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Fantasy writer mines Malaysia’s cultural complexity

International desk || shiningbd

Published: 20:07, 21 August 2021   Update: 20:07, 21 August 2021
Fantasy writer mines Malaysia’s cultural complexity

Zen Cho`s latest novel is a groundbreaking cocktail of fantasy and urban realism [Courtesy of iDJ Photography]

Hearing the voice of her dead grandmother inside her head is the icing on a cake of problems for Malaysian zillennial Jessamyn Theo.

Ah Ma has come back from the afterlife to nudge Jess into helping the Black Water Sister, a resentful Chinese goddess, just as the US-born Malaysian Chinese Jess moves with her parents to their native Penang island in northwestern Malaysia.

The fact that Jess is jobless, and that they are all living off the generosity of relatives she barely knows, does not make adapting to the new and more conservative Asian society any easier – especially when she has yet to come out as a lesbian.

The premise of Black Water Sister, the latest novel from award-winning London-based and Petaling Jaya-born writer Zen Cho, makes for a groundbreaking cocktail of fantasy and urban realism set in contemporary Penang – an unusual setting for Malaysian works of fiction in English, which are most often set in the country’s past.

“Zen Cho is something of a rarity – a marvellous teller of stories who manages to combine an understanding of Southeast Asian culture and language – Malaysia particularly – with an appreciation of the modern 21st-century concerns of science fiction and fantasy,” Jonathan Strahan, an award-winning Australian editor and publisher of science fiction, fantasy and horror at Tor.com and the landmark American fantastic fiction magazine Locus, told Al Jazeera.

“Her most recent novel, Black Water Sister, is perhaps the best example of this. A queer young woman returns from living in the US with her parents to try to navigate the space between being a Malaysian who grew up in San Francisco, and is now trying to be part of the world she left behind.

It’s fascinating because we see the genuine tensions between two cultures approaching the same issue, in different ways, both shown respectfully and thoughtfully and in a very human way.”

Cho, who divides her time between writing fiction and practising as a lawyer in the United Kingdom, has already won a number of awards including a prestigious Hugo for her work and was a 2013 finalist in the Astounding Award for best new writer of science fiction and fantasy. Her books have been translated into languages including French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

She says her main inspiration for Black Water Sister was investigating the syncretic Chinese religious tradition in which she grew up, which combines gods and influences from Buddhism, Taoism and folk beliefs.

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