Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.
“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 17
Jessamyn Teoh accompanies her parents from the US back to Penang in Malaysia, a country she barely remembers. So it’s a shock for her to hear a very opinionated voice in her head claiming to be the ghost of Ah Ma, her maternal grandmother.
First shock over, Jess discovers Ah Ma had fallen out with Jess’s mother, and it’s something to do with Ah Ma having been a medium for a powerful local deity called Black Water Sister, named from a neighbouring locale. The third shock comes when she realises that Ah Ma, now a spirit herself, wants Jess to stop Black Water Sister’s shrine being developed by a powerful gang boss.
Jess – or Min, to use her Malaysian Chinese name – is therefore placed in a very difficult position, having to balance demands from all fronts – her parents, her secret girlfriend Sharanya, her relatives, her grandmother’s ghost, the boss, his gangsters, the boss’s son, construction workers, assorted gods and ghosts including, of course, the enraged Black Water Sister herself. What’s a girl to do?
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 Jess does manage to find inner strength while developing her own mental resources); meanwhile Ah Ma becomes a kind of mentor, and there’s a sense of timelessness when current beliefs are little different from those in antiquity. Crucially, as in many fairy tales, there’s a sense of individuation coming to Jess – though in her case it includes a recognition and acceptance of being part of a multicultural society.
Yet because this novel leans so much on ghosts, possession and violence, it does veer towards supernatural horror, which isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and not usually mine either. But I think because Black Water Sister spills over into so many other areas – including humour – it can easily overcome any preconceptions one might have.
But central to Black Water Sister is “a fundamental belief in the supernatural” which, as Zen Cho tells us, “had permeated the home Jess had grown up in […] despite her Western acculturation.” Though her rational mind pooh-poohed ghosts, “part of her wasn’t a hundred percent sure.” Jess’s reason for not telling girlfriend Sharanya about being possessed is that Sharanya sees herself as a rationalist and is therefore less likely to accept Jess’s experiences as valid.
Jess’s move to Penang reveals a similar dichotomy: for example her dual identity is symbolised by Jess being her Western name and Min her Chinese name. Ditto also her sexual orientation in the US versus how she’s seen in Malaysia.
But navigating the supernatural in Malaysia with its complex mix of ethnicities including Chinese is tricky for a Western reader like me. Take for instance 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 – which seems easy to understand, though I guess the reasons they do so may vary. This is why, at the problematic construction site, the Datuk Kong is of a different order from Black Water Sister, whose presence there has come about due to major trauma. But still, the multiplicity of spirits, ghosts and gods from Penang’s different cultures makes discerning a hierarchy among the entities very difficult, if not at times almost impossible. As Jess discovers, negotiating different belief systems can be tough and fraught with feelings of alienation.
But there are also cultural expectations for her to manage. Having got her academic qualifications in the US Jess is now under pressure to get a job, especially a well-paid job (and then maybe a rich husband?). Then, because her parents feel beholden to close relatives for accommodation in Penang and for Jess’s father’s job, she feels guilty about pretending to hunt for jobs she has no interest in.
But what about the story, you may say? To be succinct: as Jess treads her path confronting dilemmas of one sort or another her story in essence emerges as the journey of the archetypal hero, which involves encountering Death in its various manifestations. Now, there supposedly are different ways to die, 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 an alley she mayn’t necessarily be referring to a physical one. This is Jess confronting who she is, or rather what she wants to be.
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 with hate, or whether they ultimately boil down to supreme indifference. Or maybe acceptance after they can no longer hurt you.
Zen Cho’s novel turned out to be more thoughtful, thought-provoking and engaging a tale than I was initially led to believe: I loved it.
This review is partly based on thoughts I expressed during an online six-way discussion for Witch Week 2022 on the theme of polychromancy; an edited version of that discussion is here, and I’m grateful to the other participants for their stimulating questions, responses and informed opinions.