Jenny Zhang’s Shamelessly Bad Objects (UPDATED)

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). In the poem, Zhang mines perversity from the coarse bodily apparatus used to perform hypersexuality, crafting disturbing images that appear to behave but in fact subvert by fulfilling white supremacist expectations to their most absurd extents. In so doing, she critiques white supremacy and ultimately fashions a new, radical normal that all but expels shame from Asian American sexual and familial relations.

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 perverse because of their pointed childishness, an artistic decision that seems intent upon unsettling white supremacist ideas of Asian American womanhood. 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. These images go out of their way to fulfill white supremacist expectations to exaggerated extents, morphing into tools of subversion. 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.

Elsewhere, Zhang uses the same strategy but to a slightly different end: she reappropriates a white supremacist controlling image so she might rehabilitate existing Asian American norms, such as the Asian American parent-and-child relation. Zhang recognizes that Asian Americans carry shame that is produced not just by white supremacy, but also by the fraught relationships they have with their parents. As Rosalind S. Chou has demonstrated in Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality, Asian American parents often police their children’s sexual behaviors and gender expressions (32). Asian Americans often struggle to process or exorcise the shame their parents have inculcated in them since childhood. Zhang reverses this conventional Asian American parent-and-child relation by writing the speaker’s mother not as a destructive agent of shame but a loving nurturer of shamelessness. This mother not only teaches her daughter that “there’s more” to sex than the heteronormative penetrative model, but even remains supportive of the “p pussy and v vagina” sex raised by the cheekily naive speaker, breezily encouraging her to “try everything.” This thoroughly queers conventional bonds between Asian American children and their parents, who supposedly never say “I love you” to their children and indeed uphold within the home what Chou calls a “code of silence” pertaining to all things sexual (42). Zhang rehabilitates this relation by introducing a dynamic where a mother enthusiastically encourages her daughter’s sexual eclecticism, an image that appropriates the white supremacist ars erotica notion of “Eastern” sexuality whereby a master passes sacred sexual practices down to a novice (Chou 42). However, the mother in “I Would Have No Pubes” does not mould her daughter according to the pleasures of the white man. Rather, she teaches her child to reject heteronormativity. The desires of Foucault, or some other white man centered and conceivably aroused by the notion of ars erotica, are made irrelevant. Zhang de-Orientalizes the ars erotica model to imagine erotic and indeed utopian Asian American parent-and-child relations that foster shamelessness and pleasure for no one but oneself.

My knowledge of Asian American media is by no means exhaustive, but Zhang’s decision to write a mother who nurtures a shameless daughter feels uniquely radical. As an move of logic and irony, this is an obvious inversion of convention. But it still feels unthinkable for Asian American artists, even for those invested in creating bad objects: most of the films Shimizu analyzes do not discuss and thus elide the bonds between Asian American parents and children. In the sole exception that is Michiko Saito’s Premenstrual Spotting, Saito treats the problem of parents in an important but nevertheless familiar way. When Saito intercuts familiar home movie footage with shots of the female character naked or clad in fetish gear, she creates 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). Thus Premenstrual Spotting figures parents as sources of trauma and shame, conservative or oppressive foils for the daughter who struggles for liberation and survival. This is a valuable framing that addresses the violence (sexual and otherwise) visited upon Asian American bodies by their own kin, but it is nevertheless a familiar framing marked by disjuncture, one where children negotiate an antagonistic relationship with their parents. On the other hand, the parent-and-child relations in “I Would Have No Pubes”, though certainly not altogether devoid of friction, in fact harbor erotically utopian potential.

When the shame often characteristic of an Asian American parent-and-child dynamic does arise, Zhang swiftly dismantles it in a manner at once light-hearted, absurdist and profound. 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 and disappointment produced when children and parents fail to “fulfill each other” by cleaving to imagined expectations. More importantly, however, Zhang illustrates the futile extremity of these emotions by literalizing the exasperated exclamation that often arises when children are embarrassed by their parents, and when parents are ashamed of their children: “I wish you’d never been born!” Okay then, Zhang seems to say, let’s put her back in her place. Reverse the birth. Stuff the daughter right back up the mother’s lil cunt. This supposed solution ends up both absurd and alarming, its extremity pointing to the impossibility of the fundamental demand that parent and child totally fulfil each other’s expectations. When a child will never be what a parent imagines and vice versa, shame and disappointment are redundant and even pointless. By deconstructing this underlying illogic, Zhang unravels the idea that shame is and surely cannot be anything other than endemic to an Asian American parent-and-child relation. This is one of the most significant intellectual and emotional triumphs of “I Would Have No Pubes,” a radically bad object that forges a new normal for Asian American sexual and familial experience.

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