Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart
(Random House, 2017)
I first picked up Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection Sour Heart because I heard that it was about daughters of Chinese immigrants who lived in New York City. I had admired Zhang’s writing ever since her scathing takedown of Michael Derrick Hudson’s unforgivable act of literary yellowface in 2015, and I was excited because I sensed in Sour Heart a new frontier for Zhang, a victory for Asian-American literature, and—perhaps a bit selfishly—a book that I could fundamentally relate to. My own parents immigrated to the U.S. from Shanghai before I was born, and I spent my childhood shuttling between the two worlds and feeling like I belonged in neither. Sour Heart felt important in its own right, as an interpretation of girlhood and otherness in America during a time where both are under attack by people who understand neither. It also piqued a self-indulgent sort of curiosity—how much of myself would I be able to see in these stories?
As it turns out, more than I had bargained for. Reading Sour Heart was like walking into surgery without anesthesia. Zhang and her girls poke with childish glee at the dark, painful wound of growing up as a perpetual stranger. The ugly, twisted parts most of us would rather forget, they happily devour.
The seven stories in Sour Heart center around six loosely-connected Chinese families macheting their way toward self-determination in hostile places—be it Brooklyn or revolutionary Shanghai or the New York public school system. A few similarities run throughout—the parents are educated immigrants working jobs below their capabilities, the girls are smart and tough but hurting, and each family experiences the alienation that comes with the cognitive dissonance of a mismatched life.
The stars of Sour Heart are the narrators: six young Chinese-American daughters. They are whirlwinds of raw emotion and unfettered imagination, speakingof teddy bears and Kansas-sized tits and giant turds, but they possess a wisdom far beyond their age. Their adulthood, their grown-upness slips through the cracks of their rambling, self-absorbed thoughts. I looked for hints of my own childhood in these characters, but Zhang’s girls never really felt like children—they knew too much, had too much clarity and intention. Instead, they felt aspirational. As a young girl, I too had cursed God “for making them get to be them and making me have to be me”, but unlike Zhang’s girls, I could never find the right words.
We tend to paint the immigrant experience in broad brushstrokes, with sweeping themes like belonging or yearning or anxiety—which are important for reasons that don’t require defense. Zhang tackles these with mastery, navigating these universal struggles with liquid prose and a ferociousness that leaves your throat dry. But what Zhang does best in these short stories is drill down into the tiny, idiosyncratic details that seem, at first glance, too small to scale up.
Sour Heart magnifies without losing resolution. In one story, the cruelty of a mother telling her child that “the only reason me and my brother and all the people we housed in our home weren’t already dead was because she, and she alone, carried all our burdens on her shoulders” is matched only by the child’s inability to grasp the depths of her self-sacrifice. “Um, thanks? I said sometimes to let her know I kinda understood.” The passage is a punch to the gut, the universality is immediate. Sooner or later, every immigrant family grapples with this disconnect between parent and child.
In “Our Mothers Before Them,” Annie’s mother cries at the injustice of her thwarted dreams. She and her husband were brilliant artists back in China, she claims, and if only they had the right resources and the right accent and the right bone structure, they would have been brilliant artists in America too. But of course, they didn’t. “There are no Chinese artists in America, did you know that, Annie? It’s like a human saying they want to fly with hawks. You can’t! You’re the wrong species.” In those few, specific lines, Zhang channeled a sentiment as long as the history of America itself. You are not one of us, and never have been and never will be.
If Sour Heart seems fixated on familial love, it’s because it is. The worst tribulations of immigration have always been endured by and within families. To survive, they turn inward. And it can transform love into something obsessive, cruel, and fetishistic. Zhang does not flinch from these truths, and instead embraces them with wit and humor. “The only person who could make me cry was my mother, who knew it and never missed an opportunity to do so,” complains one girl. “My mother checked my vagina every few weeks”, says another. “I missed [your brother] so much. I pray hummingbirds peck my eyes and leave their droppings in my pecked-out sockets before I have to experience this heartbreak again,” wails a grandmother.
The brilliance of Sour Heart is its ability to create fractals out of these intimate family portraits of three or four or five. These tiny self-sufficient worlds each tell a story that is unique yet enormous, a familiar and timeless tale of carving out a space in a crowded new world. Each story is an echo of the so-called American dream that has captured the imagination of every immigrant or refugee or expatriate—Chinese or not—who has landed on the shores or runways of the Beautiful Country, mei guo.