Jenny Zhang is not interested in your approval. Her debut collection of short stories Sour Heart, all narrated from the perspective of various Chinese teen girls (or teens-to-be), drips of unabashed vulgarity and candour. Her first short story, We Love Your Crispina, opens with the observation that ‘we had to mash our king-sized shits into smaller pieces since we were too poor and too irresponsible back then to even afford a toilet plunger’. The voice of a young woman, in Sour Heart, is not doused in rose-scented fumes; the prototypical girls in her seven stories are cruel, perceptive, and selfish and unapologetically so.
Cutting across the vector of ‘girlhood’ in Zhang’s stories is the issue of race. Sour Heart weaves together tales of first-generation Chinese immigrants who leave their collective homeland to settle in New York. The lives of characters in her stories intermingle, their narratives threaded together by their origin stories, respective public schools, or by virtue of the close-knit immigrant community in New York. In the first story,we hear from Christina, a young girl whose particular affliction to scabbing keeps her up at night, to the chagrin of the four other families who sleep alongside her, cramped in a one-bedroom hole-in-the-wall in Washington Heights. Later, in Our Mothers Before Them, we learn that the mother of the protagonist had slept in that very same room, informing her child that ‘that little girl… Christina said I should name you Annie. Her legs were covered in scabs’.
History — or rather myths loosely associated with a storied past — motivates the characters of Sour Heart, as their respective histories in China bleed into their current disillusionment with the American dream. The mothers of the daughters in Sour Heart are caught in a state of perpetual disappointment, and cope with the powerlessness they experience as poor immigrants by invoking mythic notions of their once-promising lives in China: ‘did you know Mommy only agreed to go to America… because Daddy was such an extravagant liar?’ The American dream, to the families of Sour Heart, offers them nothing beyond a series of lies and unmet promises: ‘Lie number one: he said he had a lovely place for us. Lie number two: he said he was making so much money he soon would be able to buy Mommy a diamond ring. Lie number three: he said people here are free to pursue what they want’.
The fathers in the stories do not deal well with the contradiction in terms of their position as anointed domestic ‘breadwinners’ in a society that externally does not welcome their existence. Race cuts across gender to undermine their claim to authority. Faced with this impossible situation, the fathers opt for an a priori passive defeat, their frustrations directing them to assert their authority in the only domain in which masculinity still holds an ex nihilo greater power: the ‘private domain’ vices of adultery and domestic abuse. China, in this sense, serves as an Elysium for the parents of Sour Heart, an antidote to their day-to-day disillusionments: ‘Lie number four: he said we would love it in America’.
Then there are the daughters of Sour Heart, and it is in them that Zhang’s prose comes alive. Often almost-teens dealing with the dramas of New York public school, their connections to China are tenuous at best, and they look forward through time rather than recourse to the past. Yet their respective quests for self-mastery in multicultural New York always seem to be somewhat restrained, hampered by forces they sense intuitively but do not yet have the maturity to articulate.
The first, most immediately familiar, is the oppressive weight of familial burden and expectation. ‘We had to spend all our money on you’, a mother reminds her child, speaking on the exorbitant costs of immigration: ‘we had to eat less frequently because of you’. The ‘could-have-been’ stories of foregone glory, so readily doled out by their parents, appear to these daughters as painful reminders of the very burdens of their very existence. How do you cope, ultimately, when your ostensible ‘thriving’ in the West is conditional upon the dashed happiness and dreams of your very guardians? The result is an almost Sisyphean-task of attempting to prove your very right to existence, against the painful counter-weight of the broken dreams and lives of those who brought you into the world. ‘I thought maybe if I were really lucky’, a girl reflects, ‘I’d have a mother who didn’t feel like dying, because maybe, just maybe, if she kept her sadness to herself, it would go away on its own’.
Then there is the far more abstract, but similarly powerful sense of being ‘looked at by the world’. The young girls of Sour Heart learn to talk about race far earlier than they talk about sex. Race, to them, is not merely an academic abstraction, either, as their interactions with their families, schools, and outsiders firmly stamp the category of Chineseness and immigrant on their internal consciousness. Set against the backdrop of New York in the 90s, the stories of Sour Heart are replete with multiculturalism. This is, however, no rosy depiction of immigrant solidarity. Chinese families exchange insults and antagonisms with black families on their multicultural block; parents try to get their children in the public schools with the highest concentration of white children.
Faced against these odds, the girls of Sour Heart turn to the universal tradition of cruelty. They bully their classmates, their brothers, their families. They become vulgar, petulant, and cutting. Of course, not all power plays and abuses can be psychoanalysed: some kids, after all, just like to be cruel. Yet the children of Sour Heart do not grow up with the luxury of a ‘kids will be kids’ mentality. In the Empty the Empty the Empty, Lucy rejects her pseudo-adoptive cousin Frangie, one of the ‘strays’ in the Chinese immigrant community, in favour of her more sexually mature, rebellious classmates. The story replicates the dilemma faced by many immigrant children in schools: whether or not you should rebel against the strictures of your heritage — and diminish all those ‘other Asians’ that still abide to it — such that a white classmate may look upon you approvingly and affirm ‘you’re not like the other Asians!’
If that is power, then it is a very strange iteration of it. And yet that is what the characters of Sour Heart ultimately crave. In spite of their generational and gendered differences, the mothers, daughters, fathers, and brothers all run up against the conundrum of rhetoric constrained by reality. They all have their ways of coping. They recite tales of mythic pasts that never quite existed; they pursue effulgent, passive lives of self-destruction, or they bully the 13-year-old girl who has the audacity to move in with their family. Yet in the midst of all this ostensible callousness is a softer humanity. Faced with a strange new world in which their respective ‘will-to-powers’ are constrained by the label of ‘immigrant’, the characters of Sour Heart strive to assert any semblance of mastery over surroundings in a world that regards their very presence as an unintelligible disturbance.
It feels strange, and perhaps even ugly, to be reading an immigrant fiction concerned with power. The immigrant who is good, and lauded within our popular imagination, is not concerned with power. She is hard-working; she assimilates; she contributes to the state. Yet the lives of those in Sour Heart have far greater stakes than offering a metaphorical penny to their emigrant nation’s GDP. They are cruel, callous and petty; they are generous, giving, and beautiful. Identity politics has reached an impasse lately, with its emphasis on difference positioned awkwardly and ambivalently alongside an affirmation of a ‘shared humanity’. Zhang herself has certainly been guilty of a slide into this vein.[i] What shines through in Sour Heart, however, are the indignities and heartbreaks that come with a naked assertion of one’s humanity, as well as the odd beauty to be found in an unfettered leap into the recesses of the human heart. Or, as my own Chinese immigrant mother said when I called her on the phone, homesick and beside myself with tears: ‘Baobao, everybody gets sad. Don’t be hard on yourself’.
[i] Zhang recently incurred ire for the poem, published to much fanfare on Buzzfeed, in which American YPG volunteer Brace Belden’s pilgrimage to Raqqa is callously mocked as a mere case of white male self-indulgence.