Lies, love, matte, and money
The first thing I see of Jenny Zhang when she rolls up to the Mask studio on a mild February evening is her pink hair. When she emerges, she is clad in a bomber jacket and black jeans, and we awkwardly hug. As we walk past dozens of the art studios that line our floor, I explain that I’ve joined the ranks of girls with cracked phone screens, which might explain why I gave her the wrong number to my cell. “Aren’t you afraid of getting glass stuck in your finger?” she asks cautiously. “That happened to me and I had glass stuck in my hand for ages.” “Shit.” OK, I actually am a little worried.
Jenny Zhang is a writer of fiction and poetry, among other things. Years ago, I found her work through her writings for Rookie Mag about growing up in early 90s Queens and Brooklyn, after immigrating to the states from Shanghai when she was five. No doubt, I was drawn to her writing by sheer fascination with how shit-obsessed it was, detailing the filthly and rotten, the dregs culture, which she has called “the highest form of decadence.” Besides her long list of bylines as a freelance writer (one of her many sources of income), under Jenny’s belt is one book of poetry and a non-fiction chap-book: Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and Hags. She also has a collection of short-stories scheduled to be published with Random House in 2017. Currently, Jenny is traveling in California, leaving lovely and enviable treasures of her trip on Instagram making us squint our eyes for signs of what she might be working on next.
Plopping down on our respective couches, the room is filled with the shuffles and clicks and clacks of Mask editors and the freelancers that rent desks, but Jenny seems un-phased. As the night goes on, and even though she often says “I don’t know” the way I say “or whatever”, it’s clear that Jenny knows, she knows the things she’s obsessed with, the people she cares for, more than most people know themselves. She holds each idea like a precious metal, gives sentimental weight to all of her acknowledgements and vital consideration, as well, to caveats. Not unlike how, if you look closely enough, on her personal website, she has carved out space for shoutouts to her friends, a group as diverse as the bacteria in your gut. She doesn’t let anything float or linger in the air for too long before swiftly moving on. “I like suddenly departing. I like disappearing. I like changing without warning others,” she says. Still, sitting with her, she’s surprisingly still and unshifty, the way you see her in some of the videos she's sprinkled across the net of her reading.
We took a step into the shitter (the one that weirdly has two toilets in one stall), where there’s nothing left to hide (especially if you happen to be sporting matte lipstick), to talk about obsessive behavior, the romance myth, and being honest with your friends about wealth and money.
What did you do today?
I’ve been packing for a trip I’m going on. I’m doing a little trip up the West Coast. I will start in LA to work on some secret projects that hopefully won’t crash and burn and if they don’t, then I can say more in a few months! I don’t know what I should pack in my suitcase that would accommodate for a wide range of weather over the course of three or four weeks … it’ll be between 38 degree and 89 degrees. I was thinking about it and if I were really only trying to pack one suitcase with room to bring stuff back and books, it’s like one outfit per every 10 degrees of temperature. I was revolting over the idea of having only one outfit for each type of temperature. I want to have at least two!
The idea of choice is so loose for me, I don’t actually chose from everything I have, I end up rotating between the same five things anyway, but I don’t like that I’m forced to rotate even though I end up doing it anyway. I suppose I want the illusion of near limitless choice. Ew, is that so typically millennial?
Do you have favorite outfits?
I have phases. Right now I am really into bomber jackets and t-shirts and jeans, but I used to be, or I sometimes get in a really femme mood and I want to wear fit-and-flare. It’s the most regressive kind of style, because you’re supposed to be small and contained on top but it’s quote unquote demure because it flares out on the bottom, not that it matters to be demure, not that people who wear dresses should aspire to some kind of ultra femme demureness. It’s the worst, oppressive shape. But sometimes I’m into wearing that. Right now, I’m into looking like somebody who clomps, runs, and stomps around even though I’m really low energy, and I’m not a tomboy in any way and I hate sports and I’m bad everything that has to do with running around.
What were you into when you were little?
When I was really little in Shanghai I was really into performing and singing, and storytelling. I was really into lying also. I would lie about how my preschool took us to the Zoo and how I was chosen to ride on the magnificent baby elephant, stuff like that, because I thought it would make a really awesome story. I liked lying but mostly in the service of telling a good story. When I was separated from my parents, I lied a lot on these cassette tapes my extended family recorded with me to send to my parents in America, to let them know how we were faring back in Shanghai. My parents liked hearing all our voices. Years and years later, my family was all like “oh you made up lies so they wouldn’t worry about you.” It would be nice to go back and say that was what I was doing, but how can I really know? All I know was that I’ve always been into entertaining, and performing, and it was so easy for me to speak, I learned how to speak really early. Then I got really into writing because I wasn’t as into speaking out loud. I didn’t want anybody to ask me to repeat myself or to give me a confused look so it was more fun for me to write. Although that’s not even totally true. I was so eager to speak that I started making up fake languages.
Interesting, what’s your astrological sign?
I’m a Capricorn. I just learned about all of that. I never knew what a rising sign was, I never knew all of that stuff.
I just feel like when people describe themselves as they were when they were young, it’s much closer to their sign than they are now, maybe, possibly?
Maybe that’s because that’s you at your purest? Before you’re soiled by other people’s gazes and expectations?
Could be! So, do you still fixate on things?
I’m pretty addictive and obsessive. I probably wasted, well, I don’t want to say “wasted” but I probably spent like 10 years of my life diverting all of my creative energy to falling in love, and trying to have the perfect human being in my life who would elevate all of my hopes and fears into something meaningful. I fixated on that and obsessed over that and focused all of my energy into creating that and seeking that and sustaining that. I don’t feel that way anymore. But now, I spend all my time obsessing … I don’t even know on what. I guess reading and writing again.
I’m obsessive but once I move on, I move on. In that way I can be a little ruthless. I spent the last ten years working on these short stories that are all about nine-year-old girls. It wasn’t really, it wasn’t like I decided “Ok, now I’m gonna write a bunch of really long, first-person short stories about nine-year-old Chinese American girls,” and I did that for many, many years. At some point, I just knew that I’d written the last story and that they were done, and that I never wanted to write about nine-year-olds again. And now, I’m obsessed with writing in the third person about these women in their twenties who feel certain that they are going to become hags when they grow up. I just go through these phases and I have to completely exhaust it and then I move on. And now, I’m in the hag phase!
I think a lot of people I know feel like they are hags, or are going to be hags when they “grow up”. Generally, part of what our twenties are about is dealing with having really volatile relationships, feeling sad you have to let people go. What advice do you have for people who are going through this?
At one point I realized that everything that you yearn for, every part of your core is based on the first couple years of your life and the kind of family you grew up with. It’s so unfair because we have the least amount of control over what happens to us in our first five years, and so in a way it’s a kind of imprisonment that we’re all trying to free ourselves from. I realized that there was just no way that my parents could really give me any guidance on how to seek love and partnership. They have a really good relationship, they’re really happy. They grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, my father claims he loved my mom from the age of four. In fact, my mom comes from generations of really happy partnerships. Her parents are 86 and they are really happy and take care of each other in a really symbiotic way that’s almost scary because it’s like that thing of being so used to having a partner that I really don’t know what one of them would do if they lost the other.
So anyway, the point is that once they took me to America when I was five, that type of courtship and partnership was just never going to be possible for me. First of all, there would be no one who lived next to me consistently like my parents and grandparents had had. But also, the ways in which my parents think about partnership and why it’s important is just a different narrative from the Western narrative of finding somebody you can lose yourself in. Because of this, I was pretty lost. I had gotten my romantic education the way I’m sure a lot of people did: through movies and books and music and poetry, and what all of these romantic narratives have in common is the idea that you’re doomed unless you can be saved by the love of a good man or a good woman. I think that was what was in my brain, so the stakes were like, either this person is going to sweep in and save me from my impending doom or they won’t. How can anything work if that’s the framework from which you think about love? Ultimately, it comes from this idea of love exceptionalism, that two people can find each other regardless of white supremacy, regardless of legacies of racism, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, capitalism – that there is something that transcends it all. It’s the kind of chilling, insidious simplicity of #lovewins where the definition of “love” is so narrow, so entrenched in fear, so invested in replicating the same models of dominance and power, that it becomes just one more desperate distraction from having to ever confront of our own fears of mortality, worthlessness, incompleteness.
OK, so I don’t know if that’s the problem of every 20-year-old who is trying to find love and inner-peace or whatever but I think that’s part of it. I think for me, figuring out how to deal with volatility in relationships was realizing that whatever broken thing inside me or whatever unhappiness or fear, loss, being lost ... whatever that was, I would have to resolve that on my own. It could be really wonderful to meet someone whose company I love or whose body I’m attracted to, but that person is never going to be like, your solution. I feel like loving people without expecting your outward radiating love to give you something back, or loving people without a certain kind of neediness, is probably the best thing you can do.
Your whole look always seems very put together, although there is usually a curveball here and there, like the little cat skirt. But, also, I always notice that your makeup and skin is pristine. Out of curiosity, where you think we are right now in terms of makeup trends?
We’re obviously in a 90s moment right now, and I think we’re starting to edge toward the late 90s, early aughts, which means ... I need a really dramatic drumroll ... the days of matte lipstick are numbered! I think we might be seeing a gloss revival. I mean, obviously matte is amazing and utilitarian, you can go through the whole day only reapplying maybe once, and if you are an elegant careful eater you can get away with an entire meal without much of your lipstick disappearing. The downside is, if you have luscious, full lips, matte is so drying and can sort of amplify every single line and crack and fold of your lips, if they aren’t crazy moisturized. There’s a constant battle in beauty between the glam vixen woman and the cute innocent girl.
Korean beauty is all about looking like a drunk confused baby who just woke up from a nap and has little bags underneath her eyes and flushed cheeks and rosy, pouty lips and straight archless eyebrows that make you look bewildered and unplucked – even though a lot of effort goes into looking confused and effortless of course – whereas the American Kardashian brand of beauty is all about contouring the holy fuck out of your face. It’s like those diagrams of the geological cross section of the earth where it’s layer and layer of soil, sediment, and rock before you get to the core. That's the world matte lipstick resides in – the world of "I obviously tried very, very hard to look glamorous." Matte is such a signifier of womanhood. If you look at Kylie Jenner, it’s clear she’s doing everything possible beauty-wise to make you forget she's a teen. Her beauty signals, I'm a woman, even if everything else signals, I’m a kid.
With Korean beauty, it’s about signaling that you’re perpetually a girl, even when you are supposed to be in the throes of womanhood. And there was a moment in the late 90s, early 2000s when girlhood was in, baby-ish Britney Spears in a glossy lip and pigtails. Even Christina Aguilera who is all about being a woman, started out as a glossy-lipped girl. I mean, it’s two sides of the same coin, we push our girls into becoming women as quickly as possible and then there’s a brief period of time where the young girl's body is acceptable because it’s innocent and unaware while still being available for sex, while still not being soiled by having been too available for too long for sex, and then it’s over, so quickly. Not long after, our bodies are regarded as degraded, ruined, spoiled, too experienced, and of course, at that point, some grown women want to try and be girls again, but we make fun of them, we question them, we laugh at them, we insult them.
I moved to San Francisco after college in the mid-aughts, during the last diminishing years of gloss, and I just remember it being super windy all the time. The wind would make my hair stick to my mouth and then drag gloss across my cheeks. The horror! Maybe I'm not ready for the gloss revival.
How can people find each other?
Well, some of my friends are writers and we found each other through writing, but then there are people who are my day ones, who don’t go to any of my readings or even read anything that I write but they’re the first ones to drop off soup at my apartment if I’m sick. They are family friends, and maybe we don’t have the same connection over art and writing, but there’s a tenderness and intimacy from knowing each other for so long. They are family. Don’t discard your family unless they keep hurting you, you’ll need them more than you’ll need admirers.
I met a bunch of writers when I was at Stanford for undergrad, just by talking about the stuff I was into and asking them what they were into. This was before the Internet made it really easy to find somebody was into the same stuff you are into, even the really obscure stuff that you thought nobody else had heard of. But you know, that good feeling of “oh you’re also into,” maybe, the poems of Rimbaud, when you’re seventeen and you just decide you want to get to know this person. Or this person also ditches class to go to punk shows in the city, and suddenly you’re like ... we’re gonna be comrades.
You know when you get probiotics and it’s like a billion strains of bacteria! To diversify your gut flora. I’m like, you should diversify your social flora, your friend flora. I have friends who are bankers, I have friends who are union organizers, I have friends who work at Walgreens, friends who are cops, friends who are drill sergeants. It’s harder, in some ways, as you get older, to keep those friendships up. I guess as time goes by we become more professionalized in this gross way, and you start purging people who don’t fit. I don’t like that at all.
But I think you should use that bravery to ask people out on friend dates. Like, reaching across the Internet, and saying “I really like this thing you did,” without any expectations.
What’s been your experience with mentorship? Have you had any great mentors?
I had a professor who I really wanted to mentor me, though she seemed very disinterested in me and very interested in my boyfriend, even though she was an older queer woman. It made me so resentful like, what’s wrong with me? Why won’t you spend time encouraging me and reading my work? She once told me that I wasn’t going to succeed in Iowa for grad school because I had too much of a sensitive temperament. Like, what? I decided the only way to deal with that comment was to start to prize my supposed sensitivity. I’m glad I’m sensitive. I’m glad I feel things intensely.
It was around then that I became very suspicious of trying to look up to older generations for guidance, especially when some of those people have been truly traumatized and dealt with shit that I never had to as a woman or person of color, but then respond to that with a kind of pessimism toward the younger generation, or sometimes just a wholesale dismissal. I would hope that when I get older I don’t become embittered, angry or cynical that the strides my generation made are forgotten by the next. I don’t want to be resentful towards younger generations. I want to be somebody that has some faith that foolishness or ignorance is not the worst possible thing that a young person can display for a time. Because I was that way too, that is youth. You’re pure, you’re your true sign! And then you become whatever thing the world has warped you into. But the dim star of your true sign still shines somewhere in the distance.
So I guess I realized that my quest for mentorship, for validation from older people was so unnecessary. My peers and my friends were just as smart and they were the ones who often told me about books to read and people to look into and ideas to be acquainted with. And that’s what I mean by “diversifying your social flora”. When I graduated college, I had friends who were going to graduate school but I also had friends who were going to salt for a union, and they were reading totally different books than my friends who were going on to do comparative literature PhDs, or else they were not reading books produced by institutions at all ... and having that diverse social flora, that was my education … or my mis-education! The young kids are already doing this on Tumblr in a way, bringing in all these sources and sharing it and spreading it around everywhere, connecting to something beyond what your identity mapped out for you.
What do you think about the question of paying people to perform at poetry readings?
In general, I try not to do readings, but of course I end up doing a million because there’s too many friends I have trouble saying ‘no’ to. But for people who are doing readings … let’s see, you know, sometimes it feels bitchy of me to ask if there is payment but I feel like you should ask if there’s compensation. It’s just good to not assume someone asking you to read for their series is asking out of some kind of genuine beneficence, so many people start reading series for their own glory, not actually having thought out what they would like to contribute or what kind of environment already exists. And the reality of the environment that already exists is: the same people who always read are reading, and those people are often young and good looking or white or straight or men. Somebody starting a reading series without thinking about what it is they are trying to bring into the world, at least pay for the labor that they are asking for. If you’re going to start something you should have a vision for how the people who are going to contribute are going to be compensated. It’s complicated, too, because obviously the people who don’t work really long hours at a job, who aren’t working class or struggling, are the people who are going to be more willing to clear four hours of their night to hang out at a bar for a reading. So, it’s not just a thing of just paying people, but if you actually care about getting a different kind of person to come out, then you have to.
Jenny performing at The Daughters reading
Along those lines, what are some of the hustles that have supported your work as a poet?
It’s really hard if you’re a poet. Most poets I know either have a million other side hustles or they write freelance prose or they just come from wealth and privilege, and that last one seems like the most common way people seem to become poets. But, I’ve done a lot. I was a union organizer, I was a community organizer, a youth organizer. I worked for SEIU, United Health Careworker right out of college, and then I worked for 826 Valencia as a youth organizer. Lots of service jobs, lots of odd jobs, and modeling sometimes. Sometimes, I did this thing called being a peachy puff candy girl, which is a scam in San Fransisco where you wear in skimpy clothing and you sell novelty items and cigarettes to drunk people on the street for really high prices. It’s a scam because you have to buy the tray first and a lot of the girls get really drunk on the job because it’s such a shitty job because you’re being followed and groped with no protection at all, and then they eat all the candy or smoke the cigarettes, and then end up owing money at the end of the night. I did a lot of jobs like that, sometimes out of curiosity and to support myself. I taught a lot, I taught CUNY community college courses at various public high schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. I’ve done freelance writing, I’ve rented out my apartment and stayed at my parents house for weeks at a time. I teach in the New School over the summer for their summer writing colony.
I also am really privileged in that once I racked up so much credit card debt, and when the bill went to my parents house, they opened it. When they discovered how insane the bill was, because they had lived their lives extremely responsibly, saving at every turn, they just decided to pay off this staggering amount of credit card debt I had. Stuff like that, people never talk about. It’s like when people say, “I don’t have enough money to do anything”, but then you see them get in a cab at the end of the night. People get ashamed to say, “well, the reason why I never have to have a job is…” whatever, because they’re married, or something. I wish people could say stuff like that.
Even more, I know there’s stuff some of us can’t say, like if you have a sugar daddy and that’s not something you can disclose, or you do other kinds of sex work. The people who are most often criminalized for sex work are never the people who are most active on Twitter calling for the legalization of sex work. By that I mean, anyone who isn’t a cishet able-bodied white woman.
I’ve definitely noticed that as well. I feel like a lot of the “visibility is a trap” conversations don’t go deep enough into the huge discrepancy in who feels like “coming out” as a sex worker, or whatever, is a real risk. Do you feel like this is changing at all or nah?
I’ve noticed a real uptick of white girls who are completely open about doing sex work and sometimes with their legal-ass name, which if you think about is something only the most privileged can afford to do, or even consider doing without total paralyzing fear. Black woman have died for driving down the street, trans women of color have been murdered because someone found them attractive, are they really gonna be the ones on Twitter, outing themselves as doing something illegal, and arguing with some celebrity making a dumb statement about how all prostitutes are poor trafficked victims? I can tell you that a lot of women of color, a lot of black women, a lot of trans women of color who are already policed, criminalized by having the bodies they have, are not running around Twitter and Facebook using their real name and real pictures to talk about how exhausted they are from giving blowjobs and whipping men for money, even if they are doing exactly that. But we out here, you know, and we are quiet because our survival depends on us erasing ourselves from the conversation which gets then dominated by cishet white girls. Financial transparency is hard to talk about for women, especially women of color, trans people, really anyone who has centuries and centuries of blood memories and reasons to be paranoid, fearful to disclose too much about ourselves.
What’s something you’d like to communicate to folks who are afraid of being honest with their friends about their financial situation?
I really think that financial transparency is important, so that people don’t feel crazy. I want people to know that it does make a difference when you can wake up at 11 AM, drink coffee and stare out a window and dream for hours and hours, as compared to say someone who has to get up at six, commute to work, work for nine to 10 hours and then run errands and come home at 10 PM and try to write. It makes a difference if you have a husband whose health insurance you can get on. Parents who bail you out. A kind of body that attracts somewhat benign sugardaddies who will pay for your rent, or a privileged enough upbringing that someone taught you how to save your money and what to do with the money you have so that you can keep having more. Some people have to send money home to their families in other countries, some people have kids, some people are kids supporting their parents and their kids. Some people can go to Berlin for three months to “get away from it all and write.” Some people say they ate ramen for two weeks but take cabs everywhere and buys rounds of drinks and packs and packs of cigarettes. I say if you can afford to be transparent, then do it. Do it so the rest of us can figure out how to afford to be someone we wanna be.
Jenny performing at the Adult Magazine Valentine’s Day reading
All photos by Luis Nieto Dickens