On Feb. 6, the Literary Arts department welcomed poet and short story author Jenny Zhang to read her work as part of its Writers on Writing series. Almost 100 people filled the seats in the McCormack Family Theater as the lights dimmed.
During the hour-long event, Zhang read excerpts from “Sour Heart,” her debut collection of short stories, and her forthcoming poetry collection, “My Baby First Birthday.”
Both excerpts describe a young Chinese-American girl’s struggle to relate to her heritage while also attempting to fit into American culture.
“Sour Heart” was inspired by “a phase where (Zhang) was really interested in writing about family.”
“I was interested in questions of childhood and how a child navigates coming into the world feeling so beholden and indebted … while still getting to be a child,” Zhang told The Herald.
Zoë Fuad ’23, an audience member who had previously not heard of Zhang, said she “felt incredibly seen” by the collection. “These stories feel so personal and universal somehow at the same time,” Fuad continued, “the way she writes is striking, … it resonates in you.”
“Sour Heart” is a required text for Writers on Writing, a course offered every semester in two iterations — one designed as a first-year seminar and the other as an advanced 1000-level class.
The course instructors invite each author and poet featured in the seminar to read their works in front of an audience; Zhang’s reading is only the first of many. “It’s one of the best things that the Literary Arts department offers to its students,” said Karan Mahajan, assistant professor of literary arts and teacher of the 1000-level edition of the seminar. “Access to some of the most vital voices of the time … is something that should really be treasured.”
Mahajan commented on students’ positive responses to the collection, referring to Zhang as a “voice of her generation.” The author received the the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the Arts Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 2017.
Mahajan also described Zhang’s collection as “one of the major fictional debuts of the last five years, if not the decade.” The Literary Arts department included the book in the course for its “astonishingly fearless voice that uses the syntax of childhood … to make very adult observations about the immigrant experience,” he said.
Zhang wrote the first story in the collection when she was a sophomore in college: “(The first story) was just something I wanted to say and then I kept writing. … Over time it just seemed like I had written a portrait of a collection of people that I thought went well together,” Zhang said.
Zhang called herself “willfully naïve,” recalling that she wasn’t scared of publishing these personal stories because she “knew if (she) thought about it too much (she) would be scared.”
“I didn’t know what would happen. … Back then, I was just so hell-bent on being able to say what I wanted to say that I wasn’t thinking about what would happen once someone let me say it,” she added.
Although she was unafraid, Zhang expected some backlash. “There’s not a lot of examples of young, non-white women writing crudely, or obscenely, or explicitly, … and not being torn apart for it,” she said.
She described her writing process as trying to answer “broad, big questions” with more precise ones. “How is a person supposed to live? What is love, truly? Why do horrible things happen? … Within (those questions), I have specific questions that occupy me, and then I write so much towards that question I don’t have any more to say,” she explained.
The next Writers on Writing seminar will feature Poet and Sound Artist Tracie Morris, and will be held in McCormack Family Theatre on Feb. 13, from 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM.