By Olivia Wieseler
Sour Heart (2017) by Jenny Zhang is a collection of short stories about the lives of immigrant children in the United States. Having immigrated to New York City from Shanghai, China, when she was five years old, Zhang often writes about Chinese American identity and coming of age in a new country and culture. Her stories in Sour Heart are no exception.
Each story in this collection is from the point of view of a different Chinese American immigrant child. While the stories reflected much of the hardship that Chinese American immigrants had to go through searching for a better life, some stories did not focus on that but rather themes that all people go through: peer pressure, sex education, going to college, annoying siblings, over-protective parents, desire for freedom, and more. I think these themes interwoven with the theme of immigrant identity help make each character more human and help the reader to empathize with the characters and their hardships as immigrants to America.
While Zhang uses almost a different narrative structure for each story, they are all draped in poetic language. The powerful imagery Zhang used was often organized like a stream-of-consciousness. Her first story in the collection, “We love you, Crispina,” had the most prevalent use of this style. While unique and perhaps more realistic, it did make the stories somewhat difficult to follow at times. Overall, however, this style works to give the reader a sense of putting him/herself in the shoes of the narrator. One of my favorite parts about the structure of the collection overall is that each story is interwoven with each other, barely noticeably, as the families encounter one another briefly in their search to make their lives better in America.
Personally, it wasn’t until about halfway in that I started to enjoy the collection. It could have been because of the slightly difficult following of the stream-of-consciousness style of writing or some of the unexpected mature content. However, it finally started growing on me, possibly because “The Evolution of My Brother” struck my heart personally. The narrator showed how her tight bond with her much younger brother began to loosen as her desire for freedom and independence sent her away to college:
“…and now that I am on my own, the days of resenting my parentes for loving me too much and my brother for needing me too intensely have been replaced with the days of feeling bewildered by the prospect of finding some other identity besides ‘daughter’ or ‘sister.’”
I would recommend this collection of stories to get a taste of Chinese American immigration stories while still being able to relate and empathize because of the coming of age themes throughout each story.
Zhang has also published a collection of poems called Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, a non-fiction book called Hags, and has written a plethora of essays for Rookie, an online magazine for teens.