The Atlantic

Jenny Zhang: 'Tiny Stories' Are Vital to Literature

The Sour Heart author discusses Roberto Bolaño’s “Dance Card,” humanizing minor characters through irreverence, and homing in on history’s footnotes.
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


Jenny Zhang’s story collection Sour Heart begins with something you don’t see often in fiction: a two-page meditation on the logistics of taking “a big dump.” The Zhang family lives in a crumbling building on a particularly drug-ridden block in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where a faulty toilet often forces them to run, clenching their bowels, to the gas station across the street. Too poor to buy a toilet plunger, the Amoco is their humiliating last resort.

It’s an indicative anecdote. Sour Heart often derives its strength from Zhang’s ability to locate humor, pathos, and magic in the kind of mundane, everyday scenarios other writers might skip over entirely—the utter boredom of childhood afternoons, the frantic prickle of a nocturnal skin itch, the grinding daily degradations of poverty.

In a conversation for this series, Zhang spoke about Roberto Bolaño’s “Dance Card,” a short story that pays tribute to what is overlooked, silenced, and forgotten. It’s an elegy to the neglected Chilean writers and artists who lost their homes, their minds, and sometimes their lives resisting the violent Pinochet regime, installed in a U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973. She explained how the story’s unusual approach helped her learn to foreground minor characters and historical footnotes through irreverence and absurdity—techniques that also help flout the literary establishment’s attempts to idealize, sanitize, and pigeonhole writers who address aspects of the immigrant experience.

features a cast of loosely connected, Chinese American narrators as they strive against destitution toward dignity, and negotiate the fierce, fraught love between child and parent. It’s the first book published by Random House’s new Lenny imprint, selected by the creator Lena Dunham. Jenny Zhang is also the author of the poetry collection and essays in , and . She lives in Brooklyn and spoke to me by phone.

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