Portrait

Some homemade dumplings and a chat about characters with the author of Sour Heart. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

Author and poet Jenny Zhang

Jenny Zhang is sitting with her back against the cafe wall, trying to work out the wi-fi password. I am surprised by how unassuming her clothes are. Going by her Instagram, I was expecting violent vintage florals and green ombré hair. In person, she wears a baggy beige jumper and large pink enamel earrings. Jenny later tells me that since being on the publicity circuit she’s started dressing more plainly; she’s nervous about being seen as that quirky girl

We introduce ourselves and I pass Jenny some dumplings I made for her that morning. She gasps: “You didn’t. That’s so nice of you. Oh my god. This is incredible. I just need to take a photo. This is so nice. This is so thoughtful. No, that’s amazing. I can’t believe you made this. This is so nice. This is so, like, beyond. Like the best gift. I can smell the amazing… Oh my god. This is incredible. I’m gonna have one right now. Is that, like, crazy?”

She bites into a dumpling as the waiter comes over, gives us the wi-fi password and takes our order. We speak over the loud background music, the revving of the coffee grinder and the wheezing milk frother. I ask about the families of her debut short fiction collection, Sour Heart. These characters, all from artistic backgrounds, are to me in such stark contrast to model minority imagery of Asian families as pen-pushers and STEM bots.

Jenny begins by explaining that these artistic types were the adults she knew growing up, whom she had initially written off as boring or uncultured. “I noticed that … in my circle, my Chinese community of family friends, my friends’ parents, basically, who I always thought of as so boring and never read books, never went to the movies and would never ever mention anything to do with literature or art, almost all of them came from these artist backgrounds or poet backgrounds. They had family members who were diplomats, who were revolutionaries; it was this thing that I realised I knew nothing about their lives previous to the US. I wanted to pay a little homage to that and to show that there are so many disruptions to this epic lineage both back in China and in the US.”

In addition to being familiar with the life of expats from the intelligentsia classes of Shanghai, Jenny describes the political nature of choosing a very specific group of immigrants around which to centre her short stories. She stresses that as an immigrant “your identity is totally flattened. And you’re lumped in with people that you could have been really shitty to or hated in your country. I wanted to be really specific that this was a cohort … It was going to be a group of people that came from a really specific context.”

We speak about stereotypes of Asian immigrants as a non-individuated group of ciphers.

“In my own experience when I —-” Jenny begins and then cuts herself off unexpectedly. “I love this song!”

She pauses to let me listen to the low-fi guitar and sad, glittering female voice playing in the cafe.

“Aw, it’s Mitski,” she says. “Do you know Mitski?”

“She’s American, right?”

“She’s Japanese American. I love this song. Sorry, I have to take a video for my friend and send it to her.”

Jenny pulls out her phone, and films herself smiling and looking directly into the phone screen for 30 seconds or so. She then puts her phone away and continues speaking as if nothing has happened.

“Yeah, because when I grew up, my first years in America, I was in a Chinese–American enclave. Everyone I knew was Chinese … We thought of ourselves not just as Chinese but as Shanghainese. So we thought of ourselves as specifically as most people thought of themselves. And I only became aware of the word Asian … it must have been when I went to a white high school in a suburb in Long Island. And I don’t even know if I knew the word Asian then … or if the kids there were like, ‘You’re Chinese’ or ‘You’re Korean’, or whatever slur they used. I really don’t think any of the girls in the stories would ever have called themselves Asian American.”

Jenny describes the first moment when a young girl of colour is sexualised or racialised as “a loss of innocence”, one in which there is a stark “before” and “after”. She tells me that she “purposefully did make some of these girls extremely, obnoxiously arrogant and narcissistic because the thing is that when you’re ‘other’ you lose your innocence so much faster because early on you’re confronted with this idea of you which has nothing to do with who you are. And for certain people who are lucky enough, they aren’t even confronted with that until their 20s or until they’re dead.

“I wanted to create a character who is considered by other people as not very significant or magnificent or interesting, perhaps even lowly … But she considers herself the best … She’s just shocked that other people don’t think they’re the greatest. And they’re offended that other people would treat them as less than amazing. I think that if I were to write a sequel, which I won’t, I think these girls would be very different as teens, they would be very chastened and very beaten down in a lot of ways, and very punished. I kind of wanted to catch them before that.”

We laugh and I think this is surely an act of wishful thinking, these stories in which the young girl doesn’t have to grow up and find out who she really is.

We finish our chat and I get up to leave.

“I’m just going to stay here and keep using the wi-fi,” Jenny says, smiling.

I step onto the street and the cold seeps into my bones. Rain starts filling my shoes. I pull my jacket tight and look back through the window. Jenny is faintly smiling into her phone, enclosed in the warm light of the crammed cafe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Inner lives". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.