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Ada Zhang, The Sorrows of Others, A Public Space, 2023. 160 pgs.
Previously on Cha, Susan Blumberg-Kason reviewed Ada Zhang’s short story collection The Sorrows of Others. Primarily set in Texas, The Sorrows of Others juxtaposes the psyches of various Chinese American characters at different stages of their lives. My reading aligns with Blumberg-Kason’s idea that “Zhang doesn’t write characters that are good or bad, but rather complex with conflicting viewpoints”. However, my interpretation deviates from her reading of these nuanced characters as vehicles for conveying the theme of empathy.
Instead, this review focuses on the way conflicting perspectives and values further fractures subgroups of the Chinese American diaspora into disoriented individuals. In particular, the use of domestic spaces as interrogation zones and the fluid adult versus child roles reflect the Chinese American diaspora’s struggle between conservative Chinese norms and progressive American values.
Throughout all the stories, the domestic space becomes a stage where family members scrutinise each other’s pasts and vulnerabilities. In “Compromise”, the narrator considers the way interior spaces hint at the troubles within a home: “the marks and stains and sunken places are proof of what has happened, but they cannot tell the whole story” (p. 128). Such a line foreshadows the return of her ill ex-husband whom she nurses despite his having left her for another woman in China many years earlier. The domestic space’s intensity reaches points of catastrophe in “Knowing”, which depicts a mother repeatedly swearing as she and her children desperately rescue laundry from the rain. The scene feels like a battle between good and evil as the narrator Eileen laments about her aching arms while the clothesline bounces “like it was laughing at us” (p. 113).
The notion of the domestic space as an interrogation zone becomes literal in “The Subject” and “Silence”. As part of a university assignment in “The Subject”, the narrator conducts an interview with her housemate, an elderly Chinese woman named Granny Tan. The divide between the interviewee and interviewer constantly alternates: the narrator asks about Granny Tan’s childhood on the Chinese countryside and throughout the Cultural Revolution; Granny Tan elicits responses about the narrator’s familial issues and tendency to focus on individual feelings rather than social obligation. A striking conflict revealed in their dynamic conversation is the way Granny Tan breaches the social justice shibboleths that the narrator and her American-born peers take for granted. For example, Granny Tan comments on how “this country cares too much about Black people and homosexuals” (p. 15) and expresses cynicism towards the melting pot ideal (“it’s hard for people of different backgrounds to agree”, p. 15). The friction between Granny Tan and the narrator’s politics reveals the fragility of multicultural societies that celebrate diversity while downplaying the fact that the cultures within it are often insular and suspicious of outsiders.
“Silence” explores the interactions between Meng and her granddaughter Hui after Hui’s heartbreak. Keeping with the motif of interrogation, the story indicates that “Meng had gotten used to fielding [Hui’s] questions” (p. 53) about romance which were really reflections of Hui’s current love-related problems. Similar to “The Subject”, Meng and Hui’s dialogue casts them as representations of conflicting traditional Chinese collectivism and progressive American notions of relationships. For Meng, marriage is primarily social phenomenon that affects an entire community, hence her attendance at her ex-husband’s second marriage in order to help him save face. In contrast, Hui’s comments like “sounds awkward” (p. 56) in response to Meng’s presence at the ex-husband’s marriage and “it sounds like you two were not compatible” (p. 57) illustrate her western image of romance as an intimate connection between two people. Despite the women’s generational differences, Meng and Hui convey sympathy for one another against the backdrop of disappointed romantic hopes.
While “Silence” and “The Subject” depict the exchange between conservative parents and progressive children, the fluid adult-child roles throughout the other stories represent vacillations between conservative Chinese norms and the adoptive American context’s progressivism. At times, the conservative older generation’s values are internalised into a kind of superego for the younger, American-born generation. This is the case in “Propriety” when the narrator Jia imagines the spectre of her disapproving mother while reflecting on her casual sexual encounter “in that room in that ugly apartment with that ordinary man” (p. 50). In contrast, “The Sorrows of Others” subverts the adult-child roles as Xiao An uses a dating website to match her father Songhao to a Chinese woman named Yulan.
At other times, the American-born generation tries to pass as culturally authentic without addressing contradictions between their elders’ conservative values and their liberal lifestyles. For example, in “The Subject”, the narrator describes her hipster-friends’ “palpable fear… that one could never be poor enough or of-colour enough to outweigh whatever privileges one had” (p.2). Their smugness about having “a real one [i.e., an authentic Chinese person] among us” reveals their superficial idea of working-class migrants as an aesthetic, rather than a product of brute historical and cultural forces. The narrator of “The Subject” also fantasises about herself as a poor, ethnically immersed artist: “I wrote my obituary: ‘In college she lived… in a predominantly Chinese immigrant community… She lived prudently and apart from distractions, so she could focus on her art…’” (p. 3). Yet while composing her bio, the narrator fails to recognise that the preoccupation with crafting her personal narrative embodies modern American individualism. Zhang further mocks the progressive hipster generation’s vanity in “Propriety” when Jia struggles to “wring meaning out of the vagueness” (p. 41) in her date’s pseudo-profound bullshit.
The stories also subvert the typical divide between conservative Chinese-born elders and progressive American-born youths. In “One Day”, it is the child-protagonist Helen who is insistent on rules during a craft project and is “already sick of the world” (p. 66). Meanwhile, her father expresses openness, shown when he saves the teacher from potential embarrassment by requesting Helen hide her being startled at the teacher’s sneeze. In “Sister Machinery”, the parents Clarissa and Eric are the hipsters that “feel the need to document everything” (p.102) and engage in trendy hobbies like succulent-growing and “a class on motivational speaking” (p. 101). Nevertheless, details like “the apple pie that turned out to be half-apple, half Korean pear” (p. 106) suggest an inability to feel fully assimilated into mainstream American culture. The resulting discomfort is borne by their two daughters, Pearl and the narrator Jessica, who grieve a destabilised sense of familial order after the death of their middle sister Emily.
Individuals within the same generation also clash over each other’s differing desires to cling to tradition versus liberation. “Julia” follows two best friends, Julia and Esther, who grow apart as Julia marries and mellows out in her judgements of others while Esther is “stuck in college” (p. 83). Julia and Esther’s divergence in life priorities is clear when Esther derides Julia’s settlement into middle-class comfort (“you and Rooney and your attorney husbands can get together in your big houses”, p. 84) and Julia remarks on Esther’s contempt for stability. In “Any Good Wife’” the differences between Ping’s desire for familiarity and his wife Ailian’s embrace of American life is depicted through their meal preferences. “Any Good Wife” first sets up the hilarity of consumer culture through jingles like ‘our food is rated g/great’ and generic Good Housekeeping magazine. Ailian embraces the American housewife routine through her cooking explorations that included unfamiliar foods, such as vegetable salads, potato salads, tri-colour pasta salads and Devil’s cake. In contrast, Ping’s wariness of the new foods such as sliced vegetables trapped in jelly, mayonnaise, icing and medium rare meat represents his alienation from American everyday life. “Julia” and “Any Good Wife” show how connection disintegrates in friendships and marriages when the individuals involved cling to different eras.
Collectively, the stories highlight the complexities of relationships in a migrant context. Between adults and children, children are linguistically and socially adept in the adoptive country yet lack their parents’ cultural rootedness. Between peers, some people like Ailian embrace American prosperity and liberties while Ping remains wedded to traditional ideas of domesticity. In forcing characters to confront one another as evolving individuals, Zhang rejects reductive identity politics while still showcasing the distinct linguistic and cultural aspects of her characters’ Chinese and Chinese-American heritage.
Also see the following review on the same work in Cha:
How to cite: An, Frances. “A Fractured Chinese American Diaspora in Ada Zhang’s The Sorrows of Others.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 08 May 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/05/08/sorrows/
Frances An is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction and non-fiction writer based in Perth. She is interested in the literatures of Communism, moral self-perception, white-collar misconduct and Nhạc Vàng (Yellow/Gold Music). She has performed/published in the Sydney Review Of Books, Seizure Online, Cincinnati Review, Sydney Writers Festival, Star 82, among other venues. She received a Create NSW Early Career Writers Grant 2018, partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet Literary Program 2019, and 2020 Inner City Residency (Perth, Australia). She is completing a PhD in Psychology at the University Of Western Australia on motivations behind “curbstoning” (data falsification in market research).