“I was told over and over that life would always improve, that this was how anyone at all was supposed to live, by striving, by being perfect when you were young and it was still easy to be perfect because just wait, my father would say, just wait until you’re older, but I didn’t need to wait. I was young now and I found it so fucking hard.” This is Mande—outwardly docile but secretly clear-eyed and raging. She is one of six Chinese American girls to narrate the short stories in Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, narrators whose voices collectively convey the emotional texture—and often the burden—of striving. What does it mean to believe that life can and will improve?
Sour Heart is Zhang’s debut work of fiction and the first title to appear from Lenny, the new Random House imprint curated by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Zhang has previously authored a collection of poetry (Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, 2012) and a nonfiction chapbook (Hags, 2014), and has written for a variety of publications in many genres. Her essays for Rookie, a smart and savvy online magazine for teenage girls, have earned Zhang a dedicated following.
And while Sour Heart is indisputably a work of fiction, one that is solidly anchored in the 1990s and that occasionally drifts into the netherworld of dream and fantasy, narrative details that first emerged in Zhang’s autobiographical Rookie essays—a black sandal, a broken broomstick, a cruise to Canada—reappear within the characters, setting, and plot of Sour Heart’s seven linked stories (one narrator appears twice). The result is a collection of coming-of-age narratives that are at once self-citational and wildly imaginative, as empathetic and tender as they are darkly funny and jubilantly obscene.
In the months since its publication this past summer, Sour Heart has been greeted as a welcome reinvention of the immigrant narrative and the bildungsroman. Each story follows a young female protagonist and her Chinese immigrant family in New York City and on Long Island. As the collection unfolds, we realize that these seemingly disparate families are interconnected. In “We Love You Crispina,” the collection’s moving opening story, the narrator describes the difficult months during which she and her parents lived in a stuffy room in Washington Heights, “with five mattresses on the floor all pushed up against each other” occupied by ten other people who knew one another in China.
All were scholars, poets, and artists at home but now scrambled to find work delivering food, teaching in underserviced public schools, and selling umbrellas. Zhang’s six young narrators are their children. As we cycle through each story, we hear again and again about the fetid room “that was all mattress and no floor,” and about the five-year-old girl Christina, who kept her roommates awake all night furiously scratching her itchy limbs.
What does it mean to believe that life can and will improve?
With one squalid domestic space at their core, the stories in Sour Heart collectively chart the psychosocial implications of immigration and assimilation. We move between an apartment in Bushwick that eventually collapses, a colonial row house in Flushing shared among three families, and a spacious, light-filled detached home on Long Island. “We lived in a split-level house with windows on every level, sliding French doors in the kitchen that led out to a small deck, two skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, four sets of windows in the family room, two windows in each bedroom,” explains the narrator in “The Evolution of My Brother,” whose parents had scavenged for food with inhabitants of the five-mattress room just a decade earlier. “We were told to keep all the blinds tightly shut and all the curtains closed.”
Sour Heart’s six families struggle to climb the class ladder, to achieve something like the good life—let’s call it the American Dream. The parents long to reach some state that will justify the profound losses that attended their arrival in New York. They work long hours that force them to squeeze family time into “three, sometimes two, sometimes one, and occasionally zero hours” in the evening.
One father, poor enough that he cannot spare a serving of food, eats the regurgitated meal that his daughter has vomited up so that she can take a second shot at eating a full portion. Another set of parents sacrifice mightily to send their daughter to a middle school with higher standardized testing scores and a dropout rate of 20 rather than 40 percent, but this gain in educational prospects requires her to spend lonely hours commuting across the outer boroughs of New York.
If Zhang’s stories touch on the conventional material aspects of the American Dream, each also insists on the personal losses such advances entail. There is nothing transparently upward about the painful, uneven terrain of social mobility here. All of the families eventually shed the extreme poverty that marked their early years in the United States, but their modest prosperity is, in the end, a kind of historical restitution. In each of Zhang’s stories, parents tell their children extended tales from their past. “Our Mothers Before Them” is set in both 1966 and 1996: narrator Annie borrows details from her mother’s incessantly recounted memories—“she told me everything whether I wanted to hear it or not”—to chronicle her mother’s childhood alongside her own.
Zhang’s excursions into the parents’ lives in China before emigration make it clear that they have simply recovered the comfortable class status their own progenitors—artists and professionals—occupied prior to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Does belated restoration count as upward mobility? Tellingly, the family that faces the most severe economic hardship also feels the most free. Though precariously employed and housed, Christina’s family experiences pleasure and fun—they stake a bold claim to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—in a way Sour Heart’s other families cannot permit themselves to do.
But because Zhang’s protagonists are children, all are defined, and constrained, by their dependency on family. These constraints, and the fugitive freedoms that sometimes escape them, are figured by their end-of-childhood age; it seems more than a coincidence that many of Zhang’s protagonists are nine years old throughout their narratives or at a critical turning point in the story. For many girls, nine is one of the last glimmering moments of looking like—and being treated as—a child.
Zhang’s fleetingly prepubescent characters stand right on the precipice of a different body. Their nascent sexuality is curious, exploratory, occasionally sadistic. In one story, two friends spend “an entire afternoon digging around in each other’s vaginas.” The story culminates in an act of sexual violence in which fourth graders are both perpetrators and victims. Another story—“My Days and Nights of Terror”—chronicles the violent frenemyship between the soft-spoken and brilliant Mande and the tough, overstepping Fanpin, who, when standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, “always seemed to be lightly cupping the bottom of her breast, the left one, the one that had already grown into something substantial enough to touch by the time we were nine.” Mande finally summons the courage to stand up to her bully: “I shot one fist straight out and punched her in the tit. It wasn’t a remarkable punch or anything but I felt it: her fleshy boob smushing up against my bony knuckles.”
Zhang revels in the unseemly, describing bodily detritus with enormous tenderness.
That Zhang’s tween characters are poised at the threshold of adolescence fits beautifully with the set of geographical and social borders that comprise the main themes of Sour Heart. Zhang probes the expansive intelligence that accompanies the nine-year-old Chinese American girl’s lack of social legibility and utter absence of power: “That was the secret to being me back then: if you never say a word, people will think you don’t know anything, and when people think you don’t know anything, they say everything in front of you and you end up containing everything. On the inside, I was vast. But on the outside, I was a known idiot. Nothing that came out of me had any resemblance to what I thought I had inside of me.” If these characters are alike in terms of the basic social details of their lives, Zhang gives each an unmistakably singular voice.
Zhang’s account of Chinese American girlhoods in the 1990s revises the canon of immigrant literature in surprising ways, not least by luxuriating in the corporeal and indecorous. Reading Sour Heart, I was reminded of Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish immigrant writer who published her first book of short fiction in 1920—titled, in a striking parallel, Hungry Hearts. Yezierska’s stories use both domestic space and the female immigrant body to challenge abiding mythologies of the American Dream. Her heroines are Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in New York City, intelligent and striving women who are forced to confront the yawning gap between their golden expectations and the reality of life in the Lower East Side. Their antagonists are affluent “agents of clean society,” who deem them oily and dirty, a source of domestic contagion; they bear nightmarish WASP names like “Miss Whiteside.” Yezierska’s characters are oppressed by the stench of foreignness and poverty that clings to their bodies no matter how vigorous their bathing nor the bright shade of white they paint their tenement walls.
The gender, racial, and class politics of disgust loom over Hungry Hearts and Sour Heart alike. But Zhang actually revels in the unseemly, describing bodily detritus with enormous tenderness. She delights in detailing the ooze of a wound, the “booger house” constructed on the bedroom wall, the scatological in many forms. While fiction has long approached poverty as a physical, embodied experience,1 Zhang develops a humorous, even celebratory insider perspective about bodily processes another author might have posited as abject. True abjection lies somewhere other than the body—it lies in the forbidding social structures that engulf Zhang’s characters and warp their behavior. Hence her precise language as she describes a little girl’s plane journey from Shanghai to New York City: “It was abject and then suddenly I was in America.”