It feels apt there’s a luminous diagram of a heart on the cover of this book of short stories since it’s a collection which brims over with emotional tales of family life. Christina, the narrator of the opening and closing stories, has a penchant for sour fruit so her parents nickname her “sour heart.” But this name also reflects the attitudes of the different girls who are all the daughters of American-Chinese immigrants at the centre of these stories. Their tales explore innocence lost and feelings that turn rotten as these girls variously witness severe bullying from other children, undergo sexual experimentation, abuse within the family, various levels of racism, extreme poverty, homelessness and alienation. Although there are some truly shocking scenes and events within this collection, it doesn’t read like a series of misery tales because the forceful idiosyncratic voices that drive these stories have such strength and vibrancy. These are frank, densely-detailed accounts of young women sifting through the past. Their testaments collectively ponder the meaning of home and family in order to understand the dynamics of their own hearts.
There are often stories within stories told throughout the book as the parents of these girls relate accounts of life in China and the struggles they endured to make a new life in America. Stacey’s grandmother in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?' recalls the violence her own past in ways which are often contradictory, but sweetly express a feverish affection for her grandchildren. What comes over in these tales and many of the other stories in this collection is that there is an emotional truth at their heart which may not be a literal truth. Yet, in the act of recollection there is a fierce exploration of how the severe circumstances which led to many of these families emigrating has impacted both the reality and the expectations placed on the children. For this reason, quite often the children at the centre of these stories rebel against their families. In ‘The Evolution of My Brother’ Jenny states “All I had wanted for so long was to be part of a family that wasn’t mine. To have an excuse to love mine less, an excuse to run away instead of staying so close all the time.” They long to be absorbed into another kind of American family, but find themselves tied to their Chinese heritage and how that informs their identities.
One of the longest stories which literally explores the present and past by flipping between 1966 and 1996 is ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The earlier set tale is an account of how students in China empowered by the Maoist revolution rebel against and brutally persecute their teachers. The later date focuses on Annie who contemplates the opportunities her mother and father missed out on having to move to America and work hard to create a sustainable living. These dual stories embody the way the differing cultural and political landscapes have impacted the characters’ lives and why these individuals are filled with such contradictory, turbulent feelings.
As well as exploring the conflicts within families and the brutal challenges these girls sometimes face with people they encounter, there are many touching scenes of physical and emotional closeness. There are stories where the families imaginatively picture themselves as different parts of a hotdog or hamburger pressed together. Others show how the affection between family members change over time leading one girl to miss the stutter her brother grows out of and another to temporarily form a strong bond with a cousin still in Shanghai. But probably the most emotionally effective and moving story was the account of a grandmother’s different visits over the years in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?'
Part of what’s great about short story collections like “Sour Heart” and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees” is that they present a varied view of different kinds of immigrant experiences. Too often discussions about immigration lump people who have moved from one particular country to another into one generalized group. These books restore the individuality to these very different people’s lives and explore the way that the transition from one nation to another can have many different consequences. Jenny Zhang also gives a fascinating bit of puzzle work as some characters in the stories overlap thus creating a powerful sense of a particular universe where all these different stories are occurring. But an issue I had with “Sour Heart” is that the narrative tone doesn’t vary enough from story to story. Because they are all consistently densely-written and emotionally blunt, the different tales don’t always come across as distinct as they should. I would have been interested to see more stylistic differences and varying kinds of narration such as ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The confessional authorial voice used in most stories undeniably is endowed with a special power that makes Zhang’s voice so refreshingly unique, but it also slightly detracts from what makes story collections so special.