Former Chicagoan (and Newcity senior editor) Kate Zambreno’s first novel, “O Fallen Angel,” won Chiasmus Press’ “Undoing the Novel” contest. Her latest novel, “Green Girl,” is an existential portrait of twentysomething Ruth, vacuously flitting around London in search of shoes, men and makeup. Hailed as “The Bell Jar” of the twenty-first century, Zambreno’s novel captures the development of a young woman’s subjectivity amidst a world of debauchery and distractions.
What is a green girl?
A green girl comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius says to Ophelia, “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance.” So, I think of a green girl as an ingenue, who’s kind of unformed, in some way. And new—she’s green—she hasn’t reached consciousness fully, but there’s still this forming subjectivity. I was really interested in this character who I feel is so often the cypher, or the blank, in literature. …There are a lot of contemporary women writers who I really admire who are starting to write of their girlhood, of their twenties, of their youth. At the time I started “Green Girl,” the blankness yet the revolt I felt in my early twenties wasn’t represented in the literature that I was reading by male authors, so I really wanted to explore this girl who is passive, but trying to come into her own subjectivity.
What do you think about the comparisons of your book to “The Bell Jar”?
It’s so darkly humorous, and [Plath is] really interrogating society and looking at the fascism of society and how it can be so oppressive to young girls. I’m tracing that… Even though there’s a lot of frivolity to “Green Girl,” I’m also trying to point to and interrogate an experience. “The Bell Jar” is a huge influence, but it’s huge to most women writers that I know. If anything, I think it’s interesting how that book is received—it’s adored by young women but it’s also dismissed as not a great work of literature… It’s interesting our prejudices toward a certain level of experiences represented in literature, and when that experience is seen as girlie or feminine, we dismiss it.
I counted about forty-three quotations in your book. What motivated that?
The epigraphs, to me, point to fictional works outside of the world of the novel: it takes you out as well as connects to all these larger works. It was my way of connecting Ruth’s girl-body with this larger world of cultural conversation. I didn’t want to present this as just a straight narrative of, like, this girl who’s kickin’ around London and sleeps with guys and hates her job… I really wanted to point to where the green girl was in literature and philosophy and where she wasn’t.
There are a few brief references in the book to Ruth’s parents—her father, at one point, sends her money but doesn’t include a note…
I was thinking of her as kind of an Alice figure—there are lots of references to “Alice in Wonderland” in the book and the girl in the fairy tale is always an orphan, so it was important to me that Ruth was orphaned, much like Ruth in the Bible. There’s this mythos of the girl lost in the woods. So she has this vague paternal figure. But the question of her mother is really complicated, and it has a lot to do with maybe boring things about the process of creation. When I first started writing “Green Girl”… my mom had died, and for a while the whole book was about this girl grieving for her mother. [It’s also about being in] London—my experience as the Self in the city, which is also something in the novel I explore, like: What is it like to be a foreigner? And: How is a girl always a foreigner? And the experience of memory and trauma seeped into the book.
What are your impressions of the Chicago literary scene now that you’ve left it?
I’m a longtime Chicagoan, my family has been in Chicago for over a hundred years. Taylor Street, Italian-American, grandfather owned a chain of butcher shops, lived in Oak Park… and I grew up in Mt. Prospect, went to school in Evanston—Northwestern. I’ve always liked Chicago, it’s such a huge part of myself, even though sometimes I hated it when I lived there. Even though now I love it. Now I see what a wonderful city it is. It’s always funny that I’m not considered a Chicago writer because I left a couple of years ago. I didn’t really know the literary scene when I was here because I was considered a journalist, I was the person who wrote about people, and I was kind of keeping it secret: my desires and wishes to write other things. Then I almost had to leave to consider this other type of writing I wanted to do.