Malaysian author Zen Cho is making waves abroad

  • Lifestyle
  • Tuesday, 31 Mar 2015

Figuring out the rules of a new world and getting used to novel names and words is part of the fun of reading SFF, says Cho. Photo: DARREN JOHNSON/iDJ Photography

The author of Spirits Abroad talks about her work, her inspirations and her ‘Malaysianness’.

When Malaysian writers make a name for themselves abroad, it is usually for meditative, literary novels, often set in a Malaysia of a different era.

Back home, meanwhile, most Malaysians seem to favour politics-centred non-fiction. None of these are likely to feature dragons, fairies, or the occasional orang bunian.

Which is why when a writer like Zen Cho comes along, it feels like a breath of fresh air.

Earlier this year, Cho became the first Malaysian to receive the William L. Crawford Fantasy Award, given to debut fantasy books by the International Association For The Fantastic In The Arts (Cho tied with author Stephanie Feldman for the honour).

Past winners of the award include Sofia Samatar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jonathan Lethem.

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

Cho’s book, Spirits Abroad, is a collection of short stories within the speculative fiction genre (which encompasses any fiction with supernatural, fantastical or futuristic elements), albeit with a distinctly Malaysian flavour – in Cho’s fiction, “vampires” live in Malaysian small towns, little old ladies in Damansara could well have mysterious powers, and local students sent abroad to study encounter beings decidedly more supernatural than “Westerners”.

Born and raised in Selangor, the 29-year-old Cho is currently settled in London, where she recently sold her first full-length novel to Pan Macmillan and Ace Books (British and American publishers respectively).

The book, Sorcerer To The Crown, is planned as the first of a trilogy, and will be published later this year.

Besides working on the second book, Cho is also currently editing Cyberpunk: Malaysia for Fixi Novo (which also published Spirits Abroad), an anthology of Malaysian cyberpunk stories.

In a recent e-mail interview, Cho shares her thoughts on her work.

How did it feel to win the William L. Crawford Fantasy Award?

I’m thrilled, obviously. It’s the first time I’ve won something for my writing since primary school!

It’s a real boost to have received such recognition from the industry, and I value it all the more for the fact that it has been awarded in the past to authors I respect hugely, like Karen Lord.

Your writing leans towards speculative fiction, or SFF (science fiction and fantasy). What first sparked your interest in the genre?

I’ve always read SFF, along with non-speculative books. But I think I like writing it in part because I spent so much of my childhood reading 19th century novels – I got a lot of reading material from the Penguin Popular Classics series, the ones with the beige covers, because they were so cheap and substantial. Jane Eyre is a lot of reading for RM5.80! I feel like those really developed my taste for alternate realities in fiction, because the world you find in those novels is so different from contemporary Malaysian life.

Figuring out the rules of a new world and getting used to novel names and words is part of the fun of reading SFF. I enjoy historical fiction as well, and I’m not the only one; a striking number of SFF writers name Georgette Heyer and Patrick O’Brian as favourites. (Cho, in fact, self-published a historical fiction book titled The Perilous Life Of Jade Yeo in 2012.)

Much of the fiction in these genres comes from a Western perspective. As a writer, is it difficult to develop a distinctive and alternative voice to this?

I think it’s hard for any Malaysian writing in English to develop their own voice, whatever genre they write in.

There are more models with literary fiction – the Tan Twan Engs and Preeta Samarasans of the world – but it’s still not a large number, and most Malaysians who write in English will have read much more fiction by Western writers than by Asian writers, much less Malaysian writers.

Without examples to follow, it is tough to work through to a voice that feels right and authentic, that fits the stories you want to tell. But in a way that is a challenge that every writer faces, whatever their background.

Spirits Abroad has been lauded for bringing a Malaysian perspective to speculative fiction. Is this something you intentionally set out to do? As a writer, how important is it for you to bring “Malaysia” into your works?

It was intentional in the sense that I wanted to write stories that felt true to my experiences and understanding of life. I think stories can be true even if they feature dragons and fairies, and stories can be hollow even if they are in a strictly realistic mode.

My truth seems to require an element of “Malaysianness” to sneak in somewhere. Even my debut novel, which is set in London and written in a very British tradition, has something of Malaysia in it; or technically Malaya, since it’s set in the 19th century.

What are your thoughts on the Malaysian publishing scene?

I can only speak to the English language scene, but I think it’s an exciting time. There are a lot of people with stories to tell, and there seems to be growing interest in hearing them.

It can be challenging to build a vital national literature that is central to society when you have a country that is split along as many axes of language and identity as ours. I am often asked in the Western SFF scene to talk about Malaysian SFF, and it always makes me uncomfortable because I don’t read or watch a lot of stuff in Malay, Chinese or any other Malaysian language, so I can’t represent those works properly. But that pluralism is also one of our strengths.

Tell us about Sorcerer To The Crown.

Sorcerer To The Crown is a fantasy novel set in London in the early 19th century. It’s about England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe, who faces prejudice as he tries to find a way to stop the decline in Britain’s magical resources.

His life gets complicated when he meets ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman, who has just stumbled upon the greatest discovery in English magic in decades. When I wrote the book, I just smooshed together all the things I liked in the 19th century novels I read growing up, and added my own twist.

It’s got hijinks, banter, witch aunties, people flying around on clouds, and dragons in ballrooms, so readers who like that sort of thing might like it. I’m super excited that the book has been picked up by Ace Books and Pan Macmillan.

Who are your favourite authors? What are you reading at the moment?

I love Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Patrick O’Brian, Edith Nesbit, Frances Hardinge, L.M. Montgomery, Amitav Ghosh, Noel Streatfeild, Kuzhali Manickavel, Karen Lord, Ann Leckie, Helen Oyeyemi ... the list goes on.

At the moment I’m alternating between a history of Calcutta by Krishna Dutta, and the diary and letters of Fanny Burney (English novelist and playwright).

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