Episode 34: Sour Heart

On this episode of the n+1 podcast, Jenny Zhang reads her short story “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” featured in Issue 28. The story is excerpted from her new story collection Sour Heart.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L, Laurel Halo, and Poppies

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An interview with Jenny Zhang

n+1 coeditor Dayna Tortorici interviewed Jenny Zhang about “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” Their conversation is below.

Dayna Tortorici: The grandmother’s voice opens the story and carries it throughout. Where did this voice come from?

Jenny Zhang: When I was in middle school we did a unit on “Asia,” which was really a unit on China, and every time my teacher made some kind of pronouncement on what Chinese people are like she turned to me and said, “Isn’t that true?” Well, I had no idea if what she was saying was true for 1.2 billion Chinese people. My sample size was much smaller. When we learned about filial piety and the treatment of women in China, she said, “Is it true? The women in your family are forced to be subservient to the men in your family?” I burst out laughing. “Hellll no,” I said. “It’s the total opposite.” I struggled to apply the concepts of patriarchy and sexism to the women I grew up with.

As I got older, I recognized that the ways they exerted power and dominance were responding to limits I did not see. My grandmother lived with my family in America on and off. She had a distinctive way of talking because she was partially deaf and had learned to speak louder, more insistently, as a result. I suspected her hearing problems were often employed selectively, strategically—she literally heard what she wanted to. The grandmother in the story ends up being a different person from my grandmother, but I started with this old woman who speaks without hearing. She refuses to be a victim and takes up space—two things feminists historically have encouraged, but sometimes the praxis ends up more annoying than the ideology.

DT: You depict the push-pull of repulsion and tenderness in intimate familial relationships so well—here between Stacey and her brother, and both of them and their nainai. Is that a dynamic you think a lot about? What draws you to it?

JZ: I’m really drawn to how in close relationships it’s easy to swing in either direction. You know that feeling of spending days convincing yourself that you despise someone, and at the end of it you’re left with this strange affection for them? To think intensely about why you want to pull away from someone is a kind of intimacy.

Stacey initially finds her grandmother repulsive, needy, too obvious in her attempts to get close, but after a while, she gives in. It feels good to be so intensely the object of someone’s else focus—it feels almost like true love. Because the grandmother never gets to stay long in America, Stacey is able to emancipate herself from her. Ironically, when her brother Allen is born, she re-enacts that codependency with him. Like her grandmother, she enjoys the feeling of someone needing her, relying on her. At times, Stacey is in competition with her grandmother: she wants to be the one her brother clings to and listens to. She wants her brother to do what she did—break free. Because caretaking is often gendered female, it’s idealized as something that must be done with pure intention, pure goodness. But often we take care of people because we love them and because we want to be needed. Or we think being needed is the only form of love we’ll get. To make other people, especially children, our reason for living is not necessarily good, nor is it some kind of villainous evil. I wanted to shift who we empathize with throughout this story, and make it difficult to hold to a stable judgment of any of these characters.

DT: There’s a moment in the story where Stacey sees her grandmother as “laid bare,” no longer a tyrannical, cloying figure but a small woman whose life unfolded within a set of historical circumstances. I have a vague memory of you reading a biography of Mao not too long ago. Did your nonfiction reading influence this character, or how Stacey reflects on her?

JZ: I did read a biography of Mao written by his personal physician, and it was very dishy and juicy in the way only biographies of genocidal dictators can be. He was so afraid of dying, and one of the ways he dealt with that was by trying to fuck his way to immortality. The Cultural Revolution was a time of terror, violence, chaos, and death for many, many, many, and the way it is remembered and studied is warped by ideology. On one end, white-supremacist imperialist historians are invested in describing it as one of the worst travesties in modern history, when stupid Chinese people let their country be destroyed by a demonic demagogue. On the other end, Leftist-Marxists cannot afford to see that era as proof of the failure of communism. As a result, there are a lot of stories that don’t quite “fit,” that are lost to the annals of history.

One of the stories is that for many women, life changed drastically during the Cultural Revolution, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, and more often, both. The grandmother in this story grew up dirt poor, illiterate, in one of those villages where women have so many children that it makes sense to just name them by order of birth: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, et cetera. After living through two wars and joining the Communist Party, she is given the opportunity to have power—something no woman in her lineage ever had. But at such a great cost. In another world, she would have been diagnosed as having severe PTSD and many other mental health issues, but you know, compassion is for the wealthy . . . In this world, she is an overbearing old woman who thinks her grandchildren will sleep in the same bed as her until they are old enough to vote. As a teen, Stacey only has a vague notion of what her grandmother has been through. To her, her grandmother is simply annoying. The weight of the Cultural Revolution is not something Stacey considers when dealing with her grandmother, and it goes both ways—the grandmother has no idea what Stacey is going through, either. Their worlds are too far apart. A time and place when a young girl could join the army and march through the mountains for months on end is as foreign to Stacey as a time and a place where Chinese people can’t speak Chinese to their grandmother.

DT: I love the part where Stacey draws a picture of her grandmother with a dialogue bubble that says, “Kill her! It’s the LAW!!!!!” It’s the perfect expression of how young people perversely wish to make their elders helpless before an outside authority the way they feel helpless before their parents’ authority, even as they don’t actually want anything bad to happen to them. It’s also an example of how first-generation kids who assimilate faster than their parents experience a kind of power imbalance, in which they know “more” about “the world” than the adults in the family do, even though they hardly know anything. How specific to the first-generation experience do you think this is? Do all kids feel this way?

JZ: There is a power reversal in how the children of immigrants are often better able to navigate the country they’re living in than their parents. Just being able to speak the language fluently goes a long way toward making a child seem more grown up than their parent. Later in the story, the grandmother has a run-in with a police officer who knocks on the door when she’s alone in the house. It’s very terrifying to be in another country, not speak the language, and have an armed man knock on your door. The grandmother deals with it by hiding a knife behind her back. Her audacity bothers Stacey, perhaps because Stacey is someone who follows the rules. She keeps prodding the grandmother like, “Aren’t you scared? You should be scared.”

Something that’s less talked about is how there can be a courage gap between immigrants and their children. Immigrant children may have parents who have crossed land and sea, survived harrowing conditions on the journey over, escaped war, famine, poverty, and hardship to make it in another country. Immigrant parents develop a kind of fortitude that their children do not have to, especially if the parents succeed in making a decent life for themselves and their children. Spontaneity and verve are supposed to be the province of the young, but Stacey, who is young, is far more timid and conservative than her grandmother, who thinks nothing of speaking to a cop with a knife behind her back, or trespassing in someone else’s property and using their things. Just as you said, Stacey, who is often made to feel helpless by her grandmother, perversely fantasizes about what would happen if the authorities intervened. They are the ones who have the power to put her grandmother in her place, so to speak; they can arrest her, lock her up, deport her. But later, when the grandmother does have a run-in with a police officer, Stacey feels pity. She finally sees her grandmother’s confidence is a front. She realizes that sometimes the people who behave the most bombastically are the most vulnerable.

DT: What’s your favorite moment in the story, either as a writer or a reader?

JZ: I like it when the grandmother re-enacts Allen’s birth and convinces him she gave birth to him, not his mother, and they do this whole bit where he runs underneath her nightgown and then tumbles out and exclaims, “I’m born! I’m born! I’m zero years old.”

DT: What was the most difficult part of the story to write or figure out?

JZ: This is going to sound disingenuous, but the hardest part was comma placement. I crazily oscillated between wanting to take out commas and wanting to add more in.

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