Jenny Zhang, graduate of Stanford University and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate visited Colgate University on Thursday, September 12 to discuss her collection of short-stories, Sour Heart, with Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice’s Living Writers class.
The collection of short stories frequently touches on sensitive or taboo topics such as extreme poverty and sexual assault and examines complex family relationships between several Chinese-American families over a period of time. Sour Heart was published under Lena Dunham’s imprint at Random House in August 2017.
All six stories are narrated by the distinct voices of first-generation Chinese-American daughters, but at times the families and their respective lives overlap. Zhang analogously described the relationships of the stories as separate rooms in a house that keep the foundation standing upright. Though the stories do not interact linearly, the themes, she said, intensify when put together.
“I was drawn to the idea of a bunch of narratives that overlapped,” Zhang said.
Before moving to Love Auditorium to read passages of “My Days and Nights of Terror” from Sour Heart, students in Colgate’s Living Writers course had the opportunity to ask Zhang questions in a more intimate setting.
“I thought Jenny Zhang’s visit was awesome and added an entirely new dimension to reading her collection of short stories. While reading the collection, I was genuinely wondering about how the short stories fit together in her mind, and to be able to ask her that directly was such a cool experience. It was also amazing to hear her read aloud from one of her stories and helped bring some of her characters to life,” senior Ruby Wald said.
Professor Brice said she was thrilled to welcome the first visitor of the series and start the course on a high note.
“It was fabulous. She was smart and generous and willing to answer hard questions about the work,” Brice said.
In Love Auditorium, faculty, students and members of the community joined Professor Brice’s class to hear Zhang read her work.
Assistant Professor of Economics Yang Song, whose latest publication in the Journal of Comparative Economics examined “Sorting, School Performance and Quality: Evidence from China,” was interested in Zhang’s depiction of American schools around New York City.
“The sort of foreign part for me is that I grew up in China and the story happens in New York for an immigrant Chinese-American family and how they were dealing with the daily life they had to struggle for. The contrast between the environment in American and Chinese schools, there is definitely not so much violent bullying or gangs in Chinese schools. I’ve definitely heard of those in other contexts like TV shows or movies, but it is really interesting to hear her story. Her poems were also very striking,” Song said.
During the question-and-answer session with the class, Zhang explained that she started an out-of-class and self-proclaimed “elite” writers group at Stanford. Without the pressure of writing for a grade, the original group found ways to center writing as a fun and social activity.
“Have as much fun with [writing] as possible. You don’t have a product; you don’t have to be a product… Resist that and try to make stuff for you,” Zhang advised Living Writers students.
In fact, Zhang said all of the original members of the group have published works. Two of them have even been to Colgate for the Living Writers series. Now that the creator of the group has visited, the circle has closed.
“[Karan] Majajan, the guy she said was living across the hall who she was sure was a writer, came two years ago for Living Writers. I read a review of his first novel, “The Association of Small Bombs” and then I read the book and it knocked me sideways. He was here and he said, ‘You should invite my friend Tony Tulathimutte. He’s got this great novel.’ So we brought [in] Tony and it turns out she convened the creative writing group at Stanford they were a part of. Pretty neat!” Brice said.
Next to visit Colgate for the Living Writers series is 2005 Booker Prize-winner and author of The Sea John Banville. He will be on campus to read in Love Auditorium at 4:30 pm on Thursday, September 19.