Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Thoughts

This book, it’s author, and premise felt like required reading for me. Stories about adolescent children of Chinese American immigrants growing up in New York City by a woman who grew up in NYC with immigrant parents. Though I’m not even close to my adolescence anymore, having just moved to New York 9 months ago, I feel very much that I’m growing up here and was curious if this book could serve as a roadmap in any way. And anyway, being the child of an immigrant, and being an adolescent aren’t things we really grow out of, they are parts of our identity that keep revealing themselves to us over time.

I felt more like this was a book about the otherness of being a child, rather than the otherness of being from elsewhere. We all know what it’s like to be other because we have been children and childhood is when we first navigate that knowledge that we are ourselves before we are assimilated. Zhang writes poignantly about the desperation with which we want to be known and loved… the simultaneous reluctance and emotional dependence we feel for them. Her portrayal of a “selfish” mother who gave up her life and dreams and resents her children and feels trapped by them was a complex piece that imagined how the volatility of uprooting a life can cause damaging shifts in someone’s mental health, and how they might perpetuate that volatility towards their children. She showed the helplessness of adolescence so much. How little we are in control of our actions and the actions of others… how helplessly we love those who confuse us and mistreat us. And I especially loved the way she wrote about a girl who’s grandmother administered a love that was unbearably suffocating, made less bearable by the girl’s own suffocating feelings of obligation to return that love. The girl also had to bear with her grandmother’s delusions of grandeur, a pride adopted that was necessary for survival at one point, that calcified into personality. When our parents tell us the stories of their lives, they romanticize hardships. I think children of immigrants then often romanticize hardship the way our parents as a way of relating, a way of belonging. As a point of pride, or to cover up our guilt at never having had to live through such hardships. I felt that Zhang romanticized the immigrant experience and the poverty and hardships endured and whereas I feel confused about my belonging amidst two cultures, the voices of the stories in Sour Heart seem to resound with pride and confidence in a belonging to Asian culture.

Perhaps because of that, I didn’t resonate as much as I had hoped I would with Zhang’s voice. I felt excluded by her culture and experiences somehow; though there were many similarities in people and situations encountered, her point of view was so different. Some of the writing was beautiful and authentic and heartbreaking, but more often than not, I felt like she was a very comtemporary Brooklyn writer trying too hard to find her voice as a young girl while romanticizing her experiences with all the ego of adolescence.

I was sad not to relate to this book more, and it made me realize how much I had been hoping for something familiar, something that would make me feel understood, make me nostalgic. But the particulars of someone else’s experience of otherness can serve to make us feel more isolated. This is precisely why we need more literature about otherness. No one can speak for anyone else. We can only speak to others about our own experiences. I keep approaching books about otherness hoping it will make me feel sameness. This book in its defiance of my expectations and needs is in itself, the very representation of the beauty that happens when otherness is wholly itself, existing to be heard, not to speak for others.

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