Read an excerpt from the writer's new book that captures the awkwardness of adolescence and adulthood alike
As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.
Rounding off State of Literature week, we welcome Gabby Bess and her all-girl takeover. The writer and poet behind Illuminati Girl Gang is dedicated to challenging preconceptions about female expression in art: she told us about her heroines, as well as curated a selection of female-penned lit that refuses to bow down.
You might know Jenny Zhang from her fictional and non-fictional contributions to Rookie, the favourite website of teenage girls and – if you're really in the know – lovers of intelligent, unabashedly "real" writing everywhere (and of all ages). Her collection of poetry, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (released in March this year) outlined a poetic voice with all the confidence of Whitman, and all the intimacy of your oldest best friend. Asian-American and (yep) female, Zhang's standpoint doesn't pretend to be anything other than what she is, all whilst forming a riposte to stereotype. Like the new girl just moved in next door, Zhang invites you into her teenage bedroom only to shock you with its contents; with her upcoming chapbook essay Hags, Zhang's knack for the all-too-personal prompts musings on personal heroines and the travails of transition. Read an excerpt from its chronicle of girlhood, below.
During the 1996 Olympics, I started fucking myself with cucumbers stolen from the fridge. I was 13. If no one wanted me I would have to seduce myself. Oh this is so big and so good, I moaned. When I was done, I would rinse them off and put them back where I found them and then turn on the television and watch Amy Chow, the one Asian girl on the American gymnastics team kill it on the uneven bars. She was the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal in her sport. Did they mention her precision? Her discipline? Did they know she meant something to certain girls in 1996? She had to share her silver medal with Bi Wen Jing from China. When I was an undergrad at Stanford, there was a girl named Jennie Kim who worked for the school newspaper. Sometimes people would come up to me and talk to me about articles she had written.
That one on getting a Brazilian was hilarious, some guy said, high-fiving me.
Oh um, I think you think I’m that other Asian girl, I said to him, even though there were hundreds of other Asian girls.
The year my mom worked as a secretary at an apparel company in midtown she would often come home in tears because she had mistakenly called her boss by another coworker’s name.
You know how it is, my father said, they all look the same. It’s not your mom’s fault. There’s just no telling them apart. Same high nose and deep-set eyes.
I know, I said.
You know everything, my mother used to say to me. You always say, I know I know I know, but you must DO. Why don’t you ever DO?
Isn’t knowing enough, I cried. Most people don’t even know, I said. At least I know.
“I know I am not the first woman to ask this, but how can I be both damaged and loveable? How do I become the protagonist of a story?” – Jenny Zhang
The hag grandmother in Isaac Babel’s story tells the little boy stand-in for Babel, “You must know everything!” and with that, he is ushered into the world of adults. Their nasty rows and mind games. Oskar in The Tin Drum narrates the story of how he came to be—it all started with his grandfather running from the police. He comes across Oskar’s grandmother in the field. She takes pity on him and lets him hide underneath her layers and layers of skirt. As she is covering up his whereabouts to the police, he starts fucking her underneath her skirt. They conceive Oskar’s father, and life begins. The whole thing is treated as a trifle. Like an insignificant matter. The real damage is what happens to Oskar when he is three and witnesses the monstrosities of the adults around him and decides to stop growing. The years pass, but his body remains that of a three-year-old. When he goes to a circus, the leader of a troupe of performing dwarfs invites Oskar to join them.
But Oskar refuses. His reason: “I prefer to let my little art flower in secret.” We root for him. He’s so damaged and so lovable.
I know I am not the first woman to ask this, but how can I be both damaged and loveable? How do I become the protagonist of a story?
Dead white guys and not-dead not-white not guys hate it when you dismiss revered canonical works of art and literature by saying, Uggggggggggh. I hate this.
And give no reasons why at all.
If I live to a hundred, do I really have to spend eighty-five or more of those years explaining why I don’t like this?
“These hags, these great beauties, these mermaids who taunt, who feast, who slash, who steal, these succubae who cannot rest, my mothers, my sisters, my unborn friends, my keepers, my guardians.” – Jenny Zhang
My brother, after seeing Home Alone 3, learns the word winky and he finds it so delicious that he gets me to help him tape twenty sheets of printer paper together so he can draw the longest dick I’ve ever seen, so long that we have to roll it up like a scroll, and later, we unravel it on the steps of our house like a second carpet and I jump up and down every step of that cock carpet and spit on it and fart on it for days and days and days until it is completely damaged.
I used to hold in my farts in public until I could find a large white man to covertly let it out next to. They’ll think it’s me, my boyfriend used to say. Would it have been too on the nose, too victim-y, for me to have pointed out that I am blamed all the time? I might be stupid or lazy or both. I’m disinterested in sound reasoning. Isn’t sound reasoning partly why Western scientists and leaders told the Hmong in Vietnam and Laos, who watched their family members die from the poisonous “yellow rain” that was dropped on them, that they were just “making it up”? That their firsthand accounts of what they saw, what they felt, what they experienced and lived through were not as convincing as the testimony of white men who were never there, who never knew what it was like for their lived experiences to be not enough.
“Point of inquiry: At what point must a female senator raise her voice or her hand to be heard over her male colleagues in the room?”
The Republicans said they were going to send 84,601 blank sheets of paper over to Senator Wendy Davis’s office, each one symbolizing an abortion that was performed in 2011. Is it because an unborn baby is like a blank sheet of paper? Is there a way to calculate via blank sheets of paper how many of us wish we were never born?
When you’re so angry you cease to exist.
As a child, I would go days without speaking, and then suddenly I would scream until everyone was looking at me. The banshees who raised me without their physical presence. The aswang, the Filipino vampire who sucks the blood of unborn infants and flies around legless at night. The kumiho in Korean a shape-shifting, nine-tailed fox who can transform herself into a beautiful young maiden to seduce boys so that she may eat their livers or sometimes their hearts. The urban legend of the red mask, the scorned ghost who wears a blood-soaked surgical mask over her mouth. She’ll ask, Am I pretty? If you say yes, she’ll kill you, and if you say no, she’ll take off her mask and show you her Glasgow smile, revealing her botched cosmetic surgery. She then asks again, Am I pretty? If you say yes, she’ll cut up your face; if you say no, she’ll follow you home and cut up your face anyway. If you tell her, You look normal, then she wanders away, confused.
These hags, these great beauties, these mermaids who taunt, who feast, who slash, who steal, these succubae who cannot rest, my mothers, my sisters, my unborn friends, my keepers, my guardians.