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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Jenny Zhang on Nostalgia, Family

Writer and poet Jenny Zhang talks with Grinnell students about writing as a person of color in Mears Cottage. Photo by Sofi Mendez

After completing her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jenny Zhang published “Dear Jenny, We Are All Find” and “HAGS.” Though she does not consider Iowa to be one of her homes as she categorizes in “Dear Jenny,” she shared her experience as a female writer of color in the state with a group of Grinnellians during her visit in Mears Cottage on Monday, April 11. Now based in New York, Zhang works as a freelance writer as well as a regular contributor to Rookie Magazine. Zhang’s talk is a part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month hosted by the Asian American Association. During her visit, Zhang sat down with the S&B’s Editor-in-Chief Yishi Liang to talk about her writing style, her upcoming project and her family.

The S&B: I’ve read that you go through a lot of phases in what you’re interested in. So what do you think is the current phase that you’re in?

Zhang: Right now, I’m really into writing fiction and writing long form non-fiction. I’ve also gotten back into writing poetry a little bit too. I took a break from it for a couple years and it’s kind of fun again. I guess I’m into everything. I just literally said every genre.

What is your process like? Do you carve out time in your day to devote to writing or do you pick up something to write when you’re in the mood?

Well now I freelance fulltime … I have to be kind of intense about it. I might not be creating or writing new things every day but I’m either writing or I’m editing or I’m researching or I’m reading or I’m preparing. It really depends on what I’m working on. If I’m trying to work on my novel then I’ll spend that day reading a history book about the Cultural Revolution because part of my novel is about the Cultural Revolution in China so I have to spend time absorbing that and that might take a couple weeks. And I might not write anything I’ve researched until months later.

Writer and poet Jenny Zhang talks with Grinnell students about writing as a person of color in Mears Cottage. Photo by Sofi Mendez
Writer and poet Jenny Zhang talks with Grinnell students about writing as a person of color in Mears Cottage. Photo by Sofi Mendez

I didn’t realize you were writing a book involving the Cultural Revolution. That’s really cool. Can you tell me a little about it?

It’s just this novel I’ve been working on for a very long term. It’s embarrassing because I’ve had the idea for eight years and it’s not near finish[ed]. … I’m a slow thinker but when I actually write things I’m really fast. I spend a lot of time percolating and thinking but I have to write fast because if you take too long to write the actual thing, your writing style and your ideas and who you are as a person changes. … I’ve been doing a lot of writing and throwing it out because I took too long and then starting over again. … It’s this novel that’s partially set in present day America, partially set in France and partially set in 1950s to 1970s China during the Cultural Revolution.

I remember during your talk you said you broke your poetry book up into sections for “Homelands,” “New York” and “France.” So why was Shanghai or China not its own category in that?

I guess I thought that your homeland is in part an actual place and in part an imaginary place. Salman Rushdie talks about this in his essay called “Imaginary Homelands” where he talks about people who are displaced or who are refugees or who are exiled or who are immigrants and how the place you left becomes large and mythical in your mind. And oftentimes when you go back to visit it, it’s so different from what you imagined it to be or what you remembered it to be. It becomes not an actual place but a source of comfort that grows into its own mythology. I thought of homeland because in a way I don’t actually know [what] Shanghai is like even though I lived there for the first five years of my life. I’m a visitor when I go back and in some ways I know it as much as any tourist would know it. So I didn’t want to call it “Shanghai” because I don’t really have a relationship with Shanghai. I have a relationship with my homeland, and my homeland happens to be in the same place … And in some ways my homeland is this nostalgic Shanghai or this nostalgic idea of China … Not that it’s any different from New York or France but I wanted to give more respect to this idea of a homeland.

Do you find that when you leave a place, whether that’s Shanghai or France or New York or San Francisco, … you hone in on that nostalgia more or do you prefer to write when you are in that place?

I think it’s a lot easier for a place to be meaningful after you’ve left it. It’s like trying to describe the feeling of being in love when you’re in love. It’s not interesting until after it’s over and you can look at it and have some perspective in some ways. So I do tend to have some time separation between when I’m in a place and when I write about it. I don’t know. It depends on the genre too. … Sometimes I want things to be not as thoughtful, more reactive and sometimes I want things to have the weight of time coloring them.

Going off reactionary writing, you mentioned you didn’t want to write about [Calvin Trillin’s poem in The New Yorker] but you just had a visceral reaction to it so how do you … handle things that you just have a reaction to?

It’s really hard, especially when you feel baited or when you feel like something really wrong has happened and you could say something possibly illuminating or interesting or you have a perspective that is not often asked upon … Of course you want to say something. For me, it’s literally deciding once a year that it’s responding to whatever controversy or scandal regarding Asian Americans and no more than that. … I know enough writers who are writers of color … [if asked to write about Trillin] I can say, “No, I don’t want to, but here are 20 other Asian American writers who I think are so smart” … and I feel super confident that they’re going to say something amazing if not better than what I had to say.

Being conversational in French and Mandarin being your first language, have you ever dabbled with the idea of writing in any form not in English?

No, I haven’t. But my mom has said she wants to translate my writing. I’d love to work with her. … I’ve never thought about the idea of writing in another language but I like to sprinkle bad French or bad Chinese into writing. … But I’d love to work with someone in my family who isn’t a writer and work on translations together. … Well, also, it’s not just switching over to this language, you’re switching over to a whole other personality. You had specific memories and experiences only in that language … It’s not just as simple as translating one word and finding the equivalent. It’s switching from one person to another and that’s what makes translation so interesting.

Does your family read your writing?

My mom reads my writing … She probably has a Google Alert for my name or something. … It’s complicated because I need to believe that even if my family is reading it, they’re not reading it deeply. And I need to believe that their English is not good enough to understand what I’m talking about even if that’s not true … Because I need to feel free to say what I want to say without worrying that someone I love is reading some deep psychology into what I’m writing because then I would be terrified of revealing anything.

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