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:

The First Witch of Damansara: Vivian (Wei Lin) lives abroad, is fairly Westernized, and utterly lacks the capacity for magic that supposedly runs in the rest of her family. When she comes home for her grandmother’s funeral, she discovers…complications.

My family and I are nothing like Vivian and her family. And yet, this story is us.

The House of Aunts: My favorite piece in the collection. Ah Lee is sixteen and has a massive crush on the new boy in her class. She’s also a pontianak (she prefers “vampire”) who lives with her six aunties and grandmas, pontianaks all. Can a viscera-eating undead girl find romance with a halal-keeping human boy? Also, line-dancing undead. I love this story!

Rising Lion – The Lion Bows: The Christminster University Lion Dance Troupe performs lion dances at community and private events, as you would expect. They also have a side gig: hunting and exterminating ghosts.

Really enjoyed this, and I wouldn’t mind at all if Cho wrote more stories about this ghostbusting, lion dancing team, though I doubt she will. The ebook includes a bonus story about the founder of the troupe.

The Mystery of the Suet Swain: According to the author’s notes (an ebook bonus), this story started as a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, and you can still see traces of that in Sham’s character. It transformed into something quite different, and also quite good.

Prudence and the Dragon: Every 200 years or so a dragon arrives in London to obtain a maiden (nowadays with her consent, of course). This year’s arrival has his eye on the resolutely unglamorous and quite comfortable in her skin Prudence. If she’ll have him. Super fun, and funny, too.

The Earth’s Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote: Earth spirits, tree spirits and toyol (undead babies). This one reminded me of anecdotes that my mother and uncle passed down to me from their aunties. In terms of the folklore, that is, not the story itself, which is also delightful.

The Four Generations of Chang E: In Chinese mythology, Chang’e is the moon goddess. Here, the first Chang E is a Terran immigrant to the Moon, whose natives are not human. Thoughtful tale about immigration, diaspora, and the fluid definition of “home.”

Balik Kampung [Return to the Village] (ebook bonus): Lydia is dead, and returns to Earth for the Hungry Ghost Festival. All she wants is to go home and see her beloved husband again.

Interesting twist, and some lovely descriptions of Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations, Malaysian style; I got the munchies reading it.

You can find a few of these stories, and others, on the author’s short fiction page. Check them out, and check out this collection, too! I really enjoyed it, and plan to grab more of her work for my ever growing pile of things to read.


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