Sour Heart consists of seven stories about Chinese immigrant families. Zhang’s genre-bending intrigues me, and so does her focus on young girl narrators. But what I appreciate most about Zhang is how she explores tragic circumstances without the pity that often accompanies the kinds of events she describes: high school suicide attempts, torture scenes in revolutionary China, impoverished parents dumpster-diving for food scraps. In Sour Heart, Zhang normalizes the most desperate human behavior, giving readers the space to observe her characters without judgment.
Zhang studied at Stanford University and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her previous books are Hags (2014) and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (2012). Her work also appears in Rookie, The New York Times Magazine, The New Inquiry, Harper’s, and elsewhere. Below, the two of us talk about the influence of her favorite profane French writers, the role of gender and power dynamics in Sour Heart, and why writing about the female body is perceived as a political point.
STEPHANIE NEWMAN: You’ve worked across several genres with your poetry, essays, and fiction. How do you think about genre in general, and what does genre-bending mean for your work?
JENNY ZHANG: I never really thought it was such a big deal to write across genres, maybe because I never saw the different genres as discrete categories. I always felt like the expectations of genre give you a launching pad to rebel. I’m not sure how useful it’s been for me to think of myself as just a poet or just a fiction writer. It was when I went to Iowa for grad school that the genres became so divided and defined. You were either a fiction writer or a poet, and you couldn’t take a poetry workshop if you went for fiction and vice versa. You literally were not allowed to cross genres in the program. Like all the categories in life we use to define ourselves, genres do become really important to the people who identify with them.
But I took this translation class when I was in my third year at Iowa doing a fellowship. They brought in around 30 international writers from all over the globe, and I noticed that almost every one of them from outside of the United States was a writer of essays, and also a playwright and also a person who wrote for TV and a poet who also published three novels. And nobody seemed too concerned. And so I started to think that there’s a perfect outfit for every occasion. There’s a perfect look, a perfect form, a perfect color, a perfect style, a perfect texture for anything you’re trying to say.
So how was creating the collection of stories in Sour Heart different to you from writing several stand-alone pieces? Each story gives a narrative capsule about a different family, but the stories mirror each other in so many ways. The characters reenter, and certain details come boomeranging back.
At first I was just writing. I was a young person who loved to write. And then I was writing because I was a young person who loved to write, who also wanted to be funded. I got into school and was getting funding to attend, and then with that funding came the expectation of turning stories in on a regular basis. So I was writing from love and because of deadlines, and these deadlines were the stipulation for making my living.
Then at some point I decided I wanted this stuff to be a book. And in wanting it to be a book, I had to think about why these stories had to be grouped together. Why does one story deserve to be in a book with another story? It’s a way of thinking that can be kind of artificial, like creating a photo album. I designated these stories as marking this period of my life, where I was interested in exploring four or five big questions in different ways over and over again. Rather than create some kind of epic road for the reader to follow, I tried to create a house with many rooms. You can wander in and look here and there, and instead of feeling like you took a journey, you feel like you explored a house. I think I might be stealing this metaphor from Alice Munro, who said something about how some folks are more like a house, and you wander in and your eye goes to different objects. It’s often used in contrast to the more minimalist Chekhovian idea that you don’t want to overcrowd the short story with too many details. I never felt very close to that aesthetic. I felt closer to more maximalist, messy aesthetics for short stories.
I think of your work as being so detailed, and those details — Christina’s father eating her vomit, for instance — are what I grab onto when I remember your stories. A lot of your protagonists both in Sour Heart and elsewhere swear and use foul language, and discuss all of these fabulously crude bodily processes. What role do profanity and graphic corporeality play in your stories?
This is the kind of literature I grew up with. I read a lot of French and Greek poets who were profane and embodied, like Catullus and Antonin Artaud and Arthur Rimbaud, Story of the Eye (1928) by Georges Bataille, Marquis de Sade, and a lot of early Philip Roth, where he’s talking a lot about the grotesquerie of the body. Even James Joyce in his letters to his beloved, where he’s chronicling, with great tenderness, this squishy prolonged sound of one of her farts. To me, it’s like a literary category: scatological writing, and writing about the body in very specific ways, both disgusting and sensual. I thought of it as a point of craft, the way you think about some poems as being written in iambic pentameter, and some in blank verse.
For many reasons involving a great number of double standards, when a woman writes explicitly and “goopily” about the body, and all the things it does, it can often seem like a statement. Or it seems like there’s some kind of politics inherent in writing that way. Maybe this makes me foolish, but when I read these male writers who wrote that way, it was never seen as political, but seen as an aesthetic choice. And so I wrote with the intention of it being an aesthetic choice.
I had to shed my willful self-delusions after I wrote all these stories and realized how people would react. It was something that people always pointed out, asked me about, challenged me about, praised me for. But it wasn’t something that could slip by unnoticed. It was not something that could actually be treated as an aesthetic choice, and I guess that was a very naïve way of thinking about it. So little is known about girls’ and women’s bodies. So many restrictions and limitations are put upon how we can talk and know about women’s bodies. Bodies gendered as women become political because they’re so contested, and they’re used as a proxy in all these cultural and political fights.
Is it frustrating to continue to be asked about that component of your work?
I try not to be frustrated. I try to use it instead as a litmus test, where I am constantly seeing who is tripped up by something that I think should be very easy to walk past, and who is not? What kind of interest do people exhibit when they ask me questions? I try to pay attention to what people are asking, to locate what people are responding to and what they’re shocked by.
I’ve been lucky to teach a wide variety of students from middle school to high school to community college to really fancy colleges. They run the gamut from people who are just taking a writing class because they thought it was easy, to people on a creative writing track. I think one of the most interesting things to ask as a teacher is why students have certain reactions to certain things, especially when they can’t stand something. I find that students will love when a male writer who’s writing male protagonists is really profane and has a lot of graphic violence and sexual imagery in their writing. The same level of graphic descriptions of violence and sex and profanity isn’t tolerable, though, when it’s a woman writing about women. But sometimes the opposite is true. It’s really interesting to plumb and ask yourself, “Why do I like it when … ?”
The other day I was watching Twin Peaks, and I was like, “Wow! This is one of the most graphically violent things I’ve ever seen on television.” It’s nonstop, and all the violence is pretty much done to women. What makes that gratuitous? What makes that traumatically pornographic, or worthwhile?
When you mention that distinction between gratuitous and worthwhile, it reminds me of the mothers in Sour Heart who go on and on about their suffering, to the point that their husbands and children can’t tolerate them. How do you think gender expectations affect the way adults in your book handle violence and hardship?
There’s a way in which martyrdom looks very different when you’re a woman. You’re expected to be nurturing, and endlessly caring, and endlessly motherly. And there’s a way in which when you’re a man, no one is so surprised when you’re a closed book. No one is so surprised when you’re inaccessible, when you have a stiff upper lip and don’t say anything. Sometimes race and gender collide to create an even bigger monster of expectations. In these stories, the fathers, because of their race, are thought of as quiet, and are not thought of as very strong or powerful, not really viable as a “man.” And that collides with the ways in which they’re incredibly capable and powerful and strong, but also emotionally traumatized and damaged. They have no way of exorcising that trauma, or expressing it. It’s much more acceptable for the mothers to go on and on and on, to regurgitate and spew and talk constantly about what they’ve been through.
So I do think these gender dynamics affect how these parents act, and it also affects the ways in which these girl protagonists think about themselves. In one story, “My Days and Nights of Terror,” there’s domestic abuse in the family. Mande, the child narrator, just looks at her mom, and even though her mom is the one who’s being hit and beaten, she sees mom as the perpetrator. She sees her mother as the one who starts all the fights, who can’t just be grateful and shut up and leave well enough alone. I think that’s very common. You might think that women would bond and form a team. But when you’re a young girl, and you see what you don’t want to happen to you happening to your mother or some older person who’s also a woman, you have no idea how to escape that. You start to feel revulsion for the woman who has the life you fear.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how these gender dynamics transform into power dynamics. Where do you think your characters, in their relish in or abuse of power, might be picking up on the sad but clear pattern that as recent immigrant families, they’re not being given very much social power?
In these stories, both mothers and fathers can hang the sacrifices they make over their children’s heads in a way that binds them, that makes these children feel like they have a debt to pay to their parents, and that they should feel guilty every time they’re anything but enormously grateful. Of course, no one can live their entire lives being forever grateful to their parents or whoever it was who sacrificed for them.
I wanted to show the ways in which the sacrifice these mothers make for their children in some ways is really saintly. And in other ways it’s not. To characterize something as purely aggressive and demonic is one way of flattening out an understanding of some kind of dynamic. But to paint something as purely angelic and saintly is another way of flattening out nuance.
Caring and caretaking specifically are often gendered as something that women do or are good at. It can be kind of idealized and flattened out in a way, where it’s just seen as a purely positive thing. But caretaking is also a form of power, and a way to establish dominance. In these stories there’s real tenderness and love that these mothers show their daughters. But there’s also manipulation. There are these power dynamics: “You are forever beholden to me, because I gave birth to you, and I kept you alive.”
In some of these stories, the young girls internalize that dynamic and then enact it on their younger siblings. In two stories the girl narrators have little brothers, and they try to do to their younger brothers what was done to them. That’s what they think love is. The only way they know how to love is to act like, “Don’t you know you would be dead without me? Don’t you know you wouldn’t survive out there without me?”
The way these mothers speak to their daughters reminds me of something you wrote in your Poetry magazine piece, “How It Feels.” You talk about the “failure to move someone with what you think is the tragedy of your existence.” I’m curious about the flip side of that. What is it like when you do move people with what you consider the tragedy of your existence?
I guess in some ways that’s what I’m exploring in these stories. These girls are moved by the tragedies of their parents’ existences. Sometimes it makes them want to be better people, better daughters. It has a positive effect and emboldens these girls to want to be better. But sometimes it just makes them resentful, and makes these girls find their parents’ suffering insufferable.
It’s a very hard thing to talk about, because so many children grow up in households where the adults have their own shit. Just because you have a child, it doesn’t mean you’re fit (or that anyone’s fit) to take care of natural human life. In some ways, these girl narrators’ homes are safe havens from the outside world, but in other ways, their homes are dangerous and riddled with traps and exploding mines. They’re going home to a place where the adults who are supposed to take care of them are crumbling. It’s destabilizing, to ask children to have that much compassion for the very people who are supposed to look after them. It’s a scary place to be.