For writer and poet Jenny Zhang, being an artist means confronting issues that aren’t always comfortable. In its exploration of race and gender, Zhang’s work offers insight into the politics of identity through the lens of deeply personal, written experience. Yesterday evening, Bowdoin’s Asian Students Association (ASA) hosted Zhang, who is based in Brooklyn, for a reading and workshop in an effort to foster dialogue and increase awareness of the Asian-American experience.

“Being Asian in America… it’s like you’re a ghost,” Zhang added. “People don’t know anything about Asians in America, and when you get down to the nuances of all the different Asian- American groups, people know even less.”

Zhang, who is the published author of poetry collections, “Dear Jenny, We Are All Fine” and “HAGS,” is also a long-time contributor to online teenage magazine Rookie, where she writes about her experiences as a woman of color. 

“I feel better and less confused and less sad if I can say something and share it with everyone,” she said. “Instead of harboring this shameful thing that made me feel lost or dark, I’ve converted it into this object that hopefully, when consumed by other people who have felt lost, can shed a tiny bit of light and do some tangible good.”

Zhang’s work and its synthesis of humor, sincerity and wit caught the attention of ASA board member Elina Zhang ’16 who then contacted the writer and invited her to campus for the reading.  

“Race can often be a white-and-black issue, and even this country is divided in that kind of binary,” Elina Zhang said. “Being Asian puts you in an interesting position—it makes you an ally for African-Americans, for Latinos, but we have our own challenges as well.”

According to Elina Zhang, Asian Week and its programming are an effort to both better engage those who don’t typically interact with Asian culture as well as provide a platform for those who do to further discuss and celebrate the Asian identity. 

“Beyond just the psychic relief of how important it is to have these events, there’s also a real need for certain groups to gain some visibility to be talked about and considered because there’s real suffering happening,” Jenny Zhang said. “Asian Week at Bowdoin is addressing a lot of that stuff, and I think that’s great.”

Despite the discomfort that often comes with addressing the convoluted aspects of identity, Jenny Zhang stressed the importance of it, as both a person and a writer, in order to better understand oneself. 

"No matter how you see yourself, if you’re a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you’re queer, trans—basically any kind of marginalized identity—there’s going to be a time when you’re going to have to encounter a vision of yourself that is prescribed and bound by one or more of those identity categories,” she said. “Maybe it’s not meaningful to say that you’re Asian American, but at some point, if you live long enough, that’s who you’re going to be seen as, and you’re going to be treated in a way that might not recognize the full extent and facets of who you are as a person.”

For Erik Liederbach ’19, who identifies as a cisgender, straight white man, Zhang’s workshop and reading proved insightful, despite his inability to relate at times.

“She wasn’t so much talking about whiteness as much as she was talking about her own experience with white people,” Liederbach said. “And, I think there’s something true to that. You don’t need to relate. You just need to listen and understand.”

“The gatekeepers of literature have always been white men,” Jenny Zhang said. “Those are also the people who have the privilege and ability to pursue something that has so little financial stability. You have to kind of catch up to that. There were a lot of times when I felt like it would be crazy for this Chinese immigrant to think that anyone would be interested in hearing what she had to say.”