There are many novice writers who believe, or are taught to believe, that before they can sell a collection of short stories they must publish a novel, but Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart proves otherwise. This should not come as a surprise, as Jenny has always been one to eschew common convention. True to form, her first book Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012) is a poetry collection released after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied Fiction. Jenny has previously stated that she enjoys to play “outside of the academy” when it comes to writing; an attribute self-evident to anyone familiar with her work and a distinction that shapes the young protagonists of her stories. Sour Heart is the debut release of the new Lenny imprint at Random House.
Jenny was gracious enough to speak with me over the phone about her new book while artfully dodging the various calamities of New York City’s streets. It seemed only appropriate that we begin the discussion with the subject of construction, or in many cases, destruction.
Tucker Newsome (Rail): Sour Heart is a collection of stories that you have been working on, or have had around—in some shape or form—for quite some time. Some of the older stories were previously featured in Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, etc., and it seems like there as has been a decent amount of revision. How many times have you gone back and rewritten each of these stories? How many drafts? What was the process like?
Jenny Zhang: Definitely. You know—you’re right. It was a very long process and when I say that I started the first story in this collection—which was “The Evolution of My Brother”—when I was nineteen and a sophomore in college and I’m thirty-three now, it sounds more arduous and it sounds like I was more diligent than I really was. [Laughs] You know, there’s a span of fourteen years between when I wrote the first story of this collection and when this collection came to exist in the final state that it’s in now.
There is a brief period of my life, from college until when I finished at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was compelled to write about these nine-year-old girls and I wrote story after story; I just kept writing about these girls and for a while I asked myself: Is it the same girl? And then I thought, No I don’t think it’s the same girl, then I was like, Well—maybe it’s these girls who kind of all know each other and come from a very specific and similar community of families.
I had become convinced, after failing to acquire an agent several times over, that I had to work on a novel and that short stories were more of the marginal provinces of minor literature; so I kind of put the stories away and didn’t really fuck with them for a while. I guess it was my failure to write a novel that brought me back to these stories. I felt like the stories held an exoskeleton, or a shell of what I was interested in, and that I had to re-populate the flesh—especially the earlier ones. I rewrote each story in a fairly painstaking way, going word-by-word and changing, in many cases, almost every word and then in some cases, not doing so much of that at all but instead re-envisioning the story or adding and subtracting and dissecting and being kind of a doctor about it. So the revision process was manifold and multi-layered but I think I there was always a kernel that remained and in some aspects much more than just a kernel.
Rail: I want to go back to the girls. At what point in this process did you realize that there was a connection or this common thread all through the stories? Was that part of the original conception or did it come organically as you continued to revise the stories?
Zhang: As I was revising these stories I started to realize that the protagonists came from a specific socio-economic background and specific cohort of immigrants. The thing with specificity is that you can always get more specific and still fail to achieve it. In many senses, it is specific enough to say that they are Asian-American young girls or that they are Chinese-American young girls, right? But I could also say that they are Chinese-American, second-generation immigrant young girls or I could say [Laughs] that they are Chinese-American, second-generation immigrant young girls who live in New York in the ‘90s and that’s specific enough but I realized that it was even more specific than that. They came from upper-middle class families—I guess upper-middle class is the right word—they came from highly educated Chinese families from mainland China who had a very distinct, chaotic experience with the lead-up to and during Cultural Revolution. The fathers of these girls were Chinese-American scholars or came to the United States to be scholars and all of their fathers end up dropping out of school or their parents don’t make it here and I guess it made sense to me that they would know each other. My parents would take me to these parties where I would find out that everyone went to NYU and they were all third-years in their PhD program or all of them came from the same neighborhood in Shanghai and there’s just this kind of way when immigrants come and struggle in another country that they make these provisional communities and then it starts to feel like literally everyone knows each other—even if it’s in a very glancing way.
I remember we were reading the newspaper in New York—the Chinese newspaper—in 1996 or something and the authorities caught a Chinese-American lawyer who had been scamming elderly Chinese people who were trying to get their Green Cards so that they could stay in the United States by promising that he could help them get their Green Card but instead he acquired all of these fake documents and all of the people got deported. He got busted and was on trial for whatever scam he had been doing and my dad said, “Oh yeah! That was the guy we lived with for a few years!”
Zhang: It was just this thing where everyone was constantly a side character in everyone else’s lives. As I realized that I was like, Oh! I think these protagonists exist on the sidelines of the other protagonists’ lives in the other stories! It just felt like it made sense to do that. It wasn’t so much that it was a novel where all of the characters intersect with each other in very significant ways, but it made more sense that these would be stories where the characters would intersect each other’s lives in both significant and insignificant ways.
Rail: Was it with this realization that you now felt that the story had to be told from the first-person point-of-view? There was no way that there could be this omniscient narrator telling these stories; it had to be through the eyes of these girls?
Zhang: I think I was just going through some obsessive-compulsive phase with the first-person, to be honest, because now I can’t write in it anymore. I find it repulsive and just completely wrong in every way. [Laughs] But you know, I wasn’t thinking about that at the time but looking back in kind of the revision phase—which is a phase that I think you’re trying to justify your conscious and sub-conscious choices—I was like, Why did I do this? Why did I write all of these stories in the first-person?
I think that, so often, people with really marginalized identities feel very reduced. Like there is only room for one story and the one story that there is room for in popular culture is that Asian-American girls are small and quiet or that they are uninteresting and shy. And I don’t know—these girls, they are just really vile sometimes. They are really unloveable. But they’re the opposite! [Laughs] They’re the opposite of small even if they are physically small in stature. They have these wild sides to them—some of them, they are wild. They’re distasteful, they’re just very… I don’t even know what the word is but I just wanted them to speak for themselves. I wanted the reader to see how these girls saw themselves and also how they were seen by others and I felt like that would be gotten across the most fully by first-person.
I wanted to play with some expectations or assumptions that some of these stories would be autobiographical or that I was writing auto-fiction. I wanted to have some room to play with that by writing in the first-person. By having so many different girl characters it felt like there was more opportunity for play by writing in the first-person; not only by weaving little bits of my own experience with many bits of other people’s experiences but also by confabulating and fictionalizing and being a fabulists in many ways as well as writing in the tone of a realist by using this very catty first-person, girlish voice.
Rail: Yeah, I’m really glad you brought up the autobiographical part of it because I think that, for some reason, this happens much more to young, female authors than anyone else.
Rail: Readers tend to automatically assume that when you’re writing from that POV or a strong, natural voice, that you are writing about yourself and that’s just simply not true. Was that something that was very much on your mind when you were writing? Were you aware of that stigma or the idea that people were going to automatically assume that you were writing about yourself so you just said: Fuck it, I’m going to have some fun with this?
Zhang: [Laughs] Yeah! I think I definitely had some brat impulses; if I’m going to be stuck constantly having to say, “No, this is a work of fiction,” then I might as well just be crazy with pushing the limits of that. If I’m going to be reduced to being seen as some kind of, [sighs] I don’t even know, artless author that is just photographing pages of my diary and calling it stories, then I might as well lie extravagantly in the pages of my so-called “diary,” and have fun.
You have to pretend that you’re free when you write and try to forget all the ways in which you are not. I really did try to forget all of the feedback that I had been given and the feedback that I suspected that I would be given and I tried to write these stories as if I were in a dark cave and had no idea what the outside world was like. Obviously that is fiction and no one can actually do that—I can never forget what the outside world looks like. I did try to write with some kind of innocence because I think that frees you up to not be afraid. To make mistakes or not be afraid to be something; to not be afraid of the consequences.
In revising, I think you have to pay a little more attention to what your ethics are. I did think about what the consequences would be of someone in my life, like my mother, or a close friend of mine being like, “Hey, is this about me?” Or being like, “Hey, is this really what you think about us?” I did try to put myself in their shoes and think about what my answer to that would be. Would it be sufficient to just say: No, it’s just fiction? Is it enough to say that I experienced this? Or I know people who experienced this so I can depict it? Is it enough to say that I didn’t experience this but I had a reason for wanting to depict it? There were a lot of questions about ethics that I did have to ask myself in the final stages of revising, but in the early stages of just writing, I think writers owe it to themselves and their work to write with abandon.
Rail: Was it a bit of a chore to get into the mindset of a child or pre-teen? There is an innocence about these young girls but then some of the observations they make are much more mature and wise than their age would, in most cases, allow for; and then there is a level of crassness that I just really came to appreciate. Is it difficult at all or did it come fairly naturally?
Zhang: Yeah… you know, I think that the voice did come naturally to me and there’s the temptation to capture the voice of the child but there is also an artifice that I don’t think was a mistake; it was intended. Childhood is one of those periods of a person’s life that I feel like we tend to look back on and kind of idealize it, often. We tend to look back at our childhoods and think of it as such an innocent and carefree time—I never found that to be true. And then other people look back at their childhoods, their adolescences, and see it as such a wretched and horrid time and I also don’t find that to be true. I find that it’s easy to lose the nuances of childhood, or the things that are interesting about being a child growing up, because it is such a singular time and it is such a time where our brains were still forming.
I neither wanted these kids to be just cute and innocent and naive, but nor did I want to strip them of that innocence. I think these girls in particular, they are kind of left to their own devices in these stories because their parents are working or just very busy with survival. I think of what happens when young girls are left to their own devices; it is an age where you are very susceptible to other people. These girls are very susceptible to their friends, to what they see around them, and to television. It’s a time when you’re trying on different voices and different identities but it’s also a time when you really have a strong sense of your own identity because you haven’t been shamed away from it yet.
I just found that period to be a time where anything is possible and everything you’re doing is almost for the first time. It was a feeling that was very easy for me to get into. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer, but for the longest time when I said a word like “fuck,” I’d be like, I’m faking it! This doesn’t come naturally to me! Some people know how to say this word and I just fake it each time. That is a feeling that I attempted to convey in writing from the perspective of these girls, because they are trying something on for the first time. They’re trying on their sexuality for the first time. They’re trying on their anger for the first time. They’re trying on the feeling of being like, No, I don’t want to be my mother’s kid. I want to be independent for the first time. That was very easy for me to get into.
The feeling of wanting so much but being still so very dependent on adults for survival and to just stay alive, it’s a really…it’s an interesting time because you’re subservient to grown-ups that may or may not be fit to take care of you. You have to just hope that for those next eighteen years you can at least find one fit grown-up or semi-grown up to keep you alive. [Laughs] That feeling also came very naturally to me to write about.