Sixty years after its publication, it’s hard to imagine what the world would look like without Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. What would it be like to write a book about a young woman without this totemic touchstone? What would it be like to be a young woman without The Bell Jar?
Plath’s 1963 novel unleashed legions of artistic and chronically misunderstood girls on the world, allowing us to be exactly who we already were: highly sensitive, stuck-up, dazzlingly clever, crazy, ambitious, aimless, awkward and depressed. This book has meant everything to girls everywhere to the point where loving Plath and The Bell Jar has become a shorthand for female adolescent rebellion. When I first read The Bell Jar as a teenager, I didn’t just identify with Esther Greenwood – I was Esther Greenwood. I felt that I was that lonely, awkward girl with a mania for academic achievement and accumulating prizes for my writing, a covert love for beautiful clothes, a well-meaning but uninspiring boyfriend and a mother who lived her dreams through her daughter.
When I returned to this book in my late twenties, I noticed the way Plath wrote about people that looked like me for the first time – something that had completely bypassed me as a teenager. In Plath’s novel, people of colour are mostly absent, save the Black staff at the mental asylum where Esther spends the second half of the book. But in their absence, the idea of people of colour become prisms through which Esther can see herself and her friends. Esther’s friend Doreen, who represents her temptation to become a “bad girl”, is described as being “dusky as a bleached-blonde negress”. Esther herself is “yellow as a Chinaman”, her jaundiced skin representing her queasy unease in the big city. After Esther stumbles home from a dissolute night out with Doreen, she gets into the elevator and feels oppressed by the person she is sharing it with: a “big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman … staring idiotically into my face”.
Sign up for the fun stuff with our rundown of must-reads, pop culture and tips for the weekend, every Saturday morning
I began to ask myself difficult questions about representation and literature: what happens when the book that you think understands what it is like to be you also sees people that look like you as nothing more than an object or an absence? And what does it mean to want representation of a “mad girl” who isn’t white?
Writing my novel, But the Girl was a way of understanding the knotty moments of recognition and repulsion I felt in my reading of The Bell Jar. In my book, I write about a bookish Asian Australian protagonist who is focusing her PhD dissertation on Plath and beginning to make sense of her relationship to canonical works as a way of understanding herself. I write:
Like so many other adolescent rites of passage, I came late to The Bell Jar. When I read The Bell Jar for an undergraduate women’s writing class, I felt something new, brand new. It took me in from the start with its woozy charm and kidnapped my mind clean away. Which meant that it hurt like hell when she wrote about being ‘yellow as a Chinaman’ and worse when a few pages later there was ‘a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman … staring idiotically into my face’. The hurt kept me from reading on for a while. This often happened to me when I was reading books I loved. I felt betrayed because in the most routine, narcissistic, obvious way, I had thought that I was Esther Greenwood.
My protagonist, Girl, grapples with the question: what does it mean to love the literature that hates you? To see yourself in it in ways that were never intended? To fall in love with authors who most likely never interacted with anyone who looks like you? She feels both the pain and possibilities of reading a book like The Bell Jar – one in which she both sees herself in and yet is often jolted out of this “seeing” by the way it sees and unsees people that look like her.
skip past newsletter promotion
As Girl reads on about the “big smudgy-eyed Chinawoman”, she realises, alongside Esther, that this Chinawoman is not in fact another person but her own reflection in the mirror. “It was only me, of course,” Esther says to herself. I write:
It was only me. Perhaps I had been too quick to judge. It still stung that she saw me in that unflattering mirror glow, that she thought I looked like her at her worst. But then I thought Esther Greenwood would have been me at my worst: self-involved, so much so that other people could only ever be the backdrop to her own suffering. In a way, she was the person I saw when I came home from a long night out smelling like sweat and smoke after having my heart broken all over again and looked right into the mirror. She was a ‘big, smudgy-eyed white woman staring idiotically in my face’ and yet she was only me. Of course.
Esther looks in the mirror and sees a Chinese girl who turns out to be her. Girl looks into the text and sees a white American woman who might just be her. I see something tender and reciprocal in these twin images of looking for the self in otherness. My novel is about those knotty moments when a person of colour is seen and unseen in canonical works of literature. It is also about the refracted pieces of ourselves that we see in one another. The way that loving anything and anyone can inevitably both make us feel glued back together and shatter us into a million pieces. I still love The Bell Jar and in spite of everything, I still catch glimpses of myself in its broken mirror.
But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is out now in Australia (Hamish Hamilton, $32.99) now, in the UK on 10 August (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) and in the US in 2024.
>>> Read full article>>>
Copyright for syndicated content belongs to the linked Source : The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/aug/09/i-grew-up-loving-the-bell-jar-then-i-noticed-how-sylvia-plath-wrote-about-people-that-looked-like-me