like The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which is topically big — about the war in Iraq — but that’s also concerned with the domestic. I found myself at a bit of a distance in some moments, and very close to characters in others. Like, the questions I’d ask about that book and about my own reactions to it were somewhat like asking what I’d do if I were stranded on the moon. It was hard to imagine my way into the complications of that one. Still, like the Flournoy, it leads you into certain complicated feelings without you quite noticing that it’s doing so. Obvious as this might sound, that’s what I’m looking for in a reading experience. I’m looking to be moved, artfully, subtly, and without my really noticing it at first.
JZ: When things are so wild or such a fantasy, it puts you at a real distance. But that’s where good writing counts for a lot.
NB: Absolutely. If it’s beautifully written, I’ll roll with just about anything.
JZ: It also speaks to our society’s undervaluing of literature, generally. Either you read for information, say to learn something, or it’s only worth reading fiction if it’s a sweeping, grand book. It’s only worth spending your time with a novel if it can be a contender for the Great American Novel, if it’s a multigenerational saga, if it covers historically significant events, if it’s about war and peace. Otherwise, it’s too small somehow and lacking in practical value, and your time would be better spent on reading nonfiction or a newspaper.
Expanding how micro of a concern we can be interested in when reading literature is only good for us because then we don’t see it as either “useful” or “not useful.” That position is very limiting. When people want only “great” novels or big stories, I think we’re negating a whole different universe of experience.
NB: Yeah, I resent the idea that literature is somehow supposed to be a tool or that it’s somehow more valuable if it has some practical application. That seems like a dangerous notion, actually, but we presuppose that it’s true in so many other contexts. When a student says, What does this poem mean? I really want them to ask that question sincerely, rather than ask it because they’re somehow resigned to the idea that it’s either got a meaning that they’re never going to grasp or that it’s not worth grasping.
When a student asks what a poem means, my impulse is to say, Good question! What does it mean? Ask yourself that question and work with the poem to come to some understanding of what it’s doing or how it’s working.
That seems really valuable or, in any case, more valuable than resigning yourself to the idea that you’ll never understand it and thereby relieve yourself of any responsibility for the encounter.
If the poem’s there in front of you, I say engage it. Even if it’s tough or weird or distasteful to you. I think that’s a good skill. You’re not going to learn how to market something in a creative writing class. You’re not going to learn how to weld a couple of pieces of metal together. But, ideally, you’ll learn how to really look at something and how to articulate what that looking makes you think and feel.
That’s a tall order, I guess. Like the funeral thing: Asking someone to face something, even if it’s just a poem, and to articulate what it makes them feel, is asking a lot.
JZ: Yes, you’re right. It’s a lot, but we also already instinctively know how to do it. Like right now, if you were to ask a high school student to listen to a pop song, it’s not like that action has any more or less point than reading a poem. They could just listen to it and describe their response. Something like, Well, my body and mind react really well to this song. It makes me smile.
But it’s hard to imagine that somebody would ever read a poem and say, Well, my body had this reaction to this poem. They would probably say something like, Well, I don’t know what it means, so I had no thoughts about this poem. But you don’t listen to a piece of music or a score in a movie or watch a scene in a film and say, I did not have all the answers for what every moment of this experience meant, and so it meant nothing.
For whatever reason, that’s how we tend to talk about literature, particularly “difficult” literature. I find that disturbing. Why can’t we just say how we felt about something? Why are we taught that there’s a key we need to have in order to unlock a text so that we can find it meaningful? And if we can’t find that key, then both the thing — the poem and the act of experiencing it — become meaningless.
NB: Like the poem’s a puzzle that’s worthless if you can’t immediately discern the image on the box.
JZ: Other things — other pieces of art — don’t derive their worth from a person somehow conquering it completely with comprehension, so why is this particular realm of art so susceptible to that apprehension?
It feels wrong to me, and I’d love that to change, for people to be less anxious about their own perceptions. I think people would enjoy stories and poems so much more!
It’s like someone who lives a life without ever listening to music; I find that hard to understand. I feel the same way about someone who goes through life without reading poetry and writing. It’s a real loss for that person. I really think it is.
NB: I agree, and this is going to sound incredibly arrogant, but it’s the worst sort of loss because I do think literature is broadly enriching and good — and I mean that in a moral way —
JZ: I totally agree.
NB: But so many people seem to be disinterested. I’m unwilling to believe that there’s some door inside of people that, once opened, leads only to an empty room. But that’s the only thing I can picture when someone writes off a book or a poem or an essay or tells me that they really don’t read at all. That seems like a seriously empty room to me, and that’s such a depressing thing to imagine.
I’m not even asking that much. I don’t expect people to be so moved or to cry at every poem they encounter — that’d be absurd — but maybe to give a poem or a story enough of their sustained attention that they might legitimately ask themselves what it made them think or feel.
JZ: And to be okay with questions that have no answers. Questions that lead to more questions are productive.
This might be a really annoying or lofty comparison, but I feel the same way about how we can’t really comprehend what’s happening in the world, broadly. As in, when we ask the question, How do we beat terrorism? Even that phrase, “beat terrorism” is confounding. How do you even begin to expect an answer to a question like that? Wouldn’t it be better if questions led not to vague answers and sloganeering but to more questions, more investigation, more wonder, more curiosity?
I suppose that process makes people feel completely powerless. It would be so much easier to think of everything without context and history and to think: If we just apply brute force, we could solve X, and then we can eliminate terror and fear from our lives.
I feel like this comes back to weddings and funerals. People who engage with art and literature, people who embrace wonder and curiosity and reflection, for them, these rituals don’t necessarily bring closure and resolution. For them, a wedding or a funeral might open up more questions, signal reminders for more interrogation.
I realize that’s really difficult, and I don’t expect people to do that, especially if you’re a person who needs to work 90 hours a week to support yourself. Obviously, if that’s the case for you, the last thing you’d want to do is to sit in terror or in an endless well of questions, but at least for me, I’m privileged enough to be able to sit there in that space. Then there are people who can’t shut off that endless cycle of questions. I’m both privileged and that person who can’t shut it off. I can’t deny the tremendous value that this way of being has brought to my life — and the meaning, both as a person and as a writer.
NB: I wonder, then, if the desire not to ask so many questions of yourself or of the world comes from — and I don’t know why I’m so stuck on this — the desire to have conclusive answers to things and to end each conversation or every inquiry with definitiveness. It’s really comforting to have answers. I love a straight, definitive answer.
But the danger in that, I think, in writing, in our politics, in the world broadly, is that when we value definitiveness more than inquiry, we tend to treat every conflict as if we’re talking about team sports. As if, in any arena or field, you pick a side, stick to it, and work hard to defend your position to the exclusion of all other possibilities.
Like, I could be safely at home eating nachos hoping that the guys in orange defeat the guys in blue. I don’t think there’s harm in that, necessarily, but the dynamic that exists between you and that television screen in that moment and applying it elsewhere, like to politics, seems like a really terrible idea.
I guess I’m thinking of this because of the election cycle. People talk in vehement terms of these candidates — on both sides — as if, frankly, their largely talking about rich, white people who have more in common with one another than they do with most of the rest of the people in the country.
So, I can’t help but think to myself that whatever policies they’d promote as the president would affect most people but wouldn’t necessarily affect them or people in their socioeconomic class. I don’t mean to say that there are no differences between candidates or parties because of course there are and of course a candidate’s policies matter, but for me, I couldn’t imagine voting for a Republican only because their policies would affect so many more people negatively than the policies of, say, either of the Democratic nominees, even though at the end of the day, I don’t know, what are the actual differences between the actual people who are running?
People tend to hate it when I say this because they think I’m making false equivalencies. I’m really not trying to do that! But let’s face it: The Clintons went to Donald Trump’s last wedding because, you know, it was a huge social event and it was probably a shit-ton of fun and the food was probably great and it was probably really weird and interesting. But at the end of the day, whether Trump is president — God fucking forbid — or Hillary Clinton is president, the policies that come out of those administrations won’t really affect their lives or their financial standing, but they will affect the lives and well-being of so many other people.
And that’s where I think the team sports model really screws us because we’re talking about things as if either party is interested in systemic change. And we’re fighting vehemently about this as if, for the most part, the people running aren’t already untouchably wealthy and powerful and that, most likely, they’re going to stay that way for the rest of their lives. I find that sort of freeing then, because the policies that actually affect the non-wealthy would be unspeakably bad under a contemporary Republican, which makes the choice of which lever to pull pretty easy.
Of course, in saying that, I’m doing exactly what I’m decrying: I’m sort of engaging in the team sports mentality of politics. I’d like to think, in some saner world, there’d just be a candidate or two who didn’t strike me as craven and cloying and rich, regardless of party affiliation.
This happens in, like, every arena. I mean, look at how crazy the poetry world can be when it comes to aesthetic preferences. Someone’s labeled a language poet or a formalist and, I’m like, we also live in a world where I can laugh at a Charles Bernstein video in which he’s reading his bleep-and-boop poems and in that very same world I can read a Morgan Parker poem and laugh out loud because it’s so wry and savvy or read a Brigit Pegeen Kelly poem and actually be scared reading it, watching a horse eat a rotten apple and being like, No no no no, horse, don’t eat that apple!
All of that work exists in the same universe and drawing lines in the sand about what works or doesn’t work, or what’s good or what’s not good doesn’t hold much value for me. I can like and be interested in Bernstein and Parker and Pegeen Kelly all at the same time. And if that’s true, then I wonder why someone would shit on a writer for being one thing or another. For being too sentimental or too alienating or too grim. Or shitting on someone for being too stiff and formal or for being too lax or too language-y. Or for being too interested in the body or not interested enough in people. I realize this sounds touchy-feely, but the world is big enough for all of those things to coexist.
JZ: Do you think it’s a base human impulse to form clans and to root for your village?
NB: That’s the sociological reasoning, right? You want to know that what you thought and felt was also thought and felt by other readers and other writers. Maybe that leads to a sort of clannish grouping or, in a worst-case-scenario, a terrible cliquishness.
I don’t really know. And I’m not saying I’m like some egalitarian reader who reads everything and finds all work equally good in its own way. That’s silly. There’s plenty of work that’s hate-able, too. Especially work that degrades or that’s flat-out sexist or racist or wantonly violent.
I wonder though, if because the market is different for poets and fiction writers, there are more aesthetic affiliations —
JZ: Or really strong factions —
NB: Right. I wonder if those factions exist among poets in a way that they might not among fiction writers simply because the business of publishing works so differently for poets and fiction writers.
JZ: Poets are absented from the capitalist marketplace to an extent.
NB: Right. And, generally, there’s a bigger market for fiction, and so there’s this whole infrastructure supporting it. So a fiction writer’s agent can have an aesthetic argument about a work of fiction with an editor at a publishing house. The agent can make the case on the author’s behalf, which means that the individual writer doesn’t, at that level, have to sit around arguing about why they made the choices they did, why those choices were right for the book, and why it’s a good book.
Poets, I think, are inherently used to defending their work in a different way. They enter first-book contests on their own and hope a publisher takes an interest. They also have to make the case, constantly, that what they’re doing is valid. All artists face that, I think, but among the arts, I feel like poets have to do so much legwork, and so much time is spent defending poetry, broadly, as a valid pursuit while also advocating for their own work. Which is to say nothing of actually doing the work.
I mean, you tell me. You have a book of poems, and you’ve just sold a book of short fiction!
JZ: Well, I don’t know. Thinking about those political distinctions you made makes me wonder if, at some point, you can be so far above the fray of the rest of society, in a way, that you actually care less about what others think. Is poetry too far up in the clouds? It’s always been concerned with itself and with its survival. And the smaller and more nuanced and insignificant the differences between poetic factions or aesthetic camps, the more those differences seem to matter. The smaller and the more insular the community, the more viciously they fight among themselves.
When you’re a fiction writer, you don’t have to do so much explaining — even to someone who doesn’t read fiction. You don’t have to tell someone what a story is, what a character is, or what a setting is. These are things that are so engrained in any human being who grows up in modern society that it’s like you’re immediately readable or understandable to others.
Also, there’s this insecurity that poets feel — and that I’ve definitely felt — because we’re lauded, exoticized, and fetishized as something that every society needs.
Historically, no society has ever been considered culturally significant without poets. The golden age of any civilization is synonymous with great achievements and output in poetry. Yet none of this lines up with the actual lives of poets today. We have no income, no material wealth, and nobody really treats us like we’ve got any cultural capital or value, even though, theoretically, poets are something to be valued and admired. I think that creates a really weird psyche — a disturbed psyche!
NB: Do you know the poet Micah Bateman? I think you overlapped in grad school.
JZ: Yeah, I remember him.
NB: He’s talked about the business of poetry in the funniest and truest way, I think. I’m paraphrasing here, but when talking about submitting a manuscript to a book contest, he says something like: “Entering a first-book contest is like buying really expensive lottery tickets where, even if you win, you don’t really win anything.”
JZ: [Laughs.] Yeah! That’s it. You pay $730 dollars for a bunch of lottery tickets and if you win you get, like, $821 dollars and maybe a book.
NB: You then have the book, at least. And I guess, going back to some practical way of thinking about poetry-as-career, I wonder what’s the next step? Other than being dead, of course. I guess you apply for jobs?
NB: I mean, I guess that’s the track. At one point that seemed really great —
JZ: Right. And now?
NB: I don’t know. It seems like —
JZ: Like a true hell of inescapably huge proportions?
NB: Yeah! Insofar as it might feel purely like inertia. I once said to a class — I can’t remember where this was, but I remember the class really hating it — something like, Man, we’re all going to be dead at some point, so be a bit harder on yourself. Make yourselves think harder about some of these questions we’re asking about this poem. It’s a literal truth that you’ll be lying in some hospital bed, ready to kick off, and when you’re there, I hope you will have worked through some of these thoughts and ideas rather than letting them slide all the time.
I said it in annoyance because, like, half of my class hadn’t done the week’s reading. Students really hated that I said that, not because I was chiding them, but because I’d brought death into it. One of them was like, Dude, that is a horrible thought. Why would you say that to us?
And the point, of course, is not to freak anybody out or to unduly remind them of their deaths, but to make it seem maybe more critical that they think their way through the reading instead of giving up. I was probably also naïvely trying to go all carpe diem on them.
JZ: Yeah, they really don’t love that.
NB: But who teaches and doesn’t have that moment, occasionally, when they’re like, Man, I’m going to be inspirational right now? Actually, did you read that think-piece in The Atlantic about how Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society actually would have been an awful teacher?
JZ: I think I did, actually. What a tyrant.
NB: I’m sure I thought I was being exceptionally forthright with them or something, but man, you can find meaning in some of those things for yourself, but it doesn’t mean you have to communicate those thoughts to students. What student wants to show up at 9:00 a.m. on a Thursday and have their creative writing teacher ask them if they’re as terrified of dying alone in a cold room as he is?
JZ: I guess this loops back to how we started this conversation. I was absolutely an insufferable asshole when I taught creative writing to undergrads at Iowa. I was 23 when I started at Iowa and was behaving like some of kind evangelist for writing. I didn’t come from a world that encouraged me to write, so I was used to being on the defensive, always ready to fight someone on the question of What’s the point? Reading and writing was the whole entire point of my life, and I was stubborn about how it should be that way for everyone. I’d be ranting in class about how we must live an examined life and that was why it mattered so much to fully develop characters and not overuse exclamation points. I deserved every eye roll, every uncovered yawn.
NB: I feel like I was the same way, and at 19 or 20, I would’ve been like, Man, fuck you. I’m just trying to get a degree here.
So, much as I love to think about and talk about death, I know I would’ve felt resentment at a teacher droning on about it. While I might find some comfort in knowing more or less where you’ll end up, I’m not sure my students agreed. And I can’t say that I blame them!
JZ: It’s terrifying, but accepting the inevitable can be comforting, as you said. Though maybe denial is even more comforting.
NB: It’s weird. On the one hand that we’ve talked a lot about how to communicate a sentiment but on the other hand we’re also asking what the difference is between being a bro at Citigroup trying to make a few million dollars and some writer trying to write a really great book of poems.
How different can the pursuits be if we’re all going to die? Except that we’re also having this other conversation about how you get to really feel things and how to fully and accurately express those feelings.
Do bankers ask that question?
JZ: Man, we need a banker to ask. Why don’t we have a banker here?
JZ: I think sometimes writers don’t value comfort enough and people who aren’t writers overvalue comfort or relief. You can’t stave off everything with comfort all of the time. Then again, as you said, sometimes it’s just like, I’m just trying to graduate with my degree.
I get really suspicious when people are brimming with joy and happiness and laughter. Maybe this is why we have these rituals, times when you are allowed to let it all out. I don’t believe it’s possible to put off darkness or hard questions about your mortality and fears forever, but for some people it’s also not healthy to forever wallow in those questions.
I’m sure that, just logistically, if you’re a banker working all of the time, it’s not really worth it to spend the one hour of free time you have a day to look into the hoary darkness of humanity and mortality. Why should that be the way you spend your one free hour a night? You should absolutely have a freaking beer and watch Netflix.
NB: That’s such a generous take! You’re such a nicer person than I am. I’m like: No, banker guy. You go think about your death. You go ask yourself how to tell somebody you really love them before you’re out of time!
JZ: If you spend 300 consecutive nights seeking comfort at all costs and avoiding introspection, I think you’d build up an excess of repressed feeling that would have to be released in some way. And it might be released in a truly debilitating, crippling, horrible, embarrassing, mortifying, disgusting way if you wait too long. I don’t know exactly what that would look like. This is just what I’ve observed to be true. I fear meltdowns more than daily bursts of pain and writing is a really low-stakes way for me to have some healthy release.
NB: Isn’t it fucking crazy, though, that you just said that it’s a low-stakes way of doing that, but it’s what you do all the time? I mean, it’s actually what you do to live and get by. It’s your equivalent of those long work weeks staring at spreadsheets.
Maybe it’s low-stakes from somebody’s perspective. I mean, neither of us, nice people that we are, are out there saving children. We’re not sewing people’s wounds —
JZ: In a way, we’re not doing much at all.
NB: Right. Which is why it’s easy to write off writers, generally.
NB: Somehow, I feel like artists are seen as (and maybe actually are) the kind of toy dogs that are nice and interesting to have around but that don’t have the obvious utility of, like, a Doberman.
You said earlier that, historically, poets are important in societies. They’re these keepers of the culture.
JZ: No advanced society would be complete without them.
NB: Okay. We can say that, but don’t you also get the sense, socially, that when you get down to it, you need a bricklayer, a fireman, an EMT. It’s like that Marco Rubio line about needing more welders and fewer philosophers. He’s not even pretending to think that philosophers are important and instead gets down to this red-meat argument that, in fact, the toy dogs are the first ones on the chopping block when the shit hits the fan — the pretext being, of all of the Republican debates I’ve seen, that the shit is hitting the fan right now.
JZ: Like, how could you be so indulgent as to not be in crisis/emergency/utilitarian mode right now?
NB: Jenny, how could you not be writing war stories? If you really want to be relevant and useful, how come you aren’t writing a poem about ISIS right now?
JZ: Totally! Talking this way does force people to feel like there’s an actual state of emergency. If eliminating philosophers is the first thing a leader does; if you’re trying to convince society that we’re in a state of crisis and emergency — which is not sham, exactly, because things are really bad — it sets you up to be seen as the solution to that crisis.
NB: Ugh. That strategy is so fucking gross. It seems contradictory because you’re saying something like, We’re a free nation in which individuals can determine for themselves how to live — unless you want to be a philosopher or a writer or artist a poet.
This is what people ask when you go into an MFA program. They say, Man, what are you doing to do with that? and I always answered like, Uh, I don’t know. Because, truly, I didn’t know. The end wasn’t the point. I knew I’d have time and funding and cheap rent and good teachers. But what to do with the degree itself? Who knew then? Who knows now?
People also liked to sort of guess at what you might do, like: Are you going to teach?
JZ: Or go into journalism?
NB: Thea got a master’s degree at the University of Chicago and when she was in the program, her grandmother called one day and said, I think you should be a nurse.
Thea was like, Well, I’m studying philosophy right now, so I don’t think I’m going to be a nurse.
And I remember that being so upsetting. We were broke. We were both in grad school and were working hard on our own writing, and even then, it felt like the world wanted to steer us away from the brink of being totally valueless.
I remember thinking then, Why is this so difficult?
Honestly, my family is blue-collar and we’re diametrically opposed politically, but at least the arguments we have are really, really clear. I mean, I have a sibling who asked Thea, to her face, the first time they met, whether she considered herself Jewish or American. I had to ask another relative not to say the n-word around us because Thea and I found it really upsetting, and we threatened to leave his house if he didn’t cut it out. And horrible as those interactions were, they were basically straightforward.
It was actually harder to understand the shit that she got from her grandmother — herself an educated woman with a master’s degree — but for entirely different reasons.
I mean, everyone in her family has a master’s degree, but the suggestion was Be a nurse or Go to law school right up until the time Thea got into Iowa, which at least gave her family something to talk about because they knew it meant something to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
But that’s all it seems to mean to other people, right? It’s just name recognition and credentialing.
JZ: People view artistic or intellectual pursuits as luxuries, and they are, but it runs counter to our belief in our exceptionalism as a species. We boast about what separates us from other animals — our rational capacity, our intellect, that we fuck for pleasure — while dismissing people who devote their lives to thinking.
People don’t want to feel like they, at some point, also had a choice to do one thing or another, and that they made the hard choice to do something practical. That instead of being this “artist” — shorthand for being a self-absorbed, indulgent person who thinks about themselves and does what they want to do — they chose to be someone who did what they had to do to attain the comfort that they wanted and that others approve of.
When confronted with a writer who is constantly asking, Did you really have to do that? it can be really upsetting to people who may have wanted to see their life trajectory as inevitable.
NB: Yeah, I see that. Fatalism relieves you of some responsibility for the choices you make. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t also all sorts of extenuating circumstances that determine the shape of your life.
JZ: Of course, you’re absolutely right. So much is out of our hands entirely. For much of the population, being actually able to choose anything other than surviving is an immense, unthinkable privilege. But there’s also this way of speaking about our trajectories that makes things that aren’t inevitable sound inevitable. Like, Well, I could have done that, too, but I have kids or I could’ve done that, but I have a mortgage.
NB: I have never heard more of that shit than when I hit my 30s. If my 20s were about me wandering around like an idiot trying to figure out how to write and how to teach and how to coexist with another human being I love, then my 30s have been like, Oh, shit! There are these paths I didn’t take! and people love to point them out.
When that happens, when someone else points those other options out to me, I keep thinking, I know. I am aware! In fact, why would it occur to you — friend or family member or, God forbid, acquaintance or co-worker — why would it occur to you that I don’t know those paths exist and, further, why do you feel compelled to point them out?
NB: As if I should feel a particular kind of lack because I don’t have a very specific something that somebody else desired for themselves — like a house or kids. Maybe they assume others don’t have those things because they can’t have them for some reason? Or maybe they can’t imagine a world in which other people don’t want the things that they’ve wanted for themselves?
Which is why it’s so galling when people look at you with pity and say something like, Oh, man, too bad you don’t have kids. You would’ve been a really great parent.
JZ: Like, Why do you feel okay saying something like that to me? Why would anyone say that to anyone else? Like, how dare you speak to me about this!
NB: I feel like it’s the equivalent of me saying to someone, with no information about them other than that they have children: Based on all of my reading and learning, you are a horrible parent.
NB: I mean, there are some things that, even if you’re thinking them and believe them with every fiber of your being, you just don’t say to other people.
Also, God, if you said that to someone who couldn’t have kids, you’d really hurt them. Maybe there’s just a rule that should come in tattoo form on every child that reads: When you’re an adult, do not ask people why they do not have children. That could be very, very painful! I’m not actually suggesting that we tattoo children, but it seems like an unspoken rule that everybody should follow.
JZ: People give themselves permission to do and say all kinds of things.
NB: Broadly, people feel like they can ask you that, even though there are also all of these untoward things we definitely can’t say. And that’s something I wanted to ask you about in your work, actually. In poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, you don’t shy away from the untoward — like, ever.
The things that are left off the table for some other writers are very much on the table for you. To be specific, I mean the diction — cunt, fuck, shit, piss — and also the content. In a broad way, we tend not to use that diction in our day-to-day lives, and many writers don’t get it down on the page, either.
So, the weird thing is, we all shit and piss and we all know these words. Over 50 percent of the population menstruates and nearly 50 percent ejaculates — well, I guess that’s just male ejaculation. In any case, if there’s a maxim that’s mostly true for humans, it might be something like, Most people shit most days. But we don’t actually see much of that in life or in literature.
There are so many common experiences that we don’t talk or write much about because it’s taboo to do so. It’s not taboo in your work. Or, not wholly. But you don’t sensationalize either. I don’t think I’ve ever come across something in your work where I was like, Oh, Jenny’s being gross to be gross. It always seems to further a narrative or make a point.
So, this is a really long and very poorly worded compliment, but I do want to know why those things are within your reach and why they’re not there arbitrarily. Can you say a bit about when or how you came to the decision that, as a writer, all of those experiences would be on the table?
JZ: I think it comes from my love of fantasizing. I have such a large fantasy world, and that world was what, very early on, made me want to be a writer.
Writing was the space in which I could completely control and create that fantasy world. From a young age, I realized that the things that I considered rude — not just rude — but downright cruel, harmful, or assaultive were so different from the definition of “rude” that has to do with not knowing your manners, not knowing you aren’t supposed to talk about your shitting sorrows or your shitting glory, for that matter. I very quickly developed my own definition of what it meant to be a “gross” person and it had nothing to do with talking about my cunt or my turds or someone’s dick or whatever. For me, many things that are considered innocuous — say an innocuous question that might be coming from a place of good intention and curiosity — can be very assaultive to me.
Especially over time, when I get asked, the question of Where are you from? Perhaps every single person has meant it in a purely innocuous way, but when you hear it a thousand times in your life in the country you grew up in, of course it has the effect of making that question very alienating, implying somehow that this isn’t your home, this will never be your home, you don’t look like someone who is an American, and that starts to feel like an assault. But if I say that question is assaultive, I come off like a completely hyperbolic person. I know there are as many people who feel the way I do about that question as there are people who think, Who the fuck cares? That’s the question that sets you off? Don’t you have deeper things to worry about? Well, I can say the same for people who feel violated by the obscenities in my writing. I’ve done poetry readings where I’m reading poems about gendered violence, but later I realize for some people in the audience, the real assault is that I won’t stop saying the word “cumfart.”
It’s odd. For some people, rape jokes make them laugh. Joking about rape is very casual to them. For me, writing about farting semen and shitting out snake turds is very casual. That stuff has never felt gross to me. That’s never felt anything but sweet to me. So, trying to reconcile the world that I have to live in with the fantasy world that I want to live in has always been the challenge. I can’t help but play with what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. In my writing-fantasy world, I get to decide that.
In the real world, it can feel like all a woman is is her vagina, and what makes a woman a woman is having a vagina — that’s so harmful, it’s so rigid and dehumanizing. It’s the site of so much control. We’re taught that we become victims or survivors or worthy or worthless depending on what happens to our vagina. The definition of womanhood has no right to stay as rigid as it. Queer and trans women of color have been long fighting against our culture’s simultaneous reverence and disgust for a woman’s genitals. It would be delusional for me to say I’m fighting that fight in my own way, but I will say that my vagina doesn’t have to be just a site for past, present, and future traumas.
Our vaginas truly become a battleground fraught with too much meaning. I want a woman’s vagina to be casual, too. I would like my vagina to be casual sometimes. My cunt can be fun, too. Glib, too. When I was little I thought if I said the word “fuck” then I would be “spoiled,” my purity ruined somehow. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I put a pen on edge of my desk and blew on it until it fell over so I could say, “fuck.” I did it over and over again and suddenly I realized, it didn’t matter. Fuck was anything I thought it was. If I thought it was a word capable of spoiling my purity then it was. If I thought it was a word that could be used in the most trivial of ways, then it was also that. I like when words are liberated, truly liberated, and part of their liberation is when you blithely use a word that has traditionally been considered gross in a sweet way, or a word that has traditionally been considered provocative, in a way that is so casual.
Of course, there are hard limits and some words are not for me to liberate, or even for me to decide if they are can be liberated. You have to punch up not punch down. You have to know what doesn’t belong to you.
I guess it’s a long way of saying I need the freedom to define my own grossness, my own obscenities. It helps me feel like my humanity is not totally ignored or made fun of. I just like to give weight and respect to what I respect and care about and think is no big deal. So, I guess that’s not a super thought-out answer to your question, but that’s how I feel.
NB: No, it is! But I’m so damned curious about this. Piss and farts and even cumfarts are sweet in this fantasy world because — Well, why? I want to push on it a little bit because it’s totally fascinating.
JZ: Well, I think they’re sweet because — well, family is really important to me. As is the fantasy of family. That’s something that’s been important in my writing, too. It’s also important in the broader world. Like we were saying earlier, as you get older, people are obsessed with asking, When are you going to form your family?
NB: It’s practically mythic! Like, When will you realize your destiny?
JZ: Right. To me, a family — at least my family — shares so much. We’re so intimate. My family shared one bathroom growing up. My family had one toilet. My family has always been aware of each other and each other’s bodies.
It’s like, when you date someone and you don’t want to take a shit in their bathroom during the first couple weeks of dating, which seems crazy to me. You’re literally holding it in in front of this person that you’re trying to connect to. And I’m like, Just let it out! You don’t know this person until you both literally let it out — physically, mentally, emotionally, let it out.
There’s nothing sweeter that just letting it out, airing it out, not looking away and being looked at. How do you even create a family without all of these negotiations? I mean, you physically need sperm to conceive. You need to ejaculate. You need bodies. You need to push a human through your cunt. You need blood. You need tears. You need those moments to create a family. So, it seems crazy to me that we would so freely talk about some things — like the creation of families and babies and raising children — but will resist talking about the particulars, as if they’re not wholly related. It would be like loving chairs and fetishizing and exoticizing chairs but never talking about wood or talking about trees.
NB: Or never letting anyone see you sit on a chair.
JZ: Right. It just seems sweet to have it all right there in the open.
NB: So, sweet because intimate? Maybe sweet because known?
JZ: I don’t know. I guess I really don’t know why I say sweet, but I feel it.
NB: And it seems intuitively true. This is going to sound nuts — and maybe this won’t make it in the final interview — but I know precisely what Thea’s farts smell like. I know because she sleeps next to me. And I will have that knowledge for a long time — I mean, I know that. And I’m glad I know it, but I don’t think I’ve ever articulated it. What a fucking weird thing to say, but it’s as true as anything else that I’ve experienced through my senses. I’m guessing it’s true for lots of other couples, too.
JZ: It’s the height of romance to describe a beloved’s farts. There’s a tradition of that in literature, too. There’s a tradition of speaking poetically about the disgusting and the reviled in letters of seduction. It’s not even a new idea that those things are related.
I’m like, whatever, I don’t know, a petite, quiet-looking Asian woman. I don’t walk into a crowded room and command attention and signal power. I often imagine people looking at me and thinking, Oh she’s frivolous. Or, Oh she’s not much. Maybe I’m not giving other people enough credit or maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit, but I think most people have a certain set of assumptions when they encounter a small Asian woman with a small voice who presents herself as conventionally femme and who doesn’t immediately take up very much space.
When I walk up to the podium and start reading poems about baking cumcakes or stories with page-long descriptions about a character’s explosive diarrhea, some people find a pleasure in that and others find it to be a base, unsophisticated, calculated act of provocation. I don’t know how to convince anyone that I’m writing from the heart. From the bowels. From the cunt. From the butthole. It’s sincere. I mean, I’m not James Joyce. I’m not Mozart. Those are the people who have come to be known for talking about the body extravagantly and decadently. But I don’t feel like it should be limited to them — dead white men. Joyce and Mozart were flagrantly scatological in their love letters. There, in their love letters, they wrote from their hearts, their butts, their dicks.
There is so much sameness and sentimentality in most descriptions of romantic love. How can a narrative so common feel so unique to the individual experiencing it? I’ve always felt it’s so boring to get jewelry and to get flowers. I’ve never felt loved by those things. I’ve felt delighted by them, but the only way I feel loved is when I feel really connected to another person’s body. I feel like people shouldn’t lie to themselves about the truth of that.
NB: God, that’s exactly it. Right. I can’t even follow that.
Jenny Zhang is the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, the nonfiction chapbook Hags, and the ebook The Selected Jenny Zhang. Her short story collection Sour Heart is forthcoming from Random House in fall 2017.