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Author Spotlight: Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

At a fellowship where Australian-born Malaysian Girl, a scholar on Sylvia Plath, is ferried to Scotland to write a postcolonial novel and a dissertation, she has trouble doing either. Followed by memories of her parents growing up and their tough love, Girl feels like examining Plath’s work isn’t true to her, and starts a novel based on her family history. Things blow up later when Girl shares her work to the group, and differences between her and her white counterparts become too loud to ignore. She enjoys herself, briefly, at a postcolonial conference where she starts to reckon with the fact of pursuing academia, but after a family emergency, her desires are tied and she becomes unsure of what to do. Honest, tender, and very funny, Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s debut novel is a must-read for academics or anyone looking at life differently.

We sat down with Yu to chat about academia, autofiction, and writer’s guilt.

Congratulations on your debut novel! It’s already out in the UK and Australia, how are you feeling going into its US publication?

Excited! It’s an honor to be published in multiple territories — I’ve already had some really amazing reader feedback and it’s been great.

But the Girl is a semi-autofictional tale about a writer in Scotland abroad to work on a dissertation and a novel; how much of it was taken from your life and how much was fiction, and how did you balance the two?

I always say to people that writers write from life, that’s a given, but I’d give it a 30/70 — 30% taken from life and my own experiences and observations, 70% fictionalized and made into the coherent structure of a novel, which is really hard to do.

Girl always feels ‘on’ when she interacts with any of the fellowship staff, and it’s interesting to hear the thoughts passing through her mind, like, ‘Now I must smile to show gratitude, because I am receiving this huge opportunity.’ Where do you think this hesitancy and disconnect comes from?

One thing that really influenced this novel was at the time I was working on a dissertation on the representation of the Asian diaspora in Western media and screen texts. Have you listened to the new Olivia Rodrigo album?


That song [“all-american bitch”] that says, “I’m grateful all the time, I’m sexy and I’m kind,” I was, like, ‘Oh, that’s a great musical interpretation of fetishizing and feminizing the Asian diaspora way of presenting in the world,’ feeling, not safe, I guess. The way I keep myself safe is I project these qualities that are seen as a positive version of me, with that model minority stuff. That’s mixed in with the sense of being a female Asian body in the world, how that presents, what that means to people and how they code and understand it. Thinking of how racialized bodies are either a threat or subjugating, so it’s about subjugating yourself in order to avoid becoming a threat or threatened.

I totally empathize with Girl’s worries of productivity — she feels guilty when she works on her PhD, because her fellowship is for her novel, and she feels guilty when she works on her novel, because she feels her PhD is much more of a distinguished accomplishment. Why do you think she can’t get out of her head and go wherever the writing and creativity takes her?

I think the weirdest thing about writing is that it does live there, in your head. I know you literally have to type or write something down, and that’s a physical act, but I feel like it’s one of the least physical art forms. One of my best friends is a painter, a visual artist, and I feel like that must be such an interesting experience, for your art form to be cerebral and physical, a form of labor. I feel like writing is a form of labor but you’re sitting there, putting things from inside your brain onto a computer or a piece of paper. I think that’s what trips a lot of writers up — you’re already so inside of your head doing your practice, it’s easy to get more inside your head about your anxieties and fears and worries about [it].

I’m obsessed with the fact that Girl chooses to do a thesis regarding the postcolonial because, she says, it sounds ‘theoretical’ and ‘impressive.’ I had a good time with how she noticed the absurdity of academia, analyzing just to do it — was this something you wanted to incorporate in the book?

I’m an academic, and I work at a university now, and even as a PhD student, it’s almost like you’re getting indoctrinated into the ways of academia. I’ve had to think a lot about that and read a lot about that in order to understand what was happening to me at the time. Which I’ve made sound really grim in the novel! There’s obviously some really beautiful things about academia as well. But there are really absurd and funny and tragic and sad things about it. I wanted to write about that because I think part of the novel is Girl is embodying the dream of the immigrant family. Her dad believes academia to be this really topic place, where she can just write her silly little books and make a living wage, and have that privileged life. But there are so many difficult things from that privileged life, and I wanted to talk about that tension. I dunno, there’s always a tension there, ‘Is your life more hard than mine or is my life more hard than yours?’ I’ve had this really privileged life as a second-generation immigrant, and finding ways for holding space for both those difficulties, which Girl really struggles with. 

Did you write the novel while you were doing your PhD?

In Australia, it’s quite common to have creative writing programs, and you can do PhDs in them with split dissertations — half of it is critical, traditional academic thesis, and the other half is a novel, or short story collection or play or whatever. I was trying to write my novel as part of my dissertation but the form that it took — the way you see it now is so different. I was so self-conscious about being in academia and not wanting it to be this academic, PhD novel that I tried to write this dishonest novel that was really guileless. I was like, ‘But I’m learning all this stuff now, and maybe I know too much, but I want the book to be overfilling with the sense of knowing too much and inhibiting you.’ It sort of became the academic novel, while I was a PhD student, and went even harder into that. I felt it was more honest in some ways, because that was my experience and I wanted the book to know as much as I did, not be this unknowing piece of work. 

Girl is connected to another student in the fellowship, Clementine, a painter who somewhat selfishly has Girl sit for a portrait, which keeps her from her own work. They have tiffs about the nature of art and how to be a person — what did you want to explore with this relationship?

I did an artist residency when I was a PhD student and I felt such a charged energy — it was supposed to be communal where we had all these common goals and we were at this beautiful place, but it was so charged with the anxiety of being an artist and the feeling that you’re fighting for scraps. What is even the prize at the end of this? Probably nothing! And yet, you have so much competitive desire. It was a way of exploring mimetic desire inside one relationship, as the way of narrating that.

Girl and Clementine don’t really see each other, even though Clementine is drawing Girl, and Girl is thinking about Clementine. They’re both misunderstanding each other and using each other in different ways, and that’s something that happens in the Plath novel, and something I wanted to explore — that sense of misseeing something when you’re so consumed with artist anxiety and fear of meaning. There’s competition, envy, and also racism. I wanted to explore how that works. It was also a manifestation of the way Girl sees Plath, and how she objectifies her, seeing her as an object she can project all these things onto. It’s this triangle, in some way, between these three figures — Plath, Clementine, and Girl.

There’s a book within the book, Pillar of Salt, a family history that Girl writes instead of her postcolonial novel or Plath dissertation. When she showcases parts of the book to the group, all they can comment on is how diverse voices are needed, not anything actually regarding the book. Girl, rightly so, points this out, after she’s suffered microaggressions and odd comments during her whole stay. Is this instance in particular painful to her because it pertains to her writing?

I think it’s painful because I feel like a lot of Asian diasporic girls — I don’t want to generalize — but for me, you have all this pent-up anger you can’t really express because it’s not totally safe to do so in public. Sometimes it just wells up and explodes. Girl has been on the brink of expressing these things for the entire novel and the climax is when she finally does. I also think artists are pretty protective about their work. It’s like, insult me and hate me all you want, but insult my work… They can be quite sensitive about it. It feels like such a violation of her work to see it as this thing and commodity, even though when you publish a book it does become a commodity. In that nascent state, she’s making something that’s really important to her. For people to only be able to see it as a thing, in this white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world… It just feels so awful to her. I think it’s as simple as that.

Girl is born in Australia the day her parents immigrate to the country, granting her automatic citizenship. Her upbringing with her family is tough but loving, and throughout the novel, she constantly has flashbacks. Do you think these expectations her parents place on her, that she’s abroad, getting money to work, have an effect on her? 

I think her parents’ expectations is that she’s successful in a broader sense — I don’t think they’re into the finer details of her practice or what her work means to her. They don’t really understand that part of her, but what they understand is that they want her to be happy and well, and to be able to achieve the things she wants to achieve. For Girl, there’s a sense that it’s really hard to guarantee that will happen, as an artist or writer, it’s such a scary thing putting the instability of that chosen career together with that very immigrant desire for stability causes this very anxious mess inside of her.

Finally, you’re working on an upcoming essay collection, All the Stain is Tender — what are some of the topics you’re exploring there?

The way I think of it, you can’t really talk about what it means to inhabit a racialized, feminized body in the world in a way of pinning a butterfly to a card and nailing it down. It’s more elusive than that in some ways, and the feelings you have without any sort of evidence to back them up, or any proof — they just well up inside you in weird ways. What I’m trying to do with that essay collection is to find a container or non-constraining form or room or box in order to somewhat collect those feelings and put them on the page. That’s sort of the overarching theme of the book.

One of the essays I just wrote was a craft essay, about writing so-called ‘immigrant fiction.’ There’s so many tropes and clichés of it you can commodify and feel really gross, like, not for you, the way food is exoticized and made a centerpiece, but, like, what if food is really important for you, or that is a genuine part of your culture? I guess it’s an essay about wrestling when things you genuinely love or connect you to yourself become commodified — how do you write about them or express them in ways that feel right?

I’ve also been working, for ages, about this essay on Taylor [Swift]. The idea that she’s, like, perfected young womanhood. She’s everything, she’s it. How do you respond to that, as me? As a young Asian female with all of my particular life experiences and personality? How do I see myself fitting or not fitting into this mask?

But the Girl is out now.

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