Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0374-98-7
Zen Cho writes mainstream fiction, which most likely explains the refreshing lack of pretensions in Spirits Abroad, a collection of stories by this London-based author. There are way too many local English fiction authors who either don’t read enough or believe that they can be the next VS Naipaul if they use as many big words as possible while obfuscating the narrative with deliberate haphazard time frame cuts, ambiguous points of view, and seasick-inducing chronology jumps so that the story feels “literary”. When one is writing ghost, science-fiction, or crime stories, such pretentious gimmicks tend to make the story feel unreadable at best or the brain gas of a pretentious git at worst. On the other hand, Zen Cho’s narrative flows organically, naturally, and the end result can approach lyricism at times.
The First Witch of Damansara is the first story and it gives a pretty good taste of the things to come. Vivian fled Malaysia because she felt that her family’s witchcraft antics are an embarrassment. Well, you know how it is: she has to come home, eventually, and this time it’s for her grandmother’s funeral. Death is never that simple when a witch is involved, however. This story blends fantasy and Malaysian Chinese beliefs with regards to death and the afterlife very well, and the end result is a lovely tale all about family, tradition, and sisterhood.
In The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia, several university students organized the forum mentioned in the title, only to receive some guests and key speakers who, while technically still being minorities in Malaysia, stretch the definition of that word to an… otherworldly limit. The author chooses to introduce some gentle and sensible elements of feminism, which is refreshing in the current hilariously melodramatic and vitriolic atmosphere of Tumblr feminism, before surprising me with a tender and heartfelt romance when I least expect it to come up. Nice.
The House of Aunts is the most disappointing story in this collection, because it comes so close to being a terrific read only to fumble badly towards the end. Our heroine and her aunts are pontianaks, the Malaysian version of vampires, only these vampires feed on human flesh rather than blood. Ah Lee spends her time in high school, hoping to graduate and eventually become a respected career woman. Her family, aunts who nag at her to become a successful career woman perhaps as a form of compensation for their own suppressed dreams and desires due to their lot as a woman during their lifetime, press her on and generally being the overzealous “tiger parents” that Chinese people are stereotypically said to be. Ah Lee generally plays along, but things change when she falls for the new boy in class.
This story has many nice things to enjoy. The author gently, often with humor, has Ah Lee’s aunts bring to the table their own baggage and issues when they were wives, mothers, and sisters. It’s like a sequel to The Joy Luck Club set in a mortuary, and the realistic pain and heartaches contrast wonderfully with the cheerful ghoulish glee in the author’s depiction of these monsters’ dietary habit. Unfortunately, the story sends on a self-indulgent note, making it seem more like an incomplete story than anything else.
One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland sees a bunch of Malaysian students in an English university fighting it out with a bunch of enraged fairies. It’s a readable tale, with the whimsical elements balanced out nicely by some jarringly disturbing elements here and there.
In Rising Lion – The Lion Bows, I learn that lion dancing really does scare away evil spirits like they claimed in the past. A team of mostly Malaysian and Hong Kong Chinese shows up at a hotel to exorcise a ghost that has taken up residence in a cabinet. Things never go as planned in stories like this one, however – the ghost in question is that of a little boy, making the team go, “Hey, wait a minute, we can’t stomp the rear end of a little kid…” This one is a short and simple story, quite predictable too, but it still manages to pack a punch when it comes to showcasing some heartwarming moments. I’m starting to think that Zen Cho is a romantic at heart.
The Mystery of the Suet Swain has a pair of Malaysian friends studying in Cambridge, faced with a problem: one of them is being stalked via Facebook by a stranger who shows up at the campus out of the blue. This is another great example of how the author combines local supernatural lore with urban tropes – this potent recipe makes an otherwise somewhat average story memorable as a result.
Prudence and the Dragon is set in an alternate Earth when things are more… supernatural… and a dragon broods over London. Like most dragons, this one gets lonely and wants the natives to send over a human woman, but in this time and age, it’s not like people would sacrifice a virgin just because the dragon asks. Making things more complicated than they should be is the dragon falling for Prudence, possibly the worst person he should be attracted to because (a) she doesn’t care about woo-woo stuff so she is not awed by him, (b) she doesn’t care much for the notion of being a dragon’s girlfriend, and (c) she doesn’t care if she is breaking his heart. This is an amusing story that ends on a quaint note that I really like.
I suspect that the reason I like The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote is because it seems like a blatant satire of what happens when you try to do business with a Malaysian government officer. An earth spirit, tired of her people’s ways. moves to a forest to set up a home by the river, only to be vexed by the endless stalling by a forest spirit who doesn’t care that the inefficiency is causing the poor dear to remain homeless. Like I said, sounds a lot like dealing with the Malaysian civil service!
Liyana is basically people killing cute things out of necessity only to write mournful stories about the whole thing. This is a nicely written story, but it’s lost amidst many better stories in this collection.
Finally, The Four Generations of Chang E is about a woman who gives up everything she has to flee to the moon, away from the horrifically dystopian life on Earth, only to realize that her freedom comes with some chains. She’s now an alien among creatures who look and speak very differently from her. This story is how she, her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter react to such circumstance, as well as how each generation’s perception of the previous generation is affected by their difference from the people around them. It’s a fitting end to the collection, as, just like the first story, it’s a simple but moving exploration of the relationships women in a family may have with one another.
What I really like about Spirits Abroad is how the author successfully combined various literary ingredients to present stories that are a lovely blend of women’s fiction, chick lit, speculative fiction, and occasionally horror without skipping a beat. I also love how the author manages to seamlessly infuse her stories with local cultural elements and oh-so-Malaysian colloquialisms. The stories here are all engaging in their own charming ways, and I simply adore what Zen Cho has done here.