‘Only Goodness’ by Jhumpa Lahiri / ‘Evolution of My Brother’ by Jenny Zhang

Lahiri and Zhang write in contrasting styles: Lahiri’s is sparsely elegant and coolly restrained whilst Zhang’s sentences spark and flow with an at times lurid emotionality, a frank and unbridled access to humour and pain. These two stories centre upon difficult brothers and the older sisters who love and come to be hurt and puzzled by them. Both stories arrive at devastation in their own messy, specific ways, but overlap in articulating the genealogy of siblinghood from shared traumas and a mutual understanding of otherness, to the slow-burning heartbreak of estrangement.

‘Only Goodness’ from Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2008. Also available as a digital single from Bloomsbury. ‘Evolution of My Brother’ first published in Rookie Mag, 2011. Collected in Sour Heart, Lenny/Bloomsbury 2017

‘The Evolution of my Brother’ by Jenny Zhang

Zhang’s short stories explore themes of family and immigration, and my favourite is ‘The Evolution of My Brother.’ We’re introduced to a pair of Chinese-American siblings that, like many of Zhang’s characters, have grown up close yet distant; they have quite a large age gap between them, and their closeness waxes and wanes over the course of the story. As the narrator – also named Jenny, which feels like an excellent two-fingers-up to the cliché that women writers are diarists – watches her younger brother grow up, she slowly realises that she has no idea who he is. He’s a little odd around the edges, with anxieties and compulsions that his family struggle to understand. What really gets me about this story is the reflection on not just the evolution of the individual, but also of the meaning of family: “there would come a point when in thinking about ‘family’ we would think of the ones we made, not the ones we were from.” I find that so incredibly sad, and yet so beautifully true.

First published in Rookie, 2011 and collected in Sour Heart, Lenny/Bloomsbury, 2017

‘HAGS’ by Jenny Zhang

“HAGS” was published as poetry, but it’s mostly prose, and it reads like a 500-page novel compressed into a 17-page story written in the form of a lyric essay. It’s about being a woman, a young woman, a daughter, a member of a family, an immigrant in New York, an Asian person in an American context, a politically-engaged person, a person who can wield language to match anyone else’s wielding, a consumer and critic of multiple cultures and pop cultures, a reader, a worker, a thinker. Everything about the story, especially the way it is written, is more interesting than the way I’ve just described it. Jenny Zhang’s fiction is in some ways the fulfilment of the promise made by William Goldman, when he described The Princess Bride as an abridgment, with only the good parts left in. Except that William Goldman was aiming for wish-fulfillment, and Jenny Zhang is aiming straight at the ugly and the true.

Originally published as GUILLOTINE Series Chapbook #7 in 2014; out of print but available as a PDF here