Sour Heart | Jenny Zhang

Jenny Zhang's fiction debut is not a perfect book, but it is a revolutionary one and feels like an anthem. A couple of reasons why:


Bilingualism: Zhang may just be the Junot Díaz of Asian-America, in the sense of "I don't give a rat's pellety shit whether or not you understand my language, I'm just going to write it down exactly as my bilingual brain generates it." Refreshing. Exclusionary, sure — but modern life is exclusionary, society and culture are as well, so why when attempting to capture multicultural lives should we rule out the exact inconveniences that define them?

In other stories, however, Zhang subscribes to the opposite doctrine: eliminating any distinctions of language, she writes simply in meaning, like a literary translator of her own work. She aims for authenticity of tone over realism, and we are not sure whether a Chinese mother is speaking in English or Chinese when she tells her husband, who loves her but is cheating and failing all-around: "You're just a piece of shit covered in vomit sitting in a pool of shit that everyone vomits on and it makes me sick." At the same time, we cease wondering whether this eloquence was conveyed in Chinese because it has reached our eyes in English, and we understand her meaning — we understand her.

Characterization: Sour Heart stars a large cast of Chinese-American immigrants who all left China for New York at the same time. This shared trait, in the world of typical English-speaking literature, should have flattened all their voices down to that of one token character. Zhang, however, proves that this set of people, who as a group sound extremely narrow and specific, are in fact motley, diverse, and delectably self-contradictory. A loving father and husband is a public adulterer. A mother is talented and beautiful but a horrendous and selfish mother nonetheless. A girl muddles her way through self-taught Christianity, the cruelties of a Korean high school gang, the unwitting disgust for another Chinese girl who molests her with neither of them understanding the implications.  

In most of the diaspora/"ethnic" English literature I have read, I have noticed a tendency for immigrant characters to subscribe to strict prototypes — some of these adhere to stereotype, some of these are strict foils designed to disprove stereotypes, but either way these people seem cast in iron and bronze, like Rodin figures welded in everlasting suffering. Zhang overcomes this: she writes about immigrant characters, but she writes them first and foremost as human characters. A rarer feat than one would imagine.