More like this

Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of authors. In this latest instalment, Jessica Zhan Mei Yu talks to us about campus novels, Gossip Girl and her new novel But the Girl.

Tell us a bit about you debut novel, But the Girl. How did it come about?

I started writing this book when I began my PhD studies, but I graduated in 2020 and it has changed a lot since then. I think I felt very self-conscious about the way my research was acting upon my creative work and vice versa at the time. I wanted to write a book that didn’t feel so overeducated. But that started to feel very insincere to me, writing a book that didn’t know as much as I did or pretended not to know what I did. So I re-wrote it and made intertextuality and theory key parts of the way the story gets told and how the main character understands the world. That felt a lot more honest to me.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar plays a key role in your story, and the narrator has mixed feelings towards it. When did you first read it yourself, and was it a formative reading experience?

The Bell Jar isn’t necessarily my favourite book and it wasn’t ever a text I researched or spent a lot of time with in an academic context. I have always loved it though.

When I went back and read it in recent years, I remember thinking Esther Greenwood’s story is an Asian immigrant girl’s story in many ways, but at the same time, it’s so obviously not—given the way she sees people of colour, given how whiteness is this implicit thread that runs through the text. I wanted to play with the tension between those two notions.

Esther Greenwood’s story is an Asian immigrant girl’s story in many ways, but at the same time, it’s so obviously not.

I also have been interested for the longest time in interrogating the idea of representation and how seeing yourself in someone else always requires a kind of erasure of that other person.

Your novel has been called an ‘off-campus campus novel’. Were there any campus novels or other books that you found critical to the writing of the novel?

Campus novels are my favourite: On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman are classics to me. When writing this book, I was really thinking about how Zadie Smith had said that for her On Beauty was a way of populating Howard’s End with Black characters. I wanted But the Girl to be both a homage to and a criticism of The Bell Jar—a loving wrestling with this beloved text. I was also thinking about the figure of the naïf in The Idiot and what it would mean for an Asian Australian character to assume that figure.

I think that both On Beauty and The Idiot are about the kind of naivety that is native to people who live their lives in books and ideas, the kind you might find on a campus. They’re books about knowingness and stupidity, which I think my book is also about.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished reading The Modern by my fellow Antipodean debut author, Anna Kate Blair. I really love this book. It’s really funny, sad and clever. I begged for a proof and got one!

I’m also reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld because I’ve been working my way through her back catalogue for a while and I’m such a sucker for books set in boarding schools. It’s from the library as most of the books I read are.

I’m such a sucker for books set in boarding schools.

Both The Modern and Prep feel to me as if they are about the private inner lives of their observational-outsider protagonists. But where Prep’s Lee carefully cultivates an air of indifference, The Modern’s Sophia is very expressive and open, she luxuriates in her sadness.

Images: On Beauty (2006), The Idiot (2017) and The Modern (2023).

What kind of reader are you?

I’m usually pretty meticulous about finishing one book at a time. I alternate between a book and my most recent copy of The New Yorker. I used to re-read books a lot but as I get older I feel increasingly aware of all the books I haven’t read for the first time and want to move forward with my reading. Usually if I’m re-reading a book, I’m referring to it—like returning to it so that I learn something about how it works. I always read in bed. Being curled up in bed with a good book and a good snack plate: that’s the height of decadence for me.

People are often surprised not so much by the books I read but by the media I consume—there’s a lot of reality TV, a lot of fashion and beauty influencers—I think there’s a lot that these things have in common with literary fiction. The focus on single characters or a select cast of characters, the small human moments that create massive ripples in plot and the way self-presentation is self-conscious and dissected.

What does your book collection look like?

My books are strewn around the house, shoved into bookcases and basically put wherever they fit. I aspire to be the kind of person who organises their books by colour because it’s so pleasing to look at, but I’m just not inherently the neatest person.

People are often surprised not so much by the books I read but by the media I consume.

The books I’ve owned for the longest time and have followed me from house to house are the ones I know I will always return to: Mansfield Park (which is probably my favourite book) and Anna Karenina (a close second). Apart from those two, there are also a lot of books of academic theory—Sianne Ngai, Rita Felski, Edward Said, Trinh Min-Ha—which I know I want to have on hand for…what? I don’t know. Direction maybe.

Images: Mansfield Park (1814), Orientalism (1978), Bliss Montage (2022).

What book/s are you constantly recommending other people read?

I’m obsessed with Bliss Montage by Ling Ma. I think it was one of my favourite books published in recent years. I know that because I would read a story and then be unable to stop thinking about it for days afterwards. I would just keep mulling over those terrific, lopsided endings.

I was particularly struck by ‘Office Hours’—I was in awe of Ma’s restraint and how she used the nothingness, the mundaneness of the relationship between a college professor and student to show us how strange things can become within that realm, and also of the Narnia-like secret portal twist.

If you had to pick one book to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Maybe in the world of Gossip Girl? I’m a huge Blair Waldorf fan so I think I would fit in as one of her ‘minions’.

What’s next for you?

But the Girl is out now with Penguin Random House in Australia and Jonathan Cape in the UK. It will also be coming out in the US with Unnamed Press.