Norman Asks | Zen Cho Answers

Talia Moodley
February 22, 2022

'Norman Asks' continues with a visit from the wonderful Zen Cho!

Zen’s writing is, in a word, amazing. And my word doesn’t even have to be the one you take. Her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, took out the 2016 British Fantasy Society Award for Best Newcomer and was also shortlisted for the Locus First Novel Award. Refusing to go in any direction but up, Zen has continued to earn recognition, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novelette now sits among her prizes.

More than a writer (and a daytime lawyer), Zen edited the anthology, Cyberpunk: Malaysia, and has championed diversity as a juror for the Speculative Literature Foundation Diverse Writers and Diverse Worlds grants and a Board member for Con or Bust.

Norman the Bookworm asked Zen to join us on In the Margin to discuss her most recent novel, Black Water Sister. Zen draws on her Malaysian roots to populate this contemporary/urban fantasy with ghosts, gods and gangsters, and the resulting ride is as fun as it is sincere.  

Read on to find out more from Zen herself!

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Five Questions for Zen Cho

Black Water Sister is technically an urban fantasy – with a ghostly grandma and a vengeful god to boot – but it also has a sapphic coming-of-age journey with complex themes at its heart. Why do you think the fantasy genre doubles so well as a vehicle for exploring the real-world social issues that Jess grapples with?

Zen: Your next question touches on this somewhat, but a lot of the fantasy I write draws on the belief frameworks people historically developed for understanding the world around them – ideas about gods, spirits, fate, the afterlife and so on. We call it fantasy now, but fantasy is just how our imagination works, and our imagination is what we use to process our experiences of the material world and our feelings. I'd guess that's why – though it's not like I sit down to write a story and tell myself, 'I'm going to use fantasy as a vehicle for exploring real-world social issues'! It's just how the story comes out.

Many of the 'fantasy' elements in the story are based on actual religious beliefs and deities. With the existing tendency in Western literary spaces towards the exoticisation of Asian spirituality, do you ever feel like the fantasy tag doesn’t quite encapsulate all the phenomena in Black Water Sister?

Zen: Yeah. In one sense it's broadly accurate that Black Water Sister and some of my similar work – the short stories in my collection Spirits Abroad are the main example – are categorised as fantasy. But then again, if you're writing about things people believe in as though they are true, is it really fantasy?

There is this recurring idea in the book of the 'prison of your own making' that transcends the boundaries between girl, ghost and god. In your writing process, were Jess, Ah Ma and the Black Water Sister characters that emerged from this concept, or did it settle in around them?

Zen: I almost always start with characters, world and relationships, not themes, so it's more the latter. I knew Jess and Ah Ma would be the core of the story from the beginning; the Black Water Sister emerged as a main player in the course of writing. But I also knew from the outset that Jess is a closeted lesbian, so the idea that she's holding herself back – is, in a sense, in a prison of her own making – was inherent in the character. The fact that Ah Ma and the Black Water Sister's situations reflect Jess's to some degree was a natural outcome, I suppose, of the fact that it's a book tightly focused on Jess's emotional journey. But I'm articulating something that wasn't clear at the time I was writing – at that time, I just did what felt right for the story.

Jess hides so much of herself from her family that it takes Ah Ma literally barging into her head for a relative to discover that she is queer. Upon Jess’ return to Malaysia, she realises that there is a lot that she doesn’t know about her family either. Would you say that her connection to Ah Ma is almost the cathartic antithesis to all this alienation?

Zen: One way of writing an interesting story is to come up with a character and then come up with an experience for them that is the worst possible experience they could have, tailor-made to attack them where they are most vulnerable. Jess is hiding her true self from her family and that is incredibly important to her, so to have a relative in her head – a relative from whom she cannot hide – is her worst nightmare. But yes, the flipside of that is Jess eventually gets the benefits of allowing herself to be known and vulnerable in that way – she gets a relationship with her grandmother, who accepts her as she is.

And a fun question to wrap us up! If you had to be stuck with any of the otherworldly beings that appear in Black Water Sister for a week (much like Jess got saddled with Ah Ma), who would you choose and why?

Zen: I was going to say either the Datuk Kong who tries to defend migrant workers against the Black Water Sister and later helps Jess in return for an offering of nasi dalca, or Master Yap, the kindly monk who possesses the exorcist Jess's mom and aunt take her to see. But then I remembered I can speak Malay but can't speak Hakka, so it would definitely be the Datuk Kong! It might be an unhealthy week for me, though; I suspect the Datuk Kong has a lot of food cravings he'd be keen to satisfy.

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About the Author

Photo of Zen Cho.

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.

Find Zen on her: Website | Instagram | Twitter

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About the Book

Cover image of Black Water Sister.

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.

Find it on: GoodreadsAmplifyAbbey'sBooktopia