By Jessica Zhan Mei YuUnpublished Manuscript
But the Girl
But the Girl draws you in with its quiet, rich prose and keeps the reader hooked with a restrained, sharp voice that stays long after you have finished reading. The novel follows the protagonist known only as Girl as she moves through childhood to adulthood, while Yu’s command of language gives us a stifling intimacy with Girl’s inner workings. The reader feels as isolated from her life and surroundings as Girl does, while still sensing the deep familial ties that keep Girl grounded. Striking yet sparse, But the Girl is a tremendous work of fiction and a bittersweet joy to read.
Girl goes back. She goes back in time and place. Her and Baba are the only ones who can get leave, so. Baba never speaks much: what’s past is past. But he has the self-righteousness of someone who has seen and suffered enough. He thinks people are to blame for their own problems; if he could escape in Malaysia then why can’t they escape in Australia? Girl and Baba, they argue about this on the plane, they argue about it in the airport and then they are driving out of the airport in silence. He thinks Australia is too soft, too good, like a big bed with lots of pillows. Everyone is half-asleep there. This sounds like scorn, but then think. This is what he wanted for his girl.
They are driving slowly past the sea, half unseeable behind a green and blue block of flats, tall green fences in that pandan colour, empty stall shaped like a young coconut, Protons parked parallel, bougainvillea, a Tropicana Twister vending machine, a temple, high-rise flats and construction sites for more high-rise flats, the sound of someone starting their motorcycle, abandoned parking lots, the rust fences taken over by lush weeds, a small playground in dirty pastel, a Malay woman with a Mayo Magic apron and plastic gloves on is staring at them. Last time there was only one temple around, now there are so many. Then they are there, back in the place he left. There is a wide-open space, dirt driven on, there is a tree with green mangoes clustered on it, all alone. A Tiger beer and a Guinness ad, both upside-down, used as what? Girl does not know. There are roosters in cages and there’s a small rust covering over a car. Oh ga-u garage kee. Last time boh. There’s even a garage now. They walk through their garage to a narrow walkway stuffed with pot plants, dusty plastic chairs, those glass windows shaped like large blinds that you could shut in or out. There’s the sound of a baby fussing, a Bollywood song playing from somewhere inside, miscellaneous yelling, glimpses of lit-up shrines. A red letterbox, 2940 hanging on a fence covered in clothes and leaves. A house just like all the others, wood, white, rust, with a motor out the front and a Manchester United jersey hanging from the line.
There it is. They are walking and an old Malay woman, at once one-hundred years old and thirty years old with the face of a soothsayer, hits Baba hard on the arm. He looks at her. He is looking at her and she is saying his name. She was there then and she is there now. She is ninety-five, she says, but she is still having children. She has eighteen children and eighty-seven grandchildren. She hits him again in disbelief. Maggie is dying, she says. She doesn’t say it like gossip or like a message, she says it like a prophecy. Baba nods but says nothing. They keep talking in Malay.
Girl wanders off to the back of the house, looking at the deep-down street drain. A fat rat runs past, rubbish floating along in the water. A voice creeps right up behind her.
“Hello, Ah Girl.”
“Hello, Aunty,” she says.
It is an auto-reply, Girl says it without even turning around.
“Not Aunty, Grandma.”
Her hands are grasping Girl’s waist as if afraid it might unfurl. She kisses her on the cheek. There are kisses that are given and kisses that are taken. This was a kiss that had been taken. Girl says nothing about it.
Later Girl would ask Baba who the woman was, and Baba would say that Ah Ma was the Wife Number One and that the woman who called herself Grandma was Wife Number Two. Before this moment, Girl had thought that first meant the athlete on the podium, the one who held a place no other can claim. It was the opposite way when it came to wives, Girl now knew. First meant the one who was not enough, the one who was cast out. Ah Ma became a maid in a big, strange house after the second wife moved in. She cared for other people’s children, cleaned other people’s houses, cooked other people’s food so that her children could play with the boss’s children; she lived in a corner room of the big house and ate the scraps that fell from their lips.
Wife Number Two looked ordinary. No one looked like Ah Ma with her dark skin, sad eyes and bitter mouth. Her hunch and bad leg drifting over floorboards. She was happiest when she was angry and making other people angry. The second wife was a woman like other women. Fresh perm and hair dyed a blue-black colour. She liked to be likeable. Her glasses were darkening in the sun. Girl was often surprised by the unremarkableness of the women men left their wives for. Often, they were younger but uglier, fatter, shorter. Other times they looked and sounded identical to the first. In Girl’s view, men had bad taste in women and women had bad taste in men.
As she turned these things over in her mind, Girl felt anger blooming in her like a sudden flower. This was the sin that fell upon the third and fourth generations. The anger that would mark her and her children’s children forever. She was afraid it might kill her the way it had killed Ma’s own ma. She had found Ah Ma’s rage monotonous and heavy as it pressed down on her childhood. Her casual violence and her hard face, her self-pity. Now Girl knew something else. No maid raged and grimaced like Ah Ma. A maid is the angel of the house, wordless, smiling stupidly, nodding, eating last, agreeing. She is the perfect mother no one ever has. And so, Ah Ma never really thought of herself as a maid anymore. She had come into Girl’s childhood as a mother, angry at her sons, a spy compulsively betraying her daughter-in-law, a grandmother chastising her grandchildren, a matriarch demanding the best of the best for her and for her alone.
They were already leaving, the back way, walking to the beach. There, she saw a boat turned over, abandoned, purple flowers and green leaves growing all over it. There was a broken aquarium with a motor helmet in it like a large round fish. There was a sign faded from the sun, advertising Satay Ayam, Satay Daging and Ketupat Nasi. A wheelbarrow and a bicycle were turned over on the path. Then there was the beach; it used to come all the way up but now it is only this. Still, it was beautiful, it was always beautiful. You could see Penang from there, crowned by its heavenly cloud of smog. And the little boats with the fisherman and the big blue emptiness. This was where her Baba used to watch the fisherman catching the tiny sweet fish, bringing the haul in, selling, bartering. Now not so much of that, but still.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist