Aiming Smaller: An Interview with Jenny Zhang

During our phone call in the middle of April, Jenny Zhang set the scene: “There is something really bittersweet about talking to you right now, because we had originally wanted to meet up in New York City. I had imagined that we would be walking around the streets of Manhattan and talking about poetry, and it would be really cinematic and literary. That’s something I always wanted to do because of books I read when I was a kid, and I wanted to live that life. This is, I guess, romantic in a different way—in the way that I yearn to do that, and we cannot.”

Zhang’s childhood became a touchstone in our conversation, memories and anecdotes unspooling in response to my questions. Her award-winning collection of short fiction, Sour Heart, was told from the perspectives of children and “in the language of childhood, with its unruly spirit and raw emotions.” Her second full collection of poetry, My Baby First Birthday, out today, delights in the same riotous way as her fiction and her first poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. She writes in a wild and phonetic vernacular, pairing the sonic incantation of visceral sounds with internet slang and bodily functions; she is playfully irreverent, deploying words like cunt with a wink, daring you to be offended. But there is a sense of control thrumming underneath everything, the same grounded feeling communicated by Zhang’s smart, down-to-earth sensibility.   

 

INTERVIEWER

Your book of stories, Sour Heart, received a glowing reception in 2017. Was there any temptation to continue writing fiction? Why did you turn back to poetry?

ZHANG

I did feel like retreating after getting all of that really great positive press for Sour Heart, and doing all those interviews, and constantly talking about my process, and after the fact, trying to make a story out of the stories I had written. I felt like every time I sat down to write, I couldn’t rid the audience from my mind. As soon as I’m calculating for an audience, I lose interest in writing. It’s just another exhausting performance. I wanted to practice writing fiction without any thought of sharing it. When I’m writing, I don’t write with the thought that I’m going to share it with the world. Or, I prefer not to think that way. As a fanciful seven-year-old, I wrote diaries and I was sure that someone would break into my home, and steal all of my journals, and be so dazzled by this seven-year-old writing in a journal that they would come back and like, introduce me to their uncle who would be a scion of the publishing industry. I had those fanciful thoughts and would write diaries with the intention of making that happen. But now I really treasure the feeling of writing without expectation and without the thought that it would reach anyone, but just to write. Just to, I don’t know, process something that maybe is a little bit more unconscious.

The other thing was that I missed poetry. There was a time when I used to read my poetry two or three nights a week. And sometimes, these would be poetry readings where there would be twelve people there. You know, there’d be five readers, and each person brought a friend. I missed the intimacy of poetry. I missed the immediacy of poetry. I was sick of telling narrative stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. I just wanted to go into a different place. And I also just wanted to be a little smaller. I know the ultimate goal is often to be bigger, and bigger, and bigger. But I guess I was interested in seeing if there was some other way to be.

INTERVIEWER

So, poetry was a kind of a sanctuary, in a way. It was a place without an audience and a place where you could just be for a while.

ZHANG

Exactly. I’m also a very slow writer. I let things sit for a while. It’s like I purposefully want my things to be less relevant, or something. Because if I wait, and put things in a drawer, and don’t share them for a while, then the moment where I wrote them has passed and we are in a different moment. And it’s almost like I want to know with stories, those poems, whatever the thing I wrote—is it still relevant now that the moment has passed?

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the childhood diaries, but was writing a part of your adolescence? Being a writer, was that something you pursued from an early age? Or did you come to it later?

ZHANG

I was, for whatever reason, singularly obsessed with writing. I suppose it was because I felt so uncomfortable speaking as a child. Partially because I had immigrated here in kindergarten and had to start over, language-wise. In fact, when I was a really, really small person, I was obsessed with speaking and oral storytelling. I spoke at a very young age, and I couldn’t stop speaking. For whatever reason, I loved to “entertain” with my stories and would tell them to whoever would listen. I had an identity crisis at the age of five, because the thing I loved to do the most for the first five years of my life, I wasn’t able to do anymore. And then, by the time I learned to express myself in English, I’d been chastened by the initial stages of trying to speak and people laughing or not understanding what I was saying. So, I kind of gave up on speaking for a while. And there was also this interim period where I spoke in this glossolalia, because I couldn’t speak English, and then nobody understood my Chinese. I would just speak gibberish. I would read storybooks out loud. I’d force my glossolalia on the unwitting friends of mine who were like, What are you talking about, babbling and sitting here flipping the pages of this children’s book in front of my face? But I must have, for whatever reason, had a really strong impulse to communicate and tell stories. So, once I was able to write in English, it was all I wanted to do.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry really uses the sonic qualities of language. It seems like lines can be incantatory, and there’s a kind of call-and-response element to them. Or your language feels organic, like sounds and noises grow out of whatever’s being said right before them. And it all works so well together. Do you feel like the sonic quality of language sometimes takes over what you’re working on in a poem?

ZHANG

You know, I know that Mary Oliver is, like, a very, very basic person to bring up. But I think she’s great, and her book A Poetry Handbook is a great book to read for anyone who wants to read a book about poetry. There’s this chapter where she talks about sounds, and saying the phrases hush, be quiet, and shut up. You can’t say shut up that gently or that slowly or that drawn out, but you can’t help it that when you say hush, you create this soothing effect. Be quiet is a more neutral space, but depending on the intonation with which you say it, it can have a punishing sound. And that really resonated with me, because I’m in this interesting position where English is not my first language, but it’s my native language because it’s the language I’m best at, and I actually have a memory of what it was like to learn it. Most of us don’t remember what it was like to learn our native language. So much of it was just hearing sounds and trying to understand what someone was saying just from the way it sounded—not from vocabulary, but from sounds. And I remember I used to go to this babysitter’s house after school, and she would babysit for, like, thirty different kids, and so she’d plop us all in front of her TV, and everyone would be watching … what was that show called? DuckTales?

INTERVIEWER

Where Scrooge McDuck dives into a big room filled with gold coins?

ZHANG

Yes! Just swimming in gold coins in the intro song, right? I would watch that, and I would close my eyes and I would hear the sounds of Scrooge McDuck and his nephews talking, and I feel like I knew what the story lines were. Later in my life, my grandparents would come and visit us, when we lived in the suburbs, on Long Island, and there were no Chinese people around. I would come home from school, and my grandmother would be like, Oh yeah, I had a whole conversation with a neighbor, he’s really worried about his daughter because she’s eight months pregnant … And I’m like, Wait, the neighbor is a white American who only speaks English and you don’t speak a word of English. How did you get all that information? How did you manage to have this whole conversation? But often she would be right. There is a part of me that believes sounds also have meaning. It’s not just words, it’s also the vibes that sounds give out, independent of what we have decided means what.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of language, sounds, and vibes, let’s talk about the way you use vulgarity in your work.

ZHANG

Yeah, it must go back to, again, a fascination with language and the power that we assign to words. I’m always interested in words that create a physical reaction. The first time I heard someone say a curse word and someone else recoiled, physically, I just couldn’t believe that there was such a thing as a word that could make some shudder, or boil up in rage, when previously, everything was fine. That felt so absurd. As a child, I was like, how is that possible? That if I say damn it, someone else is shocked. Nothing changed about me as a person—I’m still the same person, I just said a word. I think because people also had that reaction to me when I spoke in Chinese or couldn’t say a word right, there was this time where I equated … there was this period of time where I was like, what are the right words, and what are the wrong words?

INTERVIEWER

You say that you go to readings, and enjoy reading your work out loud. That seems also to have been formative for you.

ZHANG

Yeah, I guess to be honest, I don’t often read an entire book of poetry silently. I read out loud, or have it read out loud to me. There’s this poet, Anaïs Duplan, whose work I discovered at a reading. She read this poem called “Black ’n’ Relaxed II” and it was like listening to a song at times—it had a rhythm that had meaning for me. Monica McClure was somebody that I really loved at readings. Leopoldine Core. It’s like people who only like going to live shows and won’t listen to records at home or something—I’m like that with poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel your poems have a sense of humor?

ZHANG

I try to. Having a sense of humor is really important to me. I know that some people don’t find me funny at all, and that sucks for them. Maybe that’s wrong to say. I think I have to be on the same level as someone else for humor to happen between us, and I guess I always feel like there’s a part of me that’s like, Come, just come and be on my level. You’ll find me funny if you can do that. But if you’re looking up to me, or you’re looking down on me, you’re not going to find me funny—you’re going to find me annoying and gross and stupid and smug and shitty. I don’t know how else to put it, but sometimes I’m just like, come and be on my level. Let’s laugh. I find a lot of things funny—even terrible things that have happened to me—and maybe that’s a coping mechanism. I need to be able to see the absurdity of something terrible, and I need to also make fun of terrible things that have happened to me. I think that’s always my impulse.

INTERVIEWER

But that exists alongside heavy themes in this collection, such as suicide, choosing to be alive—being brought into the world and then having to reckon with where you’ve ended up. I’m curious if this ties somehow into the structure of four seasons in the book.

ZHANG

I was actually thinking about the first year of being alive on earth. I guess I did want to go through the seasons. But I didn’t really think about it too much, to be honest. I mean, the collection is called My Baby First Birthday, and I took that title from a Facebook comment that my mom made. My uncle had posted a photo of me on Facebook, sitting between him and my dad on my first birthday, and my mom had commented on Facebook underneath that photo “my baby first birthday.” In one sense, it’s a typo, it’s a grammatical error, because maybe she meant “my baby’s first birthday,” but I also like this idea of, maybe it’s her baby-first birthday. We have lots of baby-first birthdays in our lives, and there’s lots of moments where we feel like it’s our baby-first birthday, and it doesn’t have to be so literal. I was thinking about the first year of being a mother, being a father, being a parent—the first year of being alive, the first year of anything, of falling in love, of entering through whatever portals we enter through that take us to some other world—that first year is so significant.

INTERVIEWER

Both the title of this collection and of your first collection of poetry came from your mother. Something that your mother had written to you.

ZHANG

Yeah, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. I owe my mom a lot. That’s something she would write in emails to me. When we were living in different cities and countries, she would write me a lot. Have you ever seen that movie by Chantal Akerman, News from Home? It’s mostly just footage of New York in the seventies, and she reads letters that her mom sends her from France. And she doesn’t ever read the responses that Chantal writes back, so you get a sense of their relationship in this very one-sided way. The mom in that movie reminds me in some ways of my own relationship with my mom—she’s very warm and loving, and she always wants to hear from me, and she always wants to know what’s going on. In News from Home, when the mom is sending letters to Chantal and not really getting responses, she’s warm and concerned at first, but then she gets increasingly agitated and worried, and at one point you hear one of the letters just like, How are you really doing? You never really tell me how you’re doing. It really reminded me of times when I was abroad and alone in a country, and alienated, but also not wanting to send back bad news, and so I would just avoid writing until I felt better. And during those periods of time when I didn’t want to write back, because I didn’t want to bring back news of feeling like a failure and feeling isolated and depressed to my parents, I would get these emails from my mom that said, “How are you? What’s going on? Don’t worry about us, we are all find.” And again, it was that thing of this grammatical error that set my imagination leaping. I liked this idea of being found and being find, rather than being fine, because in some ways I never feel fine. That’s a very high bar to achieve.

 

Lauren Kane is a writer who lives in New York. She is the assistant editor at The Paris Review.