Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

In case anyone on the internet hasn’t seen it (how have you managed to miss it?), the spoken word piece I refer to is this one: To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang

From this weekend’s column:

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Over the past week, multiple people have directed me to a video of a spoken word poetry performance. The poem in question is “To J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang” by Rachel Rostad and, as the title indicates, is an indictment of Rowling’s portrayal of that character in the Harry Potter books. Rostad lays out a number of criticisms here- including the very low number of students of colour in Rowling’s Hogwarts and the likelihood or otherwise of Cho Chang’s name (though since the video went viral a number of Chinese readers have defended Rowling on this count). But most interesting of her arguments is that Rowling has placed the character in a tradition of stereotyped East Asian women, who fall in love with a white, male hero and then are either killed off or spend the rest of the plot (and their lives, presumably) pining for him. Rostad mentions Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha as examples of stories that perpetuate this trend, but it’s far too easy to think of others.

A good antidote to that particular narrative is The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Author Zen Cho is better known for her science fiction writing (she figured on the recently-announced list of John W. Campbell Award nominees for best new writer). But The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is a romance set in early twentieth century London and centering itself around the literary and artistic life of Bloomsbury. Jade Yeo (or Geok Huay) is a Malaysian-Chinese woman who lives in London and makes a (tiny) living writing – mostly about books but occasionally fluff pieces, because hey, money. Most of her literary reviews are carried in the relatively obscure Oriental Literary Review, run by a young Indian man named Ravi. But both Jade and the OLR achieve fame when the journal carries her scathing review of a book by literary society darling Sebastian Hardie. Hardie’s attention is arrested; he and Jade have a whirlwind romance (note: this is not the usual outcome of writing a negative review). But though Hardie may look like a Romantic poet, Jade is not that smitten. Or only temporarily. (“I see the source of all my problems: a Bronte was completely the wrong thing to be reading unless it were an Anne. I should have been reading George Eliot.”)

In the past, this column has talked about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta books, both examples of how the intimacy of the diary or epistolatory forms can make a book funny and engaging. Jade has a wonderful voice; enthusiastic, curious, cutting, original. This is the sort of character who complains that “all I have done as an unaccompanied maiden in London is read and write and cook. This is hardly tasting the delights of debauchery in the immoral West”. She exposes us to the full absurdity of people who ask if they have tea in China. She dismisses Hardie’s attempts at seduction by complaining that he has “the heavy-lidded gaze of a romantic tapir”. She is glorious.

For many of us who grew up on a steady diet of very light ‘English’ fluff, the lack of non-white people is something we very carefully do not think about—I’d rather not know what P.G. Wodehouse or Georgette Heyer would make of someone like me. But with this novella, Cho writes us into the period in ways that are politically astute, affirmative, and above all joyous. It’s clear she’s having as much fun paying tribute to books she likes (Wodehouse fans will be pleased to know that Jade has an article in Milady’s Boudoir) as she is undercutting those works and placing herself at their centre, rendering them feminist, anti-racist, political, and still lighthearted and funny. It’s short and never particularly deep, but The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is the happiest thing I’ve read in a long time.

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8 Responses to “Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

  1. I loved, loved, loved this. So much fun. I wish it had been longer though — I wanted to spend more time with Geok Huay and also to get to know the other characters a bit better. Ravi was so *nice.*

  2. ah, not to rant about wodehouse (again) on your really amazing blog, but since I flinched (or painfully grimaced) every time there’d be a reference to some ex colonial shikari type batty uncle of Bertie’s who wouldn’t bat an eyelid if he found scorpions in his boots in Poona but turned pale under his pith helmet at the sight of Aunt Dahlia, I am pretty darn sure what PGW would make of someone like me. Although I suppose you implied this anyway. I also think it’s slightly unwise to dismiss it as fluff, since there was so much subtext pregnant with fucked up colonialese.

    • I never “dismiss” fluff though- I spend far too much of my life (online and academic) thinking about it! I think, though, that Wodehouse and Heyer and their like, besides being funny and easily digested, do not invite you to think about them and so I’ve found it reasonably easy not to if I didn’t want to (though these are some moments I cannot possibly ignore). Which isn’t to say that one shouldn’t think about them–if that was the case I’d be out of a job. :)

  3. ‘he and Jade have a whirlwind romance (note: this is not the usual outcome of writing a negative review)’

    ?Shout-out to Rebecca West/HG Wells? this was the precise scenario that led to their ill-fated relationship

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