A destitute daughter and parents bound together by genuine love, despite the father’s infidelity; a grandmother marked by the trauma of Communist China, snatching moments of freedom for her soul but unable to relate with honesty to her family; a girl born into a repeating cycle of emotional abuse, who is destined to repeat it; an increasingly horrific example of the over-sexualisation of pre-teens…all of them first-generation Chinese immigrants. Sour Heart is Jenny Zhang’s new collection of short fiction, and the first book to be published by Lena Dunham’s new Random House imprint, Lenny Books.
Zhang is not a woman who shies away from the less glamorous aspects of embodied humanity, and this collection gives us farts and turds galore. The corporeality of the characters is an essential element in contrasting their immigrant experiences, which range from five families sleeping in one room of a decrepit apartment to the suburban nuclear family dream: the nuances of a fart vary dramatically in the different environments Zhang creates. Each piece is saturated with emotional complexity, utterly real in its depiction of family relationships and the ways we create each other’s characters, and compelling despite the squeamishness it occasionally induces.
This is such an important collection for many reasons. We are blessed in this current epoch to have access to an increasing number of immigrant narratives, but what Zhang has done is write a series of narratives in which a number of young female protagonists of around the same age have emerged from largely identical circumstances (ie parents who emigrate to New York from Shanghai in the 1990s), to live vastly different lives while dwelling within the same few square kilometres. It drives home what reading a novel generally doesn’t: that immigrant experiences are as varied as the immigrants who live them. Of course, the characters are also the products of the same culture, transplanted into another, mostly hostile culture, and they are bound together by similarities – most notably the expectations placed on children whose parents believe they have sacrificed an entire way of life for them. This is a work full of honesty and vitality.
Trigger warnings: domestic abuse (physical and emotional), child sexual abuse, general violence.