'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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.