'These mothers are not capital E evil, but they damage their children'

Jenny Zhang has a dazzling array of themes in her debut story collection ‘Sour Heart’ - and she's earned respect from the likes of Lena Dunham

There is a weird trend in literary criticism, when a non-white author talks about their upbringing or culture, to label the work a "tapestry". Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie is a "rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry". Amy Tan apparently created an "evocative tapestry" with her huge hit The Joy Luck Club. The Kite Runner is also a tapestry. It's a lazy, book reviewer word for "non-Western text, where there's at least one bustling market scene and/or fan dance".

And yet, I find myself leaning on it with Jenny Zhang. The threads the 34-year-old Chinese-American writer pulls together in her debut story collection Sour Heart is a dazzling weave of themes, characters, subjects and time periods.

It follows a group of young, immigrant girls in New York in the 1990s: girls who are selfish, sexual, and trying very hard to walk the tightrope between their Asian and American identities. Sour Heart belongs to them, but equally, it belongs to their parents: the middle-class Chinese adults who fled the Cultural Revolution, and are still trying to outrun their old wounds.

“I think we’re interested, as a culture, in the immediate aftermath of trauma. But we forget to check in. What happens after a few years have passed?” questions Jenny Zhang. “In these stories, it’s about the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in some ways, but it’s also about the inheritance of trauma. Blood memory runs through these characters. Memories of things that they could not have possible been alive for, but they feel present because they’re living with parents or grandparents who are constantly talking about it.”


I find myself extremely paranoid when I'm around people who are interested in a purity of ideology

While the stories are fictional, there’s a certain degree of memoir at play. Zhang, having grown up around parents who survived the widespread persecution of China in the 1960s and 1970s, finds herself as much a victim of “blood memory” as her characters.

“I find myself extremely paranoid when I’m around people who are interested in a purity of ideology,” she says carefully, referring to the splintering nature of today’s political parties. We bond over this: me, having lived in London throughout Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn-related identity crises; she, having lived in New York throughout the last election.

“It’s the politics of ‘this person is truly a leftist, this person is not’. The fractured nature of these movements where suddenly everything is revisionist. I feel so uncomfortable with all of that, even though nothing really bad has happened to me in that area. Is it because my parents lived through a nightmarish version of that, in the Cultural Revolution? Where, if one person said another person was a capitalist or a rightist, they could literally die and their families could be executed along with them? Maybe. There was an actual mob mentality that swept the entire nation and lasted for two decades.”

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Zhang’s work is frequently hilarious: her sense of humour is equal parts dry and slapstick, and she’s a master of creating priceless comedy scenes.

"Someone wanted to know why she humped the couch after watching a VHS of Lady Chatterley's Lover that her parents had left lying around," reads one story, where a group of nine year-old "at risk" girls are being given "pre-sex sex education". "The week after that, someone else said she had watched her parents' edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover and had humped her couch, but also, what was humping? The week after that, four more girls in our class had watched Lady Chatterley's Lover and had dry-humped their couches, and Mrs Silver made a motion like she was going to pick up the box and throw it out the window, but then set it back on her desk."

She is committed to the careful, considerate airing of dirty laundry, literally as well as figuratively

The classroom scene, Zhang says, was based on an incident from her own childhood.

“There was a question box where you could put in any questions you wanted,” recalls Zhang, green-haired and easy to warm to. “And so many girls had an unwanted sexual experience. So many had been assaulted or touched inappropriately by a family member, or a family friend. It was so ubiquitous.

“My teacher was very unequivocal about it being a bad thing, and that you hadn’t done anything wrong; it was the person who touched you who was wrong. Every girl in the class started to cry. I cried, and nothing had even happened to me. But there was this sense of relief that we didn’t have to feel bad. That stuck with me. I never thought about it again until people started asking me why I write so explicitly about such disturbing subjects. I just thought: the hiding is the disturbing part. Hiding is what causes harm.”

Zhang’s writing does the opposite. She is committed to the careful, considerate airing of dirty laundry, literally as well as figuratively. She revels in the uncomfortable ever-presence of owning a body – the scratching, the sweating, the shitting, the strangely sexual – but takes equal care in discussing the emotional reality of being young.

When I was young, I was one of those girls who was interested in sex, but I felt so much shame about it

“You seek control by going deeper into it, by wanting to explore it,” she says of her often sex-obsessed protagonists. “When I was young, I was one of those girls who was interested in sex, but I felt so much shame about it. I remember writing in my diary: ‘If I can somehow hide the fact that I already know how to masturbate then I will be fine.’ ” Jenny cackles at the memory. “I mean, infants touch their genitals! It’s ridiculous how scared we are of it.”

"We'd like to assign innocence and virtue to so many things. To childhood. To girlhood. To motherhood. To friendship. To family. But the same people that love us the most are the same people who can hurt us and affect us the most, and it's because we love them that we let them affect us," she says, referring to the often callous or irresponsible parents in Sour Heart. "In these stories, I don't think any of these mothers are capital E evil, but they damage their children irrevocably because they have their own stuff that they haven't processed through."

Her frank curiosity and charmingly blasé attitude toward prudishness is what won her the attention of Lena Dunham, a relationship that eventually led to Dunham acquiring Sour Heart for her publishing arm, Lenny. Zhang, who had previously been self-publishing poetry and had been writing Sour Heart for eight years at that point, was suddenly subject to enormous buzz. "I had such a tiny province before. I mean, I was writing poetry."

The buzz inevitably came with a sting. Dunham has certainly had the Midas effect on Zhang’s career, but her controversially outspoken presence has earned her enemies on both the left and the right, which has been projected in part on to Zhang.

“I’ve seen people say, ‘well, I guess Jenny Zhang is just a lacky for Lena Dunham’. I expected it. I can’t speak to what Lena symbolically stands for to a lot of people, but I can speak to what she has done for me as a writer. When I couldn’t find anyone to publish my short stories for eight years, when I couldn’t find an agent, when I couldn’t make more that $75 for a piece of writing, Lena was one of the few people who – not just with me, but with other women of colour – offered them a way to make a living.”

She is, however, very aware of the frequently controversial headlines around Dunham, and how the frequent interview gaffes have affected public opinion of her.

“There are other people who are less problematic publicly who can be very violent and manipulative people. And there are people who are very valiant privately, and f**k up constantly publicly,” she laughs, referring to Dunham. “But she’s been a great support, and a great cheerleader.”

Sour Heart, while slender enough, has been 10 years in the making. Part of this has been due to Zhang reworking her stories, and part of it was her struggle to find anyone who was interested in publishing a volume of short stories.

What kept her going.

“I started to realise that certain words used to describe writing were code for other words; ‘Universal’ doesn’t mean universal, it’s code for ‘a story that never mentions race or gender, or assumes the default is white and male’. That’s not universal. Or that you have to write about great, big topics: if you write a book that is entirely set in the mind, or in one house, it’s somehow a minor book. I started to embrace the idea of minor stories and small topics, of favouring specificity over the universal.”

She laughs then, quietly surprised that her book of small characters and big topics has made it so far. “I thought: who cares?”