four hundred and thirty seven

Read IN BED: Sour Heart

Words by Hannah-Rose Yee

“For years after I went away to college, he was afraid to sleep on his own. The first few months, he slept in my bed, but once our mother insisted on washing the sheets and pillows, he was no longer comforted by it. He slept in our parents’ bed after that for a little while, and then when he was too old to sleep with them but still too scared to sleep alone, they hid a twin-sized mattress on the floor next to their bed. It was positioned in such a way that anyone who peeked into our parents’ bedroom would not see it.”

Jenny Zhang was the first author on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Imprint. Which means that she’s the first author published by Dunham, plucked from obscurity – or in Zhang’s case, nowhere near obscurity, as a writer for Rookie mag, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a published poet – and placed under the spotlight.

Dunham has long championed young female writers of all colours and creeds, and in Zhang she has found an impeccable first cab off the ranks and through the barricade. Zhang’s book Sour Heart comprises seven short stories, all centred around Chinese-American girls and preteens, living in the shadow of the immigrant experience.

They are the daughters of struggling immigrants, successful immigrants, immigrants obsessed and addicted to the American dream. They live in terrible, cockroach-infested apartments with broken down bathrooms and share a single glass of soda at dinner and never have new things because they’re dreaming of a better life, not even for themselves but for their daughters, and their daughter’s daughters, and for every daughter that will follow.

They are the daughters of struggling immigrants, successful immigrants, immigrants obsessed and addicted to the American dream.

 

These stories are exquisite, meticulously crafted and told in the precise, measured voice of a supremely gifted writer. They are, at times, weird and gross. They are uncanny and surreal. But they are so full of feeling, so keenly observed and so lovingly drawn, that you forgive the odd paragraph or two about using chopsticks to try and flush a particularly large turd down the toilet. (I told you it was gross).

My favourite story follows a teenager – eponymously named Jenny – who begs her parents to pay for her to go to summer school at Stanford, not realising that it’s a third of a year’s pay for them. But pay they do, and she heads off, leaving behind a younger brother who misses her so much in ways she doesn’t understand until she goes back, a college graduate, and realises that she’s missed his entire childhood.

It’s so heartbreaking and true, and reminded me so much of my own relationship with my brothers, that as soon as I finished reading it I read the story again from the start. It's that good.