Jenny Zhang: 'Tiny Stories' Are Vital to Literature

The Sour Heart author discusses Roberto Bolaño’s “Dance Card,” humanizing minor characters through irreverence, and homing in on history’s footnotes.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

Jenny Zhang’s story collection Sour Heart begins with something you don’t see often in fiction: a two-page meditation on the logistics of taking “a big dump.” The Zhang family lives in a crumbling building on a particularly drug-ridden block in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where a faulty toilet often forces them to run, clenching their bowels, to the gas station across the street. Too poor to buy a toilet plunger, the Amoco is their humiliating last resort.

It’s an indicative anecdote. Sour Heart often derives its strength from Zhang’s ability to locate humor, pathos, and magic in the kind of mundane, everyday scenarios other writers might skip over entirely—the utter boredom of childhood afternoons, the frantic prickle of a nocturnal skin itch, the grinding daily degradations of poverty.

In a conversation for this series, Zhang spoke about Roberto Bolaño’s “Dance Card,” a short story that pays tribute to what is overlooked, silenced, and forgotten. It’s an elegy to the neglected Chilean writers and artists who lost their homes, their minds, and sometimes their lives resisting the violent Pinochet regime, installed in a U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973. She explained how the story’s unusual approach helped her learn to foreground minor characters and historical footnotes through irreverence and absurdity—techniques that also help flout the literary establishment’s attempts to idealize, sanitize, and pigeonhole writers who address aspects of the immigrant experience.

Sour Heart features a cast of loosely connected, Chinese American narrators as they strive against destitution toward dignity, and negotiate the fierce, fraught love between child and parent. It’s the first book published by Random House’s new Lenny imprint, selected by the Girls creator Lena Dunham. Jenny Zhang is also the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and essays in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and Rookie. She lives in Brooklyn and spoke to me by phone.

Jenny Zhang: Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth shows you the eye of the storm by focusing on the most far-flung margin, the thing that’s farthest from the center. The book gives a sense of the things that were happening in Latin America during the 1970s, particularly the revolutionary struggles in Chile after the military coup. But though you can feel the impact of the violence, the disappearances, the fear and paranoia that engulfed people at the time, Bolaño rarely addresses the political context head-on. On the big events, he mostly stays silent.

At first, this surprised me. We tend to approach world literature with the historical turning points in mind—wars, revolutions, the things that make it into the newspapers. I came to Last Evenings on Earth expecting this, probably out of my own ignorance of what it meant to be Chilean in the 1970s. Ultimately, though, I found it even more moving and frightening to encounter these desperate characters in their less extraordinary hours. They’re afraid for their lives, but we mostly encounter them on the days when the death squads they’re trying to elude don’t actually show up.

The book is a reminder that the most interesting things in life and literature tend to be the mundane, the banal, the pathetic, the easily overlooked. The final story in the collection, “Dance Card,” is especially an ode to the struggles of minor characters—and a scathing critique of the human impulse to cast certain historical figures as mythic heroes, while forgetting about the rest.

“Dance Card” is presented as a numbered list, which gives it the feeling of a library catalog, or the index at the back of a book, or the collected footnotes to a larger story we never get to read. The unnamed narrator, B, tells his life story in this fascinating way—almost as if he’s writing his autobiography by sharing only what seem like the most minor and insignificant parts of his life.

The first thing we learn about him is that he spent his youth obsessed with Pablo Neruda, Chile’s best-known and best-selling poet, which his mother read to him constantly as a child. But the narrative of B’s life becomes, in many ways, the story of his falling out of love with Neruda. By the end, you feel almost horrified by the suggestion that a single voice could stand in for the experiences of an entire country.

Though the piece grapples with the physically and psychologically violent fallout of a military coup, it’s telling that the central dramatic scene involves not bloodshed but something more everyday: B’s argument with a filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky, about poetry. When Jodorowsky tells B that Nicanor Parra is the greatest Chilean poet, praising him and reciting his works by heart, B argues for Neruda, the artistic father figure he has cherished since childhood. Looking back, B mocks his naive devotion to Neruda:

At that stage I was a highly sensitive young man, as well as being ridiculous and full of myself, and I declared that Chile’s finest poet was, without any doubt, Pablo Neruda. All the rest, I added, are midgets.

B admits later that he’d only read two Neruda collections at that point, and even then had already grown tired of one of them. After making his pathetic case, B leaves the house in tears, forced to recognize the world is so much larger than he knows. The argument seems to change him. A year later, he’s still a Neruda fan, but he starts to read more widely and learns to revere the names of other poets.

Ultimately, the narrator—like so many Bolaño characters—becomes obsessed with what we don’t get to read. He’s spooked by the obscure poets, the forgotten minor figures whose work has been lost or destroyed. The story is filled with brief asides, alluding to writers who died under torture, who died of AIDS or overdoses, who met various inglorious ends. And in light of all these forgotten voices, Neruda’s monolithic stature becomes revolting to him. At the end of the story, he likens him to Ugolino, an Italian count who appears as one of the damned in Dante’s Inferno, a man who stabbed his own nephew to maintain power and was imprisoned with his children who implored him to cannibalize their bodies once they were dead. In the final page, it’s almost as if Neruda’s continued fame parasitically feeds off the suffering younger generation:

66. Do we have to come back to Neruda as we do to the Cross, on bleeding knees, with punctured lungs and eyes full of tears? 67. When our names no longer mean a thing, his will go on shining, his will go on soaring over an imaginary domain called Chilean Literature. 68. By then all poets will live in artistic communities called jails or asylums. 69. Our imaginary home, the home we share.

B comes to feel there’s just too many examples of people who died without pity, who died without forgiveness, without redemption, to really believe that every human gets the destiny they deserve—or that there’s even such a thing as deservedness, especially in art. He’s tormented by the thought that Neruda’s name will “go on shining,” long after the names of his fallen contemporaries “no longer mean a thing.” Bogged down by all these tiny stories of the forgotten poets, the wretched ones, he can no longer believe in what he originally wanted: a leader, a meaningful leader.

We seem to need our poets and writers to be more than that—we’re not satisfied with just them being mere artists. But “Dance Card” reminds us that each time you amplify one voice, you silence another. I think that’s one reason why, in this story, Bolaño takes such pains to torpedo his own myth. Bolaño was very aware of how easy it was for it him to become a symbol, how easy it would be to elevate him into an archetypal Latin American writer, and this collection actively tries to ward off future attempts to do that.

Throughout Last Evenings on Earth, Bolaño is ambiguous and contradictory about his own autobiography. In all the stories, the narrator is unnamed or just “B”—and it’s not clear to what extent these characters can be separated from one another, which characteristics or events are autobiographical or imagined. I like the way they blur together—it think it influenced the way I approached Sour Heart, a collection of stories where every single narrator is a Chinese American girl, the progeny of Chinese artists and poets, whose lives intersect and converge in minor, but significant ways. I think I learned from Bolaño how to present different aspects of a fragmented self in a way that eludes any easy autobiographical reading.

The real Bolaño did participate in some revolutionary activities in Chile (although even that has been hotly debated)—famously, he was arrested, and locked up with other political prisoners who were being tortured. But though similar circumstances befall the narrator of “Dance Card,” it’s not told like Orwell coming back from war with his battle scars. We’re told, instead, the pathetic, comic story of a failed resistance, as if Bolaño’s saying: I joined the revolution and was bored. When the character B goes to the only revolutionary cell in the suburban town he’s in, the other freedom fighters are all senior citizens—or else they are 15. He’s sent to keep watch in an empty street, and he forgets his password. When he’s picked up during a random road check, the whole event is written to emphasize the randomness and absurdity of his misfortunes. B spends the night in a jail, and while he can hear others being tortured near him, he is left alone to pass the time reading a magazine article about Dylan Thomas. The whole thing is much more pathetic than heroic. It’s almost like he fails to be in “the right story”—as if he’s just a footnote in a larger narrative.

I love the way he plays with our expectations of autobiography, how he frustrates our desire to find the perfect leftist, activist, Latin American writer and revolutionary who is heroic in all the right ways. It provided a way to write about the stories I heard growing up, about another failed revolution where poets and artists were often jailed over the most trivial and petty of things, where their lives ended in tragic and absurd ways. I was captivated by my parents’ stories of the Cultural Revolution—stories of people dying, and street fights, and torture, stuff that was all very sensational and hard to forget. But after those stories ended, there were always other stories about the people whose stories ended in more comic ways, less glorious ways. I remember hearing about a man who went through all these machinations to elude capture by Mao Zedong’s regime, only to end up stranded in the U.S. Virgin Islands, cut off from his family for 30 years. When they were finally reunited, he promptly lost a leg in a freak accident.

Similarly, in “Dance Card” B hears three different versions of the same story of a Chilean woman who was a member of the MIR (the leftist revolutionary organization that was systematically targeted, rounded up, tortured, and murdered by the Pinochet regime) “having live rats put into her vagina” and who survives only to “die of sadness” years later. The character B isn’t sure if it’s an incredibly common story or if each of the stories was referring to the same woman. Bolaño tends to foreground those footnoted, overlooked tragedies in a way I find really beautiful.

Whenever there are significantly awful historical events, I’ve found there’s always a lot of comedy in them despite the gruesomeness. There’s a way certain things—death, extreme poverty—are deemed so tragic that they cannot be profaned, they can only be spoken of reverently or seriously. It’s been important to me in my writing to show that people are not only defined by the hardships they experience. Women are often defined by the worst thing that has happened to them. Even just calling someone an “immigrant” implies that their identity is bound by the most difficult thing that’s happened to them. To me, that’s just not an interesting use of literature. You can bring out the humor in people’s situations without trivializing them.

Think about it: If it weren’t so shitty and miserable to be poor, it would be really funny. There’s a part in the first story in Sour Heart where this Chinese American family lives in a violent, unsafe, poor neighborhood—I tried to convey that by describing the way their stuff gets stolen every week by the same people, and each time they buy it back it only gets stolen again. It’s not a scary confrontation with knives—it’s this grinding inconvenience that eventually drains their funds, forcing them, ultimately, to move out.

Sometimes that’s what poverty is. The fact that it costs so much to be poor is absurd. Poor people often have very little access to healthy food and are forced to shop in supermarkets that sell expired goods, rotting produce, and they have to do it at a higher premium than rich people. Poor people also pay disproportionately more of their income for rent. If that weren’t so supremely terrible, if their humanity hadn’t been so completely compromised, it would be comic.

Being scatological is another way I found the humor in my characters suffering. Maybe it’s inappropriate and immature—but when you’re hungry, do you know how much you think about what you put in you, how much you think about what comes out of you? Your whole life is dictated by the things that are or are not going in you, that are or are not coming out of you. That’s a huge part of life, especially for immigrants who are used to eating a completely different set of foods at home, and I felt like it was worthy of pages.

When I go back to China, every single one of my elders has a laundry list of issues with their bowels and their bowel movements. It’s because so many of them lived through a time of famine where they literally had to eat bark, some of them while working under extremely harsh conditions. I had an aunt who was sent to work in Heilongjiang, an area that borders Siberia and China. For eight years, she said, she was served this thing called mantou in the morning—a kind of bread she had to eat within 10 seconds or it would literally turn to ice. For eight years of her life, every morning, she had this ice cube of bread in her stomach and now she has these horrible stomach problems—just the way so many other people have horrible back problems, or knee problems, because of the labor they had to do.

The narrators of my stories descend from people who lived through that, and in some small way I think there’s something powerful in laughing at something really terrible that happened to you. After all, there’s nothing more dangerous than making fun of a tyrannical regime—humor and profanity are the first things that are rounded up and eliminated. More than that: These tiny moments of levity are what free people from being mere victims to the vagaries of history. To take humor out of someone’s narrative is to deprive them of a kind of humanity. It’s using them, too—a way of wielding people functionally. But no one wants to be a pawn in someone else’s ideological signaling. You want to be a full, whole human. You want your humanity to be restored.

The fear of being used symbolically haunts me. I fear how quickly the symbolic usages that my writing might have can eclipse the writing itself. I realize that I’m very easy to tokenize. I’m very easy to wield symbolically. I have an anxiety that our need to have a way to talk about the “immigrant experience” will override what I’m actually writing about. But I don’t want to be anointed a chronicler of the immigrant experience. I worry that my work will become too meaningful in all the ways that I never wanted it to be, and not meaningful enough in all the ways that I want it to be.

And yet, now that I have this book out, I think I also feel some amount of shame: Why is it that I get to be read? Why has someone decided that what I have to say should be heard? On the other side of not wanting to be forgotten, of not wanting to vanish, is—for me, at least—shame that I now exist on the page. I fear that my words will be misunderstood, but I also have shame about fearing that because I don’t want to be so controlling about something I’ve made. It’s just that poetry and literature are often used as proxies in these ideological, cultural battles. And writers are constantly saying: No, just read the actual words.

There’s such longing at the end of “Dance Card.” There’s this longing for community in every single thing that Bolaño wrote. In almost every book, he writes about someone who has this initial interest, curiosity, idealism, who goes searching for an artistic poetic community where their words and ideas will matter. Then there’s this fall from grace, realizing that maybe no such thing exists—or that all communities are fractured and disturbed and destroyed by in-fighting and pettiness, but also real differences.

I think every writer who still goes on and doesn’t quit, must have that longing, must keep that longing alive and must in some way not be willing to give up on that possibility that’s there’s a shared home for all of us who believe in the beauty of words and language and stories and poetry. What Bolaño, at the end of “Dance Card,” calls “our imaginary home, the home we share.” It’s a dark vision—in the line before, he suggests the best poets can hope for are “artistic communities called jails or asylums.” You have to ask yourself if he means “asylum” in the sense of “refuge” or “asylum” in the sense of a place you’re thrown into because you’re politically persecuted or because you’re deranged and deformed by all the suffering that’s befallen you.

But there’s also a glimmer of hope. A sense of the poet’s longing: Please don’t take my imagination away from me, let me have that, let me have a home there. All writers have imaginary homelands, especially exiled writers who literally cannot go home, and there is a sense that the home we do share is that realm of the imagination, a place where all our voices can be heard.

I still believe in it. Writing is an asylum in both senses of the word: I’m finally on safe ground, and also I’m going mad. All together with everyone else. Literature is a place to go mad together.