Jenevieve Chang reviews Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
by Jenny Zhang
Reviewed by JENEVIEVE CHANG
“We hate soft peaches. We hate soft, sweet peaches and we love hard, sour plums,” mother tells daughter in “We Love You Crispina”, the first story in Jenny Zhang’s tender, brutal and deceptively artless Sour Heart, a collection of narratives about the immigrant experience that unfolds in the serpentine sentences of a child’s retelling, in all its vulnerability and unfettered access to primal love, pain and loss.
But of course, there is no universal “immigrant experience” and where Sour Heart succeeds is in the specificity of detail Zhang gives to time, place and context. In all seven stories, we are in New York in the 1990s (with the exception of “Our Mothers Before Them” that leaps back and forth to China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s), following episodes in the lives of recently arrived Chinese families soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The fathers and mothers are themselves artists, filmmakers, writers and poets whose youth and careers and family bonds have been prematurely cut down by the Mainland’s bloodshed, flinging their lives over to the USA in the hope of rebuilding what had been lost, and what might still be restored.
More often than not, dreams splinter and corrode. In “We Love You Crispina“, the narrator’s parents are reduced to pushing their Oldsmobile into the Harlem River after it breaks down when they don’t have the money to tow it into a junkyard, and later resort to dumpster diving and selling casino chips at inflated prices to unsuspecting elderly people. In “My Days and Nights of Terror”, the narrator is forced to watch her mother’s lone figure standing on a highway recede further and further into the distance after her father pushes her out of the car during a rare road trip, as if the sudden taste of leisure was too much for the nuclear unit more accustomed to the constant rut of toil. In these stories, the bewilderment of the child is ever present navigating strange worlds and even stranger adults and the blurred boundaries between cultures and time and place and bodies – where the plains of one end and another begins, as the theatre of familial love plays out with crippling ferocity.
At night, if I was itchy, my mom would scratch my left leg and my dad would scratch my right leg while I slept with double protection – I wore oven mitts on both my hands…In the mornings, my parents woke up with blood underneath their fingernails, dried and dark as a scab even though I was the one who had been wounded. (17)
Zhang has been described as a 21st century Whitman, only female, Chinese and profoundly scatological, and certainly the body – in all its vomit and shit and snot – figures largely in Zhang’s unique lyricism. The way her characters experience the trauma in their lives play out as both physical and psychological secretions, in glorious, grotesque and sometimes shocking ways. There is the minutiae of grinding desperation in “We Love You Crispina” where Christina’s family uses the toilet in the Amoco station across the road if they wanted to take “a big dump…and if more than one of us felt the stirrings of a major shit declaring its intention to see the world beyond our buttholes, then we were in trouble because it meant someone had to use our perpetually clogged toilet…and we would have to dip into our supply of old toothbrushes and chopsticks to mash our king-sized shits into smaller pieces since we were too poor and too irresponsible back then to afford even a toilet plunger.” There is the insecurity of friendship in “The Empty the Empty the Empty” when Lucy and best friend Francine spend their afternoons sticking their fingers inside each other’s vaginas and supplementing their Grade 4 pre-sex sex education classes with their own practical experiment by tying up a Chinese girl called Frangie who has recently lost her mother to cancer and trying to force Lucy’s boyfriend – a hapless 9 year old called Jason Shrimpson – to have sex with her. There’s the elaborate Spanish villa constructed entirely of Annie’s uncle’s boogers on a wall in “Our Mothers Before Them” – its forced demolition leading to a critical stand-off between parent and child in the high stakes situation of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang seems to relish and find ever more inventive ways in which the voluntary and involuntary ruptures of the body gives voice to moments that language itself could never do justice to express the internal rupturing of a child who witnesses the previous generation’s sacrifice and dissolution.
So many migrant stories focus on the violence inflicted by a hostile, dominant culture towards a marginalised one. This is not the case in Sour Heart. These stories are about the violence within cultures – within the Asian-American community, and more notably, within the Chinese diaspora. Jenny Zhang doesn’t preoccupy herself with the single thread of a binary Anglo/Asian divide. The cumulative power of this book lies in its visceral portrait of how being part of a minority stifles, distorts, bruises and tangles from the inside.
In “The Evolution of My Brother”, the narrator Jenny (and possibly the character whom the author most identifies with, given the identical name) points out, while her parents were “people to be saved” because they’d had little more than the hardboiled eggs they’d stuffed into their pockets when they’d first arrived in America from Shanghai… “I didn’t want to be saved…I wanted to be free to be selfish and self-destructive and indulgent like the white girls at the high school my parents worked so hard to get me into.” It is this tension between the fierce lovingness of family who sacrifice their all to provide for their children in a new land, and the fiercer act of forgetting that necessarily follows for the next generation to supposedly reap the benefits of what’s been sown – the cruel dance of assimilation – that arcs through these seven tales like an arrow shot through glass. The sharp fragments of this one theme refract with varying opacity under the author’s unflinching inspection. In the same story where Jenny overlooks the six months’ salary it cost for her parents to send her on a study opportunity to Stanford because she longs “to be part of a family that wasn’t mine,” her growing absence gradually estranges her little brother from her until what had once been an inseparable sibling attachment grows into a gulf that can only be bridged with bribery: a few dollars for every five minutes on the phone with his big sister.
Perhaps the most affecting of the stories is “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” about a grandmother who craves the love of her grandchildren but is only able to travel to America intermittently to visit them, often overstaying her visa. Each time she has to endure the ignominy of being a little more forgotten until one day her grandchildren literally resort to wrestling themselves out of her grasp. Barely literate, she begins to teach herself to write so that she can one day write a book about her grandchildren.
“The world needs to know about you two,” she said. For a moment, I was moved. But I knew if either of us had any chance of growing up into the kind of people that other people in this world would want to know about, we had to leave her behind. (252)
At the end of the story Stacey accidentally interrupts her grandmother’s sleepwalk and discovers her hidden childhood wound- as a child, her grandmother watched her house burn down with her mother inside, while she and her father escaped. Our narrator admits – though she had always thought that she would remember that night, and be profoundly moved by it – this itself was just like a dream, the only thing remembered being the act of trying to remember. And as big and sweet as we like to think our hearts to be, as well as we try to align the compass of our intentions, perhaps this is the sourest truth of all: no matter what horrors we hear about, know about and brush up against – we go on with our lives. Some learning nothing or changing at all. Others striving forever harder to outrun the bitter horrors of the past, climbing the precarious ladder of upward mobility in a land far, far away from where we began.
JENEVIEVE CHANG is an author, actor and story developer. She has created and presented shows in Berlin, London, Montreal, Vienna, Beijing, Shanghai and across Australia. Jenevieve’s memoir, The Good Girl of Chinatown reflects on her time living in Shanghai during the Global Financial Crisis as a showgirl in China’s first Burlesque Club. It was published by Penguin Random House in 2017 and has been described as a story where “heritage and hedonism collide.” The book is currently being developed into a TV series. Jenevieve has also worked as a development executive at Arclight Films and Screen Australia and will be playing Lady Capulet in Bell Shakespeare’s production of Romeo and Juliet in 2018.