Expected Publication Date: August 1, 2017
Format: E-book from netgalley
An intense collection of stories, each one told from the perspective of a young girl living in NYC in the 1990s with parents who had immigrated from Shanghai. The stories demonstrate the manifestations and aftermath of the trauma experienced by the parents in Mao era China and the varying coping mechanisms they utilize. Some parents drink excessively, others work such long hours such that they almost never see their children, while others cannot get enough of their children and are by their sides at all times. One father is physically abusive to his wife while another has an endless string of girlfriends. There is a grandmother who feels the only worthy thing in life is being a mother, so attempts to become the mother to her grandchildren, confabulating about the days when she breastfed them. She demands that they love her to an extreme. These are stories that show how the horrors of a generation (the Chinese in 1960’s China) affect future generations of children (American-Chinese growing up in NYC in the 1990s.)
It is about the children of immigrants in a country where English is not their primary language. It is about the interaction of these girls with both their families and the outside world. One girl is made to go back to ESL classes with each move and new school district, even though she has placed out them them repeatedly. There is an intensity to childhood friendships, a pushing and pulling, a competition that feels far more negative than positive. The stories delve into the girls’ exploration of their bodies and developing understanding of sex. It is often vulgar and disturbing. The emotional aspect of keeping up with peers about sex and foul language is a weight on some of these girls. The language the children use, both in conversation with each other and with their parents, is often angry and vulgar. There is desperation and depression felt through these characters. These girls are coming of age, learning about themselves and their bodies, learning about their place in the world. It is all at once confusing, disastrous and exciting for them.
In addition to portraying 1990’s NYC, the author offers glimpses of the year 1966 in China, when schools were out and children ran wild. The children were given the freedom and power to turn on any adult, accuse them of being counterrevolutionary, and proceed to torture and even kill them. One disturbing scene had a teacher tortured while tied to a tree by her students out of revenge for shaming one of the students in school. Anyone could be named counterrevolutionary. Particularly, anyone who wore their hair long and loose, anyone thought to be an intellectual, a member of the bourgeois class… or simply as a personal vendetta.
The writing is marvelous. Jenny Zhang is a masterful storyteller. However, the content is graphic. It is often horrifying, disturbing and seemingly distasteful. There is no sugar coating on these stories. These stories are full of grit, grime and dirt. There is anger, depression, sadness and sometimes joy. For me, Zhang was a unique original voice. I am glad I read these stories, but I caution others who might be sensitive to foul language or graphic subject matter. Sour Heart is the first book to be published with the LENNY imprint, a new imprint, in partnership with Random House, led by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.
- Do the characters in this book face discrimination? In what forms did it manifest? Who feels self hatred because of race and why?
- Explain the title of the novel. Which character is referred to as sour? Why do you think she is this way?
- Many of the characters in this novel are searching for ways to be love or people to love them. Why is this such a strong theme within this book?
- How do you think most of the characters felt? What was their emotional state of mind?
- These stories are all told from the female perspective. Would you describe the writing as feminist? Why or why not?
- Zhang does an excellent job illustrating various experiences of Chinese American families in NYC in the 1990s. How does she portray/sterotype other races (Dominican, Caucasian, Taiwanese, Hispanics, Blacks) within her stories?
- Did you feel that the vulgarity within this book was over the top or genuine to the experience?
- What is the motivation for Lucy’s mother to take Frangie in? How does Lucy retaliate?
- In many of these stories there is a competition to be loved most. Why do you think Annie’s mother needs to be the center of attention and feel the most loved? Why is this also true for Stacy’s grandmother?
- Discuss the evolution of Jenny’s relationship with her brother and how this changes with age.
- Mande’s parents have a physically abusive relationship. Mande and Fanpin become friends because of their mothers. Why do you think Fanpin becomes domineering over Mande?
- What do you suppose happens after Mande’s mother gets pushed out of the car? Do they go back for her? Does she survive?
- Discuss some of the self destructive behaviors exhibited by the characters in these stories. Why are these characters becoming self destructive?
- We know that the author was born in Shanghai and grew up in Queens. In one story the protagonist is Jenny. In another, the family name is Zhang. How autobiographical do you think these stories or any one story might be for the author?