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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Floods, Tides and Crabs: More Folktales


Yesterday, I shared a flood story from the Igorot, a mountain people from the northern Philippines. Today, I have a short flood story from the Bukidnon, an indigenous people from the southern Philippines (Mindanao). According to this story, the flood wasn’t caused by any angry or careless deity (or the deity’s sons) — but by a crab.

This is verbatim, from Mabel Cook Cole’s Philippine Folk Tales (1916).

A long time ago there was a very big crab which crawled into the sea. And when he went in he crowded the water out so that it ran all over the earth and covered all the land.

Now about one moon before this happened, a wise man had told the people that they must build a large raft. They did as he commanded and cut many large trees, until they had enough to make three layers. These they bound tightly together, and when it was done they fastened the raft with a long rattan cord to a big pole in the earth.

Soon after this the floods came. White water poured out of the hills, and the sea rose and covered even the highest mountains. The people and animals on the raft were safe, but all the others drowned.

When the waters went down and the raft was again on the ground, it was near their old home, for the rattan cord had held.

But these were the only people left on the whole earth.

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Sitting in a Vinegar Vat


I’ve been trying to write an article about the Filipino aswang (specifically the variant that’s called manananggal in Tagalog), and I can’t get started. I think my last post (about too much endless recycling of the same information on the web) gave me writer’s block. So here’s a just a little bit, to get myself started again.

The Malaysian version of the demon that separates head from body is called pananggalan, or penanggal, from the word tanggal: “to detach”. The same root word is the origin of the Tagalog term, manananggal, although most Filipino stories that I’ve read refer to the manananggal simply as an aswang. I suppose that the creature originated in Malaysian folklore, and came over to what is now the Philippines (mostly the island of Luzon, I think) along with one of the waves of Malaysian migration. Once arrived, the stories of the creature fused with some other existing ghouls/vampires/werecreatures (the aswang) that were already in the folklore of the existing Filipinos. That’s just a guess, though.

Unlike the Japanese (or Chinese?) nukekubu, it’s not just the pananggalan’s head that flies off; the intestines and entrails of the creature are still attached. The pananggalan is either a viscera-sucker or a bloodsucker; it especially likes children and fetuses. They seem to be exclusively female, and they disguise themselves as ordinary human women and live in normal society. According to Skeat, in Malay Magic: An Introduction to Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula (1900), the pananggalan keeps a jar of vinegar at its home. When its head detaches from its body, the intestines swell up, so when the head returns home, it must soak its intestines in the vinegar until they shrink enough that they will fit back inside the body, and the pananggalan can reattach itself. Eww.

Okay. That’s all stuff you can find out easily enough on the web. Here’s a little more.

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