Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Zen Cho

Another contemporary addition to my Women Writers of Folklore and Fantasy series: England-based Malaysian-born author Zen Cho. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and as she puts it herself, “stories positing that what the ordinary Malaysian believes about the world is true. This can sometimes lapse into the supernatural.” What a great quote!

Zen Cho, photo by Jim C. Hines
Zen Cho
Photo by Jim C. Hines

I had been planning (and still am) to pick up Cho’s latest work, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which sounds awesome, but then I discovered an ebook copy of her 2014 short story collection Spirits Abroad in my virtual To Read pile, so I started with that. I loved it! Why did it take me so long to get to it?

I saw Ms. Cho refer to this collection on Twitter as being “10 out of 10 on the Malaysian scale” (when compared to her other writings), and it certainly feels like a collection of stories aimed at Malaysian readers. The characters speak Manglish (Malaysian-English), and generally the Malaysian vocabulary and references to clothing or food go unexplained. I personally prefer this (as I’ve written before); the meanings and connotations are clear from context, and if you are really curious about some particular article of clothing or whatnot, well there’s always the internet.

Spirits Abroad, by Zen Cho

What drew me to the collection is that the stories in Spirits Abroad are full of the creatures of Malaysian folklore (or its “lower mythology,” as Filipino folklorist Maximo D. Ramos called it), as well as figures from Chinese mythology: hantu, pontianaks, orang bunian, hungry ghosts, and so on. I didn’t recognize all the creatures, at least not under their Malaysian names, but Filipino lower mythology is sufficiently similar to Malaysian lower mythology that several of the creatures and their habits felt familiar. And of course some aspects of Malaysian culture and food and so on feel a bit “Filipino-adjacent” as well, which was nice.

I really like the humor in Cho’s writing, as her characters confront the ordinary travails of life — family relationships, friendships, love and dating, school — all complicated by various, often unwelcome supernatural twists. The dialogue crackles naturalistically, the characters are quirky, well-drawn and endearing (when they’re supposed to be), the relationships feel authentic. In fact, I was surprised how familiar the families in the stories felt to me, especially the feisty aunties and grandmas.

The ebook version of Spirits Abroad contains additional stories and other bonus material not included in the print version, so I recommend you get that. I enjoyed all the stories, but here are a few that stood out for me:

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The Booth at the End

What will you do to get what you want? What will you do, for you?

 

I found the short-lived TV series The Booth at the End on Amazon Prime some time back, and finally got around to watching. I’m so glad I did. I clicked on the first episode on a foggy Friday afternoon, meaning just to watch one, and then move on with my day. Instead, I sat curled up on the couch and binged the entire first season (5 episodes, 25 minutes each), enthralled.

A mysterious man (played by Xander Berkeley) sits at the corner booth of an all-night diner, with his notebook. Desperate people come to him with desperate desires: for their son to be cured of cancer, for their husband to be cured of Alzheimers. The Man can grant them anything they ask of him, if they strike a bargain with him. No, not anything so obvious as their soul (well, not exactly). The deal is that they must execute the task that he finds for them in his notebook, and they must come to him regularly to report on their progress, which The Man writes down in the notebook. Once the task is done, the wish is granted.

Sometimes the task is somewhat related to the wish: to see his son cured of cancer, James must kill someone else’s child. Sometimes, it seems arbitrary: in order to become prettier, Jenny must rob a bank of $101,043. And while some of the tasks are horrific, others are difficult but relatively benign.

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The Long Arm

While reading some commentaries on Pauline Hopkins’ short story “Talma Gordon”, I came upon a mention of another short story that is likely based on the Lizzie Bordon case: “The Long Arm” by Mary Wilkins Freeman. Oooh! I thought; I didn’t know she wrote crime fiction! And of course I had to go find it.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman Source: Wikimedia

The heroine of “The Long Arm” is one Miss Sarah Fairbanks, who is, like many of Wilkins’ protagonists, an unmarried schoolmarm. Sarah has a sweetheart, one whom her father objects to, for some reason. He berates Sarah loudly about her sweetheart one night during Sarah’s visit home for the summer vacation. The next morning, Sarah discovers her father’s body in his bed, murdered. Soon, Sarah is the only plausible suspect.

Like Lizzie Borden, Sarah is arrested, put on trial, and eventually acquitted–but not in the public mind. Unlike Lizzie Borden, Sarah decides to investigate the case herself, and she does a pretty good job, up to a point. Will Sarah be able to clear herself?

You can read The Long Arm at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, here.

It’s an interesting short story, and Sarah is a strong protagonist (as are the majority of Freeman’s heroines), with a highly analytical mind. Freeman wrote the story for an anthology called The Long Arm and Other Detective Stories (1895), which is available in its entirety at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, though the other three authors are men. The rest of the anthology is enjoyable as well. I particularly like “The Twinkling of an Eye” by Professor Brander Matthews.

Enjoy!

This and That, Stuff to Read

As promised, I’ve been meaning to write a post specifically about the Philippines-related articles in the October, 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine (the issue with the Pauline Hopkins’ short story “Talma Gordon” in it).

Filipino Business Woman, from Colored American Magazine, October 1900
“A Typical Filipino Business Woman”
Printed in Colored American Magazine, October 1900. It was apparently sent to the magazine from Manila by a clergyman(?) C.S., who wrote a brief (and somewhat patronizing) note entitled “Filipino Women”

But in the end, I can’t think of anything to say, except: read the articles for a view of what some contemporary Black American writers had to say about U.S. expansionist policies at the time, and about their various perspectives on the world in general. Read multiple issues from The Digital Colored American Archive, for that matter. I’ll just quote a passage that caught my eye, from the article “Negro and Filipino,” which was reprinted in the October 1900 issue from the Lewiston Journal (author unknown):

Political demagogues who cry upon the corners for liberty to the Tagalogs and the Sulus shut their eyes and ears to the disfranchisement of this people whom Lincoln freed.

Anti-imperialists who sweat blood because McKinley, in obedience to the Senate, assumes to place the flag in Manila and to defend it there, are silent over the act that Louisiana and Mississippi pass laws that admit the vote to white men who cannot read or write and deny it to black men because they cannot read or write.

The fact is, that here in this nation the very sins which they wrongfully impute to the Republican party in the Philippines, they cultivate and promote within the body politic of the states of the nation that hate the Negro and seek to relegate him to ignorance and superstition in order to perpetuate his servility and his dependence.

What else?

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Reading The Conjure-Man Dies

I recently finished reading The Conjure-Man Dies, the first and possibly only Golden Age detective novel by an African-American author

The Conjure-Man Dies
Reproduction of the original cover for The Conjure-Man Dies; also the cover for the Collins Crime Edition hardback. Artist: Charles Alston

It was sooooo good.

The plot is complex and twisty, but not overly complicated. The novel, which came out in 1932, has both aspects of a classic “murder in the library” Golden Age mystery, and of grittier, hardboiled crime fiction as well. It even has a little bit of mysticism and some supernaturalish elements — but don’t worry, there’s no “cheating:” the crime and its solution are strictly down-to-earth.

The novel’s author, Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934), was a practicing physician and medical researcher, a radiologist, and a member of that eminent group, Doctors Who Write — in such company as Arthur Conan Doyle, W. F. Harvey, David H. Keller, and probably more that I’ve forgotten about. Fisher puts his knowledge to good use in this story, which features, among other things, a nice description and use of (pre-DNA) methods of blood sample comparisons, and other clever forensic things.

As the story opens, Dr. John Archer is summoned late at night to the house across the street, where he finds the dead body of N’Gana Frimbo, a “Psychist”, or as he’s known in the neighborhood, a conjure-man. One of Frimbo’s clients discovered the body, and it soon becomes clear to Archer and Detective Perry Dart (one of only ten black detectives in Harlem) that the murderer must be one of the clients who consulted with Frimbo that evening. It doesn’t take too long to find a suspect, but then things take an odd, odd turn….

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Pauline E. Hopkins

Today’s featured author is Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930): writer, journalist, editor, poet and playwright. From approximately 1902 to 1904, she was the editor of Colored American Magazine, one of the earliest literary and cultural journals aimed at an African-American readership (“a magazine Of the Race, By the Race, For the Race“). She was also the magazine’s most prolific contributor, serializing several novels within its pages, and often writing pieces for the magazine, both fiction and non-fiction, under various pen names.

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930). Source: coloredamerican.org

I’m featuring her today for her gothic adventure-romance Of One Blood; or The Hidden Self, which was serialized over eleven issues of Colored American Magazine. However, she is also a germinal figure in one of my other favorite genres: detective fiction. Her short story “Talma Gordon,” published in the October 1900 issue of the magazine, is said to be the first published mystery by a black author [citation]. Her novel Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice is “the earliest-known African American novel to feature a black detective” (two of them, actually) [citation, but see note1 below]. I’ll talk about all three of these works (with links to read them!) in this post.

Hopkins is an important figure in Black American literature, but for a long time she was obscured by other black literary figures of her era. A 1972 Phylon article brought her back to public (or at least academic) notice. Since then, there’s been a fair bit of Hopkins scholarship. I’ll also point you to some interesting articles from that literature stream, as well.

But now, on to the stories!

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A Trip to the Virtual Attic

When the world feels like it’s falling apart around you, it feels good to solve little problems that are completely under your control. And that’s what I’ve been doing this past week. I migrated ninazumel.com away from WordPress to a more appropriate host (Github Pages); I merged the old Win-Vector sites (there were two of them, self-hosted) into a single sleek new site — ironically, now WordPress hosted. And I reconstructed a very old and neglected site, mzlabs.com, and set it up here (The address mzlabs.com should still reach it).

All this virtual housekeeping turned up some old writing of mine, and of John’s, that I think is worth revisiting again. So here’s a little (non ghost-related) reading list for you, if you are in the mood:

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The Seeds of Nero Wolfe

Before ghost stories and the uncanny, crime fiction was my genre of choice. I’ve gone back to reading a lot of mystery lately, especially Golden Age mystery, and
recently I came across an early Rex Stout story — pre Nero Wolfe. The Last Drive (1916) is an enjoyable enough story of its kind, but got more interesting when I realized that this golf-themed mystery is an early version of the central conceit in the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934). Aha!

GolfersMagazine1916cover
The first installment of The Last Drive appeared in the July 1916 issue of Golfers Magazine. Source: Hathi Trust

The Last Drive was originally published as a five-part serial in Golfers Magazine, and had been long forgotten, even by Rex Stout scholars. The story was rediscovered in 2011 by Cattelya Concepcion, then a student at George Mason University School of Law. She and her professor, Ross Davies, published their discovery in the 2012 Green Bag Almanac and Reader, an annual almanac that highlights the previous year’s exemplary legal writing.

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Superstition or Supernatural?

Two stories exploring the border between skepticism and belief. Part of my Women Writers of Folklore and Fiction series.

Two more translations! One by Juana Manuela Gorriti, and one by Emilia Pardo Bazán. This is a kind of matched pair: two stories about the tension between rational explanations and the desire to believe in the supernatural.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes The sleep of reason produces monsters No 43 from Los Caprichos Google Art Project
The sleep of reason produces monsters, Francisco Goya (1799). Source: Wikimedia

Many marvelous-seeming phenomena in the world are really quite natural; Sir Walter Scott dedicated an entire letter from his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft to debunking ghost stories of this type. One such example is the tale of the dead club president’s ghost, which has a perfectly rational explanation.

As a story, though, the supernatural explanation is far more satisfying. And that may be the case with Gorriti’s and Pardo Bazán’s stories as well.

Enjoy!


Featured Image: Mandrake. Folio 90 Folio 90 from the Naples Dioscurides (7th century). Source: Wikimedia

Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Kristine Ong Muslim

Today’s featured writer Kristine Ong Muslim is a native and resident of Maguindanao province, southern Philippines. Her uncanny fiction, poetry and translations of other Filipino writers have been widely anthologized, and her most recent book is the collection of apocalyptic short fiction, The Drone Outside (2017).

Kristine Muslim
Kristine Ong Muslim. Source

My introduction to Ong Muslim was her short story “The Pit,” in the uncanny fiction anthology Uncertainties, Vol 4 (editor Timothy J. Jarvis), from Swan River Press. It’s short, unsettling, and ambiguous. There is much for the reader to reconstruct between the lines–as is generally true of the type of fiction that shows up in the Uncertainties anthologies. It’s the kind of story that will work for some readers, and not for others. I was intrigued; I wanted to find more.

Grande uncertainties4

Ong Muslim writes on a variety of dark themes, with a mixture of horror, science fiction, weirdness, and allegory. Not all of her tales are necessarily “weird,” but there’s always at least a trace of the uncanny in her prose. In the last few years especially, much of her fiction has had a decidedly apocalyptic theme running through it, and a deep pessimism about human nature. I won’t lie; a lot of her stories are hard to read, at this time, in the present pandemic situation. But they’re beautiful.

Much of her work is available online, and here are some stories that I especially liked. This is more links than I usually share, but many of these, even the “longer” ones, are quite short. The longer pieces are in roughly chronological order.

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