14: Jenny Zhang
poet and writer
Jenny and I spoke about male validation, processing overwhelming emotion, seeking comfort in mental illness, writing female depression, art from suffering women, and the possibilities of post-election solidarity.
Jenny Zhang is an American writer and poet based in Brooklyn, New York. She has two published collections of poetry: Hags (Guillotine, 2014) and Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012).
Emma Noelle is a student and photographer who lives and works in New York City. Specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, Emma works with analog mediums to tell stories and evoke poetry through her images. Emma's work is largely influenced by her lifelong love for art, music, and literature. Through portraiture and documentary photography, she is able to unite her constant desire to return to the past with her ability to observe and engage with the world around her.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on December 2, 2016, in Jenny's Brooklyn apartment. Emma Noelle photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
JENNY: My first strong memories of girlhood are probably in relation to looking at my mom. I had a really glamorous mom who was a model, and could like…draw the cupid’s bow in her lip perfectly. [laughs] She was so beautiful that people on the street would stop her to say lovely things. It seemed like she was this general treasure and jewel, so it shaped my early ideas of what it meant to be a treasure —which was to be physically beautiful and physically striking. She was just a head-turner.
My early experience of girlhood involved envy towards her but also irritation, because she had to spend so much time collecting and responding to compliments that she wouldn’t have as much time for me. I remember crying when we went to the Botanical Gardens and she was really mesmerized by these flowers, because I took it as a personal insult that she had never been mesmerized by me that way.
I think so much of girlhood is shaped by how people begin to treat you, and sometimes, for example, if you’re someone who gets a lot of attention from men or boys at a certain age (like when you’re fourteen, fifteen, sixteen), this thing can happen where you almost don’t have time to understand what you want because you’re being coveted all the time. But it’s a really gross and objectifying kind of want. And it’s not true, because you’re discarded as soon as you are no longer the perfect object.
When I felt gawky and not beautiful I had so much time to think about what I wanted, and when I finally blossomed into a fairly conventionally attractive young girl, I thought I would start to get [what I wanted.] I [eventually] realized that it didn’t solve all my problems because I still had so much thinking to do about my wants, but no longer had the time because I [had to constantly contend with] these requests of me. So I feel like my girlhood was also bisected by this period in which I was outwardly radiating desire, and then by a period in which I was fielding desire from others.
SOPHIA: During this time in which you felt like you had to stop everything and take advantage of being beautiful and desired, what were the kinds of things that you later felt like you could have been working out in yourself?
JENNY: This was high school and then into college. The things that have personally concerned me for I guess all of my life are, how do I be free, and how do I seek adventure but also have some kind of stable home? For me, when I was younger, [I answered those questions] through writing. Writing was the thing that made me feel free, that gave me an imagination through which I had adventure, but also by working on writing, I had a home to retreat to. But I think when I started to get male attention, it was really seductive to think that I could find safety, freedom, adventure, a stable home through these men who seemed to be offering me a lot, but actually weren’t offering me like, anything.
I’ll be thirty-three in a month, and I look back and I feel like there’s eight years of my life in which I can’t account for what I was doing to make myself happy. It’s just like…a blur, because I feel like in those eight years I was just focused on the man in my life, which sounds so gross, but that was what was happening. It sounds so new-agey and self-helpy, but you can’t lose yourself. I feel like the people who have some measure of stability and sustainable warmth in their life are people who keep a core, and my favorite people have a core. Sorry, I just thought of my friend whose last name is Core. Do you know Leopoldine Core?
SOPHIA: No, I don’t.
JENNY: You should interview her, she’s amazing. She wrote this amazing book of short stories called When Watched that are very much about girlhood and womanhood. She and I are always talking about people without cores. Not that it’s bad to suddenly change, but it’s like the person that constantly goes from one extreme to the other. They’re the people who complain about themselves five years later and don’t realize what they’re doing is complaining about [their present selves.]
I think [in those eight years] it’s sort of that my core was degraded. Whatever nuggets of self that can be maintained throughout the course of one’s lifetime were neglected, and I didn’t tend to them. Instead, I was grasping; I was trying to hitch myself onto someone else’s life, and all of that is so connected to esteem, and esteem is so connected to structural issues of identity, like gender, sexuality, race, feeling.
A big part of my girlhood changing was moving from a mostly immigrant, Asian, Latino neighborhood in Queens to a mostly white upper-middle-class neighborhood in Long Island. Before, I never thought of myself as particularly different, hideous, or odd, but I was thrust into what was basically a new [social] class where I didn’t know how to behave. I didn’t know how to conduct myself; I didn’t know how to walk; I didn’t know how to talk; I didn’t know how to eat; I didn’t know how to do my hair; I didn’t know where I was supposed to get my clothes. I didn’t have the right “base,” essentially. That crushed my self-esteem, and it also made me aware of what I looked like to other people in a bad way: I was suddenly aware that it was not a good thing to have my face in America. I think that’s probably happening to so many people who didn’t feel very brown, and suddenly in Trump’s America, they are absolutely brown. It’s that kind of [experience] that suddenly makes you [believe that] you’re not loved in this world. So when that happened, I felt like…I didn’t want to maintain my core anymore.
SOPHIA: In your writing, you’ve expressed an anxiety about being one of those girls who gets passed around. And whenever you enter into a romantic or sexual relationship with a man, you immediately become more “his” than “her.” Can you talk about your own experience with that, or that as a generally feminine experience?
JENNY: It has to be connected to self-esteem because if you thought you had a lot of intrinsic value, I feel like you’d want to be identified as you first. I think most people want to present themselves as having value, and it’s not the fault of women who live in a society that reflects that there is very little intrinsic value in being a woman other than being beautiful, being someone’s wife, being someone’s mother, being young…It’s so romantic to be "his," to belong to someone, but there’s also something about it that seems to indicate that your greatest value can’t be in yourself, and that seems like a root of patriarchy. This idea of wanting to belong to someone is analogous to wanting someone to care for you, which is also analogous to wanting to never feel fear, I guess, because you want total security. But it’s a fiction to believe that total security can come from another person.
SOPHIA: In “The Summer I Learned I Wasn’t the Exception,” you wrote, “Let other women cry, Sexism! Patriarchy! Racism! I thought. I wanted to be that girl” —which is kind of what we were just talking about— “the impossible one who can’t actually exist, precisely because of racism! sexism! patriarchy!”
In that piece and in [your chapbook] HAGS, especially, I think you write explicitly about wanting to be the protagonist of your own story. What do you think about the relationship between girlhood at large and the the desire to occupy that role?
JENNY: It does seem gendered. I think it is really important to be the protagonist of your own story. I think it’s important to [adopt the perspective that] you are happening to the world, rather than the world is happening to you. Even if it’s not true. [laughs] You have to go on believing that.
I mean, it’s kind of like this neoliberal way of dealing with structural oppression that goes back millennia. [If one adopts a consistent posture of:] “Patriarchy pervades everything we do,” that perhaps makes it impossible for sex to be liberated and without domination. Perhaps that [posture] makes attraction and love impossible to be freed from patriarchy, racism, sexism, classism or whatever. Accepting that [position] demands that we take collective action to dismantle those systems and create a liberatory sexuality. And like…it’s kind of too hard to imagine doing that [laughs]. Instead, you place the onus on yourself, and the dream is not dismantling the patriarchy but for you, personally, to be above it. To be untouched by it, to have enough power, enough beauty, or enough whatever it is that you are unaffected by that.
And the response to that is twofold, because in one sense it’s wonderful to behave in the world as if you are the protagonist of your life, but other the other hand, in some ways, you do have to accept that we are objectified by these structural forces, and it’s not enough for you as an individual to be the subject of your life. There’s something more difficult and deeper that has to be fought for, and maybe on another, smaller level, it’s just connecting with other women and wanting all of the women you know to be subjects, not just yourself. Or sort of seeing all of the women you know as one subject.
SOPHIA: You write a lot about depression. While doing so, have you felt yourself trying to avoid being like, Ophelia, or the Final Girl, even while that experience is generally one defined by passivity? Can you talk about your experience writing depression as a woman?
JENNY: I think it’s definitely a trope, like you said —especially being a beautiful woman who can’t get out of bed. It’s hard because there are all kinds of people in the world, there are all kinds of women, and there are all kinds of women with depression. The one thing that trips me up and I don’t know how to exert control over is that there’s a thirst to see beautiful women sad, frail, and bedridden. And there’s a disgust to see other types of people —who are not thin or able-bodied or whatever— [in the same situation.] But…as a person, I don’t know what to do when I see that every time I write about certain things [i.e. depression], I’m rewarded by more attention and praise. But what I do have control over is how often I tell certain stories, and the way that I tell them. And just being aware that these stories are rewarded precisely because my body, my sexuality, and my looks are acceptable and not repulsive, for the most part —thus I’m able to indulge in writing about depression, but that doesn’t mean I should do it irresponsibly and frivolously.
Do you think that there are prominent examples of women who write about exuberance and joy, but not in like, a self-help-y life coach-y way?
SOPHIA: I don’t know if it’s ever a non-feminized happiness? It’s like, when Sylvia Plath isn’t really depressed, she writes about sitting on her porch with blueberries in cream gazing out at her lawn and feeling this kind of haze, and she’d “call [herself] a fool to ask for more” —and…I don’t know, it’s just a very aesthetically sound and womanish moment of happiness.
JENNY: Totally. [laughs]
SOPHIA: So yeah, I don’t know.
"How it Feels" is about an inclination towards all-consuming feeling, and your struggle to process that —especially the struggle to embody that as a girl. You speak a lot about Tracey Emin’s work, which deals with those themes. So…do you have any thoughts about how that struggle can be eased?
JENNY: You can tell me if you think [what I’m about to say] is at all true. Obviously categories are insufficient, but I love creating categories and being like, “There’s either this kind of person or this kind of person in the world.”
JENNY: And I feel like there’s two types of women: tightly controlled women and out-of-control women. That’s a really simplistic way of putting it and probably very Hollywood. But there’s the woman who has learned to control herself and control everything she says, like the Ivanka Trump woman. And there’s the woman who’s like, a mess, who almost always has like, stains everywhere, and is just overflowing.
And I always thought that I was someone who overflowed, and I think it became an especially crucial part of my identity because I had to fight for it, in a way. I present as small, Asian, femme, and I think people expected that I would be more submissive or more quiet, maybe even uninteresting and small. But I think that [those expectations were] at odds with how I felt inside. My aggression had no way of being recognized; my power had no way of being recognized in the body I was in. So it became political to embrace the parts of me that were out-of-control, but I think the downside of that was thinking that I needed to cling onto the part of me that wanted to feel everything and not clamp down on anything. I mean, the downside is like, indulging in depression. I don’t mean to connote that there’s a way to cut off depression, or a personal, individual responsibility to stop feeling depressed, but I just mean that for me, it meant that where I could be actively seeking out comfort and relief, I didn’t, because I felt like it was important to just feel the feeling itself, and by that I just mean something as simple as I didn’t want to go to therapy, or I never wanted to take any medication. I never wanted to alter my feelings in any way, I just wanted to sink into them. I think again, it’s related to being afraid that my core would be compromised if I sought help or sought comfort. I think also because I had sought comfort by dating men that I didn’t have very much in common with and who didn’t necessarily respect me fully, I’d started to view any seeking of comfort as bad: it’s escapist, it’s irresponsible, it’s lazy, it’s dumb. But there are actually ways of seeking comfort and help that I think are really responsible and really meaningful, and…I’m a late bloomer in seeking comfort and relief [laughs] but I’ve finally started to, and it really makes all the difference, you know?
SOPHIA: Speaking of Tracey Emin, about how much she’s meant to you in your work as well as Hannah Weiner and Gertrude Stein —women in avant-garde poetics seem to have had a significant influence on you. Can you talk about that?
JENNY: Yeah. I’ve actually been trying to be more self-critical about that lately, because I notice that I’m very drawn to women who made art for, through, and maybe even partially because of their madness. I think that’s also a type of woman artist that people want to see in the world. I don’t presume to know Tracey Emin’s life, but at least from the art she makes, the interviews she’s given, and the way that she’s appeared publicly, she does seem to be suffering…a lot.
JENNY: She seems to be in quite a bit of pain, and I don’t what relief she has, but in some perverse way, that has been inspirational for me. I’m trying to be critical and see if there’s a gross reason for why I like that. I like when a woman doesn’t clean up her act, doesn’t mature, or doesn’t settle down —I think because I associate that with a kind of freedom, or a commitment to who she is.
I both fear that and desire it, because I don’t want the core of who I am to be suffering. If I were to continue to suffer the way that I felt I was suffering in my early twenties, it just would be a terrible life. It would be unsustainable and unbearable for me, so I’m glad I changed that. But there’s a part of me that romanticizes women who kind of suffer endlessly, which I guess – a part of writing that essay, “How It Feels,” was about people who suffer and don’t take relief, for whom it doesn’t get better and my fascination with that.
Hannah Weiner is another example of a poet who, I think until the end of her life, she suffered and was grappling with her mental health. And I’m like, enjoying the things she made while suffering. They mean a lot to me. I don’t know if it’s gross or not. I think it is, and I don’t know what to do about that.
SOPHIA: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
JENNY: I guess just that I’m still learning, too, what womanhood and girlhood is. I learned so much about gender in the last five years that I would never have even questioned before. Who is included in girlhood? Who can transition into being a woman and what does that even mean?
SOPHIA: What do you still feel naïve about?
JENNY: I think I feel naïve about the stability of my own gender. I think I learned early on about racial categories being extremely insufficient, incomprehensive and incomprehensible in some ways —like why do people’s racial categories change depending on who they’re with and where they are? That was something I learned early on. But I don’t think I applied that [critical eye] in the same way to gender. In the same way that my racial identity changed based on how people were treating me and that, in turn, affected how I thought of myself, I naïvely didn’t think about that with gender. Did I even have a chance to think of myself as anything but femme because of the way I look, my bone structure, the way my voice sounds, and the way my race feminizes me? Or the kind of sex that people who are attracted to me want to have with me —did I even have a chance to think about myself and the parts of me that maybe are not a clean slide into femininity? [laughs]
SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
JENNY: It’s really hard because we just got out of an election where I think a huge percentage of women feel really betrayed by other women, you know? Female Trump voters who responded to the stuff about sexual assault and the belittling and demeaning of women with “I’ve heard women say worse things about other women so it doesn’t really matter.” I think black women and Muslim women and women of color feel very betrayed by white women, so…if you’d asked me like, three weeks ago, I would’ve been like, “We just need to believe other women.” But now that sentiment is so hard for me to vocalize, because what does it mean to believe the experience of a woman who sees Trump as a great boon for our world and doesn’t [anticipate] harm to herself or to people like me, my friends, and my family? What does it mean to have compassion and empathy for that woman? Is that really what I should be doing right now? It just feels like in an emergency, that’s not the first thing I would caution other women to do. It’s like there’s a fire, and the first thing to do is not to wonder why would anyone commit arson, but just to get out. We need to prioritize other women who are the most vulnerable to attack, who are the most misunderstood, the least studied, the least seen, and prioritize listening. We need to figure out what to do to protect, defend, and honor the people who are the least protected, defended, and honored. And I guess fuck everyone else, for now.
JENNY: Because I don’t know if there’s time for anything but that.
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