You know how it’s supposed to go: A young person in a country far, far away has the cojones to immigrate to America, where hard work and opportunity duly provide him and his children with a better life. Perseverance, risk, and then—voila!—success. There’s a reason why every immigrant story is told this way, from privation and thrift to the ability to conspicuously consume, in the span of a single generation. It is reassuring to think that anyone can do this, that you—even you!—can pull yourself up and out of your class by your very own bootstraps, without anybody’s help. But what about the rest of those stories? And why don’t we ever hear from the people in the middle of their struggle?
Sour Heart, the debut short story collection from writer Jenny Zhang, provides some answers. It consists of seven loosely interconnected stories that deal, broadly, with what it’s like to live in New York City as a recent Chinese immigrant, narrated mostly from the point of view of an alienated daughter. She’s either increasingly assimilated and therefore alienated from her family, as in stories like “The Empty the Empty the Empty” and “My Days and Nights of Terror,” or stuck somewhere between the two countries and therefore belonging to neither, as in “We Love You Crispina” and “You Fell Into the River and I Saved You!” Zhang’s writing strips away the layers between reader and experience; her gaze is unflinching, and she never cuts away when things become uncomfortable or grotesque. The effect is something like watching a wound scar in reverse. It seems to say: This is the site of trauma. I might heal, but I’ll never be the same.
In “The Empty,” Zhang writes about two girls exploring their bodies. “‘Good morning, class,’ I said in my ventriloquism-of-a-vagina voice, as I maneuver her vagina lips to look like talking lips. ‘Today we are going to talk about periods.’” The scene goes on from there, and the straightforward innocent description is what gives the story’s final moment its emotional heft—the characters, each prepubescent and with incomplete knowledge gleaned from TV, try to make each other have sex. “‘That’s good.’ Francine leaned over the side of my bed and grabbed Jason’s penis, shiny and gross with her saliva but still tiny and soft. ‘Now you open her up,’ Francine said to me. ‘Do it like we usually do.’” Jason is the narrator’s “boyfriend,” also a child; Francine is their more knowledgeable friend. Reading this kind of scene feels like eating glass. Cruelty is rarely written this unceremoniously.
This is intentional. Zhang is fascinated with bodily functions, both physical and political. In an interview with novelist Karan Mahajan last year, Zhang said of her writerly inspiration: “Growing up, I had to cobble together a scarecrow of things I loved from various different writers. Like, let me take some inspiration from Roth’s obsession with poo and masturbation and secretions and overbearing families, but I’ll pass on the misogyny and weird racist shit about black people, and then let me take the simplicity and tenderness and lushness from Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories but pass on the times when she’s borderline sentimental.” (Zhang, it should be said, loves potty humor. Sour Heart is a very funny book.) The same themes are explored in Zhang’s poetry, too, which has been widely published on sites like Bomb and The Hairpin and collected in the chapbook Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. In the poem “Everyone’s Girlfriend,” Zhang explores what happens when you give yourself over to pleasing other people and lose yourself in the process. The result is gruesome and lovely.
and I knew I wanted to be buried with everyone
with the dead stars that lead you home
with the child I won’t have
because I need to have a perfect cunt
and because we are good friends
we now bond over our perfect cunts
we now bond over our perfect tits
we now bond over our perfect mutations
we now bond over our perfect facials
the sperm you drank from my perfect cunt knows boundaries but we are too perfect
to adhere to someone else’s idea of perfection
Sour Heart’s most ambitious story is “Our Mothers Before Them,” which is told both in 1966, during the beginning of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and in 1996, after the family has made it to New York. The two women who narrate the story are a mother (who is a daughter in 1966) and her daughter, which in practice is not as confusing as it might seem. Zhang parallels their experiences to show how quickly things can change. In the span of 30 years, the family goes from escaping Mao’s societal reforms to establishing themselves—and cementing their kids as upwardly mobile—in the United States. It’s moving without being treacle; lengthy, without feeling ponderous; it is not afraid to ask who loves more. Annie, the narrator of the 1996 side of the story, listens to a story from 1966 and learns how her mother—who is depicted as a terror—saved her younger brother from humiliation, or worse. These family ties are familiar in their complexity. “‘That really happened?’ I asked, glancing in my mother’s direction. ‘Mommy? Did you really save qing jiu jiu?’” It’s an elegant rendering of the moment when we realize our parents have lived more complex and internally contradictory lives than we imagined.
Conspicuously, “Our Mothers” doesn’t deal with the decades of emigration and adjustment. But the rest of Sour Heart deals with the odd and random difficulties that arise when you have to start over. The first story in the collection, “We Love You Crispina,” is about a family that moves to Bushwick in the late ’90s and swings between poverty and outright destitution. Their apartments, strewn across the city, are frequently hilarious and tragic. “Back then, if one of us had to take a big dump, we would try to hold it in and run across the street to the bathroom in the Amoco station, which was often slippery from the neighborhood hoodlums who used it and sprayed their pee everywhere, and if more than one of us felt the stirrings of a major shit declaring its intention to see the world beyond our buttholes, then we were in trouble because it meant someone had to use our perpetually clogged toilet, which wasn’t capable of handling anything more than mice pellets,” Zhang writes. Humiliating, brutal, funny, visceral, and truthful.
Which is not to say that the indignities that the family suffers are the stuff of a laugh-track sitcom. Poverty is a real force in this book, one that inflicts pain. In “The Evolution of My Brother,” the collection’s central family is denigrated as failures by another, more successful immigrant family. “What kind of person can’t afford their own apartment after six years in America? What kind of person brings their child to America only to send her right back for a full year? And what were they doing to change their situation? Eating out of dumpsters? Selling chips from Atlantic City at an inflated rate to the elderly who didn’t know any better?” The family that ate out of dumpsters eventually made it on their own, though. “They live on Long Island now,” Zhang writes.
That’s the American dream. Go from want to plenty to a house on Long Island and think, in the end, that you did it all by yourself. Stories matter because every immigrant story is a tale of lucky breaks and narrow escapes. Only in the softer, sepia-toned light of revised history do these stories look like individual cunning and derring-do. Sour Heart is brilliant because it runs headlong into this thicket of contradiction and comes out unscathed. Zhang’s gift is to meld the tender and grotesque—the raw materials of a life—into stories that teach us how to treat each other.