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Girls and the grotesque in ‘Sour Heart’

By Jessica Au
Jenny Zhang’s short-story collection offers complex, radical versions of immigrant girlhood

Jenny Zhang’s short-story collection Sour Heart (Bloomsbury; $24.99) is not a cruel book. There is pain, yes, savagery and poverty, too, but its cause is less to do with intent than with love, shame, entropy and innocence. It is the kind of cruelty that occurs between family and friends, and that children seem to have an uncommon capacity for.

In one story called “The Empty the Empty the Empty”, Lucy and her best friend, Francine, both still in grade four, are in an escalating race to outdo each other in terms of sexual know-how. They spend “an entire afternoon digging around in each other’s vaginas” and sometimes, as if parodying a children’s clapping game, cross their arms over each other’s and smell. This terrifying one-upmanship culminates one day after school when they lure Lucy’s cousin, Frangie, into her room, tie her to the bed, and try to force Lucy’s frightened boyfriend, Jason, who cannot be more than nine or ten, to have sex with her. Frangie is not Lucy’s real cousin, but a troubled girl from the wider immigrant community who her mother has decided to take in. What makes the scene even more harrowing is not only Frangie’s wearied passivity but also Lucy’s attempts at last-minute kindness, even as she climbs on the bed and tries to force Frangie’s eyes closed with her hands: “Frangie,” she says, “[You] should stay for dinner … I saved an orange soda for you … my mom says she’ll take us shopping this weekend.”

Zhang will use this same mix of cruelty and innocence to varying degrees throughout the rest of her collection, allowing her to give her stories – all of them about girls and young women – a dark and bitter complexion. Sour Heart is the first release from Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint, and Zhang, also a poet and an essayist, writes in the climatic, millennial, autobiographical style so popularised by the genre of the online confessional. Like Ottessa Moshfegh, she has a preoccupation with the feminine grotesque, with the body and its scabs and scars and fluids. In the opening story, a young girl named Christina suffers from uncontrollable itchiness. Her parents, who would do anything to make her happy, scratch her to sleep. One night, Christina asks her mother to scratch her nipple until its splits open, causing it to leak pus and stick to her clothes the next day at school. With these small, queasy details, Zhang offers a more complicated, radical version of girlhood than some might be used to. At her best, as with Lucy and Frangie, this transcends any feelings of disgust and arrives instead at the deepest possible sympathy.

Thomas Mann once called the grotesque the “genuine anti-bourgeois style”, and Zhang’s use of it may arise, too, out of her fascination with the subaltern. All the girls in these stories are first- or second-generation Chinese–Americans, most living in poverty. Christina and her parents at one point share a room with several other families in a kind of immigrant halfway house in Washington Heights, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. They dream, of course, of upward mobility, but are caught instead in a seemingly never-ending downward grind, constantly broke or evicted or losing jobs. There is something tragic, and almost fabulist, to the relentlessness of this hardship and, indeed, Zhang cites Hans Christian Andersen as one of her favourite authors: Christina and the other narrators could all well be versions of the Little Match Girl, small and unnoticed and forever dying in the snow.

Yet the girls here suffer not from being loved too little, but rather from being loved too much. In the more benign version, Christina spends her time thinking of “all the ways I could possibly sacrifice enough to catch up to my parents, who were always sacrificing”. In others, a mother subjects her children to a kind of psychological battering, forcing them to help in mythologising her (albeit very real) grievances again and again; a grandmother manipulates her grandchildren into forming an almost devotional attachment to her. Zhang understandably dislikes the notion of “filial piety” for its stereotypical connotations, but she is attuned to something far more complex: namely the ways in which unconditional love can be weaponised, the way that children can be loved into an unhealthy loving. The fact that she is able to show this on such unique terms is no small feat of fictional technique or of imagination. The reproductive, heritable nature of culture means that we are necessarily bound by what has come before. This is, more often than not, an added difficulty for second-generation writers of colour, who have no canon to draw upon, and who need to navigate any loaded preconceptions about what “migrant literature” might be. Zhang has said that she wants “to write without fear”, to be free of the weight of all that precedes her. Multitudinous, assured and acidic, Sour Heart realises the strength of that will.

Jessica Au

Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and an associate editor at Aeon.

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