Bod­ily func­tions play a role in fam­ily tales

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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