Sylvester Sessions #93

Jenny wears Tropical Shirt and Tropical Shorts.
Jenny wears Tropical Shirt and Tropical Shorts.

Jenny wears Tropical Shirt and Tropical Shorts.

Jenny Zhang

Writer   
Brooklyn, New York  
Jenny wears Tropical Shirt and Tropical Shorts

You're currently writer in residence at Yaddo, tell us about what it means to take time and space away from your everyday.

I've been really fortunate to be at a series of residencies this summer, first at the wonderful Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, then as a writer and teacher in Tbilisi, Georgia and now at the artist residency Yaddo in upstate New York. Each place has its own ecosystem to adapt to and I went through all the phases--the initial period of discovery where everything is new and to be marveled over, and when loneliness, if it appears, is mostly romantic; then comes the phase where I start to feel actually alone and homesick for the familiar; if I can get through that, on the other side is where all the fixed stuff in my brain moves around and I start having new ideas. It's scary and great for someone like me who likes to be in control but also has a fetish for losing my grip a little.

What books do you return to, or prescribe to others?

I tell everyone to read Inger Christensen's Alphabet, which is a book-length poem originally in Swedish and translated beautifully into English by Susanna Nied. It's an abcedarian poem, which is an ancient poetic form that follows the alphabet (a mother of sorts to those acrostic poems we had to write in elementary school where each letter of our name starts each line of the poem). The poem also follows Fibonacci's sequence, creating a spiral, like a nautilus shell or romanesco broccoli (look up the golden ratio in nature, if you don't know what I mean). It's about ecological destruction, the hell of nuclear proliferation, but also love, childhood, memories, communities--the macro and the micro touch each other in ways that does something wonderful to my brain. It sounds really deadly serious, and it is, but it's also really fun to read along. It's a modern litany, the kind of prayer I can get down with. I really like reading Frank O' Hara's anti-manifesto manifesto "On Personism" where he proposes the poem should be a lucky pierre between the poet and reader, which I find hot and cute. I often reread Claudia Rankine's book Don't Let Me Be Lonely. Whenever I teach, I show my students this translation of Roberto Bolano's one sentence essay (poem?) "Beach" [http://eyeshot.net/bolanobeach.html]. I really enjoy rereading the Wayside School books by Louis Sachar even though they are meant for children. They provoke wonder and cure boredom.

Some of my favourite parts of Sour Heart are the descriptions of meals shared with family, salty noodles that bloat your stomach and sour fruit, what does sharing food mean to you, and connecting to family and friends?

I'm so often in my head and writing is something that can be very emptying. Because of it, I look forward so much to occasions when I can eat with other people. It's how I come back down to the real world and leave my invented worlds. I love every step of it, preparing it, choosing it, anticipating it, consuming it and the aftermath. My favorite meals are family-style where there are tons of dishes to choose from and everything is informal and loud. I love the sounds of people yelling over food. It's the one time I feel completely okay about taking up space and other people taking up space. I love the chaos of people reaching over each other to get more food. I love scanning the food on the table and making complex calculations of what I want to taste first and then forgetting as soon as the meal starts and choosing something totally different. It's so decadent and so lucky to be able to enjoy food with people you love. I know for many, food is the source of great pain, and it certainly has been for me. The shame of eating something that marked me as somehow alien and somehow disgusting, the shame of not being able to digest a certain kind of food because of my constitution and my background, the shame of being hungry and the shame of being full. But sometimes it's just right, and I get to be an animal with my friends and family, and everyone's ravenous and happy and the night ends with the good kind of pain, when you're pleased to loosen your belt and unbutton a few buttons. Those are the most magical nights on earth, when you get to go to bed full, not empty. 

Who was the last person you cooked for, and what did you make? 

It's been awhile because of all this traveling, but I think I cooked a really humble, homestyle breakfast for my partner. I made rice porridge, Shanghainese-style with little side dishes to pair with the rice--pickled cucumbers, pickled mustard stems, fermented tofu, preserved duck egg with soy sauce. It was hardly cooking because everything was scooped out of a jar. But I also made a really homey simple dish of eggs scrambled with tomatoes and scallion with a drizzle of sesame oil. It was one of those let's-clean-out-the-fridge-because-we're-leaving-for-a-month meals.

Writing as a profession can be solitary, is there a sense of community within the industry? 

I think a lot of writers need to be alone but fear being lonely... at least, I do. I have a community of writer friends I've known since I was nineteen and we are essentially each other's peer mentors. It's really easy in this industry to be taken advantage of, to be convinced that one should write for free, that publicity is all the capital one needs in exchange for work. Sometimes I'll feel crazy for not wanting to do some event or not agreeing to do something that has been framed as an opportunity and that's when I turn to my writer friends for perspective because they are going through it too. It's not always possible to immediately see exploitation for what it is, and on the flip side, sometimes the hesitation or the desire to run from an actual opportunity comes from fear--fear of exposure, fear of being scorned, fear of failing, fear of succeeding. It's very easy for me to start rotting when I spend too much time alone in my head. I've also met writers through the internet, from going to readings and events, from admiring them and deciding not to be shy about telling them so, from attending writing workshops and all sorts of shenanigans. Some writer friends I've been texting for years even though we've only met once in person. The phone is often the bane of my existence but it's also nice that it provides all these options for introverts to socialize and stay connected.

Whats on your reading list for the summer? Are there any stories or writers that have surprised you?

On my reading list: Ponti by Sharlene Teo, That Awful Mess On The Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, Heaven is All Goodbyes by Tongo Eisen-Martin, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame, Lucinella by Lore Segal, Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith, Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus by Anaïs Duplan, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz, Little Reunions by Eileen Chang, Hardly War by Don Mee ChoiThey Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib, The Chinese in America by Iris Chang, Milk by Dorothea Lasky, The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, and the anthology Octavia's Brood edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown.

Your work is published across so many platforms, how do you navigate these different spaces?  And what about when online publishing was new?

I have a really hard time! Sometimes I'll edit a poem and then halfway through write a line of dialogue for a short story then start making notes for a fragment of an essay then try to outline an idea for a screenplay and at the end of the day I realize I've made only microscopic progress on each thing. It's a fear of commitment on some level, like people who open up their marriages when the romance has gone stale. I never want to feel stale and so I move between genres constantly. That's the dysfunctional aspect of working across too many platforms, but it can also be really fun. I'll always love photocopying a few poems and stapling them together to hand out to friends, whereas writing for online spaces means more people can read what I wrote, people that I otherwise would have never ever reached. Writing for Rookie online all those years ago was the first time I ever wrote with awareness of an audience and it taught me so much about responsibility. Physical books will always be a fetish object. There's nothing like holding a book in your hands, sleeping with it under your pillow--it's just not the same with reading on a device--and so when something is going to be a book I want to imbue it with the pleasures of a physical book. It has to feel like an epic journey of sorts even if the story itself is modest, and it has to be something you can carry around with you.

Do you have any secret escape portals in the internet for procrastinating?

It's not so secret but I like to listen to Faye Wong covers like this one of the Cocteau Twin's Bluebeard [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5875z8MQ2Q] or this cover of Dreams [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7yez4lXjBI] by the Cranberries from Wong Kar Wai's movie Chungking Express. I trawl Ebay and Etsy for vintage Edwardian cotton dresses and silk dresses from the 20's and 30's that I know are wrong for my lifestyle but fit in nicely with my fantasies of being extravagantly out of touch. I read the Chinese food blog Woks of Life and make vague plans to improve my Chinese cooking. My friend Alice turned me onto the Skincare Addiction forum on Reddit and I've lost hours and hours learning about exfoliation and the wonders of fermented sea kelp. 


Interview & photography by Greta van der Star.      
Check out Jenny here and here.