Jenny Zhang’s Shamelessly Bad Objects

By Karen Gwee

15:22 – Jenny Zhang reads “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love”
22:27 – Jenny Zhang speaks about the importance of shamelessness

“Being shameless is kind of important to me,” Chinese American poet and writer Jenny Zhang once said. “Because as a woman of color in this world, I’m constantly being told that I should be ashamed. I should have some shame; I should accept how other people see me, which is as someone who’s not worth much.”

Zhang championed shamelessness in relation to “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love”, a free verse poem which careens from sex “P in V” style, to “medicinal shit” in the walls, to “day-old semen / in a champagne glass.” An unabashed, absurdist exploration of self and kinship through genitals and bodily fluids, “I Would Have No Pubes” is truly, in the words of Celine Parreñas Shimizu, a “bad object” (227). The poem represents and normalizes “‘improper’ sexual acts and ‘inappropriate’ identities” (227), mining perversity not just from the coarse bodily apparatus used to perform hypersexuality but also from the queering effects of age and parentage upon desire and sex.

Zhang notes that shame is a device to indoctrinate women of color with an ideology of deficit: the notion that they are “someone who’s not worth much.” Zhang’s response is to be shameless, an act of audacious overcorrection that, in response to an existing lack, ends up seeming strangely normal. “Your primeval stink really gets me,” the speaker says, the disgusting notion of “primeval stink” slotting oddly yet easily into the sentence’s syntactic structure, settling peaceably into the 21st century expression of romantic connection. “Everyone tells me I am my mother’s mother / both of us were born with curly pubes / that straightened out late in life,” she explains, like proving maternity through genetic similarities in pubic hair is the most commonsense thing in the world. This mingling of ordinary and outrageous lends Zhang’s words power and also forges a new normal with room for coarseness and vulgarity – one that would appeal to Shimizu, who asserts that “a redefinition of sexuality must transpire to include what has been typically classified as perverse” (229). Zhang even dares to suggest that Asian American bodily grossness should not merely be normal, but celebrated as art by the likes of the Whitney Biennial. After all, white people do it. “I know lots of white guys,” the speaker says, her tone mildly defiant, “who have… framed their own cum / splattered against the front page of yesterday’s newspaper.” Zhang implicitly asserts that Asian American objects of visceral vulgarity deserve to be recognized as profound artistic production, a belief embodied by the very poem.

Many of the images in “I Would Have No Pubes” are unsettling because of their childishness. The poem’s title already alludes to pre-pubescence, which continues to inform its non-normative sexuality. The speaker masturbates with a Minnie Mouse soft toy, whom she then proclaims her “best and only friend” in the way only a naive tween does. The speaker shitting herself while reading about the briefest of erotic contacts in Sweet Valley High is perhaps the grossest, and more embarrassing, image in the poem for its sheer immaturity – after all, Sweet Valley High is kids’ fiction, and of course a child would lose control over their bowel movements. The uncomfortably childlike exploration of sexuality in “I Would Have No Pubes” critiques white supremacy by taking two of its coexistent controlling images – that of the infantilized girl-woman and of the hypersexual Asian woman – to a logical, combined conclusion. Here, Zhang’s poem not only refuses to follow the dictates of white supremacist ideas of Asian American women but also mocks and critiques them. It is truly a “bad object.”

Most of the films Shimizu analyzes do not discuss the bonds between Asian American parents and children, save Michiko Saito’s Premenstrual Spotting. Saito intercuts familiar home movie footage with shots of the female character in fetish gear or naked, creating a “contradiction between the images [that] productively poses the disjunctures between the space she occupies now and her family memory and history” (259). Furthermore, the larger film “evaluates the intense trauma regarding surviving sexual violence at home from the hands of a loved one” as the mother character chooses to “protect the integrity of the family and disregard the daughter’s pain and experience” (261). In Premenstrual Spotting, parents are sources of trauma and shame, conservative or oppressive foils for the daughter who struggles for liberation and survival. In “I Would Have No Pubes,” however, there is no gulf or disjuncture. The mother is a mostly idealized figure, her relationship to her daughter often figured in terms of sex and genitalia. The mother teaches the daughter that “there’s more” to sex than the heteronormative penetrative model, even encouraging her to “try everything.” This queers not just Asian American women’s hypersexuality – which as a white supremacist construct does not have an origin, but rather just is – but also conventional bonds between Asian parents and children. When Asian parents supposedly never say “I love you” to their children, what more talk of sex and sexual experimentation? At the same time, Zhang does not neglect the more familiar friction between Asian children and their parents. After a silly moment where the speaker refuses to obey her mother but rather mimic her, she remarks: “I bet if she could / she’d stuff me right back up her lil cunt / and we would fulfill each other / in ways we cannot dream of now.” Here, Zhang acknowledges the frustration produced when children and parents fail to “fulfill each other” by cleaving to imagined expectations. But Zhang chooses to illustrate this in graphic bodily terms, true to shameless form and her determination to create a “bad object” that forges a new normal for Asian American female sexuality.

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