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 it’s like, 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. Like, 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 like fit-and-flare. It’s like 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.