JESSICA ZHAN MEI YU But The Girl. Reviewed by Ann Skea
The protagonist of Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s debut novel is meant to be writing about Sylvia Plath and race, but finds herself in Scotland with writer’s block.
I was meant to be writing a postcolonial novel. It had been an immigrant novel first but I learned the word ‘postcolonial’ at university and I had started to say that was what I was writing on grant applications and the like. It was also good to say to people who asked what my book was about because it intimidated them.
Girl, whose name we never learn, is the Australian daughter of immigrant parents from Penang. She is Australian because her heavily pregnant mother, Ma, had ‘held on tight to her pelvic muscles’ to keep her in until their flight landed in Australia. As a second-generation immigrant, she knows she is expected to achieve all that her parents could not. Her family believed, she tells us, that their ‘job was to do everything for me so I could be freed up to be brilliant and clever and hardworking’.
Now, Girl is 22, a clever winner of awards, and supposed to be writing a PhD thesis ‘on the postcolonial in Sylvia Plath’s poetry’, although she hasn’t ‘written a word’. When we first meet her, she is in London for a few days before taking a train to Arbroath in Scotland to take up a Commonwealth scholarship for a month-long artist’s residency. There, she should work on her postcolonial novel before returning to London to present a paper at a postcolonial literature conference.
Girl, as she is always called by Ma, her fierce grandmother Ah Ma, and her father (who she has nicknamed ‘Ikanyu’ – shark – because ‘The Australian Dentist’ had made big, scary, Australian teeth for his ‘small Malaysian Chinese’ face), is full of guilt, not only because she has written nothing but also because she feels that whatever she works on she is ‘taking the easy way out’.
Therapists were always saying guilt was not a useful emotion but I found it to be an extremely helpful one – guilt was the sticky, sweet, heavily carbonated energy drink that helped me power through each task, to keep going.
What she is working for, she does not know, but she knows how to please those who give her scholarships and how to simulate delight at all she has received, regarding it as ‘the exchange you make: your facial expression for their funding’.
Girl is not always this cynical, but she does have trouble adapting to expected social norms, often feeling as if she is ‘on display and performing the role of a nice, normal human person’. Her Ma has taught her, too, to be suspicious of too-friendly men, which does not help her interactions with Luke, who is the arts manager of the philanthropic society that has awarded her the scholarship, and who acts as her guide during her few days in London. He is friendly and helpful but she suspects he is ‘ham sap’, as her Ma warns in a text: like a wolf,
… ‘prowling around looking for pret’. (I read that a few times before I realised that she meant prey.)
In Scotland with the other scholarship-holders she is equally ill-at-ease. In the first group session, where they are invited to introduce themselves and outline what they are working on, others describe their work with enthusiasm and at length, but Girl says only, ‘I’m writing a novel.’
There was a long pause as everyone waited for me to elaborate, but I didn’t.
Girl tells us much about her experiences at the residence, especially about her strange friendship with a young woman artist, Clementine, for whom she sits for a portrait, partly as a way of avoiding writing her novel. Clementine dresses eccentrically and is friendly when they are together but inclined to say hurtful things to and about Girl when they are with others. Girl’s feelings for her fluctuate. She loves her in the good times but is confused by her and tries to find excuses for her fickleness and malice.
At other times, Girl tells us about her family and the hard lives they had before migrating to Australia. She remembers growing up with her grandmother, ‘a hard, brown-skinned woman of bad temper’, whose traumatic past has made her unable to express love except through complaints, rages and beatings, and whose ‘focus and motivation made the mental and physical discipline of bitterness feel like an athletic feat’.
She would get so angry with me sometimes that she would scream at me for hours …
It’s strange and unnatural to say that unsayable word [love] in Chinese unless you are a crying actress in a soap opera or a pop star with a new single to promote. Love is expressed in Chinese the way poets write about flowers – slantwise, in riddles, in rhymes, coyly … So, it’s hard to explain what I mean when I say she loved me – or as she said when she was especially angry at me – she sayang me.
I had to look up ‘sayang’, as I did with a few other Chinese words that were not translated or explained by the context in which they appeared. The dictionary offered: sayang – ‘darling’, ‘dear’, ‘babe’.
Towards the end of the residency the scholarship holders are expected to share what they have been working on. Girl finally writes two parts of her novel, which she has called ‘Pillar of Salt’, because ‘I was like Lot’s wife – always looking back with a secret longing for a place I could never return to: the past’. Both parts are reproduced in this book together with memories of things her family have told her about their past lives.
‘… there are so many memories here, so many layers of memory-making,’ Jack said. ….
‘Are you going to send this out?’ Clementine asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I think it would do really well. We need more diverse voices now, It’s really important.’
So, as often in her past, Girl feels she is being rewarded for being different. The work she is doing is not a ‘trend’; it is not ‘hot’, she tells them in a moment of rebellion.
It is not something to be ‘supported’. It is something else entirely, something varied and strange and wide-reaching that is entirely about itself and not about you.
In some ways, Jessica Zhan Mei Yu could be saying this about But The Girl. It is really strange and wide-reaching, so much so that it tends to lose focus. It covers Girl’s feelings and thoughts, her travels, her reactions to scholarships, artistic residencies, conferences, and the people involved; the lives of her family; and Girl’s deeply personal responses to literary works, especially those of Sylvia Plath, a ‘gifted’ ‘straight A student’ with whom she identifies, as she does, too, with Plath’s character Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, who was her ‘mirror and non fraternal twin’ until Esther saw herself in a mirror as ‘yellow as a Chinaman’ and ‘a big smudgy-eyed Chinese woman’.
What interests Girl in Plath’s work, as seen through a ‘postcolonial lens’, is the representation of race in her work, but she had adopted the word ‘postcolonial’ because it sounded more professional and because ‘race’ made people awkward. The title of the paper she presents at the conference in London is suitably academic: ‘The Post-critical, the Postcolonial and Plath’; and she is typically sardonic about the questions she receives after presenting it:
They were questions framed as statements and self-important pontifications on this or that. I wondered how many years I could do this for. Could I grin and bear this until I had gainful employment in my area of study?
Since Girl’s area of study is Plath, her thoughts on Plath’s life and work, and about Plath scholarship in general, are another strand of this book. At one point she even creates a two-column table listing the characteristics of ‘Plath Groupies’ and ‘Plath Scholars’, which illustrates the sharp differences between these groups.
But The Girl is enjoyable, varied and strange. It is a remarkable first novel, and Jessica Zhan Mei Yu writes well, but although Girl is, of course, the focus, her excursions into so many very different places, topics and experiences make the novel, I think, a little too ‘wide-reaching’.
Jessica Zhan Mei Yu But The Girl Hamish Hamilton 2023 PB 224pp $32.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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