There are mistakes in Jenny Zhang’s titles. The name of her 2012 poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, misspells its final word, and the possessive “s” is lost in that of her upcoming collection, My Baby First Birthday. These are mistakes, but they are also so much more. They are acknowledgements that we live in a world of many languages. They are proof of the impossibility of communicating exactly what we mean. They are refusals to correct, to edit, to conform.
This unabashedness is viscerally felt across Jenny’s fiction, poetry, and essays. The chorus of Chinese-American preteen girls who narrate her 2017 story collection, Sour Heart, have treasure-trove interiorities that spill into run-on paragraphs; their innermost thoughts are given weight through entirely capitalized sections. Her essays published in the online magazine Rookie orbit around ideas of coping and uncertainty—how to use humor as a foil for racism; how to resist the burden of your friends’ drama—building for her readers an unofficial survival guide to adolescence. And her poetry is tactile and urgent:
the first human year ever recorded
melted so flagrantly it became stylish to be poetic
for the end of the world
The insistence in this language—one that places geological time and notions of apocalypse in the same space as an earthly, everyday reality—welcomes a sense of extreme closeness, of enormous intimacy. It’s as if once you begin reading, a spotlight shines down, and the distance between reader and writer collapses—Jenny is speaking to you, and only you.
Jenny called me while she took an afternoon walk around her new home of Los Angeles. Over the phone, her voice is sincere and measured, her ideas bursting at the seams. Here, we discuss made-up languages, texting as poetry, and how to champion living in the in-between.
Alex Westfall: What can we expect (or not expect) from the poems in My Baby First Birthday?
Jenny Zhang: The first thing that ever happens to us is that someone makes the decision that we're going to exist. That the first thing we all experience is non-consensual is troubling; so is the great paradox that the only way out of existence is to die. I have this dream of, “Well, what if I could go back in time? Then I wouldn't have had to ever feel like I exist.” It’s a silly thought. Or maybe it’s sad, depending on what place you're in. I’ve also thought, “Well, I've experienced life, I've made it this far.” So in some ways, I can't give up existing, but I've kind of existed against my will. Am I supposed to cherish that?
I’m also interested in the fetish we have for motherhood and being a baby. I’m drawn to this idea that we get to begin innocent, how we're less and less so as time goes on, and the unfairness of that. There is a desire to return to innocence even if most of us probably have no memory of it—it feels like a fantastical place, like a dream.
So the poems are about all that stuff. They’re also not about any of that stuff. Some of it is text messages I've had with friends. Texting is a kind of poetic because of its natural line breaks; everyone is creating poems by phone. I don't want to make it sound like the collection is lofty; it’s also extremely un-lofty!
AW: I love the both-ness with which you’ve described the collection, which reminds me—in college, you studied both race and ethnicity studies and creative writing. I’ve found that the separation of disciplines in schools often makes it hard for someone who both studies theory and makes creative work—it is up to the student to navigate the realms of absorbing knowledge and creating things. Is this resonating at all?
JZ: You’ve unlocked something for me, which was that I've always felt like I was neither that nor this—but I think really, it's what you were saying, that there is such pressure and a cultural impulse to have an identity with defined borders. I've always felt like I was floating between things, living in these interstitial spaces. I was drawn to studying comparative studies in race and ethnicity at Stanford because it was interdisciplinary. I didn't just want to take a sociology class—I wanted history, comparative literature, political science.
Depending on the kind of writer you are, it makes sense to be curious about the world. But college is a time where you're supposed to be “professionalizing,” and I was bad at that; I don't think I respected it. So I studied a lot of different things. I took lots of creative writing classes because that was what I was really nerdy about and wanted to do as much as possible.
Stanford was a pretty dorky place. I didn't know what a Libertarian was until I got there... every freaking dude there was a Libertarian and probably now identifies as a sapiosexual or something—like that class of person, ha! I would meet people and think, “Oh, we share similar politics, but we don't share a similar sense of humor,” or maybe they’d have regressive ideas about sex. And the people I shared more of an aesthetic sensibility with, they were not people I shared a political relationship with. So that was a common thing to feel at that age. It has been the project of my entire life up until now and is still ongoing: to find people with whom you can be at home in all these different quadrants of your identity. It’s been hard, but I'm always looking.
AW: You’ve worked as both a union and youth organizer. As you've moved through your life as a writer, how have you reconciled the realms of art and politics?
JZ: I don't want to make it sound like I'm an activist, because I am definitely not—much respect to those who are and do that as part of their life and daily practice. As a writer, it was never a conscious decision to be able to comment about politics or things happening in the world. I was never like, “How do I make the political personal or the personal political?” It was just that I had lived a life and had been around people who had lived a life. I encountered politics as a lived person.
When Sour Heart came out, people would ask, “How do you think immigration policy has changed?” and I'd respond, “I don't know! I'm no scholar in immigration history; I am simply someone who has immigrated to the United States.” I can't explain the ways in which policy is made and how that trickles down to affect different people—it would take days to just explain how it affected me or my friends!
There is something that happens when I read books that capture an experience that in some way is tied to the macro-changes happening in domestic and global politics and policies. I'm having a hard time articulating, but I think there is something very cerebral about policy and talking about ideology. For most people including myself, in experiencing it first-hand, politics is more like a feeling. So I try to capture that feeling in my writing.
AW: When you mention politics as emotion, I immediately thought of your prose poem “How it Feels,” published in Poetry Magazine. You tackle this question of turning raw emotion into writing, making space for your reader to question why we crave to process our feelings. I was wondering if you could talk about how you turn interiority into something that feels ready to be seen publicly. Do you see value in unpolished, uncalculated art?
JZ: I think a lot of people come to art in whatever form because it gives a shade, a value, a look to something that we feel but may not always be able to express— especially when we're young. Everyone has that memory of hearing that one song where you suddenly find that your whole body is vibrating, and you don't even know why. I was talking to my good friend, the comedian Jenny Yang, and we were talking about the film Mulholland Drive. And she was talking about how she'd seen it as a teenager, and how there was a scene with a singer in a club who sings this beautiful, haunting song. And she just started crying. I’ve had those moments too, where suddenly I see, hear, or read something, and I can't stop laughing or crying. It was like my body knew before my brain did that it was meaningful to me. There is something so mysteriously pleasurable about that. The downside is when you need to process but can’t—when you're like, “My body wants to die, I don't know what to do about it, and I don't know how to relieve myself of this depression, this fear, this anxiety.” So it can go both ways.
Writing is both a very conscious and unconscious thing. Sometimes the first draft of things I write are more unconscious—I couldn't tell you how I wrote “How it Feels,” I just remember that I was locked up in my apartment for 24 hours on a hot summer day, and I had no A.C. Somehow, I wrote it. Then there are other times where I do remember. Editing is more of a conscious act for me.
I like when I read something less structured, that evokes a familiar feeling. But I'm also very happy reading extremely plotted things, being on the edge of my seat. I think I try to do a combination of those two things in my work.
AW: You've spoken before in praise of bands like the Cocteau Twins, who would often sing in their own made-up languages—how you love that you can't decipher what they're saying. What is exciting to you about art or writing that is “illegible?”
JZ: We come to art in mysterious ways. A song that you first listen to when someone has broken your heart has this power for the rest of your life—when you hear it, it transports you back to that time and a feeling. I remember I had this taste in my mouth when someone close to me had just died. I was really hungry, and had eaten this snack. That taste always brings me back to the hospital.
I think it makes sense that many people's first attempt at creative writing is poetry—it is the form that most closely mimics the unconscious. It embraces the unknowable of it all that we’re trying to work through. And I think the reason it is embarrassing to look back at poetry you’ve written is because it doesn't make sense. It's esoteric, so mysterious, so personal, that it is untranslatable to someone who didn't live in your brain; who didn't live in your body. It's always interesting to me: the process of maybe feeling something, but how do you get someone to feel it with you—that’s a whole other thing you have to learn to do, if what you want to do is write stuff for other people to read and get something out of.
AW: You write poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and now, scripts for film and TV. How do varying degrees of truth operate across the different mediums that you work with?
JZ: I'm curious to know what you mean when you say “true.” Or are you asking me to define what truth is?
AW: I'm thinking about what you said about poetry— how it can be the most unconscious, raw, or pure version of yourself at a moment in time, versus something that's more traditionally thought of as “truth,” like your early autobiographical essays in Rookie. And then there are your more hybrid works, like the fictional stories in Sour Heart that sometimes draw from experiences you've had. I guess I’m just thinking about the different layers there.
JZ: That word has definitely become politicized. Now that I've had some experience working in Hollywood, I’ve noticed a fetish for the phrase “based on a true story.” In some cases, it automatically makes people more interested, or it makes it feel more incredible, that it “really happened.” There is something both scary and cultish to me about anyone who says “I have the answers, I'll tell you how to really live,” you know, people who are all like, “I want the facts. What oil do I eat that will keep me healthy—coconut oil or avocado oil?” It's constantly changing, you know? People will preach one thing, and then a single article comes out, and suddenly that thing becomes, like, never again.
There’s a fetish in the culture for being able to discern the truth, but there are people living in entirely different realities from our own. In writing these essays for Rookie, I had to get fact-checked for the first time in my life. It's strange, because I don't think there is one single thing that two people would describe, that both have experienced, in the same way. So that highlighted for me what I don't know. I can only describe a reality in writing, and can only be true to that reality.
I’m not sure there is much more that I, as a fiction writer and poet, can do. Maybe that's why I stopped writing essays. There are so many expectations placed on writing the essay, and the form has somewhat become a way for young people, queer folks, and people of color to confess their traumas. And that gets consumed in a certain way, and that gets fact-checked by a whole culture, and then that becomes evidence for more truth. There's something about that whole process that feels so unverified and so exploitative. And though I didn’t ever feel comfortable, I participated in it.
AW: In “How it Feels,” you write, “I think everyone just wants to make something touchable.” I love the idea of writing something that is touchable in both the physical and emotional senses. Have you read, experienced, or seen something recently that has felt touchable to you, or something that you've been touched by?
JZ: The films of Yasujiro Ozu and Abbas Kiarostami have been so impactful recently. I’ve started listening to Beach House again—the album Depression Cherry, I love. My friend Victoria Ruiz is in this band based in Providence called Downtown Boys, and I went to their concert a few months ago—I couldn't even use words to tell you how it was because it was beyond words. As far as poetry goes, I started reading Danez Smith, and always like to read my friends Tommy Pico and Morgan Parker. I love to read one of their poems out loud at the end of a long day.
ALEX WESTFALL B’20 is patiently waiting for My Baby First Birthday—which Mitski said “devoured her”—out in May 2020 via Tin House Books.