Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -Hearing the voice of her dead grandmother in her head is the icing on the cake for the Malaysian millennial Jessamyn Theo.

The grandmother has returned from her death to encourage Jesse to help her resentful Chinese goddess Heishui sister, just when the American-born Malaysian Chinese Jesse and her parents moved to their hometown of Penang Island in northwestern Malaysia.

The fact that Jess was unemployed and they all depended on the generosity of relatives she barely knew did not make it easier for her to adapt to the new, more conservative Asian society—especially when she had not yet become a lesbian.

The premise of Black Water Sister is the latest novel by the award-winning London and Petaling Jaya-born writer Zen Cho, with contemporary Penang as the background, creating a mixture of fantasy and urban realism-this is a Malaysian novel. Unusual background in English, usually based on the country’s past.

“Zen Cho is a rare person-an excellent storyteller who has managed to combine Southeast Asian culture and language-especially Malaysia-with the modern 21st century focus on science fiction and fantasy,” Jonathan Stutt Rahan, the Australian award-winning sci-fi, fantasy and horror editor and publisher of Tor.com and the landmark American fantasy magazine Locus told Al Jazeera.

“Her recent novel “Blackwater Sister” may be the best example. A queer young woman and her parents returned from living in the United States, trying to be a Malaysian who grew up in San Francisco and now trying to be the world she left. It’s interesting because we see the real tension between the two cultures, dealing with the same issue in different ways, both respectful and considerate, and expressed in a very humane way.”

A world in transition

Cho worked as a lawyer while writing novels in the UK. Her work has won many awards, including the prestigious Hugo Award, and was a finalist in 2013. amazing Best New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writer Award. Her book has been translated into many languages ​​including French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

She said that her main inspiration for creating “Sister Black Water” was to study the fusion of Chinese religious traditions that she grew up with, which blended the influence of gods and Buddhism, Taoism and folk beliefs.

“When I was a child, my family moved to the United States and returned to Malaysia in a year or so. Initially we lived in Penang,” Zhao told Al Jazeera about the location of her choice. “I really like Penang; this is one of my favorite places in the world. Despite its long history, it is a very modern city, where many contradictions of modern life are exposed.

“My parents are very superstitious, so when we visited temples and worshiped, they never explained all this because they were afraid of breaking some taboos,” she said. It was not until Cho saw the work of anthropologist Jean DeBernardi (Jean DeBernardi) as an adult that she was finally able to put her childhood beliefs in the background.

“DeBernardi visited Penang in the 1980s to conduct research on popular Chinese religions and psychics. Her books, especially “The Way of the Heart” (2011), are informative and fascinating. Once I read them, I know I am Will write a novel on this subject,” Cho said.

With the rapid development of Penang as the main background, Sister Heishui inevitably has to deal with the themes of transition and change.

After being jointly included in the UNESCO World Heritage List with the southern Malaysian city of Malacca in 2008, Penang’s main city, Georgetown, began to gentrify to meet the growing demand for tourists and is ready to welcome 8 million tourists. The industry suddenly stopped on the 19th.

However, the emphasis on commercial development has damaged the same living heritage, and UNESCO first declared the city to be a “unique architectural and cultural urban landscape not found anywhere in East Asia and Southeast Asia”.

“It is almost impossible to think of Penang without considering gentrification, so this is one of the themes of this book,” said Zhao, who believes that time will inevitably change things. “Penang has a soul, but again, if traditions cannot survive, part of the reason is usually that they no longer meet the changing needs of the community. A place like Penang is not a museum; it is a place where people live, so it will change. Because people won’t stay the same.”

Three generations

Nothing better illustrates how the traditions of Penang have changed over time than the triune female character of Sister Heishui. Like a Russian doll that travels through time and space, Jess’s mind contains both her own present and the recent and older past of her grandmother and the angry goddess worshipped by her grandmother.

“One of the main themes of Sister Heishui is that who you are depends on where and when you are,” Zhao told Al Jazeera. “Jess already knew this, as an immigrant, a returnee, and a lesbian who came out. Grandma and Heishuimei illustrate this theme.”

Judging from the reader’s understanding of Grandma, her intelligence and determination are not inferior to Jayce, “but her life is completely different because she was born in an era and culture where women are not valued. Therefore, she is illiterate. She married a sadistic man when she was young, and she had to do these terrible jobs to survive,” Zhao said. The Blackwater sisters represent a worse paradigm of the times—her society’s cruelty and indifference to women killed her.

Malaysian Chinese pray at Guanyin Temple in Penang during the Lunar New Year (picture from Kit Yeng Chan)

“Jess struggles with the burden of these women’s trauma. Although they have supernatural powers, she has the resources and abilities that they lack-because as a woman in the 21st century, her parents think that her safety, happiness, and education are important. , She has privileges that the other two lack,” Cho said.

One of Jess’s privileges is to be able to accept her unconventional sexual orientation in the United States, not in the Muslim-majority and more conservative Malaysia.

In the real world, discussions earlier this year about strengthening the punishment of LGBTQ Malaysians underscored the state’s continued hostility towards anyone outside the mainstream.

At the end of June, a government working group proposed an amendment to Sharia (Islam) in response to social media posts celebrating Pride Month, so that users could become targets of alleged insults to Islam by “promoting” the LGBTQ lifestyle.

But in Zhao’s fictional world, non-traditional LGBTQ roles are the norm: she wrote in two successful historical fantasy novels in the London Regency period, “The Wizard of the Crown” (2015) and “The Real Queen” (2019) The protagonist of colored people and gays, and also in her martial arts novella “Shuiyue Qingyue Order” (2020). Wuxia is a Chinese historical novel with the theme of Wuxia adventure.

“In addition to being marginalized and vulnerable, LGBTIQ[1] Malaysians also find that they are minority,” said Joseph N. Wu, a senior lecturer in gender studies at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur and author of “Being Transgender Malaysia: Gender, Society, Body and Belief” (2020). They were spoken and endorsed. They have never been regarded as equal dialogue partners, and their stories are hardly known. Any written work about the whole, affirmation and celebration of LGBTIQ Malaysians is always welcome. “

For this peculiar choice of characters, Mr. Zhao believes that diversity is a fact of life, and the reason why certain types of people are more common in literature and media around the world is the result of power imbalances and has deep historical roots. . “But writing a story about a straight white man is not more natural than writing a straight black man or a queer Asian woman,” Cho said. “I think the publishing industry in the U.S. and U.K. is increasingly aware of the importance of inclusiveness, although there is still a long way to go.”

When asked if publishing “Blackwater Sisters” in Malaysia is more challenging, Cho said that there are few local publishers publishing English novels. “I think if I still manage to find a local publisher or publish the book on my own, then some bookstores may refuse to purchase,” Zhao told Al Jazeera.

She remembered that a large bookstore chain in Malaysia refused to sell a local anthology containing one of her short stories because it featured lesbians as the protagonist. “If the book is still popular despite this, it may attract enough mainstream attention to be censored or removed by the authorities. But when you write in English in Malaysia, you have restricted yourself to a niche audience. , So you can stay away from attention to some extent. It’s not like having a queer-friendly plot in prime-time Malay dramas,” she said.

Cho also edited an anthology of Malaysian English novels titled Cyberpunk: Malaysia (2015). He believes that the current Malaysian English writing scene is “excluded from our history” because of the influence of Malaysian writers such as Lloyd Fernando and KS Compared with the widely used international Anglo-American literature imported classics, Maniam’s early works are relatively inaccessible.

“But the scene is growing and the prospects are good,” Cho said. “I hope to see more Malaysian authors and more non-Chinese authors publishing articles internationally.”


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