In reading for my upcoming exchange at Granta with Maud Newton over the novels Jean Rhys and Ford Madox Ford wrote about each other after their affair, I came across an anecdote about her I couldn’t use in what I was describing, but it stayed with me, from The Worlding of Jean Rhys, by Sue Thomas. She described how Jean, after hearing her mother say she preferred dark babies, would look in the mirror each morning, hoping to see she’d darkened and wishing she would.
I remembered being in something like the third grade, standing on a chair in my mom’s bathroom, staring at my face, reimagining it as either all Korean or all white. And feeling doomed by being neither.
Like Rhys, I had moved from a warm island full of brown people to a cold land full of white ones, descended from the English who had surrounded her there. In Voyage In The Dark, when she writes, “I got used to everything except the cold…” I thought, Yes. It was like finding I had an older sister a long time ago. And so Wide Sargasso Sea was then one of the novels I turned to when I sought to find a tone for the novel I’m finishing now, The Queen of the Night.
In college I developed the intense attachment I have for Jean Rhys, discovering her at a time when I was tired of what I was. I was tired of trying to be accepted by either Korean Americans or white ones, and tired of being misunderstood by just about anyone I met of any ethnicity— tired of being asked how my parents met, of being questioned on “what I was”. Worse, as I considered being a writer back in the early 80s, I felt like literature was a giant mall of ethnic restaurants, and that I wasn’t going to be able to work in either the American one or the Korean one. I began reading the stories of mixed race people in order to understand how they survived. The answer was, by being either beautiful, strong or smart, or all three, for best results.
Rhys was two for three, never as strong as she wanted to be. Never able to be, as she put it in Quartet, the novel she wrote about her affair with Ford, “sporting”. But even so, the force of her work is unmistakable. Her legacy accomplishing what she perhaps could not.
Maud and I each read The Blue Hour, by Lillian Pizzichini, as a part of this—the news a biography was coming out had us both excited and partly inspired the coming exchange. I found in reading it I wondered if instead it should be thought of as a biographical novel? If Pizzichini would have felt more free if she had her as a character, in the way Henry James and Virginia Woolf have recently been reimagined by Colm Toibin and Michael Cunningham. I kept wanting it to be, I confess, like the lavish biography Judith Thurman wrote about Colette, Secrets of the Flesh. All the same, The Blue Hour made for a good deal of the juicy reading I was hoping for, though I questioned much of her sources for the feelings she felt Jean felt. It was mixed pleasure and disappointment.
Maud has reviewed it beautifully for The Second Pass. Look for the back and forth between Maud and I starting Monday, at Granta.