Holden Walker reviews But The Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

But The Girl

Jessica Yu


ISBN: 9781761046148


Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s novel But The Girl (2023) is the story of protagonist and narrator “Girl”, as she embarks on a study abroad experience in the UK while immersing herself in British culture, contemplating her thesis, attempting to write her novel, and sharing her innermost thoughts with the reader. Yu’s novel possesses intimate autofictional narration, inspired by the oeuvre of Sylvia Plath and animated by intertextual allusions to her work. But The Girl explores various other subjects, from the creative process to the Malaysian-Australian experience; however, Yu brings personality and uniqueness to this novel by examining femininity in the postmodern and postcolonial context while commenting on the Australian “cultural cringe”.

 In the context of Australian postcolonial literature, the “cultural cringe” was coined by literary critic A.A Phillips in a 1950 essay published in Meanjin literary magazine. The phenomenon describes a feeling of inferiority (felt particularly by Australians) in their own culture, including the feeling that Australian culture is embarrassing compared to other cultures. The Australian cultural cringe is well documented, even before the time of Phillips, as Henry Lawson provided an extensive diatribe in the preface to the 1894 edition of his Short Stories in Prose and Verse, stating that Australian writers were always in the shadow of British and American writers, and this frustrated him to no end (Rodrick, 1972).

Yu brings the same sentiment into the twenty-first century, breathing new life into a conversation as old as Australian literature itself. She writes:

“Feeling embarrassed about Australia’s provincial personality…had always been automatic to me and everyone I knew. A sense that we were no one, that we had nothing, that spending your whole life secretly trying to get away from the huge yawn that was Australia made you somehow important. Sometimes I wished my parents had immigrated somewhere else…” (p.17).

Yu’s writing, as evidenced by this excerpt, achieves a level of relatability that is likely to enchant many Australians, whether they arrived on Australian shores recently or their ancestral ties to the land span the entire history of the continent. Although we may not be able to point to a shared “Australian experience”, I imagine many have, at one stage, envied the marvel of Britain’s castles or been starry-eyed at the innovation of the capitalist mega-utopia that is America. After a while, our cultural signifiers no longer seem impressive, for “we are no one…we [have] nothing.”

Throughout the novel, Yu continues to explore the feeling of being unable to compete with the UK as an Australian, an emotional experience that may very well be symbolic of the immigrant experience in Australia. However, Girl challenges the notion that her postcolonial novel will inevitably draw from the ‘immigrant novel’ genre. Girl’s hesitation to write an ‘immigrant novel’ reminds me a lot of Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, a short story in which Le contemplates whether to write the inspiring ‘immigrant novel’ that is sure to be an instant classic, or something much more personal to him. For Girl, and by extension, Yu herself, But The Girl is a clear example of taking the second path, as she finds the intersection between postcolonial criticism and Sylvia Plath that is the subject of her thesis, and in a less explicit way, Yu’s novel.

As Girl contemplates how she will address Plath from a postcolonial perspective, Yu implements an arguably genius metafictional strategy by taking direct inspiration from Plath’s The Bell Jar and reinventing the novel to detail an Asian-Australian experience, all while keeping the autofictional style of Plath’s novel. In my view, But The Girl serves as a text that fills an emotional gap identified by the narrator, for although she finds The Bell Jar to be an incredibly powerful text that shaped her adolescent experience, it is clear that certain elements of Esther Greenwood’s narrative are unrelatable.

“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’” (p.30)

In light of its flaws, Yu brings the feminine experience of coming of age in an academic setting into the twenty-first century, reinventing Plath in a way that caters better to modern, Australian, and diasporic readers. While there is no doubt that this updated classic will resonate with mainstream audiences, it should also serve as a love letter to Plath fans. Although I hate to disrespect Lawson and continue the vicious cycle of comparing Australian writers to their more recognised foreign predecessors, I can’t help but suggest that Australian literature has found its Sylvia Plath in Jessica Zhan Mei Yu, and in But The Girl, it has found its The Bell Jar.

Yu’s context, audience, and style deviate from Plath’s, who favoured a razor-sharp and occasionally even confrontational method of prose. Yu exhibits writing that is more contemporary and discursive, while still maintaining the “heart-on-her-sleeve” narrative style often associated with Plath. As a result, the novel provides detailed and intimate accounts of the experiences we often associate with coming of age, such as the struggle to establish our own identity. Girl often references the complicated intersection between being an educated woman who is a second-generation immigrant in the era of what she calls the “bimbo.”

Yu’s narrator identifies many facets of femininity, from the hyper-feminine facades of womanhood from her youth to the strong and empowered women she read about in her gender studies class. Girl struggles to find what types of femininity “fit” her, a feat complicated by her complex relationship with her family.

“Once, when I was walking home from dinner after an undergraduate class with some girls…A car full of young men had slowed to yell obscenities at us…one of the girls had stuck her finger up [at them]…I didn’t do anything to back her up. I reasoned that my parents hadn’t brought me to this country only for me to be found dead on a street somewhere near the university…unlike her parents, mine would never forgive me for dying on them.” (p.29)

Girl’s thought-provoking observations and accounts of how she navigates the world as an Asian-Australian woman in the process of defining her own understanding of womanhood serve as the perfect representation of her desire to examine Plath through a postcolonial lens. Readers witness Girl’s writing endeavours and the memories of her youth play out alongside each other, a sequence of juxtapositions that reveal the possibility that the inspiration for the narrator’s thesis had been hiding in plain sight all along. 

Further, Yu also touches on the feelings of shame that plagued Girl’s adolescence and young adulthood, a facet that contributes significantly to the relatable tone of the novel and allows readers to see their own anxieties reflected in the text, eliciting greater reader engagement through the process of identification with the narrator. The theme of shame can also be tied into the concept of the “cultural cringe” that is explored in this novel, as Girl recounts a feeling of shame that came over her when she visited the Oxford campus in the UK, as it reminded her that Australia doesn’t have grand and prestigious schools like Oxford, just pastiches of them. 

In a similar vein, Yu also explores the shame of femininity and how cultural perceptions of female adolescence impacted Girl’s self-esteem and ability to take herself seriously.

“When I was a teenager, I had thought that there was nothing more embarrassing in the whole world than being a teenage girl…And even more embarrassingly, no one cared about your humiliations because they didn’t matter that much anyway in the ‘grand scheme of things’…” (p.39)

The concepts come together to create a narrator who uses her life experiences as a catalyst to explore the complex emotions associated with coming of age in Australia, a subject matter that is bound to resonate with many readers, particularly those whose identities intersect with Girl’s in some way, be they PhD candidates, women, second-generation immigrants, or all of the above.

But The Girl is a testament to Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s technical skills as a novelist, her appreciation for Sylvia Plath’s impact on emerging female writers, and the desire for women of diverse backgrounds to see themselves represented in the stories that define our youth.

 In essence, I believe Yu achieves Girl’s dream of writing a ‘postcolonial novel’, arguably surpassing that ambition by also composing a text that has the potential to be highly influential on the emerging generation of young Australian women. A likely candidate for canonisation alongside Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, as well as being a stand-out contributor to the developing canon of Asian-Australian literature. In the same intertextual vein as the thematically similar Daisy & Woolf by Michelle Cahill, But The Girl is a title amongst a growing collection of texts that represent the contributions of Asian-Australian novelists to the historically white-dominated field of feminist literature.


Phillips, A 1950, The Cultural Cringe, Meanjin, viewed 17 March 2024,
Rodrick, C 1972, Henry Lawson: Autobiographical and Other Writings 1877-1922, Angus & Robertson, pp. 108–109.

HOLDEN WALKER is a literary critic and researcher of English literatures and writing from Yuin Country, NSW. He is a PhD candidate with the School of The Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong. His current research focus is on postmodern literary fiction and representations of the American Southwest.