Jenny Zhang was born in Shanghai and grew up in New York. She is the author of the poetry collections My Baby First Birthday and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and the story collection Sour Heart.
Grace H. Zhou: I want to thank you for making time for this interview, despite everything happening around us with the pandemic. How are you? How are you doing under quarantine?
Jenny Zhang: Thank you for asking. I’m okay. I have all my basic needs met. I have a job where I can work remotely. I’m a relatively healthy person who is not in a high risk category. So I’m in a pretty privileged position.
I’m really sad for my city. I live in New York, and I grew up here. I’ve always had a fraught relationship to identifying with a place. I’m the person who can’t go to pep rallies. I can’t go to sporting events. I have a hard time cheering for a team that is connected to a place where I happen to live, because I’ve lived in so many places. How do you define a place? Is it by its governance? Is it by its leadership? Is it by sports teams? Is it by its people? There are all kinds of different people in New York. In the last decade, it has been overrun by the flagrantly rich and the greedy. I don’t identify with those people. Now, so many of those people have fled the city to their second and third homes, and it does feel like New York is filled with people who mostly don’t have cars, who mostly don’t have laundry in their buildings, who mostly live in multi-unit buildings. These are not the conditions under which one can easily socially distance. These are not the conditions under which one can go to a drive-up testing center, even if there were enough of them. We don’t even have cars. I was thinking just yesterday that if I needed to go to the doctor or to the hospital—how would I even get there? Would I just walk there? And I have everything I need, so how is it for most New Yorkers? I feel a tinge of pride in the people who have remained in the city through the worst of times, a feeling that they are very honorable people and they deserve better.
GHZ: I feel similarly. I’m in Oakland [California], but I’ve also lived in all sorts of different places. My family is on the east coast. I have relatives in China. I’ve been watching this whole thing play out since January, and I’ve been feeling really worried about folks in all those places. Exactly like you say, how do you get to the hospital? How have these services been set up?
JZ: I have family in China, too. I have elderly grandparents in Shanghai, and they have walked two miles to the hospital—and this was not even during coronavirus, this was just during “normal” times—because of the difficulty of ride-hailing apps. A 90-year-old is not going to have an iPhone where they can download DiDi [a Chinese ridesharing service]. So instead my 90-year-old grandparent is walking two hours to his own stomach surgery because there’s no other way to get there. Sometimes these really small details are actually the fabric of a person’s life.
Also, I’m sure you’ve felt this, too, but why did nobody care that people in Wuhan were dying? It wasn’t until white Italian people were dying that the whole world was like, “Oh, God! A travesty!” Did it not matter when people that are thought of as less-than-human were screaming out for the world to care? It’s sad.
GHZ: It’s really sad. My next question is, are you still writing? I’ve personally found it hard to answer the demands of “productivity” when literal communities are dying. So I was wondering what your writing process looks like in times of overwhelm and crisis?
JZ: I feel like it’s very hard to sit down and write, especially to write an imagined world, or a fictional world, or a poetic world. Maybe because the actual world is in crisis. On the one hand, I want to be immediately useful in some way. On the other hand, because we’re still in the middle of a world that is going to change irrevocably, I want to get to the other side of this. I know time is not linear. It’s gummy. There’s not a clean before or after. But right now, I feel like we’re still in the fever dream. I don’t know how to write in the middle of this. Maybe at some point later I will be able to, but it feels like I need to know a little bit more about where we are going before I can write.
With productivity, there’s such a fetish for working hard. There’s such a fetish for not wasting time, for not being idle. In this country, we don’t even get to have healthcare unless we’re killing ourselves with work or we’re just ridiculously rich. Yet, the people who are making minimum wage and who are on the front lines are still taking public transit to work. There’s a huge divide. I don’t necessarily think of quarantine as a time to finish that project I’ve always wanted to finish. I don’t want to write an essay about living with corona. I just want to get through each day. I haven’t thought of it as an opportunity for productivity. I think it’s an opportunity for collective reckoning. I don’t know how I reckon every day, but I’m trying to think and read and understand. I also have a day job. If I write something, I write something. It comes more from an unconscious place than a conscious decision to write.
GHZ: I’m interested in what you’re saying about writing from an unconscious place. What is the relationship between writing and emotional processing for you? I was re-reading your essay “How it Feels” [in Poetry Magazine], where you write about Tracey Emin’s art and your moment of realization that you are against “processed emotions.” How do you tackle the emotional viscera of life while allowing it to still remain jagged and “sloppy?”
JZ: I wrote that five years ago. It’s interesting to tap into where my mind was when I wrote that. It’s stark to have a record of certain things I’ve believed in and maybe continue to [believe in]. I was recently thinking about this idea of processed emotions. You know, in some ways, it’s good to process things. There are different kinds of processes. There are meat processing plants where workers who are deboning chicken have fallen ill from COVID-19. That’s bad processing. It’s unhealthy in so many ways, and it was unhealthy before there was a global pandemic. Then, there is processing that is good, that as individuals and as humans we should learn to do.
In terms writing, what I was coming up against was the idea of making things palatable—being ready for prime-time, making your emotions ready to be displayed. I didn’t have the words for it, but at the time I was against the idea of crafting a brand for your emotions. I felt like the Internet was filled with “rawness” or “raw” emotions that were not really raw. They were actually calculated and they were actually optimized. Now, I think that’s okay, but at the time I was very disturbed by that. I was rejecting the performative aspect of writing about emotions, even though sharing work in public will always be performative in some way. It will always involve elements of craft and calculation, but I wanted to free myself of that at least in the process of writing. It gets harder as you get older because you become more aware of your effect on other people and the emotional effects of saying certain things. You become less innocent of how other people take your words. As we get older, we are more burned from the accumulation and baggage of bad experiences. I’m always trying to write from a freer place.
GHZ: Specifically in My Baby First Birthday, what kinds of emotions are you trying to channel? Did you have a conscious process for trying to evoke certain emotions, for calling them up in service of your craft?
JZ: MBFB felt like an era of my life in the same way that Sour Heart felt like an era of my life—and these are overlapping eras, as well. But if in Sour Heart I was interested in the debts of being born to someone, to a world, then MBFB is about the anger and resentment of having been born without choosing or consenting to that. In particular, being born to a world that is hostile, that is the opposite of nurturing, that doesn’t feel like a home. It is about grappling with those feelings. At the same time, it is about grappling with the ways in which the world is also magnificent and unforgettable. Having known it, I don’t want to go back and undo my existence. And then in other ways, I do want to go back and undo my existence. The highs and lows of human existence are always between the poles of, “I’m grateful to be born but I wish I was never born.” At least that’s where I go in my darkest, and that’s the pinnacle I go to at my highest.
At some point, I felt like I had thought about it so much that I was sick of it, sick of myself thinking about it. I needed a break. And that’s when I thought maybe all these poems from this era of thinking and feeling could be in one place, in a book. I don’t often preconceive of things. I’m always writing with no aim or goal. Later, I look back and I gather all the things, and then I try to make a book out of it. Maybe it’s part of being allergic to being calculating.
GHZ: I read MBFB as a deeply embodied text. I was wondering if could you speak a bit about the role of the lived-in body in your poetry. I’m specifically thinking about your essay “Against Extinction” [in The New Inquiry], where you wrote a line: “black and brown folks know what it is to use their bodies to resist death and degradation.” Can you speak to the connection between the lived-in body and the body in resistance or rebellion?
JZ: I don’t have a very intelligent answer, other than to say that feelings happen in the body first. Sometimes through traumatic experience, the only way to deal with the overwhelming sensors of pain and danger is to numb the body and disconnect from the body, to try to mute the body. In trying to read texts written by women when I was younger, I read a lot of texts that felt numb. That never quite resonated with me because my particular struggle in being a young girl was not being able to be numb, and wishing I could go numb, and wanting to do things that would numb me. Instead, I was always feeling like a bundle of nerves, that I was bubbling over with feeling. It wasn’t conscious, but in my very, very early attempts at writing poetry and fiction, I tried to write things that felt more contained. I tried to emulate what I had read, but it just was never me. In some ways I over-corrected. I wanted to be over-flowing, so gooey and goopy and dripping because I felt that was missing from what was available. Over time, because I have gotten to do that, I now feel less of a need to honor the experience of always having a body, of always feeling like the body is open to feeling. These poems really did come from an unconscious place. The struggle is—at least in the body I inhabit—to feel that I’m in a body that is available for all feelings, including pain. But that the pain is not just being done to me.
GHZ: In the book, seppuku comes up as a recurring motif, as a form of self-inflicted violence. You write about topics like sexual violence and racialized objectification, for example. In “needs revision!” you write, “how was I supposed to know / nothing counts if you’re a woman in pain / how was I supposed to know / the more I talk about my pain / the more white people literally profit.” I was thinking about how you try to write about themes of bodily pain and this kind of violence without submitting it to a capitalist or consumptive logic, or to a white patriarchal gaze. Seppuku is a kind of self-inflicted violence and not consumable in the same way, right?
JZ: With seppuku, it’s interesting because I am appropriating something that is not at all part of my culture, that I don’t have any authority to write about or joke about. It is something that is far deeper than anything I could ever know. I’m sort of playing with being glib about conflated Asian American identities. I’m also fetishizing this idea of Japanese culture that has been incredibly fetishized and misunderstood. This is a shared aspect of East Asian or Confucian culture, that there is an honorable way to say that the world is too shameful. That the most honorable thing to do would be to leave it, to exit. This is not a cowardly act, but a very dignified and honorable one.
I have a Chinese tarot deck. In the Rider-Waite deck, the major arcana card, the Hanged Man shows a man hanging upside-down. It’s the card of martyrdom. In the Chinese tarot deck that I have, it’s called the Hanging Ghost. It’s an image of a woman who has committed suicide and is now a ghost. It’s a reference to ancient Chinese culture, where if a woman has been raped and nobody believed her, one way that she could enact justice was to kill herself. If she did that in explicit response to having been raped and not believed, then the rapist and their family would be haunted by this person for generations. There are shades of similarity to Japanese ritual suicide. The idea is that if you have really run out of all options, and the world is really too evil, that you can kill yourself to enact this other kind of justice. It’s not a giving up, it’s actually the ultimate proactive act. That’s just the crude feeling and understanding that I’ve gotten through the way I’ve grown up and the people I’ve grown up around. It’s antithetical to the western conception of suicide. What does it mean to opt out in resignation and to just give up? And what does it mean to make opting out a proactive action, not just a reaction?
When I wrote “needs revision!” it was a time when there was national conversation around consent and sexual assault and rape. As always with moments like this, something terrible is being brought to the surface. There are several portals we could go through. We could go through the portal of, “Let’s transform the world and do the extremely hard work of what that takes.” Or we just pat ourselves on the back and think, “We brought something up, let’s go back to how it always was.” I didn’t ever want to mine my personal life for publications to pat themselves on the back for having published the harrowing account of someone who was hurt and harmed and traumatized. And then for that to not lead to justice and salvation or anything more than just having exposed myself and having exposed others to going back through their own trauma. I felt very trapped. If I don’t want to do that, then what can I do as a writer, as a person who publishes my writings in public? That’s why I was so drawn to these concepts that say, “You are not trapped. Death doesn’t have to be an ending. It can be another portal to opportunity.” Not that I wanted to physically kill myself, but I was interested in this idea being the ultimate resistance to commodifying one’s pain, to churning out essay after essay about trauma where the people described in those essays continue to have all that they had before the essay was written.
GHZ: So I have to ask, does the language and figure of “baby” in the book have to do with the “I’m baby” meme?
JZ: It does not, but it’s funny because this is the downside of waiting too long to publish anything. It looks like I’m three years late to the “I’m baby” meme. I started writing these poems in 2012. I started becoming interested in the concept of babbling, the concept of of innocence. I wrote a poem called “my baby first birthday” back in 2012. It’s actually a poem about H1N1, about SARS—so, full circle. It was another disease no one seemed to care about because it only affected Chinese people and other Asians. I was following it closely, and it had effects in my own family. I had a great-grandmother who was in a nursing home that was locked down and she died alone. No one was able to say goodbye to her. It was really sad. I had cousins who wanted to come to the U.S. for school and they were not permitted to.
I was interested in how H1N1 sounded, how it had the same intonation as “each one teach one.” It sparked something in my brain and so I wrote a poem. I was looking for a title. I was on Facebook, just idling, and there was a photo my uncle had posted of me as a one-year-old on my birthday, sitting between him and my dad. My mom had commented beneath that photo, “My baby first birthday.” So that’s the second time I’ve titled something after something she’s said. I owe her a lot. “Dear Jenny, we are all find” is also something she would write me a lot in e-mails. I liked the idea of “my baby first birthday,” because what does that mean? Is it my baby’s first birthday—me? Or is it her baby first birthday, now that she’s had me? It was grammatical error, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as an extremely poetic sentence. I started titling many different poems after this.
I liked this question of, when does a life start? Most of us don’t remember our [own] baby first birthday, but other people get to experience it. I was interested in the idea of just being a baby, the idea that we must protect babies at all costs. That it is only at the beginning of life that a human being must be sheltered and protected, and that only certain human beings are deserving of that. With every day that we get older, we become less and less deserving. And certain people don’t even get to be babies; they’re considered guilty even at a very young age. It was a fertile image in my mind. The meme happened in 2018 or 2019. It was a joke, but it felt like there was a collective desire to return to innocence or more innocent times. There was collective fatigue around having to know everything and always be accountable. It’s not a privilege to be cared for when you’re a baby. I think there was a collective yearning to return to babying, to babble and not needing to be articulate or defend a position.
GHZ: You were on the mark before it came out in a meme. And you can say that your mom, in essence, is the originator. Can we also talk about figure skating? Michelle Kwan, Tonya Harding, and Nancy Kerrigan come up a few times in different poems. Is there a particular cultural moment that you’re trying to evoke?
JZ: Like girls who grew up in the 90s, I was really into figure skating and gymnastics. They were two sports that I was into because they were so feminine-coded and theatrical, but you had to have brute strength. You needed so much power to leap that high in the air. I was drawn to the power that came from someone who was a girl. Some of the people competing were just teenagers. With figure skating, it was particularly exciting because there were Asian girls that were doing really well. Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. I was magnetically drawn to them. They were literally putting their bodies on the line, putting them in the realm of danger to entertain us. They were graceful and flamboyant, but also fueled by so much power. It was incredibly intoxicating. Later as an adult, I watched the ESPN documentary about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. It was interesting to revisit this. As a child, I remember Nancy as the upper-class ice princess and Tonya as the lower-class trailer park girl. But actually Nancy Kerrigan also came from a working class background. Tonya Harding was horrifically abused and assaulted by so many people in her life. I didn’t know how to think about that. In some ways, I’m not surprised to know that someone who participated in this incredibly punishing sport would come from backgrounds where they’ve been incredibly punished in other ways, too. I was just fascinated by that.
GHZ: You’ve said [in an AAWW interview] that your prose in Sour Heart was a reaction to the clean lines and minimalism praised in MFA workshops. Do you see your poetic voice as a reaction to any particular tendencies of the genre?
JZ: These poems are meant to be read out loud. Poetry is on the margins in a lot of ways. It exists in some ways outside of capitalism, because it is not easily converted into profit, though I know the landscape of poetry is changing. There has been a resurgence of interest in poetry. There’s Instagram poetry, and you can be an Instagram poetry influencer. But I got into poetry while I was in my MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I came from a tradition that was very much rooted in academia. I was around a lot of poets who planned on remaining in academia. I can’t say that I’m a total outsider to academic institutions, since I’ve been through plenty of them myself. I’ve enormously benefited from prestigious institutions. But I never felt like I could access or tap into academic language. I never felt like I could access or tap into the cerebral aspects of poetry. I never completed a poetry class at university. I would always drop out. I would always leave. I couldn’t understand the more technical aspects of poetry, and I felt very stupid. I didn’t understand what a spondee was no matter how many classes I took on prosody or poetic form, no matter how many times I read a Shakespearean sonnet versus a Petrarchan sonnet. It went in one ear and out the other.
I grew up around Chinese people who recited poetry and who can still recite poems. The sounds of classical Chinese poems are really rhythmic. They have a cadence. I know that is true for classical English poems, as well, but for some reason I was never able to attach to the canon of Western poetry. I felt very orphaned from a tradition. I felt very crude, like I didn’t have the credentials. I felt a lot shame around it, and continue to in some ways. I don’t know what I know my lineage would be. I’m sure it’s a lot of different things that I don’t even think of as my lineage, but it felt a little bit like I came out of nowhere, even though that’s not true. I can’t even access my own influences. In the end, I had to let go of that baggage and that pressure. In the end, I just wrote what felt right for me.
GHZ: What you say about lineage really resonates with me. It also impacts how your poetry is then read. People aren’t necessarily making that connection to classical Chinese poetry because it’s not part of the reference toolkit of an English-speaking audience. If you explain it, then you have to justify it. It can’t stand on its own, but then it becomes a cultural or ethnic thing.
JZ: Right. And you know, I don’t want in any way to make it sound like I’m referencing classical Chinese poetry. I’m referencing all the times in my childhood where I heard someone quote lines from classical Chinese poetry and all I heard were the sounds, but I didn’t know what any of the words meant together. Just because I know conversational Chinese in domestic situations doesn’t mean that I know classical Chinese. So, when you hear sounds but don’t know the meaning, is that sound poetry? Can I put that in the tradition of conceptual poetry? Not really, according to the guardians of conceptual poetry. Yet, I’m hearing sounds in a language whose immediate meaning I don’t know, and it evokes a feeling.
GHZ: It’s part of your own childhood, your own legacy, which is liminal. It’s in-between and nowhere, right? Okay, I have two more questions. One is that some of the poems in the book are co-authored by friends of yours. Could you talk a little about community and collective creativity? What was the impetus behind that and what was the process like?
JZ: A lot of the poems that were co-authored came out of texting. One of my theories for why people got into poetry in the last few years is that texting is a poetic form. There are natural line breaks. It has natural form. Things are stuttered in texts, you respond to a text from eight texts above, sometimes in real time, sometimes later. So if you were to read a text, it’s not question and answer, call and response, cause and effect. There can be synchronicities. Juxtapositions. Group texts with polyphonic voices. These are pillars of poetic form. Poetry feels so distant and inaccessible to most people because of the way that it’s taught. At least in the way that I was taught, you had to be incredibly “smart” and invest so much time to be able to understand a poem. There is the assumption that there are people who have the knowledge and people who don’t. That’s a terrible way to instill a love of poetry. But with texting, in this weird way, people suddenly have gained fluency with certain aspects of poetry. I started taking certain texts that I was having with friends and asked them if I could put them into poems. Friendship is a lyric, as well. Friendship is a kind of poetics. It is the closest thing to a relationship that is not bound by debt and obligation, but by a free and willing exchange.
GHZ: My final question returns to the current moment. Your book was released this month to a world that feels radically changed in many ways, but also where long-standing problems remain unchanged and even exacerbated. What are your feelings about this being the time and context of MBFB’s birth into the world? What do you hope that it might offer?
JZ: I wrote the book when the world was different. I did wonder, is it relevant to world now? Of course the world is always changing. Everything written is always a record of a moment. A person who writes has a role as a record-keeper. I was looking at the book the other day because I didn’t want to abandon it. The first poem is called “I keep thinking there is an august.” It’s about feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to, that August won’t be August. That the world is not worth living in, except that the only thing still worthwhile is tenderness and touch—wanted touch and mutual touch and collective touch. That to be touched in a loving way is the most worthwhile human experience of all. Most people want connection, but they want meaningful connection, not just any kind of interaction. They are disappointed by painful, traumatic, violent, and boring interactions. I did write this book from a place that cycled through feelings of, “Leave me alone, I never wanted to part of this world anyway,” to “Maybe I did want to be part of this world and not forsake it.” I guess that is still relevant. Touch is definitely still relevant now that it’s banned. We will always want touch that is meaningful and connective.
GHZ: That is something that struck me about your poems, that you’re offering touch, but it’s also from a place of loneliness. These two things coexist and they’re not mutually exclusive. I think that rings true especially now. Thank you so much for your time and this wonderful conversation. It was a pleasure to speak with you!