PART 1: SOUNDING OUT OUR CHILDHOODS
Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart, is full of sounds – wild, thunderous juvenile noise. There’s ahhhgrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaads and shouty yeah, yeah, yeahs, approximately 138 pleading nos, one explosive STTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!, three stuttering I…I…Is that never make it to the end of a sentence, the try-and-stop-us sibling chanting of We! Are! Best! Friends! We! Are! Best! Friends! and the self-conscious hum of Mememememememe. We hear the clockwork moan of Why why why why why why reserved for an uncle who decides to move interstate for postgraduate study so he can quit his food delivery job. There’s also the sickly-sweet baby talk to a four-year-old at a family gathering: A goo goo goo goo. Ga ga goo goo coo coo. And yell-votes of extended family members weighing in about the ideal home for a young person who’s still searching for it: New York! Shanghai! Beijing! Shandong! Wenzhou! Heilongjiang! Tianjin! San Francisco! Williamsburg! Los Angeles! London! Bushwick! Paris! Sichuan! Hunan! Hong Kong! Washington Heights! E Flat! Collectively, they form a soundtrack to unflinching stories that explore a kind of staying-of-age instead of a coming-of-age.
I devour each story – seven, in total – over many weeks. I feel thankful I am no longer in the fourth grade or in high school or in-actual-fact steering my way through an elaborate family reunion where a significant portion of all my future life choices are up for debate, television gameshow style, as many of the characters in this collection are.
Each story is loosely connected, like a constellation of stars in an inky black sky, exploring what it’s like to live in New York City as a recent Chinese immigrant. Many of the narrators here are young girls who are either estranged or shape-shifting between cultural divides, having to either choose between mastering the language and culture of their new home or becoming someone that their parents and their extended family no longer understand. It’s very easy to fall into the ‘melancholy migrant’ trap here, but because these are Jenny Zhang’s short stories, they are funny and biting: a bit like sneaking a bag of vodka-soaked Sour Patch Kids in to a matinée at the local cinema.
As kids, we make noise for many reasons. To draw attention to ourselves, to test out the sounds of new words in our mouths (like a vinegary curse word or a truth bomb told in a language that doesn’t belong to us), to declare undebatable hatred or undying love (with no in-between, sorry), to prove we exist, to dare to demonstrate that we believe in ourselves. Many of the stories in Sour Heart, like ‘The Empty the Empty the Empty’ which explores the idea of boundaries and invasion of privacy in a family household, are about the usefulness of being artless when we’re young, of keeping on that courage of a child who is unafraid to express things that the often guarded, harassed grownups around us won’t give voice to.
In the first story in the collection, ‘We Love You Crispina’, we meet young Christina who speaks in breathless, unending sentences. She gives away anecdotes about being betrayed by your butthole (Christina’s word) when you’re growing up poor without a working toilet in your home, of ballet dancing to banish the roaches you end up sharing your bed with, of Korean goon-bullies who misidentify you not as an actual, alive person but as a symbol of a savage six-week episode of mass murder and rape in Japan during World War II. It’s a story about the “oozy desire” of being a latchkey kid who gets to come home to an empty house, of having parents who are professional scammers in the name of love and devotion for their children, of being a “little genius” ESL learner, of feeling betrayed when your parents decide to send you back to where they came from and all you can do is look up at the sky and shake your fist at an overhead plane, hoping the passengers on it will look out for you; be your guardian angels in the place of unfulfilled parental promises and it’s-only-temporary situations.
It’s hard for me not to get emotionally invested as a reader here, and maybe that’s part of the deal of Zhang’s stories: we can’t look away, or wipe away the residual oil of these young girls’ struggles and not feel some of our own ache on our greasy fingertips. I imagine what my life might’ve been like if I’d had one of these will-befriend-for-validation girls – a Christina, or an Annie, or a Mande, or a Jenny – in my classes or living across the street from me in the neighbourhoods I grew up in.
Insisting on a sense of autonomy as a family when you’ve escaped an oppressive totalitarian regime – as in the story ‘Our Mothers Before Them’ – is something that is often wrestled with in this collection. Armed with a highlighter, I smear Day-Glo colours over the well-intentioned advice that Christina’s immigrant parents pass down to her as she navigates the American education system as an ESL-learner: how “it was better to do something right the second time around than to get away with doing it wrong the first time.” There is tenderness in the bleak short-changed nature of being a recent immigrant, too. I found myself growing attached to Crispina and her mother, the kind of mother-daughter duo who, in a sort of Thelma-and-Louise way, were amused by their own cleverness, able to pick out “the little signs that proved [they] were running [their] own lives.”
As I absorb these stories one by one, I can’t help but think of a lot of the things I’ve inherited from my own parents. Not just my eyes, and nose, and neck, and ears and hair and nails and a looking-for-trouble monobrow and long do-you-still-play-piano? fingers, but other stuff, too. You know, like grit and the ability to find my feet wherever I land and the thrill of adventure, even if it just means hopping on a plane to leave behind the town where I was born, to eventually return, and not know how to fit back in, kind of like an astronaut floating through space, wondering if home is the planet they just left, or the one they’re hurtling towards.
PART 2: GIRLHOOD IS GROSS! (AND YOU KNOW IT)
There were many times that I felt physically uncomfortable reading this book, and squirmed or tried to block out particular sensory descriptions. Because sometimes being a girl means feeling like a grotty monster or a filth receptacle. Zhang doesn’t shy away from these images, though – she dives headfirst into the blood and guts of it.
In Sour Heart, these girls’ bodies itch and scratch, bleed and scab. Spurred on by their well-intentioned but overbearing mothers – filmmakers born into the wrong era, graduate students, philosophers, bakers, small-time crooks – these burdened young women shapeshift into each other as they are caught between eating all of the sourest things (grapes, plums, peaches, apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, nectarines, candies, soups, sauces, everything) instead of the sweetest, bloating happily with salt from regular family noodle cup nights, learning the survival instincts of dumpster diving in fancy neighbourhoods for anything edible or upmarket, or imagining themselves as a red sugary water-melted Popsicle trickling down into the asphalt, down the street, no longer existing in the world.
Not to mention those moments of breaking down “king-sized shits” to make sure all their young-woman waste flushes away in a clean sweep at the toilet, which is always missing toilet paper, that they’re forced to use down the street. The world does not go easy on them – it is bare-toothed and downright vicious sometimes.
In these stories, America is a place where you can sue McDonald’s for serving you tongue-burning coffee; where you can’t waste food (so if you spot some salty ham poking out of your little brother’s incisors, go ahead and eat it!); where sometimes you have to fart along to the chorus of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ to lighten the mood; and figure out how to survive friendships that feel like obligatory parasites floating around in your bloodstream.
Sour Heart is less about finding out where we belong, and more about trying to find joy in the yuckiest moments of the everyday. We get the sense pretty early on in the collection that trauma lurks around every corner – less in a cartoonish Elmer Fudd kind of way, and more of a what-fresh-hell-will-today-bring way. In particular, ‘Our Mothers Before Them’ captures the role-reversal of young people who, in a time of political upheaval, become the new adults of their Shanghai town in the 60s, punishing counterrevolutionaries and gossiping about making stew out of a young girl’s bones (“Calcium for the people!”) – with the kind of enthusiasm that is usually “saved up for birthday parties”. Later on, in the final story, however, we shift to hearing tall tales (of swimming through literal rivers of faeces) told to impress a cousin at a family reunion and yelling, “Crazy monkey girl reporting for duty!” because a small part of the protagonist – a young girl named Jenny with Shanghai roots who is growing further and further away from her family with every reunion – likes to believe they’re a little bit magic and able to do the impossible. As the past and the present tumble like different generations stuck in an elevator together throughout Sour Heart’s pages: the Tiger Beat generation versus the one that survived the Cultural Revolution, I think of blood memory and of inherited trauma: how we acquire convincing, visceral memories of things we weren’t alive to experience ourselves. Is this kind of what it’s like to have a sense of optimism crushed like an ant? I think of an unashamedly optimistic line from a Frank O’Hara poem that Jenny has quoted before: “We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying.”
It’s hard to compare these stories to anything else because Jenny Zhang’s writing – as a poet, an essayist, and a writer of fiction – captures the how-do-I-even-say-this feeling of arriving in a part of the world where no one was expecting you in the first place, and so you do what you know how to do: start something new.
PART 3: THE ENDLESS SHAME – AND THRILL! – OF LANGUAGE
Sour Heart speaks to the simultaneous glory and disgrace of being a first generation (or first-and-a-half generation) immigrant who has to begin – for better or worse – speaking English as a Second Language. Sometimes it can feel like a curse of geography. One of the girls in the collection says solemnly, “On the inside, I was vast,” while reminding us that “on the outside, [they were, unfortunately] a known idiot.” This is often the case with many of the young girls in Sour Heart – their pores seep with desire, rebellion and angst but sometimes they bend under the will of familial obligation, as in the protagonist of the final story ‘You Fell Into the River and I Saved You!’, who recites her mother’s script to distant relatives on an annual basis over the phone: “I love you all and wish you good health in the coming year.”
As Zhang is a self-identified bilingual (or “one-point-five lingual”) author, codeswitching is something that comes up a lot in these stories. The familiarity of being able to see how our accents change, how our minds expand or shrink, how a sentence can begin in one language and end in another was a genuine thrill to see on the page. One of my favourite things was seeing Romanised Chinese characters in some stories, and feeling the delight of listening to the inflection of the words in my ear during the audiobook recording of the collection, like watching a childhood friend speak Arabic to their parents in the living room and being able to interpret only from body language and gestures and tone rather than vocabulary. In a recent interview with BOMB Magazine, Jenny said, “Acquiring new language feels shameful, but also exciting. I love that feeling – bubbling, learning, feeling like I can't master it.”
In high school in Australia, I sometimes felt that, too. I remember someone in my Year 12 homeroom, hissing, Can you please use English words! and I wanted to tell them, Actually, English is Latin and French and German and Arabic and Hindi and bits of Shakespeare and AAVE and—
The same ants-and-fireworks thrill surges in many of Zhang’s characters, and how they navigate the minefield of the English language. In ‘My Days and Nights of Terror’, one of my favourite indignities in the collection unfolds:
Fanpin, a hungry wolf, blood parasite type of a friend, yells “Don’t go around being sexist!” at Shrimpy Boy, otherwise known as Jason. “Sex-what?” asks Mande (pronounced ‘Mandy’), an ESL learner. “Sexist, you idiot,” Fanpin confirms, “Don’t you know we live in a sexist society?” Mande insists she doesn’t need to be told, and yet high-and-mighty Fanpin continues to do so; to hover around Mande like a UFO.
In a recent podcast interview for Barnes & Noble, Jenny mentions how the private language we use to articulate how we think about ourselves often struggles under the tyranny of needing to maintain an identity that makes sense to others. Zhang deals with this by encouraging readers who are not native Chinese speakers to become comfortable with the cavities and fractures of sometimes not knowing, and not being able to immediately solve a mystery. In ‘My Days and Nights of Terror’, there is a footnote to a specific line in a familial conversation in Chinese that reveals “Sorry, no translation currently available.”
PART 4: MAKING YOURSELF UP AS YOU GO
In these pages, I spot characters named Jenny, and parents who are referred to as “Mr. Zhang” by the students they teach, and I learn about generations of families that moved from Shanghai to New York and back again, and perhaps the similarities in biographical detail shouldn’t be taken for granted. In the world of fiction, everything is up to us, the writer. And fictionalising a portion of your lived experience can allow you to explore your inner world where what’s considered most common and most shocking is all in your power.
It’s tempting for me to list so many second-hand references and comparisons here, in an attempt to contextualise my reading of Sour Heart. For instance, so much about Sour Heart reminds me of something Kathy Acker said in her 1986 novel Don Quixote: “Language presupposes community. Therefore, without you, nothing I say has any meaning. Without love or language, I do not exist.”
While Acker and Zhang are generations and cultures apart, I see echoes, like two people standing atop opposite cliffs and yelling into the void to see if anything meaningful comes back. Community can mean a subculture of freaks, but it is also family huddled around a low-key Washington Heights apartment block in the 1990s. And how that culture – or family – is both baggage and a helium balloon depending on what day of the week it is.
But sometimes namechecking other patchwork connections, like Phillip Larkin’s poetry about family dynamics, and Tracey Emin’s neon art about a particular kind of blatant devotion, and Lynne Ramsey’s 1999 film about a twelve-year-old-boy who comes of age during a Glaswegian national garbage strike during the 1970s falls short. Yes, they explore similar themes but there is something so ahistorical and original about Sour Heart that makes trying to thread it to other experiences pointless.
A defining characteristic of Zhang’s writing in this collection is not being afraid to hold things back: there are very few secrets tucked away from the reader’s grasp. It brings me back to the idea of this being a book full of noise: if you listen closely, you can hear a million young immigrant women, whether they’re shaking their fists at the sky or swimming through a river of shit, shouting like a chorus, I exist I exist I exist I exist!
Nathania Gilson is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She tweets @unicornology.