A frank depiction of poverty and budding sexuality told through interconnected stories narrated by the daughters of Chinese immigrants.
This first collection of short stories by Zhang, a poet (Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, 2012), focuses on immigration and the interiority of the teenage experience; she writes explicit scenes of sexual exploration and uncomfortable power plays among latchkey kids who are left at home unsupervised. In both “Our Mothers Before Them” and “The Empty the Empty the Empty,” girls struggle with power over their own bodies and how they want to be touched. “The Evolution of My Brother” is narrated by a girl whose brother harms himself in an effort to test the limits of his body. Zhang focuses on the uncomfortable proximity of immigrants who live for years with little privacy. Through these young narrators’ eyes, it appears that trauma “[makes] the traumatized person insufferable” to his or her own relatives. Zhang is most poignant when she allows herself to escape the confines of the teenage gaze, alluding to epiphanies that will come as these characters age and realize what they owe their parents. “It was only later, much, much, much later,” one of the girls says, “that I understood and accepted that my parents paid for me to be free.” Each story is narrated in the first person, so together they blur into a uniform mindset. Zhang’s allusions to the complexity of the immigrant experience, the choicelessness of poverty, the diversity of marital relationships, and even the nightmarish fear of outsiders are limited by her consistent use of similar points of view.
Graphic, uncomfortable situations sometimes substitute for complicated prose. Though bursting with possibility, these linked stories don’t quite mature.