Jenny Zhang Tackles the Complexity of Asian-American Identity Through Her Fiction - Pacific Standard

Jenny Zhang Tackles the Complexity of Asian-American Identity Through Her Fiction

Pacific Standard recommends Sour Heart, a book of short stories exploring race, class, and identity through the voices of young Chinese-American girls growing up in New York City.
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Sour Heart.

Sour Heart.

In 2015, a literary-world controversy erupted when a poem written by a white man using a Chinese pen name was published in The Best American Poetry. While many writers penned angry responses, one of the most insightful commentaries was written by Jenny Zhang, a former contributor to Rookie and a 2016 National Magazine Award finalist. Not long after the news broke, Zhang wrote an essay for BuzzFeed that argued that "[t]o be Other in America is to be coveted and hated at the same time." This August, Zhang is sharing more Other experiences in Sour Heart, her first book of short stories, which promises to explore race, class, and identity through the voices of young Chinese-American girls growing up in New York City.

Even today, works like Sour Heart are a rarity in the literary market: the non-profit feminist organization VIDA found that, in 2015, only 10 major publications featured Asian authors at least once—and literary giants like The Paris Review and The Boston Review published no work by Asian women. Isolation in the literary world is an experience Zhang has written about before—in her first year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, out of 50 total students, there was only one poet of color in the entire poetry program. ("When they wonder why I am still here, I can't help but suspect it's very different from when I wonder why I am still here," she wrote in BuzzFeed.) Sour Heart, which came out earlier this month, looks to be an extension of Zhang's previous work: candid, bold, and playful, whether she's writing about Weezer, Asian-American parenthood, or cultural appropriation.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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