Jenny Zhang is the real thing. An essayist, poet, and fiction writer, Zhang excels in all three genres. (I still send people to her 2015 essay “They Pretend To Be Us.”) Her work pushes against—testing—the boundaries of girlhood, family, nationality, love, disgust, allegiance. Her first collection of short fiction (she has previously published one poetry collection and two chapbooks), Zhang’s Sour Heart follows several girls, all daughters of Chinese immigrants, across New York’s outer boroughs.
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Jenny Zhang: I had chicken soup with plantains, potatoes, tomato paste, cabbage, onions, and carrots, but I ran out of time eating it and left it sitting there like a slob and got cold soba noodles with dipping sauce after my meeting as a second breakfast.
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
I need routine but routinely fail to establish it—so, not really. It depends on if I'm having a Chinese breakfast or a non-Chinese breakfast. If I'm at home with my parents or missing home, I'll do rice porridge with pickled vegetables and pidan, which is a preserved duck egg that showed up once in on that show Fear Factor, where contestants have to crawl into a pool with live sharks or something comparable. And one of the challenges was eat to this egg, which was introduced to the (non-Chinese) contestants as "thousand-year-old egg." I believe people basically fainted or quit because the thought of eating this egg was so disgusting to them and meanwhile I used to beg my parents to buy them at the Chinese supermarket because I loved it so much.
I think how we name foods that are unfamiliar to us shows a lot, and it's interesting that I've been seeing the word "century egg" more lately than "thousand-year-old egg." I'm sure if it ever becomes a food "trend" they'll have to find some even more aromatic and neutral sounding term. Wow, I apologize... I sound obsessed with this egg. It's just that it's this gorgeous slightly transparent black egg with little white snowflakes all over, and the egg white, or in this case, the egg black has this amazing jello-like texture, and the yolk is all gooey and muddy and it tastes delicious dipped in soy sauce.
Are there any notable breakfast (or food) moments in Sour Heart?
Mostly disgusting moments that involve retching. In the first story, the narrator Christina looks back at a time when she was sick all the time and her family was so poor they couldn't afford to lose the food she vomited up, so her dad eats it and saves his portion for her to have later when she's feeling better. Their shady apartment in Bushwick also collapses at one point and as they're packing up their stuff, the mom says, "Go eat a couple of dicks for breakfast, you assmunchers" to the guys on their block who are always jacking their shit.
In another story, the young girl Lucy recalls that her parents like to have these fried anchovies with their breakfast porridge, and there are a lot of moments where a McDonald's breakfast or any meal, really, is offered up as a rare treat. The characters in these stories are children of immigrants who move to New York in the 90's and struggle financially for a while. For these families, at least in their early years in America, there's something truly exotic about spending money on a cheeseburger and fries.
Your work spans, and excels in, several genres: fiction, poetry, essays. How do these different genres, paradigms of writing, inform each other? What about your work across genres has surprised you?
I'm always trying to find the right home for whatever it is I want to say. All these forms bleed into each other and have also evolved so much. The earliest forms of poetry were closer to song, they were meant to inform, entertain, communicate. Is that how most people think of poetry now? I hope so, but I think it has a much more elitist, opaque reputation.
When I write, I just write. The form reveals itself, but after I will take into account what people are expecting from an essay as opposed to fiction or poetry and sometimes I want to meet it, and sometimes I want to subvert it. It can be a constant state of teenage rebellion writing across genres because it's about not wanting to be boxed in, not wanting to accept given limits. Why shouldn't a short story be essayistic in its form? Why shouldn't poetry quote liberally? Why shouldn't non-fiction be a kind of lyric? I remember reading Moby Dick so many years ago and thinking: is this a novel or a monograph on the whale? I hated it at first, and then I loved it. I gave in and it was great.