Interviews

A Conversation with Jenny Zhang, First Author in Lena Dunham’s Book Imprint

Jenny Zhang/Photo © Jenny Zhang

Being a second-generation American is a truly unique experience – your sense of culture is stronger than those around you, and your family’s immigrant experience will always play a leading role in your life, despite how much time passes.

Comprised of seven short stories, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart tells the tale of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in America. It is the first book to be published by Lenny books, a new imprint of Penguin Random House, launched by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Readers will get to see the immigrant experience through the eyes of young, second-generation, Asian American girls in this compelling piece of fiction. Heartbreak, old pain, and eye-opening discovery fill the pages of this debut, sparking emotional highs and lows until the very last page.

We got the chance to speak with Jenny about her debut collection, and our conversation spanned the immigrant experience, family, reading, writing, and more. Check it out below, and be sure to pick up a copy of Sour Heart – everyone will walk away from it with more compassion, understanding, and, of course, more heart.

SIGNATURE: Before we dive into the book, I have to know: What’s it like to be the first author published by Lenny books?

JENNY ZHANG: I’m elated that my stories have found such a loving home! From its very inception, Lenny Letter set out to create a supportive, positive, inclusive space on the internet that does not shy away from complexity and nuance. I read things online everyday but sitting down to read a physical book without an eye on the neverending scroll of social media and news is unsurpassable, nearly fetishistic in its pleasures. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, who founded Lenny Books together, also happen to have exquisite reading tastes – from obscure small press poetry chapbook to dishy memoirs to literary novels – and so it’s a real honor that they’ve chosen to announce their imprint with my stories.

SIG: Though fiction, Sour Heart is based on real events, such as the immigrant experience in the 1990s and the Cultural Revolution. How much research went into the development of your stories? How much is based on personal history?

JZ: Growing up, I had a face that people wanted to tell things to and I grew up with adults who had so much to say. They had lived through decades of unbelievable poverty, starvation, political upheaval, chaos. Chinese people of my parents’ generation who lived through the Cultural Revolution knew so much of death at such a young age and the psychic toll those experiences left was immense. I knew the stories of the Cultural Revolution before knowing what the Cultural Revolution was. It’s weird to know the particulars of a history without ever being fully taught that history. It’s like standing on a puzzle piece and never having vision wide enough to see exactly what the pieces add up to.

I avoided researching until after writing several drafts of each of these stories. I wanted to have the blurry vision my child narrators have when recalling a past that they never lived through but heard about so many times. Usually, when I got to the sixth or seventh draft, I realized that I needed to know more than my narrators knew, and so I turned to history books. Unfortunately, because I can’t read in Chinese, my research was limited to books written in English. To say that was extremely limiting is an understatement. Imagine writing a book about America in the 1960s based on books written by Chinese historians who never actually lived in America in the 1960s.

The “immigrant experience” is so incredibly vast that it would be foolish to condense it down to some kind of singular experience. These stories come from a swirl of things I’ve heard, things I’ve imagined, things I’ve seen, things I misremembered, things I know firsthand, things I know second and thirdhand, things I don’t know, things I wished for, things I feared, things I remembered and then forgot, sometimes forgetting enough details that I had to invent more to patch up the gaps in my memory. Trying to disentangle what “really happened” from what I imagined seems to imply that we don’t invent some of our memories and that imagination is something wholly untethered from experience. In fact, the two are dependent and closer in spirit than we’d like to admit.

SIG: How do you think the immigrant experience has evolved over the years?

JZ: I can only speak to my own family’s experience and back in the late ’80s when my parents immigrated, they knew so little about where they were going. They didn’t know if there would be pots and pans in America and so my grandmother insisted my father bring them. Someone else broke a broomstick in half and stuffed that in his suitcase too. They literally didn’t know if Americans swept their floors. To talk to family, we had to buy phone cards we couldn’t afford. There were guys who hung around Port Authority and sold black market phone cards on the cheap, gotten from some international corporation. Someone would buy one and share the code with all their Chinese friends and everyone would go mad dialing home until the company realized what was going on and shut it off. Nowadays you just need a wifi connection and you can call home for free. Well, that is if you can afford a phone or computer in the first place, which is a big if. But at least as far as the Chinese immigrants who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds as my family, it seems they aren’t coming to the U.S. quite so blindly.

SIG: Your collections are, for the most part, equal parts humor and horror. There were parts of “We Love You Crispina” that had me laughing out loud, and parts of “The Empty the Empty the Empty” that were beyond difficult to read. How were you able to concoct such a mix? Is having a balance of lighthearted and heavy content important in writing?

JZ: I have cried through some of the happiest moments of my life and laughed through some of the darkest. What is it about death that can sometimes bring out a helpless fit of giggles? (And if that rings untrue, think of how many punchlines and jokes in movies are predicated on violence, someone getting hurt.) Why is that when we first fall madly, swooningly in love, we can be suddenly flooded with crushing anxiety and morbid fear? I don’t know anyone who has had an idyllic life free from pain and I also don’t know anyone who has lived a life devoid of pleasure. I remember once when I was a graduate student in Iowa, I was low-key physically attacked by these white girls who were upset because they had said something racist to me and I had turned to my friend to complain. “We aren’t racist!” they said while hitting me.

When I told that story to white people, they were horrified. When I told it to my Asian friends, they shrugged. Some of them laughed and commiserated. They were upset on my behalf but their reaction wasn’t limited to just one of pure horror. They were able to hold both the absurdity of a white person hitting me while screaming that they weren’t racist, and the vileness of such an act. What does it say about you if you are shocked by racism? What does it say if you laugh at it? If you can’t laugh at it? I’ve seen people recount the exact same story in completely different manners. One night, they might tell it like it’s a funny anecdote and the next time they might be in tears. I felt that I owed these characters depth.

Someone who has been victimized by racism or violence isn’t just a victim. That does not become their primary identity. I wanted to embrace the complexity of human life – the horror and the humor of being alive.

SIG: Each of the characters in your stories experienced unique hardships, but had the same underlying issues. How do you vary the voices from character to character, while keeping the overarching direction of the collection constant?

JZ: We know by now how both extremely limiting but also extremely important identity markers are. The categories of gender and race and sexuality are imperfect and too rigid to be true in many cases, but it is also undeniable that many people who, say, identify as a second-generation Asian American immigrant have shared many similar experiences. This is not to say everyone who grows up as a second-generation Asian American ends up as identical replicas of each other, but there will be some common sorrows and some shared culture. Anyone who knows Asian American second-generation immigrants can confirm this, but I also know the reality in America is that most people only know other people like them. I tried to show the ways in which the six families in this collection are bonded by these collective experiences, while also going deeply into the particularities of their lives and their homes.

SIG: The seven short stories flip-flop between generations, and showcase the evolution of different families over time. How much influence does family history have on a young child? When do children’s stories stop being about their parents’ lives, and become their own?

JZ: I don’t know if any of us can fully escape where we come from. It’s a very helpless thing to feel in captivity to the past, especially one that you never lived through. A lot of people want to believe the past has nothing to do with the here and now. But if we examine the continued lifespan of racism or economic inequality, for example, it’s undeniable that the past is not just a ghostly specter but a real part of the present. The adult characters in Sour Heart are constantly telling their stories to their children, in part because if they don’t tell the story, no one will. Their stories will never make it into a history textbook and their children are growing up in a completely different world than the one they knew. Telling their stories is an attempt to bridge understanding across generations.

It takes a while for children to learn that their parents are imperfect. Those early years when we idealize and depend on our caregivers can be especially confusing when they are not totally fit to care for us … and let’s be honest, what adult is truly “fit”? It also takes a while to to learn that we aren’t merely a supporting character in our parents’ lives, that we are the protagonists of our own stories too. In one of the stories, “The Evolution of My Brother,” the narrator snaps at her mother and says, “You need to understand I don’t have the same life as you.” It’s this moment of rebellion – the narrator is saying that she won’t be held back by her mother’s story as she forges ahead with her own. But at the same time, blood memory can survive generations, no one can truly reject what they’ve inherited. For better or worse, we all have a collective history, a family history, and a personal history, and these blur into each other, complement and antagonize each other.

SIG: Your stories dive into the hearts of young girls coming of age in New York City. Did you choose to narrate the stories with a female perspective, or did it happen naturally?

JZ: It came about on its own, almost without me trying, like some kind of twisted immaculate conception. I’d hear voices in my head and I’d try to write them down. I had a spotty track record but when I did write down these voices, it would often lead to a scene or a character, and in some cases, an entire story. Some of these stories were only a page or a line for the first two years. I’d return to them from time to time and try to turn it into a full tale. Sometimes an idea reveals itself prematurely. Maybe that’s one form of writers’ block – when you want to write about something but you need to live a few more years, exist longer as a person before you are equipped to write it. It can be frustrating to write that way, but often ambition precedes skill.

SIG: How do you successfully develop a story in such a condensed number of pages? And how do you know when a story is finished?

JZ: I wish I knew and I wish these stories were much shorter so that it would have at least been easier to try and publish them in a magazine but they are in that no man’s land of being “long short stories.” Deborah Eisenberg writes beautiful long short stories and “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Melville is a glorious 14,000 words long and one of my favorite works of fiction. Many of my stories hover around the same length and exist in that in-between space, which makes sense because I’m drawn to characters and stories that exist between the boundaries. When I’ve faithfully served out my curiosity in a story, I know I’m nearing the end.

SIG: What writers are you most influenced by?

JZ: Discovering George Saunders in college was a revelation – that you could be experimental and adventurous and weird and have a heart! I fell in love with Philip Roth after reading Goodbye, Columbus – the depiction of first love was so soft and gummy and intertwined humor, pain, and beauty. Then I read Portnoy’s Complaint and was gripped by the voice and the depraved humor. Eventually, I moved to Kathy Acker and was glad someone was finally acknowledging that women are just as capable of being dirty and dizzily intellectual. I never connected to the idea that it was only worthwhile to write about perfectly virtuous people. I love the sleezebags in Gombrowicz’s fiction and have gobbled up his stories and novels. Pnin, though perhaps considered slighter and less important, was an important Nabokov novel for me. I return to Junot Diaz’s stories and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao every year. He writes about his people in the way I hope to write about my people – intimately, lovingly, critically, hilariously, fearlessly, without shame or restriction. For short stories, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Janet Frame, and Deborah Eisenberg have led the form into uncharted territory with every new story. Donald Barthelme and Denis Johnson made me feel like I didn’t have to always be faithful to a “reality” that most people could agree with, especially when I felt like no one agreed on one single reality anyway.

My early reading experiences with Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, the Sweet Valley High books and Babysitter’s Club Books shaped my writing a lot. I was drawn to books about misfits but I was also drawn to books about family, both blood family and chosen family. It’s very revealing to say what writers you were influenced by and so my impulse is to keep listing more, perhaps in an attempt to blur whatever obvious conclusions can be drawn from this haphazard recalling of books and authors whose writing has made a deep impression on me. The truth is that I have probably been more deeply affected by my friends’ writing than by any famous writer, living or dead. Tony Tulathimutte, Alice Kim, Karan Mahajan, Leopoldine Core are some of my friends whose writing I look up to and learn from. I’m also deeply influenced by my parents. In another world, my mother would have become a fiction writer and my father would have become a poet. Every now and then I see glimpses of the writers they could have been, like when they co-write a poem and post it on Chinese social media about a trip to the Cloisters they took and suddenly, I realize: okay, I descend from you. You are my artistic lineage too.

SIG: Do you have a favorite story in the collection? Which story was easiest to write? The most difficult?

JZ: I have a soft spot for “My Days and Nights of Terror” because I was never able to make the story do what a story is supposed to do. The story changes direction rather abruptly two-thirds of the way through and never settles on being about one thing, which is either a flaw or a virtue depending on what you expect from a story. Mande, the narrator, is so fearful and exposed and yet so sheltered and protected. She’s wildly desirous of beauty, art, poetry, and God and fears, at the tender age of nine, she’s already missed the boat on having these things in her life. She’s young and perhaps she’ll see that everyone feels that way to some extent, but it’s true that, when I was young, I constantly felt like I was too late for this, too late for that. It was an infinite game of catch up and my emotions swung from hopelessness to rage.

The easiest story to write was probably “The Evolution of My Brother” or “You Fell Into the River and I Saved You!” because they kind of tumbled out, line by line, page by page. They weren’t written in a fever dream nor were they written over a long period of excruciating labor. They just calmly wrote themselves, but in revising those stories, there was quite a lot of agonizing, indecision, uncertainty, and much much time spent on cutting, adding, changing and so on.

All of the stories were difficult to write in some sense, but “Our Mothers Before Us” was the one that stumped me. I didn’t know what to do for months and months. I’d return to it and know something was missing, but I didn’t know what was missing. I became despondent. I felt like a failure. Then one day, I woke up with an old Chinese folk song in my head and a vision of my parents singing it to me when I was a kid and suddenly I realized what the story was missing: karaoke.

SIG: What advice would you give to an aspiring short story writer?

JZ: Read more. Don’t worry about pleasing others. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Be the writer you wanted to read but never found. Develop a strong core that you can return to again and again, something that isn’t predicated on external validation.

SIG: What was your goal in writing Sour Heart? 

JZ: Well, family was my first love and language was my second. I wanted this book to be a record of both what it means to belong to a family and what it means to speak – it can be so fun and weird and demented and wonderful and terrible too.

As I get older and closer to starting my own family (and I mean that in the most liberal sense of the word), I don’t want to let go of the one I came from, I don’t want to lose my baby tongue. I didn’t have very many goals for this book other than for it to mean something to someone. This book has a heart and I hope someone else will feel it too.

SIG: In our current political climate, how do you think your book will resonate with the American people?

JZ: Well, we are in a very polarized political climate and things like “facts,” “evidence,” and “data” seem to have almost no impact on each other’s entrenched positions. So many people, fed up with feeling abused, disappointed, cheated, and powerless, are hardening further into the left and the right. There has been a lot of interest in “empathy” as a tool for political change and I am wary because I have seen the limits of empathy. Someone may empathize with me as an individual but still espouse a political ideology whose endgame is to essentially make life hell for people of color. Maybe that isn’t true empathy. In defense of reading (and writing!) fiction, people will say that one of its salutary effects is that it increases empathy. I don’t know what fiction is supposed to do in a time like this.

I’ve not lived long enough to deserve my cynicism but I also haven’t lived so long to have lost my idealism. I’ve written seven stories about children who go through very traumatic experiences but also inflict trauma on others. Are they the victims or the perpetrators? How do we hold children responsible for the harm they do to other children? Don’t all children deserve love? Shelter? Safety from harm? Can we blame a child who acts out violently when they grow up without these things? Do we blame ourselves? Do we blame the society that our children are raised in? Can we blame adults who, themselves, never had a real, safe childhood either? Sometimes it’s okay for questions to lead to more questions.

I believe in the notion of negative capability, as described in a letter by the poet John Keats – our capacity to hold uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt without falling apart or scrambling instantly for conclusive answers. I’d like this book to be part of an ongoing inquiry on how best to live on this earth, how best to preserve our humanity and care for each other. It’s not meant to be the final answer by any means. It’s just a start.