Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Zen Cho, Author of Black Water Sister – On Writing Malaysian Fantasy, and the Intersection of Queerness & Complicated Asian Families

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Pride Month is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where during the month of June, queer authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being queer, queer books, and their experiences of being a queer reader. Find the introduction post for Pride Month at The Quiet Pond here.

Hello hello hello, and welcome back to Pride Month at the Pond! Today, we’re hosting an author who has written what has swiftly become my favorite book of 2021. As a reader from Malaysia, I can’t tell you how exceedingly rare it is for me to truly see the nuances of my life represented in the fiction that I read, which is why I’m always caught so off guard by the earnestness and authenticity of Zen Cho’s Malaysian-influenced stories. And while I have deeply enjoyed her past work, Black Water Sister, Zen’s most recent urban fantasy Penang-set uban fantasy about gods and ghostly grandmas and generational trauma, may arguably be her best work yet. As such, friends, it gives me so much joy to be welcoming the inimitable Zen Cho to the Pond today!

When I first cracked open Black Water Sister back in April, I was immediately captivated by the vivid temporality of its setting: from the daily rhythms that the characters go through, to the protagonist’s struggles that mirrored mine so closely that I nearly forgot I was reading a story that wasn’t just meant for my eyes. I mean, how often do you get to see yourself at the heart of a book? On a narrative level, the way Zen deftly handles the book’s intertwining themes of family, queerness, and diaspora while taking us on a brilliantly paced and at turns downright eerie story about a woman who has the literal ghost of her grandmother living rent-free in her head… is nothing short of masterful.

Zen is joining us today as tiger dressed in a yellow samfu, holding a delicious bag of teh ais ikat tepi! (Perfect for the summer heat that is creeping in both in the northern hemisphere and here in Southeast Asia, just saying.) In today’s interview, we chat about the intertwining themes of complicated families and queerness in Black Water Sister, the inspiration behind the book, as well as a very… interesting dessert that makes a cameo in the story. With all that said, if, perchance, you haven’t had the time to check out the book yet, let’s take a look at the official cover and summary!

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.

When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.

She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Bookshop (affiliate) | Amazon | Book Depository
Cover Art by Yuta Onoda

Author Interview: Zen Cho

Skye: Hello Zen! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond! For anyone just now discovering your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Zen: Thanks for having me! I’m a Chinese Malaysian writer and lawyer living in the UK. I’ve published five books to date. My fiction falls into two broad and often overlapping categories: fluff for postcolonial book nerds and “Asian woman meets supernatural being, hijinks occur”. My newest novel, Black Water Sister, falls into the second category — it’s a contemporary Malaysian-set fantasy featuring family, ghosts and local gods. Two-line summary: Broke zoomer Jessamyn Teoh’s grandmother may be dead, but she’s not done with life yet. By the time her ghost is through with Jess, Jess will have battled gangsters, confronted gods, and experienced more nagging than any human being should have to face.

Skye: Where did the spark that grew into Black Water Sister come from? What kept you coming back to the story again and again throughout the writing process?

Zen: There were two ideas which came together to make the originating spark. When I was working on my first two novels, Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen, I spent a lot of time digging up archaic words in the OED, because the books were historical fantasies. I came across this word hagridden, which basically means ‘stressed’, but also has the literal meaning of being ridden by a hag, i.e. a witch. So that gave me the concept of a young woman who’s ridden about by a terrible female ancestor with supernatural powers.

The other piece of the spark came when I read The Way That Lives in the Heart by Jean DeBernadi, which is by an anthropologist who visited Penang, Malaysia in the 1980s and did field research into the practice of Chinese popular religion there, particularly spirit mediumship. I grew up as a Buddhist/Taoist/Chinese folk religionist, but my family weren’t super devout and also never explained anything about the practices, because talking about that stuff was quite taboo. DeBernardi’s book gave me an intellectual framework for these beliefs I’d grown up with, and it was so full of interesting stories and details that I thought, There’s a novel in this. It wasn’t till I combined it with the idea of the hagridden young woman that the novel came together.

Skye: Black Water Sister grapples with a lot of different themes: family, religion, patriarchy, gentrification, queerness, migration… I was so captured by how interconnected these issues were in Jess’ life, and how the story’s tapestry as a whole really reflects the multiplicity of life in Malaysia. In your writing process, do you find that a narrative’s themes emerge naturally as you write, or do you start with the issues and build a story with an intent to explore specific topics? Or is it a mix of both?

Zen: I had a very clear emotional throughline for Black Water Sister. It starts with Jess’s ghost grandmother asking her, Does your mother know you’re gay? And I knew the book would be about Jess’s journey to a place where she can give the answer to that question that is right for her. That narrative inherently brings in a bunch of themes around queerness, but also family bonds, societal pressures, etc. The other stuff you mention came in pretty naturally. Even though I write what’s called fantasy, I’m always trying to represent the world as it really is — my stories aren’t factual, but I want them to be true. Nuance and complexity and multiplicity are all part of that. 

Skye: The theme of family, both biological and found, is a mainstay in your books. A big part of Black Water Sister is Jess feeling alienated from her family yet inextricable from them as whole: from her parents, her squabbling aunts, to Ah Ma—her late grandmother who (sometimes forcibly!) drags her into the world of spirit mediums and vengeful gods. How much of these interactions here were drawn from your personal experiences?

Zen: I have a very loving, supportive family who can also be stifling and maddening. As with all families, there’s both light and shade in the relationship. The connection really interests me, I suppose because I think of it as the one that’s impossible to sever. You can break up with a lover or drift away from a friend, but even if you cut ties with your family, there’s an extent to which your mom will always be your mom, you know? And it’s a tie that brings so much baggage with it, good and bad — love and protection, but also obligation and hierarchy. Especially, perhaps, in Asian cultures, there’s so much of this idea of debt bound up with family, and the idea of what it means to be a person is so dependent on how you do or don’t discharge that debt. It’s a theme I keep returning to because for me, it’s part of working out how to be a human.

Skye: Ultimately, what do you hope young readers take away from There is this really small poignant moment in the book where Jess expresses that she is more terrified of her parents discovering she is queer, than finding out she is channeling the ghost of her dead grandmother and actively being targeted by an angry god. That resonated a lot with me, as I’m sure it does for a lot of queer diaspora readers who have to remain closeted to their family. Can you talk to us a little about this intersection between family, diaspora, and queerness?

Zen: I’m perhaps morbidly fascinated, in fiction and reality, with the limitations of family love. Within my own personal experience, I’ve seen people I thought of as being really loving and kind show a different face when queerness comes into play. That’s where that love and kindness can stop, a lot of the time — if you’re queer, which is something you can’t really choose or change, suddenly you can get taken out of that box of beloved child and put into “threat” category. It’s a de-personing, in a way, and it’s being done by people who have loved and moulded you, on whom you depended as a child. That’s traumatic, right? The fear of it is maybe the biggest single thing that has shaped Jess.

Skye: Going back to the book as a whole: are there any little easter eggs that you put in the book that hold special meaning or resonance to you personally?

Zen: The whole book is an Easter egg, in a way. But one thing I enjoyed was portraying urban Malaysian food culture. I invented a nasi lemak sundae, described as consisting of coconut gelato on pandan chiffon cake, with a topping of caramelised peanuts and ikan bilis crushed into a powder — which I think would be delicious, though come to think of it, it could probably do with a sauce. Maybe gula melaka over the top. Anyway, after I’d done that, I found out someone’s actually sold nasi lemak ice cream in real life, though they went ahead and put actual sambal on the ice cream. As so often happens, my imagination fell short of reality.

Skye: Okay, looking forward to the future a little: what’s next on the writerly horizon for you?

Zen: My first book, a short story collection called Spirits Abroad, is being rereleased by Small Beer Press in an expanded edition with a new and brilliant cover by Wesley Allsbrook in August 2021. It’s all about young Malaysian women and ghosts, so anyone who liked Black Water Sister and wants more of the same should pick it up.

Skye: Closing on a sunny note! What is something—big or small—that’s been bringing you joy lately, despite everything else currently going on?

Zen: After years of successfully avoiding Hallyu while a good 80% of my friends succumbed to kdramas, kpop and variety shows, I watched Crash Landing On You and fell madly in love. The joy it’s given me has honestly been worth the lifetime cost of my Netflix subscription.

About the Author

Zen Cho is the author of the Sorcerer to the Crown novels, the novella The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water and a short story collection, Spirits Abroad. Her newest novel is Black Water Sister, a contemporary fantasy set in Malaysia. Zen is a Hugo, Crawford and British Fantasy Award winner, and a finalist for the Lambda, Locus and Astounding Awards. She was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two.

Photography: Jim C. Hines

Find Zen at: Website | Twitter | Instagram

3 thoughts on “Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Zen Cho, Author of Black Water Sister – On Writing Malaysian Fantasy, and the Intersection of Queerness & Complicated Asian Families

  1. “my stories aren’t factual, but I want them to be true” – that really resonated with me. I’ve read so many stories that I could describe that way, and they’re my favorite. Thank you for the great interview, and I look forward to reading the book!

    Liked by 1 person

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