Arts and Entertainment

“Sour Heart”: A New Immigrant Narrative

Jenny Zhang’s superb short story collection “Sour Heart” examines family and adolescence through the lens of Asian-American femininity.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Susannah Ahn

The model minority myth that has so thoroughly permeated American media generally depicts Asian immigrants as quiet, prim, and successful. Jenny Zhang’s short story collection, “Sour Heart,” published in 2017, peels back the layers of the model minority narrative to reveal the often messy reality that lies underneath. The eight short stories, which were generally well-received, are all narrated in the first person, and though the narrators range from a fourth grader to a college student, they share some basic similarities. All are Asian girls raised by immigrant parents, and all are tangentially connected by an apartment that each of their parents shared at one point. Despite the unique point of view, the text shows a great degree of maturity that makes it appeal to younger and older readers alike. Zhang inhabits the mind of a curious child with nuance—she beautifully encapsulates all the mundane and ugly parts of childhood with strong emotional language while still maintaining the authenticity of adolescence.

The strength of “Sour Heart” comes from Zhang’s adept balance between the gritty pieces of childhood and the unique experience that children raised by immigrants face. “The Evolution of My Brother” and “Our Mothers Before Them” are two stories that characterize this particularly well. “The Evolution of My Brother,” one of Zhang’s earliest pieces, describes the complex relationship that siblings within an immigrant family often have. Protagonist Jenny’s assimilation experience is reflected in her relationship with her brother, and though parts of the story are witty (if not downright funny), it also contains touching reflections on what it means to be human, as both a member of a family and as an individual. “Our Mothers Before Them” takes a more negative view of immigrant parenting—Annie’s mother in the story is shown to be extremely manipulative, and the volatility of her emotions regularly threatens her children’s happiness. The narrator expresses a great deal of ambivalence about her sympathy toward her mother for what she went through during the Cultural Revolution as well as the inevitable resentment she feels for the way she has been raised.

In “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” however, the narrative becomes a little too bold. While Zhang’s other stories contain a common thread that connects the narrators to her readers, in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” readers are more likely to be disgusted than intrigued. Characters Lucy and her friend Francine focus not on their homes but on rather graphic descriptions of their bodies: the prospect of nine-year-olds exploring each others’ genitals verges on unrealistic. Zhang tips the scale too far in the other direction in “My Days and Nights of Terror.” This is Zhang’s only story in which the narrator seems a little less curious and a little more mousy, and the frankness with which the other narrators speak is absent. Mande focuses on her toxic friendship and how she wants to learn English to talk to God, but she glosses over her parents’ fights and the bruises on her mother’s face. As a result, the story carries less depth and swings too wildly between the narrator’s interest in religion and her abusive household—they feel like unconnected threads that are shoddily resolved at the end.

Zhang is particularly adept at characterizing the parent-child relationships in Asian immigrant households. Though her depictions range from emotionally abusive to generous and loving, there is a string that connects all of the immigrant parents: a drive to give their children a better life. Most of the stories are defined by the parallels drawn between the coming-of-age the narrators face and the process by which their families assimilate. Through its varied viewpoints, “Sour Heart” offers a cohesive look at what it means to be an immigrant and what it means to be the first generation born in America.

Prior to publishing “Sour Heart,” Zhang released much of her fiction on Rookie, a website started by Tavi Gevinson in 2011 that aimed to give teenage girls a creative outlet. She also wrote a good deal of essays on Rookie at this time, and her voice in these essays is quite similar to the narrative tone of the stories in “Sour Heart.” Much of Zhang’s work in “Sour Heart” touches on the same themes she explored on Rookie. She cites virtually identical anecdotes in “The Evolution of My Brother” and “All I Want,” a piece of fiction she published on Rookie. It’s evident that she’s also drawn from many of her own experiences—besides Zhang’s general background as an Asian-American woman raised by immigrant parents, she also makes references to attending Stanford and feeling repressed by the homogeneity of Long Island’s suburbia. Rather than seeming lazy or unoriginal, however, Zhang’s recycling of her old work indicates to readers that her writing is ever-evolving. Just as the characters of her short stories grow over the course of their narratives, Zhang’s writing has also grown, and this is what makes “Sour Heart” a work to be lauded.