Centred on a community of immigrants who have traded their lives as artists in China and Taiwan for one of poverty in 1990s New York, the seven “long short stories” in Sour Heart (Bloomsbusry, £16.99) are loosely connected and examine the many ways that family history can both weigh us down and lift us up. Zhang was born in Shanghai and raised in New York. Her work is championed by Lena Dunham, who’s published Sour Heart in the US.
How does it feel to have Sour Heart published as the first title from Lena Dunham’s new Lenny imprint in the US?
Like I’m sipping ambrosia on a bed of fluffy clouds! It’s a dream of the highest order for my stories to debut on the Lenny imprint. I admire what Lena has done with Lenny Letter, turning it into one of the few corners of the internet where discovery and learning are prized over virtue-signalling, where marginalised voices are amplified, not drowned.
There was a long period of time when I felt like a colossal failure – I couldn’t get a literary agent and I couldn’t write a novel. It seemed downright delusional to keep going. But Lena would check in on me, unbidden always, and ask me what I was working on and offer me real encouragement. When she told me she was starting a publishing imprint with Lenny, I didn’t want to get my hopes up, assuming that my writing was too weird, too freaky, something that only I would want to read.
It was amazing to be proven wrong, to find out that I could fly my freak flag as high as I wanted. It’s almost like entering into a romantic relationship – you think you’re trash and the other person keeps saying: “No, you aren’t. Can’t you see I want you?” In some ways being the first book to be published on Lenny has been one of the most romantic things that has ever happened to me.
Some of the stories are loosely connected. Were you tempted to write them as a novel or do you have other plans for a debut novel?
I wrote most of these stories when I was an undergraduate at Stanford and a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d try so hard to write a short story that was suitable for workshop settings, but I’d end up writing things that were too long, too messy, too wide in scope to be the perfect 3,000 word short story. Every time I workshopped a story, someone would suggest that I turn it in to a novel. I’d give it a try but found that these stories didn’t need to be bloated with more pages.
I don’t want to write for prestige and I don’t want to write in captivity to convention. The stories I wanted to tell were neither slight nor massive. They aren’t about one single thing, but neither do they cover the entirety of, say, what it means to be a Chinese-American immigrant in New York. Maybe it’s rude of me, but I liked writing in that fairly detestable category of the “long short story” – too long to be contained, too short to be important.
Many of the stories are told from the point of view of prepubescent girls. Was that a particularly significant time in your life – and was age nine specifically so?
My first double-digit birthday was really significant for me. I don’t know if other kids feel this way, but I did. It felt irreversible, like from that day on I would always have to be “big”. Nine was a big year for me. My parents gave birth to my baby brother, I got my first “boyfriend”, I switched best friends, I won first place in my school’s career day poetry contest, I went back to China for the first time since immigrating to the US.
That was the year many girls in my school started puberty. It was the year someone told me, rather cruelly, what a wet dream was and insisted that my “boyfriend” had already had one. It was the year girls started wearing training bras. It felt like the last year I could still be innocent and small and attached to my parents. It was exciting and terrifying at all once.
The immigrant communities in your stories are often struggling terribly but defiantly stand their ground “trying to prove they belong”. In the current US political climate is there a renewed defiance or despondency among immigrants?
The category of immigrant is so broad that it really depends on who you are talking about. If we are talking about highly educated professionals who come to the US for well-paying jobs, they may feel quite differently from someone who is living four families to a room and working three jobs to make ends meet. I know so many immigrants who are proud of what they’ve done and how they’ve contributed to America and they believe that America’s doors should be open.
I also know immigrants who have worked hard their whole lives and put their heads down and don’t want to make waves or take a stand. Then there are immigrants who are at risk of being deported, who are at risk of being attacked in the street because they wear a hijab or a beard or have brown skin. Some of them have decided to not be afraid; others may quite literally have to hide for their lives.
You delved into the Cultural Revolution in Our Mothers Before Them. Is it challenging to stay connected to your heritage as a Chinese woman raised in the US?
I often feel a profound sense of loss when it comes to my Chinese heritage. To look Chinese but be unable to speak it well is a strange feeling – like you’re an alien on your home planet. To feel American in many ways but to still be considered “other” in America is the other side of that alienation. The Cultural Revolution hung like a spectre over my upbringing, as it was something my parents talked about, the way any parent might talk about the old days. When you grow up in a family that is willing to talk about the past, you have your personal memories and then you have this collective memory. It’s one that was given to me by my parents through their stories.
Being a 1.5 generation immigrant is to exist between pages, even between boundaries. It feels like I’m missing a history – I don’t have a past in America or in China. To borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie, China will always be an “imaginary homeland” for me. The China of my imagination, the China of my parents’ memories will always be more real than the actual country and people in it.
One of your protagonists plays “boys chasing girls”, which involves outrageous insults, and she’s subjected to violence by her brother. As young girls are we conditioned to believe being mistreated by men is proof of affection?
Yes, and on the flip side, young boys are socialised to believe that violating women will work to get their attention. We watch television shows and movies that say if a man doesn’t obsessivelystalk a woman or is roused to almost violent jealousy and act possessively, then he must not care. I remember being told quite often as a child that if a boy teased or bullied you then he must have a crush on you.
As adults, we often hear of stories of domestic violence where the abused, often a woman, makes excuses for the abuser, often a man, insisting that she is loved, that he is who hurts more. These behaviours don’t come out of nowhere. We are taught them early on in life, we see them modelled for us by the adults around us, by images and stories in the media, books, television, movies.
Female friendships are also fraught – with everything from bullying to first sexual encounters happening between your young female characters. Do our relationships with other women become less complicated with age?
In many of these stories, yes, female friendships are fraught, partially because these girls are living in poverty and scarcity makes competition a mode of survival, not necessarily a mark of nastiness. Some girls grow up in abusive households and go to school and try to make themselves big and replicate what they know from back home onto others; other girls who grow up in abusive households shrink into themselves, try to make themselves as small as possible. Even in less dire situations, I do think as a society we raise girls with this concept of scarcity – that only some girls are pretty enough to be desired, that only some girls are sweet enough to be loved, smart enough to be praised.
Does society need to allow girls to be sour as well as sweet?
Yes. I think sourness can even be a virtue, a strength, a reaction to a world that is not always sweet to girls. I wish as a girl I was more soured on sexism, patriarchy, racism. Instead I tried to be sweet about it. I tried to smile and laugh about it and enjoy it. Well, there was nothing enjoyable about it. It was hell. And it made me sour. I look back and am fond of the part of me that was a sour, disagreeable girl. It was a kind of rebellion before I was old enough to know what I was really up against.