Lizzie: Hi everyone! Welcome to our Read-along Discussion of Zen Cho’s 2021 fantasy novel, Black Water Sister. Chris and I were thrilled to have so many participants this year, and we hope you’ll join with some comments of your own after you’ve read this. This has been edited down, for length and clarity, but if you’re interested in reading the full discussion (with illustrations that Daphne provided), you can find that document here.
Participants were Chris, Lizzie (Lizzie Ross, writer), Lory Hess (Entering the Enchanted Castle), Jean Leek (Howling Frog Books), Mallika Ramachandran (Literary Potpourri), and Daphne Lee (Daphne Lee). To help you keep track of who’s “speaking”, each participant has been given a different color: Lizzie (black) – Jean (green) – Lory (blue) – Chris (red) – Daphne (orange) – Mallika (purple).
Note: In the WordPress Reader contributions may appear in monochrome.)
Lizzie: The answer to this question might seem obvious, but it’s still worth considering: What marks BWS as non-western or non-European other than its setting? Is it the novel’s themes? The characters’ assumptions about their world? Something else? For example, events and circumstances that in European fantasy would stand out (such as all the spirits around the temple at the bodhi tree) don’t seem to faze the characters here. Is this just a minor tweaking of fantasy tropes? Or something specific to Malaysian fantasy? Or even more simply, is it a reference to a basic “fact” of Malaysian culture that only strikes me as unusual because I’m unfamiliar with Malaysian culture?
Lory: I think the main issue that comes up is that what is dismissed as superstition in Western culture is taken seriously in Malaysia. “A fundamental belief in the supernatural had permeated the home Jess had grown up in. Despite her Western acculturation, it was one of the things she’d absorbed passively from her upbringing, like a taste for spicy food and a familiarity with Cantopop standards. Officially she didn’t believe in ghosts, but part of her wasn’t a hundred percent sure.” (Ch. 2)
In many ways Jess has to sort out conflicting sides of herself and bring to awareness what she has repressed or hidden. The reality of ghosts and spirits serves as an avenue for accessing a part of her own nature that she’s not been able to integrate yet into her conscious personality. The compartmentalizing and truncating of our whole being in the name of progress is a hazard of Western enlightenment thought. But things can go too far the other way – Jess is now struggling with the weight of familial obligation, another powerful force in Malaysian culture, along with the ghosts who are trying to take her over to serve their own needs.
The fantasy of the book leans toward horror, with this emphasis on ghosts and possession. I don’t see much in the way of fantasy tropes, otherwise.
Chris: Oh, I think this counts as fantasy, Lory, even if we’re only judging it by western standards, as so many common fantasy tropes are here in some form or another: Jess as Chosen One, Black Water Sister as a female Dark Lord. There’s definitely a Good versus Evil vibe with Ng Chee Hin and his henchmen, and a damsel in distress (though she does find inner strength and uses her own resources). Ah Ma becomes a kind of mentor, and there’s a sense of antiquity. Yes, there’s horror, but also humour. And crucially, like many fairy tales, there’s a sense of individuation for Jess – though in her case it includes a recognition and acceptance of being part of a multicultural society, I think.
What I take from this question is this: as some of you know I spent most of the first decade of my life in Hong Kong, and moving permanently to the UK when I was ten was quite a culture shock as well as a shock to my senses and world view. So I see Jess’s move to Penang as something similar, her dual identities symbolised by Jess being her Western name and Min her Chinese name. Ditto her sexual orientation in the US versus how she’s seen in Malaysia. I knew that acceptance of spirits and other supernatural beings like dragons was endemic in Hong Kong so how could it not be in Malaysia with its complex mix of ethnicities as well as Chinese?
Daphne: @Chris You’re right about Malaysians accepting the supernatural and mythological as fact. As I’ve tried to explain (somewhere below), for most of us, the verdict is still out.
Jean: A few months ago I read Hanna Alkaf’s The Girl and the Ghost, which is also set in Malaysia. This one was a middle-grade novel, and a good deal lighter, but the setting, with spirits just hanging out in certain spots, felt just the same. So I did kind of figure that the stories just reflected a common Malaysian way of seeing the world – that spirits and gods exist and must be reckoned with if you don’t want to run into trouble.
As Lory points out, Jess finds more than one world opening up to her when she travels to her ancestral land. She discovers unknown aspects of the physical and spiritual realms, of her family, and of herself. Western focus on the material, and our tendency to be squeamish about the spiritual and consider it a private matter, are revealed as totally inadequate to deal with all there is of reality.
Daphne: It’s true that in Malaysia, people immediately assume that something supernatural is responsible for any event that can’t be immediately explained. Also, it’s often said that when two or more Malaysians are gathered, the conversation will end up being about ghosts and spirits (guilty as charged!).
The Girl and the Ghost, mentioned by @Jean above, involves a spirit (a familiar) from Malay culture, and that’s another interesting thing about Malaysia. As we are multicultural, so are our spirits. And we acknowledge them all!
Lory: I wanted to bring in another aspect of that preoccupation with spirits and gods in relation to the Western/non-Western question: In Chapter 8 there is this little exchange:
‘Where got gods care about fair or unfair one?’ said Ah Ma.
Jess didn’t see what gods were for, if not to care about fairness.
In most ages and parts of the world, it seems to me that the gods have not been expected to be fair … they just are. Do you think Jess’s opinion has something to do with her upbringing in a Western society? And how do you think it plays into her expectations and her actions in the rest of the novel?
Daphne: Yes, I think in monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, god or God is portrayed as loving and acting in a way that ultimately benefits humans. Daoism is complicated. There are deities, like Guan Yin, who are wholly benevolent, but some are human in their moods and inclinations. If you think about how Daoists burn incense etc. to gain favour, it would suggest that deities are bribable.
The problem is there is no rule book. Daoism is based on Daoist philosophy, Buddhism and various folk religions. Each community and even individual practices it with countless adaptations and variations that are influenced by their way of life, personal beliefs etc. What Ah Ma says is not necessarily the truth, nor is it wrong. It just depends on the individual deity and the accepted lore about him/her.
Mallika: I couldn’t help but see similarities with India and Hinduism here in terms of both the range of gods, and the point Daphne mentions of the various gods having human characteristics, easier to offend perhaps than please. Buddhists practice rituals to seek boons or propitiate gods for favourable outcomes for oneself. Again, the fact that it’s grown from a range of beliefs and indeed deities from a wider area rather than any top-down way perhaps impacts it.
Lizzie: This reminds me of the Greek/Roman gods, who are selfish, foolish, imperious, etc. and must always be propitiated – Ulysses spent 10 years trying to cross the Mediterranean, just because, before setting sail, he didn’t burn a bull as thanks to Zeus. And let us not forget God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son as proof of Abraham’s obedience – gods are certainly an insecure group of beings!
Mallika: @Lizzie, yes, true; I think most cases where we see an entire pantheon possibly have this phenomenon. And among the Hindu ones, there are those that don’t act fairly or commit wrongs just like the Greek/Roman ones.
Chris: This discussion of gods having human foibles is fascinating, and I think much more common across cultures and beliefs if we reframe our perceptions. For example, the Hebraic monotheisms haven’t eradicated common beliefs in saints, mystics and sinners who after death may be associated with or haunt particular objects and locations. Catholics pray to their saints to intercede on their behalf, for example, and do the kinds of rituals that are common around the world (candles instead of joss sticks etc.); Moslems may try to propitiate djinns, Jews have their superstitions about salt being effective against evil spirits. Even non-believers can have a sense of the magic laws of contagion and sympathy. This sort of links in with Lizzie’s next question.
Mallika: I thought it interesting how the belief in spirits and gods stayed strong across cultures and religions among the characters; whether it was Kor Kor who was a practising Christian but only used those beliefs to get rid of the spirits, or the Bangladeshi workers who too were propitiating the gods.
Lory: I found that interesting too.
Lizzie: A corollary question: what aspects of Jess’s life and experiences in BWS strike you as universal? I loved the irony of a Gen-Z protagonist having to move back in with her parents – a twist on the parentless main characters of many fantasy novels; Cho adds that struggle to Jess’s other “outsider” traits (lesbian, immigrant, etc.).
Mallika: @Lizzie, I agree with the universality of the ‘reverse migration’ experience that you mention here. Usually one thinks in terms of a migrant in a new country having to deal with ‘new’ cultural experiences and culture shock, but here it is in the reverse; culture shock of sorts but backwards. On a tangent, I also found it refreshing that, unlike the typical Asian parents, Jess’s parents don’t have any excessive expectations in terms of academic performance and such, so she is under less pressure in those terms even though the pressure might come in another way in keeping her gender orientation secret.
Lory: The power or influence of familial bonds may take on a different coloring or expression in each culture but I think it’s a universal experience. Certainly I could strongly relate to Jess’s conflict there, even though my ancestry is purely European. Feeling a drive to take care of needy parents is a psychological universal too, I think. Some rebel against such parents and distance themselves, while others become trapped in a kind of mental slavery, like Jess. But when parents appear unable to cope with life, the child (even an adult child) tends to want to help them and fix them – it’s a survival instinct that takes a lot of maturity to really work through, and not merely give into it or else run away.
Jean: Yes indeed. I did enjoy the way Cho writes about Jess’ relationships with her mom and dad; she thinks of her mom as very emotional and aggravating, and has to learn to see her as more of a whole person. (Is it ever possible to see your own parents as whole people?) Her mom ‘can never keep anything to herself,’ yet has kept silence about her own family for Jess’s entire life. Mom is very dependent on Jess’s presence and emotional support, and wants Jess to be dependent on her too. We almost never see the parents functioning as a couple; Mom confides her fears to Jess, who absorbs them and then has to realize that Dad is really doing very well. I liked Jess’s relationship with her dad, which is much less tightly wound.
Mallika: Her mom I think is also impacted by having had to escape her family, and the life and beliefs associated with them; trying for years to close her eyes to all that plus cope with the challenges that the new place and life (the United States) brought, only to have it destroyed and having to start again would have certainly taken its toll. Of course, this partially applies to Jess’s dad too, but he seems to be able to take things in his stride better.
Lory: From the comments above I’m realizing that part of Jess’s journey involves realizing that her parents may not be as needy as she thinks they are. It’s part of the “prison of her own making” that she oversimplifies how she sees them, and part of her extended growing-up process that she learns to have a more complex view. The spirits play a role in catalyzing this process, as they bring in another dimension and call up layers of the past that Jess never knew about.
Mallika: Another aspect that strikes me as to the family relationship (perhaps as viewed from an Asian perspective) would be that one wouldn’t really typically think in terms of whether one’s parents are ‘needy’ or otherwise, but if a situation like they were in came up, even if there is no express or even underlying expectation from their side, one would kind of need to be there for them as Jess was, putting her own life to the side somewhat. (I don’t know if I’m getting across the point that I want to, but it’s something on the lines of considering things in family terms rather than as individuals).
HEROES and VILLAINS
Lizzie: I like how Cho plays with the roles of HERO and VILLAIN, with characters (especially Ah Ma) shifting between the two. But I was also confused by Jess’s ability to easily adjust her relationships with Ah Ma and others, depending on which role they’d taken. Her openness to Ah Ma, in particular, struck me as odd, after Ah Ma’s attempt to murder Zherng.
Daphne: I do think that it’s a very Asian (East Asian?) thing to regard people as ambivalent. Authority figures can be especially so, especially those of Ah Ma’s generation. I remember regarding my paternal grandmother as both awful and awesome.
Lory: I think that Jess comes to understand the bind that Ah Ma, and also Black Water Sister, are trapped in, and realizes she is in some ways akin to them. She feels the potential for violence in herself, but in the end she chooses a different way. She feels caught between her different cultures and identities, “neither/nor,” and this at first makes her “a walking nothing – a hole in the universe” that the spirits can use, but then it also gives her the possibility of freedom, of changing old patterns. This took the story beyond a simple battle of good people against evil spirits, which I always find terribly boring. It made it much more rich and complex, I thought.
Jean: I really liked the way that Cho brings out how awful life could (can) be for women, especially when chained to a violent man. The absolute fury of a person who has been powerless and abused her whole life is, I think, beautifully portrayed. And yet, Black Water Sister also loved her rotten husband; that’s in there too. Jess, with her easy modern life, isn’t even able to comprehend how bad it was for Ah Ma and the girl who became BWS.
Mallika: I think in that sense, Cho manages to keep the characters real; no one is all good or all bad even among the spirits; Ah Ma shows both sides, as does Black Water Sister, as Jean said, and both have perhaps been hardened or have turned to violence because of the betrayal and violence they experienced in their lives. Again, Ah Ku is involved in some shady things, but that reflects both Ah Ma’s manipulation and the life Ah Ku has lived. In that sense, perhaps Dato Ng is the one person who qualifies as a villain proper.
Lory: Understanding what is behind someone’s behavior is important and can often mitigate what initially just seems scary or off-putting. That said, sometimes people do end up making choices that can’t be justified. There’s a whole range of possibilities explored in the book.
GODS and GHOSTS
Daphne: I am eager to know what everyone makes of the Datuk Kong, which is the subject of a side research project of mine. This deity is particular to the Malay Archipelago, especially Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Chris: Ah Ma’s definition of a Malay Datuk Kong as “a spirit who jaga the area” – that is a guardian spirit, one who watches over a location or locale – seems easy to understand, @Daphne, though I guess the reasons they do so may vary. Is this why at the construction site the Datuk Kong is of a different order from Black Water Sister, whose presence there has come about due to major trauma? The multiplicity of spirits, ghosts and gods from Penang’s different cultures makes discerning a hierarchy among the entities very difficult, if not impossible.
Daphne: Daoist/Chinese folk religion is practical and adaptable. Humans are deified as and when necessary. Both the Datuk who Jesse meets and BWS are worshipped by the Daoists (and any Malaysian who chooses to, really), but the reasons they have come to be are very different. Also, these deities don’t just exist in Penang, but throughout Malaysia (peninsula as well as Borneo). And as far as hierarchy goes, the Jade Emperor/King of Heaven, and the Earth God, as well as Deities like Tua Pek Kong and Mazu, would definitely take precedence over the various Datuk Gong and a deity like BWS.
By the way, when I first heard about it, the title of the book seemed sinister. And then, when I found out what the setting was, I realised that Black Water is English for a Penang island suburb called Air Itam (Air, pronounced Ah-yer, means water; Itam, from Hitam, pronounced Hee-tahm, means black). Air Itam sounds the opposite of sinister and menacing to me. Interesting how scary it is in English!
Lizzie: To me, “black water” is dark water, with things hidden. But as I think about hidden things, then there’s much in this story that is hidden from Jess until she digs and others speak up. Thanks, Daphne, for that connection!
Daphne: The suburb is where you’ll find a gorgeous Buddhist temple (Kek Lok Si) and Suffolk House, the home of Francis Light, the English man who persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang to the British as a trading post.
Lory: That is interesting about the different connotations of Black Water / Air Itam. One reason why translation is so tricky.
I appreciated the inclusion of several different types of spirits and gods, including the Datuk Kong and the Monkey King. It was another thing that made the book more multi-dimensional. The Datuk Kong was a particularly good contrast to the Black Water Sister, he helped to lighten up the mood a bit!
Jean: I also liked the many gods and spirits, with Monkey King so high up and powerful that he can barely hear them, and Datuk Kong being more homely and comfortable. Black Water definitely sounds sinister – at best a dangerous lake. I like how Cho plays on that in the story; Jess thinks it sounds really sinister too, until she figures out that it’s just a straightforward translation of the name of the place. Eventually it plays into her realization that the Black Water Sister is a person.
QUOTES FROM THE BOOK TO SPARK DISCUSSION
Lory: Ok, here is something – Two quotes from Chapter 22:
“You can kill, or you can die.”
“Either way—whether she offered herself up to the god in exchange for salvation, or whether she let the men take her, alone, into the darkness of the alley—she was going toward a death. Jess didn’t know how much of herself would survive the process, what of her would come out the other side.
But you had to die before you could be reborn.”
Thoughts on this theme of death and rebirth?
Chris: There supposedly are different ways to die, @Lory, aren’t there: religions of all kinds talk about spiritual rebirth (which implies the cessation of a previous life or, rather, way of life). And of course Harry Potter is famously cursed to death but returns to life. So, when Jess thinks about “a death” in that alley she mayn’t necessarily be referring to a physical one.
Related to this death-life theme there is another one that comes out strongly, it seems to me – love-hate. Ah Ma, Black Water Sister and Jess to some extent have to solve this conundrum, of whether the intense feelings you have for someone else are to do with love, or hate, or ultimately boil down to supreme indifference. Or maybe acceptance after they can no longer hurt you.
Lory: Defining, naming, and in that way mastering intense emotions is a really important process for which Jess’s adventures with the spirits can in a way be seen as a metaphor. And one might also see in that two kinds of death: the extinguishing of the self when those intense feelings become too powerful and unmanageable, and the life-giving death that one passes through by accepting those feelings as they are, yet activating the “witness” that is free from them. Thanks for adding in that theme, Chris, it helps.
Chris: Another quote: “She wasn’t Malaysian or American. Just as she wasn’t straight but she definitely wasn’t gay, if anyone was asking. She wasn’t her family’s Min, but she wasn’t the Jess who’d had a life under that name, before her dad had gotten sick. […] She was a walking nothing—a hole in the universe, perfect for letting the dead through.” [Chapter Seventeen]
Lory: I highlighted this quote too. I think through the course of the book, Jess’s struggles with the spirits and their demands upon her actually help her to become more aware of her own inner attitudes and assumptions, and how they are driving her in directions she doesn’t necessarily really want to go. She has to know herself better and define who she wants to be, so as not to be merely a “walking nothing”. But her ordinary life in the sense world had not provided enough incentive for that; she needed a greater stimulus to push her out of her mental habits.
In order to get to a place of greater truth and integrity, she has to face this inner nothingness. That is in a sense the “death” she has to go through, a death that means seeing what she has made of herself, without letting it extinguish her. And from that arises the possibility of new life, but only if one really experiences the threat of annihilation.
Mallika: This discussion about the need to ‘die’ to be born afresh reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where in one thread we have Teshoo Lama who is looking for the ‘River of the Arrow’ or the source of enlightenment, and he too eventually must go through this experience of ‘dying’ as it were to obtain enlightenment. The ‘death’ here as you say is perhaps the only way to get to truth: for some a larger truth, for others like Jess here perhaps truth about herself and what surrounds her which gives her the tools to start afresh.
Mallika: In contrast with the cultural aspects and the story itself which seemed to stand out more to me on my first reading, identity and the insider/outsider aspects were also prominent. For immigrants or anyone navigating different worlds, it isn’t only what one might see as ‘culture shock’ or differences that are relevant but also questions of belonging, having something or not having something that one can call one’s own. Also, navigating different worlds makes us present ourselves as different people or in fact even makes us different people in each, so where does one locate the real us in that, or is it that, like Jess/Min, one is a whole?
Chris: Negotiating different cultures can be tough and fraught with feelings of alienation, I think. Speaking personally, I found it tricky moving from Hong Kong to Britain before I hit my teens, when even the subtleties of language seemed to change; then there was the misalignment of my adopting British attitudes when in the company of Anglo-Indian relatives and others who hadn’t adapted in the same way, having escaped the traumas of Partition. I’m sure the novel must also reflect some of Zen Cho’s own experiences, though unlike her protagonist she’d moved from Malaysia to the UK instead of from the US to Penang.
Lory: I’m really glad this turned out to be the discussion pick. I didn’t have very high expectations because I didn’t love Sorcerer to the Crown, but I much preferred Zen Cho’s writing about a contemporary setting and I loved the glimpse into a culture I knew almost nothing about. I also could feel so much for Jess’s dilemma and relate it to many aspects of my own life and family, even though in many ways we’re so different – those questions of belonging and individuation that seem to be human universals.
Daphne: I’ve enjoyed reading everything here. I enjoyed Black Water Sister which, IMO, doesn’t come off as being written for a Western audience. Jess’s struggle to reconcile her Western and Malaysian (really, Malaysian-Chinese) selves was relatable, even more so (for me) because her Chinese identity barely existed, but she felt obliged to acknowledge it, or was made to feel that it should be the main thing about herself. I appreciated the fact that this story featured Daoism as practised by the Malaysian Chinese. It made this book more Malaysian to me and I wondered how it would come across to someone who wasn’t Malaysian Chinese. I guess details like the Datuk Kong make the book culturally specific, but themes like grief, cultural identity and mortality are so universal that the book is capable of speaking to any reader, no matter their ethnicity or nationality.
Lizzie and Chris: “Many thanks to all the participants, especially to Witch Week newcomers, Mallika and Daphne. Jean’s review of Hanna Alkaf’s The Girl and the Ghost is here.”