Jessica Zhan Mei Yu on Loving Literature That Hates You


Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s smartly interior debut novel But the Girl appears to follow the path of a bildungsroman. Our protagonist, simply named Girl, is on a flight out of Australia for an artist’s residency in the lush Scottish countryside.

She is leaving behind her tight-knit Malaysian family and her PhD dissertation on Sylvia Plath, in hopes that she will produce a postcolonial novel (a term she added “to make it sound more legitimate”) during her time of intense self-discovery. But Girl’s coming-of-age story is complicated by her awareness of the harmful ways that people of color are misrepresented or not represented at all in Plath’s work, her inability to escape her family’s overbearing presence, even in their physical absence, and the frenemy relationship she develops with a dazzling, overconfident female painter at the residency.

Yu and I talked over Zoom about why a bildungsroman fails to capture the coming-of-age experiences in non-Western societies, being an Asian token, and how the missing Malaysian Airlines plane looms over the writing of this novel.

Lim May Zhee: Since Sylvia Plath is a character that’s central to the novel, I wanted to start with her and what she meant for the different people in the novel—for Girl, our Asian protagonist who is a writer and Plath scholar, and for Clementine, who is a white female artist—as well as what she meant for you.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu: I like that you call her a character because she exists in the novel as a present, but not quite present, character. I think Sylvia Plath is just one of those huge figures that you can’t escape. When I was writing a novel, I started reading some Plath scholarship. A lot of those books are kind of prefaced with the idea that it’s really hard to write about her because there are all these huge debates and so much has already been written about her. There are misconceptions or conceptions of her that are loaded with all these different projections. And I thought that was just a really rich, fertile ground to talk about.

To Clementine, Plath represents this figure of rebellion in the sense that she wasn’t conforming to gender expectations in her era. She’s this stereotypical artist type. She had mental illness that was idealized and romanticized by a lot of people. She’s a really beautiful writer and she’s inspiring to Clementine, who feels that as a woman she doesn’t conform to the gender stereotypes of her era either. 

With Girl, it’s this weird thing where she loves literature that hates her. Girl goes to university and she reads all these canonical texts—I mean, whether or not Plath was canonical is up for debate—but Girl is a writer and she’s reading all these texts in which she finds herself misrepresented or not represented at all. So she wrestles with that misrepresentation of herself or people that look like her in the class work. Plath was a really complicated figure for Girl because on some level, she sees herself as that stereotypical artist who is unconventional and breaking form and wants nothing more than to make beautiful art. But Plath also writes about people of color in ways that are inhumane, and Girl is hurt by that.

LMZ: I think we can say Plath is canonical. I feel like denying her that is a bit sexist. She’s so widely read and interpreted. 

JZMY: Yeah, it would be kind of gross not to.

LMZ: What would Sylvia Plath have meant to Girl’s parents?

JZMY: My novel isn’t autobiographical, but it is autofictional. I talked to my mom about this recently. She was like, “Well, I didn’t know who Sylvia Plath was when I read your novel. So I had to do some Googling and I kind of understand it now.” And then she read a review of my book in a journal and she said,”Now I really understood it because the reviewer really explained it to me.” Then she was ready to go to my book launch. So yeah, there are parts of the book that are very much based on my parents. 

She loves literature that hates her.

My parents are very open-minded and intelligent people but books and writing are not really their thing. They taught me to read, and my dad would read Enid Blyton to me before bedtime every night. But I was kind of exploring what was considered good literature by myself through the school system and libraries. So yeah, I think Sylvia Plath would have meant nothing to Girl’s parents because immigrant parents can be kind of really hands on, but hands off. They’ll say, “Don’t drink cold water in the morning otherwise you’ll get sick” or something, but they’re not necessarily in with the nitty gritty of your everyday life. They wouldn’t necessarily know what’s going on in your dissertation. They’ll make sure you have food to eat but they’re not sitting there trying to pick your brains every single night over the dinner table. I kind of enjoy that. The intellectual room to run by myself, I guess.

LMZ: I love that your mom didn’t know who Sylvia Plath was and then found out through your novel. That’s amazing to me. Is that true of Girl too? Did she enjoy having that intellectual room away from her immigrant parents, or did she want more from them?

JZMY: Girl is a lot younger than I am now. I’m 30 and Girl is in her 20s. I think when you’re younger, you want to feel understood and Girl doesn’t really have that. She doesn’t really understand the freedom that gives you. She’s a young woman in her early 20s trying to just feel seen by something or someone, to feel understood, and she’s not really finding it. She’s not totally finding it in her immigrant family so maybe she would, I don’t know. It’s very possible that she would have a younger person’s view on that stuff compared to me.

LMZ: I definitely feel that tension in the novel. There’s a part where Girl says, “I had grown up amongst people who had believed that talk was the cheap currency of the Ang Moh. It was the overprinted paper money of a self-satisfied alien race. As for expressing the self, which seemed to be the great project of the Western world, this was simply embarrassing given the sacred otherness of another person’s interiority. It didn’t make any sense to put one’s interior self on the market via an open house inspection.” I relate to this passage a lot because it’s how I experience the intergenerational gap between me and my much more reserved Asian parents. 

JZMY: Girl’s interior monologue is not really shared with anyone else in the book. There’s a need for her to have a proxy of thoughts in her own emotional life. Girl is inside the contradiction of those two kinds of ways of being, which I’ve written there as really binary, and maybe that’s too extreme, but I do think that. Western culture is very much about like, we want to know more about you, we want you to say something. Broadly speaking, I feel like the kind of culture I was brought up in says that’s not really important. I enjoyed that privacy about my life when I was growing up. It was more about my material, physical needs being met. It always feels a little strange to me because in the culture I was raised in, my parents would be like, “That’s talking about yourself too much. That’s arrogant, that’s full of yourself, that’s a bit confident.” (I’m using the word “confident” in a negative tone.) They were suspicious of communication. If you’re charming, that must mean something’s wrong with you inherently. That’s very Chinese. Is that how you feel?

LMZ: Definitely. Vanessa Chan, another Malaysian Chinese author, likes to say that our grandparents love us by not speaking. That made a lot of sense to me.

JZMY: [laughs] I like that I can go to my parents’ house and say almost nothing. 

LMZ: This actually leads me to another thread in the novel, which is the different ways that love, and in particular, familial love is portrayed. The way that Girl’s family shows her love might look very different from what the other artists at her residency imagine a loving relationship would look like.

Maturation for me and for Girl is realizing that there’s never any exit.

JZMY: No one in the residency really talks about family that much. It’s not that it’s not important to them, it’s just not prevalent in their life in the same way as it is to Girl. Clementine talks about her father in this very specific, posh, Western kind of way. There’s a cliche that ethnic, minority cultures have this real sense of family, of that being really important, but it’s more that it’s not possible to ever fully escape your family. My brother has his own family but he lives right next door to my parents on the same lot of land. They built the houses specifically thinking about how they’re all going to live communally. It’s a very different view of what family and growing up looks like. That’s why I was interested in the idea of a bildungsroman and how it’s like, you leave your family, you leave your childhood, maturation is like an exit, but maturation for me and for Girl is realizing that there’s never any exit. There’s something beautiful and kind of bittersweet about that at the same time. 

LMZ: I like that. The bildungsroman is such an individualistic way of thinking about the self and that is not at all how people who are not from Western cultures experience it. 

JZMY: Yeah, it’s actually a very Germanic, Euro-centric, Anglo-centric genre. It was interesting to play with that and use that in ways that made sense to me.

LMZ: I wanted to ask you too about the novel-within-the novel that’s written by Girl called Pillar of Salt. Is that Girl’s more authentic voice? Does it feel like something she’s finally writing for herself, or because she’s at this residency and has to show a group of people her work?

JZMY: It made sense to me to show Girl’s actual writing, which is about memory and looking back and about how Girl is like the repository for her family’s memories and paths. She is always looking back because of that. Her novel is meant to hold all the things that she’s collected inside of herself, all the secrets and family histories. The novel matters a lot to Girl. It’s the truest expression of who she is in some weird way, more so than even the kind of like intense internal monologue or the interactions she has with the other artists; this novel is actually who she feels like she is. So when it’s not received in the way that she needs it to be, she just feels really unseen again. It’s this really horrible thing for her.

LMZ: Yes, in the scene, everyone responds to Girl’s work by praising the fact that it’s a diverse story and saying that it’s so important right now, instead of asking her about her craft or process, which they did with the other white artists, who are allowed to just embody their work.

JZMY: When you write a book and it’s going to be published, it’s going to become a commodity. But Girl isn’t at that point, her novel is at quite a nascent stage. So to have it commodified in a racialized way so quickly, it’s just really depressing. But I think a lot of writers who have been through a lot of workshops can relate to that, especially writers of color. It’s a really common response. Maybe not as extreme as that, but it definitely happens all the time when you’re a non-white writer. All that matters about your work or your identity as a writer is your race. The commodification of that. And it’s just hurtful. I don’t know how else to put it. It happens more in these kinds of progressive spaces than you’d expect. It crops up in ways that are subtle and not so subtle.

LMZ: I feel like Clementine is the perfect encapsulation of that sentiment. She’s a white woman who means well but is oblivious to the consequence of her actions. 

JZMY: There were times when I was reading the novel and felt like I was over this Girl protagonist. She’s all like, “Aw, shucks, me, really?” That kind of naivete was really wearing on me. And then Clementine would come onto the page and be really funny and witty and crazy, and kind of mean. She was a bad person but she was really invigorating to me. It was enjoyable to write and I hope it was enjoyable to read as well. 

When you’re a good girl, you’re always kind of thinking a little bit about what it would be like to be a bad girl, right?

I was with some friends last night who were also Malaysian and one of them was explaining to me how when you grow up in a strict Malaysian Chinese family, things are always your fault. Even an accident is kind of your fault because you should have been more cautious. I need to like, self-correct, somehow. It does make me a pretty competent person in some ways, because I’m aware of myself and my weaknesses and flaws. It can also be a little over the top. What is most agonizing about Clementine is she doesn’t ever realize how much of it is her fault, and she has the mysterious ability to just keep going. She’s not really aware of herself in that way, not consumed by that kind of self-loathing. She’s not as anxious and stressed as Girl is, which is probably a good thing. But she also doesn’t really see other people sometimes. I mean, Girl doesn’t really see Clementine either. They kind of objectify each other. It’s the part of their relationship that’s very dysfunctional.

LMZ: I want to hear more about this, about your two main characters not really seeing each other.

JZMY: Clementine sees Girl as this good minority girl, who is boring and not an interesting, artistic person who breaks the rules. But she doesn’t really realize that Girl is raised this way because her parents told her you’ve got to be savvier and better and smarter and stronger than other people to keep yourself safe. And Clementine hasn’t had that. But then there is this beautiful confidence about her. Girl sees Clementine as, like, the bad girl that she wishes she could be. When you’re a good girl, you’re always kind of thinking a little bit about what it would be like to be a bad girl, right? And Clementine represents that for her. They’re both projecting their fantasies of pathways to womanhood onto each other, and they don’t really see each other as people. That’s where the relationship goes awry.

LMZ: In the novel, Girl is constantly tokenized. She’s always asked to be in photographs for her school and then in photographs for her residency because she’s the only Asian person in the group. I like how you flip this act of tokenization, or rather you mirror that act with Clementine painting a portrait of Girl over a portrait of Sylvia Plath.

People looked at her face and all they could see was the plane.

JZMY: Girl is aware of her marginalization and the way that she’s essentially objectified, both sexually but also as an object to people. And she’s hurt by that, rightly so. Something that she starts to gather, as she gets older and as she matures in the book, is that she can objectify others, too. When people have done the wrong thing to you, you can still be a bad person yourself in many ways. Girl is realizing that she objectifies Plath and Clementine. While there’s still a power imbalance there, it’s still a way of being in the world that isn’t loving or particularly ethical. And Girl wants to be a good person. That’s really, really important to her. Realizing that she’s been a bad person too, maybe not as bad as Clementine, is crushing but freeing. Like, okay, I’m just a bad person like everyone else. Because Girl has some kind of power. She’s powerless in so many ways but she does have agency; she just doesn’t always exercise that in the best ways.

LMZ: My final question is maybe a bit of a downer. The missing Malaysian Airlines plane is mentioned at the start of the novel, and it hangs over the story, coming back again at the end when Girl is taking a flight home. We’re actually right on the tenth year anniversary of the flight’s disappearance. What was the significance of this event for you, for the writing of the novel, and for Girl?

JZMY: Well, thinking about The Bell Jar as a loose framework for my novel, Plath starts off by saying “it’s the summer the Rosenbergs were electrocuted.” My book starts with the spring after MAS just went missing. I remember that sense of loss that was in the air. It has nothing to do with Girl in some ways, but in other ways she feels that sense of absence or loss inside of her. It’s a metaphor which I feel kind of weird about. Should you make a metaphor of someone else’s world event that really affected their life? Maybe that’s part of what Girl does right or wrong. 

I remember my cousin, who was studying in Australia at the time when all that happened. When she told people she was from Malaysia, they would ask her what happened to the plane. People looked at her face and all they could see was the plane. They somehow believe that she had some special insight into the plane. I just wanted to put that into the novel somehow. I wanted to capture that feeling of like, it’s a horrible world event that’s quite racialized.

It wasn’t very long after that I took a MAS flight on a similar route and there was no one on the flight at the time. I was just lying down because there were so many empty seats. Everyone was just so frightened. It was kind of strange. I actually met someone recently. Her partner’s dad was on the flight. It was crazy to hear about that. Like, how does her partner deal with that? And she was like, oh, you know, it’s a lot of questions. That’s the only way to deal with it. There’s no closure, essentially. They have a death certificate, but that’s all they have.

Read the original article here

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