An Interview with Jenny Zhang
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Jenny Zhang is a poet and essayist based in New York City. She served as a contributing writer to teen magazine Rookie for several years, and her freelance work can be found in The New York Times and other publications. She is the author of the nonfiction chapbook Hags, the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, and the short story collection Sour Heart. Sour Heart, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, was named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker, Esquire, and others. Find Jenny on the web at @jennybagel and at jennybagel.com.
TMR: In your collection Sour Heart, as well as in your work for teen-centric magazine Rookie, you tell stories that serve as beacons for your readers. What literature did this for you in your youth?
JZ: A lot of it was reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, those early books that you read when you're starting to read chapter books. There was a spirit in those books that I really connected to, even though as I got older I saw all of the extremely problematic aspects of pioneer literature.
Books like Little House were about freedom, but my favorite characters were the ones that were literally sour. I really liked The Secret Garden because the girl in the book was referred to as a "sour girl." She was a despised little creature, and it was something that sparked my creativity and imagination, the idea that someone as young as ten years old is already jaded because she had a sour expression on her face. For whatever reason, instead of daunting me, it made me feel excited: "I want to be that girl."
I grew up in Queens and moved to Long Island when I was in seventh grade. I didn't really have access to alternative texts and alternative cultures for quite a long time. When I did, the cultures that I turned to were, say, punk music—punk music in Long Island—and that was extremely male-dominated and white.
Overall, I actually didn't find a lot of outlets. It was a lot of taking something that seemed very quaint and girly and soft, and starting from that point. I liked making leaps with my imagination and creating a kind of world that I was interested in. I mentored myself. I just can't think of a publication like Rookie or Bitch Magazine, any of these really seminal feminist magazines—I can't think of anything like that in my life. I just had to create it on my own. Maybe that's why I had an objective drive to create.
TMR: You've mentioned fact-checking your fiction with content from your old diaries. How has journaling been valuable for you?
JZ: Every form is another method of testing out and performing identity. I think the reason why women and non-binary folks have been at the forefront of making really exciting theories about performance, identity, and gender, is because we know what it's like to have an unstable identity. It's this internal struggle that a lot of young people experience in puberty and adolescence, where you're constantly fleshing out how you'd like to be seen. I think for those who don't feel seen in the way they'd like to be seen, journaling and writing in diaries is a way to keep a record of who you'd like to be.
I wrote my diary as if I were a really important person whose interior thoughts were valuable to the world, and I think a lot of girls did that.
Diary keeping or letter writing is often seen as really transparent and intimate and raw—the language is pouring out of you. But actually it's writing a book. I wrote my diary as if I were a really important person whose interior thoughts were valuable to the world, and I think a lot of girls did that. I wrote it that way because I felt very undiscovered and unseen, insignificant and negligible. It was a way to combat that. It's an early experience with being treated as important, except you're the one who's treating yourself as important.
TMR: How have you responded to the praise for Sour Heart?
JZ: It's obviously altered me in a way that I probably can't perceive or articulate yet. I can't really feel like the underdog anymore. I can't really feel like an outsider, because I'm inside a little bit.
I'm also very suspicious, because I'm a woman who knows how fleeting praise can be. On the other side of praise and idealization is degradation. I know what it's like to be young and useful, and how you can get stuck into this belief that you have to be young and impressive. That belief is a losing game, because all humans have to age. I know that all moments are ephemeral, and I don't want to tether my identity as a writer to something real, something that will eventually betray me. It seems like eternal validation will always betray the person that's hanging themselves on it.
It's been really amazing because now I have these opportunities, but at the same time, I want to feel like the right size. I don't want to feel like trash on the street, but I also don't want to feel like a shining star. I want to just feel like a human, so I try to numb myself to praise because I feel like taking in excessive praise is the same thing as taking in excessive hate.
Power is just unfair. There's no reason why I should have more power than someone else, especially if that someone else is from a marginalized community and already has experience being marginalized and shut out. It's extremely infuriating to see a person plucked out of that same community and being touted as the special one, the star. I understand that now I am emblematic and sitting on top of some kind of power structure that is inherently fucked up, and I haven't figured out what to do about that yet. I can only think about my writing and feel protective over my writing. Until there are more and more other people who get the same opportunities to do this, it feels like every time I succeed, I'm creating a silence in others. I don't know what to do about that except bring as many people into the fold who have been silenced, because I used to feel silenced.
TMR: In your Electric Literature interview, you mentioned that post-election it seems like Americans are reaching for poetry again in a time of crisis. What brought you to poetry?
JZ: I came to poetry because I felt like it was the only writing form where it's possible to—You know when you listen to a song, and you like it, and it's really acceptable to say, "This song pumps me up", "This song makes me feel [blank]", and you don't really have to say more about it—everyone just gets it. It's so much about how it makes you feel, and you don't have to dissect it further. That's how I felt about poetry. It was a form of writing that made me have a visceral reaction to it. I could feel a lump in my throat, or my skin would tingle; it had an actual effect on my body.
In some way, poetry fulfilled that very human need for spiritual connection.
I think because it is a logistical form, in some forms, all poems are like holy texts in some ways. I don't have religion in my life, I didn't grow up with a notion of God or spirituality, really, I grew up completely atheist. In some way, poetry fulfilled that very human need for spiritual connection.
TMR: In your Electric Literature article, you ask the question, "When you grow up knowing you are considered lowly and inferior on the explicit basis of race and ethnicity, how are you supposed to love yourself and the family you came from?" How do you answer that question?
JZ: It's really hard. You can love yourself all you want, but you still walk into a world that may not love you, and I don't know what to do about that. I do know that community is one of the most healing things that we can try to build, and family as a smaller unit of community. It doesn't have to be blood family, but created families, queer families, and families with people who share whatever kind of important values that you share—that's been one of the ways in which I've combated that feeling of internalizing the loathing.
I think the first versions of the stories I wrote for Sour Heart were very different because they were about these young girls who kind of blamed their families for everything. As I got older, I realized that this actually came from an internalized racism from where I grew up—within a country that has, in a lot of ways, failed to take care of many communities. They place the blame upon themselves, and I realized that I didn't want to participate in writing stories where some white person could read it and feel good because I was mad at other Chinese people instead of racism and patriarchy. Trying to live with that is an ongoing process. I am still extremely indoctrinated, extremely colonized in a lot of ways, but the more I resist that, the more I feel free from that earlier agony. I'm trying the best I can.