Author Jenny Zhang on the Surreal Thai Drama, Syndromes and a Century

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Jenny Zhang
Jenny is wearing a sculpted silk bouclé knit dress by PROENZA SCHOULER. Her own earringsPhotography by Andy Jackson, Styling by Ian McRae

The Brooklyn-based writer talks about the poetry of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, and why sickness can be both spiritual and emotional as well as physical

This article is taken from the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue of AnOther Magazine:

Syndromes and a Century is like a poem – the best poems smash discordant images together. The film unfolds in two parts, the first in an airy rural hospital in Thailand, the second in a modern city hospital with artificial lighting and menacing machinery that feels alienated from the human body. That juxtaposition of the old country with uber-fast global capitalism is what I feel when I go back to Shanghai, where I was born. There’s a sense in the film that science is its own kind of magic, but there are also ancient, ancestral remedies that are dying out. These two ways of curing one’s ills are always at play, because doctors prescribe pills but also talk to patients about their dreams. In one, a Buddhist monk dreams he’s being tortured by chickens. I had recurring migraines during the pandemic and it was impossible to get an appointment because migraine suffering has increased so much. This film poses the idea that, yes, there’s a physical element when we’re sick, but often a spiritual and emotional element too, and we should treat that with the same rigour.”

Jenny Zhang has a singular way of flexing language, embracing misspellings and malapropisms, textspeak and slang in poems that are raw and sticky with feelings. The Brooklyn-based writer has published two unflinching books of poetry, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and My Baby First Birthday, and the nonfiction chapbook Hags. Her short story collection, Sour Heart, illuminates immigrant lives in 1990s New York, narrated by first-generation daughters grappling with the ties of familial love, exile and otherness, and the thrills and cruelties of girlhood – it won the Pen/Robert W Bingham prize for debut fiction. Zhang is currently at work on her first play and her debut, as-yet-untitled novel.

Hair: Matt Benns at CLM using KIEHL’S. Make-up: Ayaka Nihei. Photographic assistant: Glenn Lim. Printing: PhotoLab-NYC. Producer: Alec Charlip at Born Artists. Special thanks to Elsker Studio, Brooklyn, New York

This story features in the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale internationally now. Buy a copy here.