Writing "Goopily" about the Body: On Jenny Zhang & Sour Heart

I read Jenny Zhang’s work for the first time in Poetry magazine in 2015. I knew by the time I finished her prose poem “How It Feels” that Zhang was a writer whose narratives would keep expanding my view of what’s possible in literature. When her new short story collection Sour Heart landed on several “most anticipated books of 2017” lists, distinguished as the first release from Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint, I instantly pre-ordered.

Sour Heart consists of seven stories about Chinese immigrant families. Zhang’s genre-bending intrigues me, and so does her focus on young girl narrators. But what I appreciate most about Zhang is how she explores tragic circumstances without the pity that often accompanies the kinds of events she describes: high school suicide attempts, torture scenes in revolutionary China, impoverished parents dumpster-diving for food scraps. In Sour Heart, Zhang normalizes the most desperate human behavior, giving readers the space to observe her characters without judgment.

Zhang studied at Stanford University and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her previous books are Hags (2014) and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (2012). Her work also appears in Rookie, The New York Times Magazine, The New Inquiry, Harper’s, and elsewhere. Below, the two of us talk about the influence of her favorite profane French writers, the role of gender and power dynamics in Sour Heart, and why writing about the female body is perceived as a political point.