Bodily functions play a role in family tales
Literature, Virginia Woolf wrote, limits its concerns to the inner experience, presenting the body as ‘‘a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear’’.
Beyond the trembles of lust, the body — its aches, emissions, growths — are often forgotten. Why is this, when the flesh dictates our lives, when, as Woolf wrote in 1930, ‘‘all day, all night, the body intervenes”?
Almost 90 years have passed and although literature has shaken off some of its early-20thcentury prudishness, some taboos remain, and are rarely violated. Jenny Zhang’s short-story collection Sour Heart relishes in transgressing corporeal boundaries.
Zhang’s earlier poetry collection was described as ‘‘profoundly scatological’’. The Shanghai-born Iowa Writers Workshop graduate demonstrates her comfort with the grotesque from the first page of Sour Heart. In We Love You Crispina, the narrator lives in a one- bedroom apartment with her parents. Daily realities include flattened cockroaches on bedsheets and ‘‘a perpetually clogged toilet’’. Poo, here, is not off-limits.
It ain’t pretty. But in this series of stories, the obscene exists alongside the profound. Each story, told by a young daughter of Chinese immigrants, shows family to be a complex web of guilt and devotion. Mothers demand gratitude and reverence, brothers are simultaneously too close and too distant.
Each story sparkles with a desperate need for validation; each narrator feels the anxiety of alienation and the oppression of identity, and longs, in some way, to be free. Our Mothers Before Them is the most open-eyed depiction of cruelty and starvation in China during the Cultural Revolution (although its shadow is ever present). The dual narrative — 1966 Shanghai, 1996 New York — dwells on teachers strung up in trees by former students, and children betraying parents.
Gangs of rogue children serve as a microcosm for China’s sudden power reversal: ‘‘the young and the rash were now the enforcers, the ones who dealt punishment and decided who was good and who was bad’’.
History and the present bump against each