Jenny Zhang’s ‘Sour Heart’: An Asian Man and an Asian Woman’s Take

Role Models, Family, and Keeping It Real.

3 years ago

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Plan A hopes to bridge gender divides in the community by providing full bodied intersectional perspectives on sexual politics and race. This week, two of our writers, Christina Qiu and Chris Jesu Lee, review Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. The reading, writing, and editing processes were completed separately for each review, but they are meant to be read together.


LEE: “Zhang gets many of the little things right about a modern immigrant childhood, like the grandparents who suddenly come in and out of your life.”

The first thing I ever read by Jenny Zhang was her personal essay, Far Away From Me, in Rookie Magazine. Still to this day, it’s the most admirably honest account of what I imagine it’s like to have grown up as an Asian American girl in the 1990s. Everything is laid bare: the desire to be beautiful, the fear that non-whiteness meant you were unworthy of love and admiration, and the wonderful/horrible discovery that Yellow Fever may be your golden ticket.

Even if I knew deep down that to try and find love on the basis of being someone’s fetish object was damaging, I could still try. Being the idea of someone I wasn’t was better than being no one at all, I thought.

So I prayed and prayed: PLEASE GOD LET SOME ATTRACTIVE WHITE BOY HAVE AN ASIAN FETISH AND PLEASE LET ME BE HIS TARGET!

This kind of raw openness is rare. Face-saving is not unique to Asian Americans, but we sure do excel at it. Our parents exaggerate about how well we’re doing. Domestic problems are kept under wraps. All sorts of progressive-sounding rationales are spun to give moral cover to climbing out of the Asian social ghetto.

Photo of China King in Boston’s Chinatown
China King in Boston’s Chinatown. Source: Boston’s Hidden Restaurants

So I eagerly awaited Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart. Because of disparate acceptance into the mainstream and a lack of a long-established Asian American culture, the Asian American experience may be the most gender-divided of all races. Can intensely personal books like Sour Heart help bridge that gap?

All the stories are from the perspectives of young Chinese American girls who are growing up in a rough part of Queens, New York in the 1990s. The best aspect of the book is that it reads young and contemporary. In other words, it doesn’t revolve around wars, revolutions, or the moldy “Go home, chink!” type of racism. Going by her Rookie essay, you’d think that this book would be all about boys and sex. But refreshingly, it’s focused on family and friends. Jenny Zhang gets many of the little things right about a modern immigrant childhood, like the grandparents who suddenly come in and out of your life. Or fathers’ broken promises leading to broken mothers. Or the cousins whom you intensely bond with for one summer, only to lose that connection as you age continents apart. Or how your parents leave you home alone with all the curtains closed because they don’t know anyone well enough to trust as babysitters. The story “The Evolution of My Brother” stands out in capturing the Asian American yearning to break out of a constricting home, to the point of even wanting a surrogate family, only to regret it later in life.

Photo of Chris as a child with his younger brother
2nd Generation Bonds: Little Chris blowing bubbles as little brother watches.

One issue with all the stories is that the characters can all blend into one another. It’s the same issue I had with a book like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. Maybe it’s the genre. Maybe it’s just me. Here, all the protagonists share very similar biographies — female, teenage, Chinese, insecure, hardscrabble upbringing, some time spent in Shanghai — that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. It’s as though we are actually reading about one character who’s been fragmented into slightly different pieces.

Angst and unhappiness are always prevalent in Asian American stories. But from a male perspective, it’s notable how different these sentiments can be expressed by Asian women and men, at least in literary form. All the protagonists in Sour Heart deal with self-esteem issues, often arising out of race and culture, but they do have aspirational role models within their groups. There are beautiful mothers and knock-out femme fatale classmates. This is different from the male insecurity expressed in books by young Asian American male writers like Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens or Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve. The male characters there are self-loathing as well, but for them, there is no aspirational Asian male figure. Could even such a figure exist? Is this one of the many markers of the Asian American gender divide?

Sour Heart was both familiar and baffling. That’s a good sign. Age-wise, Jenny Zhang is at the vanguard of our generation and it does feel as though the next big wave of Asian American writers is just coming up. I hope that wave can fill in the deep dry chasm that has sectioned off various parts of Asian America from one another. Inflate your rafts, grab a rubber oar, and cross the previously uncrossable.

QIU: “Does it take 25 years to learn the full dynamic picture of how we were when we were 9?”

In high school, a friend told me while running laps on the field for gym class that a kid named Tim (fake name) got beat up by his mom for getting an A- in English class, which was why his face was blue. An A-? I’d asked, people are dying. My friend laughed. Yeah, she said, Tim is. Many kids endured similar abuses at home that we could talk about amongst ourselves but not in front of teachers, and we interpreted them as they were: labors of love. We were never surprised. Our context was as mundane as dust.

Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart preoccupies itself with the central love immigrant writers tend to avoid. Immigrant readers are used to seeing this love described too sadistically for its tenderness and too tenderly for its desperation. While the theme of familial love left literary fashion long ago, Zhang’s words read both rough and lovesick, definitive and unmarked. In the book, Zhang enters the minds of fictional young Chinese-American girls whose lives are interconnected through their parents’ immigrant networks, none of whom like each other, or anyone except their own families, too much. While some speak in breathless run-ons and others in know-it-all quips, the characters link themselves in their complete knowledge of the world around them, their understanding of familial duties to love and be loved, and their refusal to be alienated. Christina in “We Love You Crispina” is perfectly aware of her father’s consistent infidelity, though the realization never dramatizes to more than a simple fact, as she resolves that she and her mother are “daddy’s number one girls.” In “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” Stacey is aware of her grandmother’s mental instability, pathological lying, and manipulation, choosing to be disgusted rather than disturbed. These responses are laced with the intent of self-preservation. They are not innocent; they are made for survival — of the children, of course, but most importantly, of the immediate family unit, from which children derive their power.

Promotion image for movie based on Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club
Promotion image for movie based on Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, featuring entirely Chinese American women. Source: D23

Zhang’s decision to maintain the structure of Asian-American families is more remarkable than it seems. From the perspective of the reader, Asian-American writers are often complicit in the distinctly Western, literary castration of the Asian family unit. Amy Tan’s four storylines in her famous novel “Joy Luck Club” all include female suffering at the hands of misogynistic yellow males, resulting in marital problems, divorce, and abandonment. John Okada’s No-No Boy places central drama on a young man’s rejection of his family’s Americanization after Japanese internment. Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You details the death of a child, infidelity, and biracialism. Most recently, Rowan Hosayo Buchanan avoids the problem of family in her book Harmless Like You by eliminating it altogether: Yuki’s parents decide to go to Japan without her, believing her life in America will be better at the hands of boho white New Yorkers, never to play a significant role in her story again. As Asian-Americans have the lowest divorce rates (4% versus 10.5% for whites) and the majority of Asian-American children grow up in two-parent households, this literature is hardly representative of a truly racialized experience, and perhaps, can best be interpreted as escapism from familial love or convenient plot devices to display more fully to white audiences an Asian-American’s alienation.

Sour Heart is completely uninterested in victimhood, oppression, or nationalism. Zhang’s characters are devoid of such alienation because they understand almost too well their role as diasporic children. They act as their parents’ therapists, pets, protégés, darlings.

“[My mother] talked me into falling asleep when I was perfectly well rested, she talked me into tears when I didn’t want to hear any more stories about her youth, the way she had suffered, how she married a man who could only continue to make her suffer, how my brother’s main accomplishment in life so far was making her suffer, how she suffered when my father convinced her to take me back to China to live with my grandparents and uncle for a while until my parents were more financially secure, how she suffered while I was away in China, how she suffered the day she drove alone to the Charleston airport in South Carolina to meet my distant aunt Cheng Fang who agreed to bring me back to the United States from her trip to Shanghai, and how in the airport arrivals lounge the first thing I did was kick my mother in the shin repeatedly and head-butt her when she tried to pick me up. I honestly didn’t recall doing this, but my mother insisted that I had behaved monstrously and would never let me forget how I hurt her that day, the day she waited a year and a half for, and how one day, I would turn on her again. Her predictions bewildered me. How could I, who clung to her in the mornings right when I woke up, who crawled into bed with her at night even though I was supposed to be sleeping on my own, who only made things for her in art class and never my father, never Sammy, never any of my friends, who set up a lemonade stand with Sarah and Alexi and spent my share of the profits on a glass vial that contained a grain of rice with my mother’s name on it — how could a person so pathetically lovestruck for my mother as I was become someone who would one day callously abandon her?”

This section speaks for itself. The children’s selfless and ironically parental adoration of family often renders adult figures more human than their American children, explores adults as victims of political and migratory trauma, and affords them such tenderness that they are allowed to abandon and lash out without much consequence, criminal or psychological. Such representations hold therapeutic power — Zhang places our parents in the context of their own histories, outside the presence of us. We are able to see clearly their actions and the ways they needed us in words they couldn’t say.

Photo of Christina Qui as a child with her family
My family and I on a vacation in Montreal when I was probably the same age as the main character Christina in Zhang’s short story “We Love You Crispina.”

A reader, however, is fully conscious that the precocious children are an adult’s projections of how she should have loved, should have adored, should have desired her parents. A loyal fan of Zhang’s is even more aware of this dynamic between author and character. The place where Zhang sounds most like the Rookie Jenny, the “How It Feels” Jenny, the I-interviewed-Mitski-and-related-to-her-on-some-deep-personal Jenny, is in “The Evolution of My Brother” where she comically asks her brother if he ever wants to be kissed by someone who’s not his family. That question, brushed off as excessive in this collection, seemed to be the complete envelope of her previous works — the desire, meaning, and consequences of being kissed by an outsider, by someone incapable of understanding you, by someone you loved and simultaneously never loved, by a white boy. This collection seeks to answer what it means to be kissed by family, an infinitely harder, more serious question. It reads, perhaps, as also an apology for this previous preoccupation, for the desire expounded upon in “How It Feels” — to hurt like Tracey Emin. Zhang writes in this collection:

“I wanted to be free to be selfish and self-destructive and indulgent like the white girls at the high school my parents worked so hard to get me into and once they did, once we moved into a neighborhood where no one hung out on the streets, where everyone was the same pasty shade of consumptive blotchy paleness, all it did was make me want to get away from my family. I envied white girls whose relationships with their parents were so abysmal that they could never disappoint them. I wanted white parents who didn’t care where I went or what I did, parents who encouraged me to leave home instead of guilting me into staying their kid forever.”
A monoprint by Tracey Emin
A monoprint by Tracey Emin. Source: Tate

This critique marries strangely with her previous work about her pursuits for self-destruction, her love of freedom, her longing to express — work displaying, as well, a semi-feminist insecurity surrounding sexuality and presentation. It was these works that first grabbed the attention of Lena Dunham under whose agency Zhang published this book. It was also these works that placed Zhang in the cognition of young Asian-American girls like me. These personal narratives were captivating in their vulnerability. They annotated the young adult psyche with alarming specificity — and they attempted to be generalizable. They were also, however, tinged with bravado; she outlined the most beautiful, most reckless moments of her life without expressing the unromantic context that made them so beautiful, so reckless. They were tinged with whiteness. She loved white men. She admired white artists and called them beautiful. She wanted to pursue the path of Hemingway. But Sour Heart is the first time Zhang is helpful, her work therapeutic — because here, she arrives at the heart. Was the first Jenny necessary for the development of the current Jenny? Do we ever outgrow our childhoods? And does it take 25 years to learn the full dynamic picture of how we were when we were 9?


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Published 3 years ago