Love, hate, or indifference

Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si (credit Daphne Lee)

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.
Macmillan, 2021.

“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?

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 4: The World of ‘Black Water Sister’

Ace Books edition 2021

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.)

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Everyday supernatural

Illustration by Daphne Lee

Orang Minyak; and Pontianak,
by Daphne Lee.
One-story zines privately published by the author, nd.

‘[He] could leap high. And he floated, like a shadow, on walls and on ceilings. And then when it was safe he would float down softly and he would creep, silently, like a black cat, and no one would know.’

Orang Minyak

Sex and death: the only certainties where life is concerned. When the two are bound up in our imaginations with thoughts of the supernatural they can give rise to all-pervading obsessions – such as incubi and succubi, and vampires corporeal and psychic. How powerfully such obsessions are able to magnify both our fascination and our fears!

That’s where these two short stories score. Both were first published as one-story zines and later revised, appearing in the author’s collection entitled Bright Landscapes (Laras99, 2019 and Langsuyar Press, 2021). Related in a very matter-of-fact fashion and including ordinary conversations, both nevertheless hint at things beyond the everyday.

When whispers of old beliefs impinge on modern life can they really be accounted as beyond the bounds of possibility when they’re allied with persuasive rumours, odd coincidences and personal experiences? Do they then suggest that the supernatural too is somehow also an everyday thing?

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Retellings worth rereading

Antique shadow puppet: wayang kulit from Malaysia’s neighbour, Java [credit: Invaluable.com]

Daphne Lee (editor): Malaysian Tales.
Retold & remixed
Foreword by Adèle Geras
ZI Publications, Malaysia 2011

Sixteen tales, fourteen authors, one culture, all united in demonstrating the vitality of narrative traditions from the Malay peninsula. Drawing from myth, folklore, legend and oral history, these are refurbished tales in distinctive voices with individual tones, approaches and narrative styles. A few are straightforward retellings but most spin their stories — as all creative writings do — to give them contemporary relevance, either through placing them in modern contexts or drawing out themes latent in the originals. Daphne Lee has exercised a careful editorial judgement to commission and sequence these, and each tale has a brief afterword to explain how each contributor has arrived at their choice and treatment.

And what a range of treatments we are offered. Modernised tales which bring out psychological truths about personal relationships. A fable analogous to the story of the Gingerbread Man which uses updated language, puns and twists. A legend about a vampiric raja now turned into a pitch for a teenage movie. A tale about how Singapore is saved repurposed to explain why the saviour might have been condemned to death. A curious tradition about a rock that eats a mother is given the science fiction treatment. Each tale is rooted in Malay traditions but hybridised to give startling new blooms.

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