The Zell Visiting Writers Series, hosted by the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, usually takes the form of a week in which visiting writers stay in Ann Arbor, teach workshops, give talks and soak in the magic of the city in the fall.

This past Thursday, the program hosted “Sour Heart” author Jenny Zhang. But like most events these days, the series took place virtually via Zoom, which meant I had the pleasure of listening to Zhang read poetry and short fiction from her living room while I desperately attempted to prepare a half-decent dinner for myself in my pajamas. 

Zhang began the event by reading several different works of poetry and short fiction, and then engaged in a short Q&A with Helen Zell Writers’ Program Fiction MFA Dur e Aziz Amna, and the general audience via Zoom (and if any of you were wondering, I had chicken marinated with thyme and lemon, and potatoes on the side. It was OK.)

I went into this event completely unaware, as it was both my first time hearing or reading any of Zhang’s work and also my first time attending a literary reading. Due to this, I was apprehensive — what would this experience be like in a virtual setting? Additionally, it was a virtual setting with an author that I had never read before. What would that be like? I quickly found out that it was going to be quite enjoyable. My eyes were lulled to a satisfied close as Zhang read poems and stories that touched on race, class, womanhood and adolescence. I was transported into each narrative and poem she spun.

The New Yorker described “Sour Heart” as “frequently disgusting,” and while they meant no harm by it, I’d like to rephrase — Zhang’s writings are frequently truthful. If there’s disgust that comes with truth, then Zhang does not hesitate to delve into it, but at the heart of so many of her pieces is a yearning to tell that truth, or at least the truth as she sees it.

In her readings, Zhang captured moments where the perceived truths of a person are challenged by realities they’re only just encountering. In one excerpt from her story, “My Days and Nights of Terror,” the teenage female protagonist discovers sex as what it really is for the first time. She wonders, “Does God know about this?” It is a thought that is both innocent and honest. For any person raised in a religious household, they likely wondered the same at some point. 

As the readings came to an end, Zhang began her Q&A session. She ruminated on the differences between writing and change. Writing, she posited, is separate from change. Things and circumstances change from collective action and organizing. Writing helps to create a reason to live, as all forms of art and beauty do.

This idea gave me pause. It is common for writers or “creatives,” as people in the arts like to call themselves, to declare that they are making real change. That this performance they’re putting on is going to “change the world” in some way or that the book they’re writing will single-handedly inspire an epiphany in America that will change our political climate for years to come. These thoughts usually come from a well-intentioned place, and I don’t disagree with them entirely. However, they can often swell into an overwhelming crescendo in which artists and writers forget that there is a world outside of their art. That while there are many groundbreaking and influential performances and stories, these works can only do so much. Real change comes from real people committing to action in the real world.

This does not mean, as Zhang emphasized, that there is no use for or meaning to writing. I was reminded of this later on as a Scottish voice filtered through Zoom and filled my ears. A class from Edinburgh in Scotland had stayed up late to listen to Zhang read from “Sour Heart.” It was then that I was reminded of the power of writing, and of the power of art. 

Here I was, in my pajamas, making dinner in my small apartment in Ann Arbor, listening to a professor sitting in her home in Edinburgh, excitedly asking an author, who was sitting in her home in San Francisco, about her novel. Each of us had just listened to that author read stories and poems that transported us away from our couches and living rooms and into the lives, troubles and triumphs of her characters. There’s an interconnectivity that is bred from writing and art that cannot compare to almost anything else. Zhang’s reading was a nice reminder that there is still power and purpose in writing, even if we do not always see it.

Daily Arts Writer Peter Hummer can be reached at hummerp@umich.edu.

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