Revolution Treehouse: Jenny Zhang

Welcome to Revolution Treehouse, your corner of the Lawrentian for all things creative, outspoken and change-making! Art of every form is an evocative and efficient vehicle for political ideas, ranging from the protest music of the Vietnam War era to the graffiti transformation of confederate monuments during summer 2020. This column aims to share great art and cool facts about important historical and contemporary social movements with the Lawrence community because knowledge and inspiration make us powerful. Welcome to Revolution Treehouse!

Writer, poet and essayist Jenny Zhang was born in China, raised in New York and educated at Stanford University; her writings reflect the complexities of those histories and experiences. Growing up in Shanghai, young Zhang was an avid storyteller, but she became very uncomfortable with speaking after immigrating to the United States at four and a half years old and having to start over with a new language. In a May 2020 phone interview, Zhang reflected that she “had an identity crisis at the age of five, because the thing [she] loved to do the most for the first five years of [her] life, [she] wasn’t able to do anymore” (Kane 2020). As she tried to communicate in English, having people laugh at her attempts or simply not understanding made her give up on speaking for a while, but it also fueled her passion for writing; once she learned how to write in English, it “became a safe haven for [her], a place where [she] wasn’t accented or [her] face didn’t determine how someone thought of [her]” (Bromwich 2017). 

Zhang earned her Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity at Stanford University, and she got her Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Zhang remembers that her teachers “told [her] to never write for the internet, to only write for publications that are archived by the Library of Congress for all of eternity. They were very biased by a lifetime of institutional support, and also speaking from their experiences of being white men who had had a certain kind of writing career” (Lynch 2020). Contrary to the advice of her privileged teachers, Zhang found an audience writing for the online teen magazine Rookie and discovered that there was another way to be a writer than how her professors had taught, a way where she wasn’t bound by ancient literary rules. 

One way in which Zhang has defied the ancient, restrictive literary conventions of her academic career is through her use of malapropisms. A malapropism is when one mistakenly switches one word for another similar sounding word, and it is an organic way to experiment with language. Her first collection of poetry, “Dear Jenny, We Are All Find,” got its name from emails Zhang received from her mom; Zhang said the inspiration came from her mom’s grammatical error, saying she “liked this idea of being found and being find, rather than being fine, because in some ways I never feel fine” (Kane 2020). Feeling completely fine is often unattainable, so the appeal of such a malapropism is relatable; it sets the imagination loose to consider what other states of being we can explore other than merely “fine.” Coming to a new language as an immigrant is a challenge, but also has so much potential to bend and break old, worn ways of thinking, and this dichotomy of struggle and beauty is apparent in Zhang’s malapropisms.  

The nuance of the Chinese American experience, especially as it pertains to language and literature, was lost on Zhang’s classmates in graduate school. She writes that she felt “both coveted and hated” for her identities as a Chinese American and as a woman; her white cohorts believed that her race and gender gave her an unfair advantage at getting her writing published, thereby turning themselves into the victims (Zhang 2015). She recalls a white dude who “exclusively wrote stories about white dudes” and who proclaimed to her that no one would pay attention to a name like his because he was white and male (Zhang 2015).  

In a Buzzfeed essay entitled “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” which examines the tradition of white voices speaking over BIPOC voices in the literary world, Zhang remembers a white classmate who wanted to write ‘obscure’ ethnicities into her stories to make them more competitive, trying on Zhang’s “Otherness” to advance her “value in the literary marketplace” (Zhang 2015). Zhang retorted, “I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks” (Zhang 2015).  

In the same Buzzfeed essay, Zhang exposed a more extreme example of white writers co-opting otherness. Michael Derrick Hudson, a white American poet, stole the name Yi-Fen Chou from a high school classmate in order to help his poems get published. When one of his poems was included in the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology under this pseudonym, his theft came to light, and he admitted that he used that name whenever a poem had been rejected several times, as he believed it would increase his chances of being accepted. Zhang wrote that Hudson did “what any white man who could not bear the thought that his whiteness might keep him from success would do: take on the name of the ultimate model minority!” (Zhang 2015). Hudson, as a white male, enjoys the most privilege an individual can have in our society and was then able to benefit from assuming an Asian disguise without having to live through the racism and tokenization that Asian people deal with on a daily basis. This racial identity theft has a name: yellowface. 

Zhang speculated that Hudson likely has no interest in examining how his whiteness helped his poetry career, but she is happy to discuss how the Chinese identity Hudson so casually assumed has impacted her career and how she is often asked to give her intellectual and emotional labor for the education of white people; she has frequently been published without compensation in publications where she is the lone writer of color, and she feels morally obligated to pull her work from unethical publications even though she has few places to publish as it is. Her Chinese identity is not a costume for white men to wear and profit from.  

Zhang centers Chinese-ness in her writing by leaving some text untranslated, sometimes by using Romanized Chinese words and sometimes by using Chinese characters. In her short story collection Sour Heart, which features Chinese American immigrant families, she tailors her language choices to each individual in her stories, depending on how old they were when they emigrated from China and how much Chinese it would make sense for them to remember.  

Language is something Zhang doesn’t take for granted because of her relationship with her own family; she and her parents speak different languages. Zhang feels very close to her.