An essay by Sam Gaskin – with GIFs! – about his old friend and now superstar author Jenny Zhang.
In the summer of 2016 Jenny Zhang and I went to Coney Island for a swim. It was overcast, too windy to even face the ocean, but we stripped down to our swimsuits anyway. She tried on my tiger face-kini, a polyester balaclava worn by middle aged women in lower tier Chinese cities to keep them from catching a tan. She looked ridiculous and badass, and she handed me her phone to take a picture for her Instagram. I told her I’d write the caption too, knowing she’d freak out because she had rules about this stuff, a clear idea of who she was and how she wanted to be perceived. That made me laugh — it seemed vain and self-aggrandising — and so I commented on the post from my own account: “Tiger, tiger, in the sand / don’t you touch my personal brand”.
A year later, Zhang is a star. She’s the author of Sour Heart, the first title published by Lena Dunham’s new imprint, Lenny, at Random House. The book of short stories, which the New Yorker called “astounding”, has quotes from Dunham and Miranda July on the cover. Padma Lakshmi served Chnese food at Zhang’s book launch after party. Instead of feeling excited for her, I felt a spike of anxiety — no face-kini can protect you from that level of exposure. Suddenly, letting me write her Instagram captions seemed like a really dumb idea. Writing this article is making me queasy.
I first met Zhang in 2007 at the Yacht Club, a basement dive bar in Iowa City, about 1000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. She was in a royal blue dress that would’ve made more sense in an actual Yacht Club and no one was talking to her, something I noticed because no one was talking to me either. We were both on the periphery of the Iowa Writers Workshop — me visiting Alice Miller, a graduate of the Institute of Modern Letters attending on a Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship (the year before Eleanor Catton did the same), and she scoping out the place in mid-summer before starting there in the fall.
She was overdressed that night, too glamorous for the squalor around her, much like the protagonists in her stories, first-generation Chinese girls in Brooklyn and Queens, shaking off the cockroaches they crush in their sleep by “swinging our arms in the air as if we were ballerinas”, defiant of poverty’s indignities.
Christina is five-years-old and entering her second year in America when her family finds a room to share in Washington Heights. This room, barely bigger than the five mattresses laid out on its floor, connects four of Sour Heart’s six protagonists. A fifth girl lives in the same house, resenting her mother for taking in so many “strays”, while the sixth, Jenny, is linked when her family befriends Christina’s parents, who teach them the art of dumpster diving.
Christina sleeps between her parents, a hot dog in a bun, they say, a slice of turkey between cheese and lettuce. And the stories are themselves something of a sandwich, encased top and bottom with tales told by Christina that introduce and revisit many of the book’s themes.
Because working incessantly isn’t enough to make ends meet, Christina’s parents steal the sachets from supermarket ramen to flavour their rice. They find abandoned receipts in carparks and use them to return items, taken straight from the shelves, for store credit. Christina’s predicament is that she’s too cognisant of her parents’ countless sacrifices — her mom and dad even share one pair of dress shoes — and too young to contribute.
“I wondered what I could do to show my mom and dad that I, too, was part of this amazing, intricate machine that saved us from the kind of utter and complete desperation that coincides with everything falling the fuck apart,” she says.
At night, she itches an intolerable itch that her parents won’t let her scratch, but can’t leave unsatisfied. Instead they wake up with her blood under their nails. One time her mom scratches Christina’s nipple until it splits open. “The next day in school I failed a test because it was hard to concentrate when my own undershirt was sticking to my pussed-over nipple.” This low-key body horror is one way Zhang implies anxiety and shame, intrusions on the narrative of heroic sacrifice that several of the families tell themselves.
Rage, too, throws a spanner in the works of the intricate machine, something often expressed in prodigious torrents of invective mastered, in a second language, no less, in the full immersion education of New York’s low income neighbourhoods. Frustrated by the family’s inability to get ahead, and her husband’s infidelities, Christina’s mom tells him, “You’re just a piece of shit covered in vomit sitting in a pool of shit that everyone vomits on and it makes me sick.”
Love is especially strongly indexed to family in China — cousins and family friends are referred to as brothers and sisters here — and familial relationships are sometimes commandeered in the attempt to engender greater intimacy. Christina’s father, for instance, insists she call his mistress “Auntie Lisa”, while in “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?”, a maternal grandmother tells her granddaughter, Stacey, to call her Nainai (paternal grandmother) instead because it implies a closer bond.
There’s a desperation to all this love, Zhang suggests, that reaches back beyond the struggles of starting again in a foreign country to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a period when people were publicly humiliated, tortured and killed for being less poor or less uneducated. “People died of anger back then,” Mande’s father tells her in “My Days and Nights of Terror”. “They died of humiliation, they died of sadness, they died of longing. They died of shame.”
Last year I went to the Beijing Planetarium, where you can lift basketballs to get a sense of how gravity differs around the Solar System. Families who endured the Cultural Revolution have hauled heavy emotions all the way back from the Eye of Jupiter, and now, in New York and today’s Shanghai, they can seem outsized, hypertrophied, like Goku’s muscles after hyper-gravitational training. There’s a panicky quality to life in Shanghai, where I’ve lived since that visit to Iowa — drivers accelerate towards you to stop you from crossing the street in front of them.
Reading Sour Heart, my move here is a strange inversion (perversion, maybe) of her family’s departure. Jenny visits most winters, at Christmas or Chinese New Year, and we plot her escape from the extended family festivities and obligations.
One year, we ate barbecued fish and got drunk at a Yunnan restaurant next to a brothel, stealing a bottle of plum wine to get even drunker, before she made her apologies a bit too early, knowing her grandparents would be waiting up for her, that when she woke in the night needing to throw up she would have to do it in total silence, laundering her vomited-on-clothes then and there because the extra terrestrial love her family felt for her was a responsibility, that illness or unhappiness or the chance of SOMETHING HAPPENING to her causes them outsized anxiety, and that it’s not something that can be silenced the way I can selfishly shut down conversation with my family, go months without hopping on Skype.
In “The Evolution of My Brother”, 15-year-old Jenny longs for greater freedom and independence. She says, “I wanted white parents who didn’t care where I went or what I did, parents who encouraged me to leave home instead of tilting me into staying their kid forever.” Her younger brother is so obsessed with her as a kid she has to threaten to saw off any part of his body that touched hers.
But by the time Jenny leaves for college, her bro, emotionally naturalised in the US of A, will only speak to her if her mother pays him “a few bucks”. She starts to regret all her failings as a sibling — never teaching him how to spell Power Rangers properly — even though she isn’t his mom, and sibling relationships are built of equal parts annoyance and affection. Before leaving for college, while he sleeps, she kisses his hand and asks him not to forget her, but then revises: “ ‘Or forget me,’ I add, placing his hand back underneath the blanket. ‘Or forget some of it. Or remember me. Whatever. It’s your life.”
Bitterness, 苦, is often used to invoke pain and hardship in Chinese. (Inputting that character on a keyboard you’re offered a teary-eyed emoji.) Christina, though, is a “sour girl”, a “tart berry”, “sours”, “sour gummy”, “sour apple”, “sour grape”, “sourheart”, names her parents call her when she complains or disobeys them. But the character for sour, 酸, also means to ache. These are stories about heartache, the pain of loving and being loved, suffused with warmth and adolescent silliness, and a grown-ass understanding of profanity and violence. And that’s as it should be. A bildungsroman ought to be unadulterated.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (Bloomsbury Circus, $27) is available at Unity Books.