C is for Zen Cho

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Let me not even pretend I can write with perfect objectivity about author Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: “It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle.” I love champagne, both as a beverage and as a metaphor for intoxicating prose, so this was precisely to my liking.

Oh, there will be so many spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.

Jade (Geok Huay) Yeo is a Malayan writer of Chinese descent, living and working in 1920s London. She has a Dorothy-Parkerish keenness of voice, self-deprecating and self-confident by turns. She writes both articles with titles like ‘What The Well-Dressed Woman Is Wearing’ and literary pieces for the Oriental Literary Review. Her critic’s eye is crucial to her story, which is surprisingly rich in literary antecedents for so short a book: Eliot, Austen, two of the Brontës, Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Wodehouse are all represented — and those were only the ones I noticed. This post and the comments name a few more.

But most significant are the frequent allusions to Jane Eyre, whose plot the novel parallels rather closely:

  • Our bookish and independent heroine refuses to be intimidated by a volatile, wealthy man.
  • The volatile, wealthy man finds her resistance irresistible.
  • The two begin an affair, but the first man turns out to have a wife already.
  • After a confrontation with the wife, our heroine takes refuge in a quiet spot in the country.
  • Our heroine finds a second chance at romantic involvement, with a less wealthy but more moral partner, and makes the choice most conducive to her personal happiness.

These are the broad strokes, though I could go on (our heroine has an overbearing aunt, our heroine finds employment through periodicals, Jade is one letter away from Jane, etc. there are so many it’s really exciting I’ll stop now honest).

Despite all these clues, Jade refuses this very comparison: “I had no intention of being anyone’s Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife” (Kindle location 726). When filtered through a Malayan cultural lens that includes polygamy, the  catastrophe at the heart of Brontë’s text — the strong taboo against bigamy — becomes something quite different. Jane Eyre in this context does not flee from a nearly committed crime: instead, she rejects a form of inclusion that would make her subservient, secondary. Western literature’s meaning alters when it is viewed from the margins rather than from the center.

Jade’s gently ironic tone should not prevent us from noticing that the state of second wife is the very type of subservience she is being offered by Diana Hardie. Again the threat is not bigamy or even adultery: the threat for Jade is being subsumed into a Western, high-literary, colonialist house; being subject to endless microaggressions about her country of origin; being “Hardie’s assistant” rather than a writer with her own name and career. It would mean the obliteration of her entire self and experience: “It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn’t do it” (752).

Sebastian Hardie, after all, could not be a more obvious symbol of the Western colonial and literary agenda. He is a celebrated author with a sexually adventurous lifestyle and a rampaging libido — the perfect Roaring Twenties sheik — the consummate romance novel hero. And like his wife, he would place Jade in a role as a sidekick. On their very first meeting, he refers to her as “Ariel … Alone on an incomprehensible island”  244). It’s clear he’s  attempting flattery, envisioning the Asian female critic as a waifish, magical sprite who was rescued by a European and must repay that debt with servitude and gratitude. But Jade’s not having it. “I’m really more of a Caliban,” she replies. It’s probably nothing more than a one-off joke, offered in a moment of social anxiety, but Hardie attempts for the rest of the novel to confine her within this persona: he refers to her as “little Caliban” (534) and writes revealing poems to her under that name. He has effectively colonized Jade, renaming her and confining her personhood within an explicitly English, literary framework.

It is never made explicit in the text, but I believe it’s safe to assume that in this little game Hardie imagines himself as Prospero, a figure often associated with creative and artistic powers (not to mention God complexes). But from the perspective of a reader it is abundantly clear that Sebastian Hardie is a Miranda, traipsing around his island home, talking a great deal of nonsense about love, and wondering if the people he sees are real people or magical spirits. The role of Prospero is reserved for Sebastian’s wife Diana, who is very clearly in charge of everything: “Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school” (674).

Pregnant and disenchanted, Jade leaves the Hardies (and The Tempestbehind and goes to the country to have her child in seclusion. Like Jane Eyre, she finds herself in a place that operates on high moral principles and charitable acts:

Mrs. Crowther is a widow, but her assistants are Misses mostly. They are all very nice: they knit and are tremendously tactful. The food is British and hearty, and the furnishings are soothing, if plain. Perhaps they thought patterns might distress our minds further. (856)

Also like Jane, Jade finds friendship in this lonely place — but while Jane finds solace in the puritan spirit of the Riverses, Jade is drawn to a fellow inmate, Margery, who suffers from what is pretty obviously clinical depression: she describes “a black thing with horns and wings … that stares at one with yellow eyes — and one can’t get out of bed, but lies there and wishes one was dead” (910). Their sisterhood is not a literary-coincidental blood connection, but a sympathy created by marginalization. “I’m mad,” says Margery; “I’m bad,” replies Jade (892), but they do not let the prevailing cultural narratives about madness/badness impede their connection as human beings. Strict adherence to the plots of such narratives belongs to people like the Hardies, or to Margery’s relatives, who privilege “scientific” medical authority over her own lived experience of her illness (933).

By this point in the book Jade has realized the depth of her true feelings for her friend Ravi, the editor of the Oriental Literary Review, but she has no hope that he returns them — until he shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jade is reading Agnes Grey and cites David Copperfield  — another book with two wives — to describe her shocked reaction. These are small details, but it soon becomes apparent that Ravi and Jade have each been telling themselves stories about the other, and that those stories have not matched. They get things sorted out almost in spite of themselves, in the charming way of all the best romantic comedies — and since we’re talking about the Jane Eyre parallels still you may note that Ravi has been imagining himself as suffering from unrequited love for an unattainable object, just as St. John Rivers does for Rosamond Oliver. In the course of proposing, Ravi reveals that he knows Jade’s untranslated name, Geok Huay. Jade is puzzled, as she’d never actually told him this — but he mentions that she had written it but then crossed it out on the very first letter she’d written to him as an editor. It is clear that Ravi has deliberately chosen to address her by the name she’d chosen to use in public, in London, in the literary world — but he has not forgotten her real name, and in this private, intimate moment he uses it, setting aside the colonial need for a ‘normal-sounding’ (read: British) identification.

If Jade excels at subverting and deflating the narratives of privilege and colonialism — her initial bad review of Hardie’s novel, her refusal to adore London’s golden boy, her refusal to move in with Hardie and his wife, her rebellious friendship with Margery — Ravi “remembers the things one has said” (176). He is an editor, someone who can keep multiple versions/visions of a narrative in his head without contradiction — and also someone who can spot the telling details, the places for improvement, the moments where a story’s plot or tone may be revised. As Jade says quite early about the Mimnaugh review: “I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi’s judgment is unerring” (87). Jade is constantly shifting between social and personal narratives — British imperial subject/foreigner, good girl/fallen woman, literary critic/pleasure reader — and Ravi is the one person in the book who can follow the thread between all these shifting stories. As such, he is perfectly suited to her, and Jade recognizes it.

And of course, in a truly subversive move that’s like catnip for lit-nerds like myself, Jade finds happiness not with the Rochester figure but with a much friendlier, warmer version of St. John Rivers, who initially offers her a similar kind of companionate marriage (before the two realize their mutual romantic feelings).

Nobody’s Jane Eyre, indeed.

___

There is often the sense, as Zen Cho explainsthat “that fiction by or about people who are traditionally underrepresented in Western literature is kind of innately worthy and dull.” This perceived gap between reading-for-escape and reading-for-representation became a strong theme in a recent Dear Author thread asking what books readers were hoping to see in the future. But this is a false dichotomy, a lingering symptom of the way that non-white people have been Othered and limited throughout literature and history. I for one am thrilled that Zen Cho is hoping to write more “post-colonial fluff for book nerds.”

She has also complied this handy list of Malaysian science fiction and fantasy writers working in English, for your further reading pleasure.

___

Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Seattle: Zen Cho, 2012. Ebook.

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8 thoughts on “C is for Zen Cho

  1. What a great review, and the book sounds amazing! I’m also frustrated by the dichotomy some people construct between books starring underrepresented peoples and their favorite tropes/genres/quality, etc., as if they have to choose.

    PS. I liked Rivers, but I have mixed feelings about “compassionate marriages.” Wasn’t he kind of a baby when she refused him? Lol. IIRC.

  2. Rivers definitely does not handle rejection well — Jane was perfectly willing to go as a companion, but his insistence that it has to be marriage borders on creepy. Especially since marriage will give him access to all her possessions and everything encompassed by the euphemism “marital rights.” Still, I like the idea of using the hero as Rivers to resist the Rochester-style hero. Rochester’s pretty much the only Rochester-style hero I enjoy in romance.

  3. Argh! I don’t want to read the whole review because I want to read the book! I’m loving these posts, even if I can’t read them all the way through. Thank you for sharing so many great books. I’m reading Jane Eyre and loving it at the moment, so this book has definitely gone on my wishlist.

  4. I love this post SO MUCH. I really, really love how you show the subversion of the Jane Eyre narrative. And now I need to read the book. And Agnes Grey. And re-read Jane Eyre. Time needs to expand to fit the reading.

  5. I think I’d read something about this book last year, but it all got lost in the noise. Also POC (half-Asian) romance novel newbie who’s uncomfortable with most genre romance because of the very types of things you’re blogging about. So this sounds fabulous, and I’ve downloaded the Kindle sample on the strength of this post.

    Also, thank you for representing intersectionality well!

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