Black Water Sister
May 17, 2021 9:09 AM - by Cho, Zen - Subscribe

Zen Cho's latest fantasy novel: "A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy." A closeted gay woman moves, with her mom and dad, back from the US to Malaysia, and discovers even more secrets to untangle. Suspenseful, funny, observant.
posted by brainwane (3 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ayyyyyy thanks for setting up this post! I can't wait to read it myself!
posted by cendawanita at 10:16 PM on May 17, 2021

cendawanita: Very glad to!

Cho tweeted:
My third novel, Black Water Sister, is out in the US today. It's a book about which I simultaneously feel vulnerable, because it's so personal, and secure, because it's good. I did a good job with this one.

Black Water Sister is about a young woman called Jess, who exists in that strange space between cultures that so many of us know. "Neither here neither there."

Jess moves between the spirit and mortal realms because being diaspora feels like that. Being a ghost in the world of the living, or living among ghosts. Everyone else is real except you.

Being queer is like this, too.

Much of the dialogue is in Manglish. No italics, no glossary, no footnotes. I'm lucky to get to speak to you in the language of my heart.

It's rare for Westerners to get to hear this. You don't know how many voices are smoothed over or cut out before they get to you.

I wanted a book to exist in which women are central, family is the most powerful form of magic (not always benign), emigration and even death are not an end. Also there's an odd couple, a terrible supernatural auntie, and jokes. It's very much on brand.
I also appreciated her replies in that thread, including
I was never able to really speak to my grandparents thanks to a language barrier so I write a lot of spectral elders where language etc are magically not an issue
It's a constant battle to push back against the pressure to make oneself legible to dominant culture
And here's the US National Public Radio interviewing Cho about the book.
posted by brainwane at 8:46 AM on May 18, 2021

Reminded to share my review by the book getting on the Ignyte shortlist (front page post).

If you love Zen Cho already then you should absolutely go ahead and get this one, and if you've never tried her work, go ahead and start with this one! (Excerpt to start.)

I am situated a bit similarly to this protagonist (although I was born in the States and am of South Asian descent rather than Malaysian), and I loved how familiar so many touches felt to me -- the rhythms and constraints of long stays with family, trying to find private time for private calls across time zones, Englishes where people say "why did you off the light" instead of "why did you turn off the light", and so much more that evidently translates among different Asian families. And I appreciated how this book got at the experience of coming to one's heritage country as an adult, after (previously) only experiencing it as a child, and starting to grasp how politics, real estate development, old familial dynamics, and chance decisions have shaped the people and places that one took for granted. Cho also -- like Maureen F. McHugh and Philip K. Dick -- has the skill to show us a protagonist making unwise decisions that we know, and sometimes she knows, are suboptimal (Jessamyn! Stop putting it off and reply to those text messages already!!), yet keep us rooting for her anyway. I just read Vivek Shraya's The Subtweet which manages the same balancing act.

It's been quite a ride to watch Cho work over the years and develop certain themes in greater and greater depth. She's written short fiction about contemporary queer women coming to terms with their own sexuality and finding acceptance, and contemporary (or set in the future) stories about women coping with death, the dead, the undead, etc. vis-a-vis family and sometimes diaspora. This is Cho's first contemporary novel (all her past novels and most of her novellas/novelettes have been in historical or fantasy-historical settings), and I find myself thinking about Courtney Milan's Trade Me, her first contemporary novel after a string of historicals, in which she brought to the fore aspects of her own personal experience she hadn't previously infused so directly into her fiction. Further books since then -- including her historicals -- have grown more radical, more attentive to what ground-down people need in order to break free into their own lives. It's fallaciously appealing to make 1-to-1 analogical predictions about authors' trajectories, but I do see Black Water Sister as a kind of culmination of some themes in Cho's work, and I look forward to seeing her build from there into cool new places -- always keeping her protagonists' distinct wryness and sometimes unnerving practicality.
posted by brainwane at 5:40 PM on April 18, 2022

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