Breaking new ground
These stories refreshingly reimagine the idea of home and tradition and family without offering tidy or pat resolutions.
What happens when magic, myth, horror and the banal everyday reality of ordinary life collide? You get something like Spirits Abroad, which is a collection of 10 short stories by Malaysian writer Zen Cho who currently resides in London.
This collection is published by local indie outfit Buku Fixi under the Fixi Novo imprint, known for its bestselling KL Noir series and pulp novels and thrillers, in both English and Malay.
The stories in Spirits Abroad succeed in both interrogating the premise of speculative fiction and Malaysiana by combining the two in unique, charming, and often deeply moving ways.
I first read Cho when I encountered her short story in the Fixi Novo anthology Love In Penang (2013). Most anthologies tend to be uneven in quality, themes, and scope, but Cho’s story stood out for being simply and plainly told but with a force deriving from a wellspring of deep emotion, of a commitment to good will and love in human relationships. It might be the case that stories like this are rare because it takes some amount of labour and talent to make happy stories interesting, to eschew the sentimentality while conveying the sentiment. Cho strikes me as someone who actually believes that people will bring out the best in each other if given a chance, and this comes off as an essential trait in most of her characters as well.
Spirits Abroad is organised into three parts, thematically aligning with a geographical location – “Here” has stories set in Malaysia; “There”, set in Britain; and “Elsewhere”, set in a realm that’s neither earthly nor stable, although they mirror places that are familiar.
Central to Cho’s work is the idea of family ties and their attendant joys and deeply-conflicting burdens. In the “First Witch Of Damansara” for example, Vivian, a Malaysian-Chinese living abroad, returns home after her grandmother, a witch, has died. Cho deftly captures how physical distance works as spiritual distance too, or as an emotional buffer. If Vivian wanted to leave behind the complexities that arose from having a magical family and the emotional toll of having “embarrassing relatives”, then Cho shows us how “the fiancee, the ordinary hobbies and the sensible office job” were “enchantments of her own”, spells woven out of capitalist ethos and rationalism, meant to guarantee a fairly straightforward, ordinary life.
Cho’s characters love each other but don’t convey it in digestible, sentimental ways commodified in popular forms of Western film and literature; they’re Malaysian-Chinese and they love in their own ways. In this manner Cho doesn’t ignore the stereotypes of Asians, or even stereotypes of Chinese people held by Malaysians themselves – but punctures them, inhabits them, and renders the stereotypes meaningless and ineffective. More importantly, the stories are committed to showing how people are always more complicated, more interesting, more surprising, than the facade they go to great lengths to present to the world.
Two of the best stories in the book, “First National Forum On The Position Of Minorities In Malaysia” and “The House Of Aunts”, are also part of the “Here” segment. Perhaps that reveals my bias; but can anything be more perfect than “First National Forum”, with its sly and loving nod to the NGO-ificiation of political discourse and activism in Malaysia, and the unexpected, insistent, and defiant appearance of minorities never before identified as such? No, I think not.
Lest educated, sufficiently well-provided for minorities of the middle and upper classes become too complacent in their position – if they’re a little too happy and smug about being minorities because it allows them a way to be endlessly wronged, and thus never the perpetuators of injustice – then Cho’s story is a clever way of showing what happens when the subaltern decides to speak. And people are forced to listen. It seems like magic, but it relies on ordinary methods: speech, listening, empathy.
“The House Of Aunts”, meanwhile, explores Chinese-Malaysian vampirism minus the romanticism – “Ah Lee and her aunts were clearly the wrong sort of people for the ruffled shirt and velvet jacket style of vampirism,” Cho writes, tongue firmly in cheek – and it presented one of the more moving reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Not because of the romance of it but because of the decidedly unromantic familial ties. No matter how invasive or downright impolite aunts can be, they seem to be ones who stick around for a lost young girl when things go pear-shaped. The story is, in its way, a love letter to Asian aunts.
“There” has its own share of strong stories. If fairies and dragons don’t seem very local, rest assured that in Cho’s world, like in “The Mystery Of The Suet Swain”, authentic Malaysian ghosts are also able to take advantage of Air Asia’s affordable prices and show up in Britain; now every creature can fly.
“Prudence And The Dragon” in this section is a joy, with the melancholy, witty, elegantly-dressed dragon reminding me somewhat of Diana Wynne-Jones’ Howl. The story’s intelligence, warmth and charm and its determinedly unfeminine and practical heroine is reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle and I say that because I cannot think of a higher compliment.
The stories in “Elsewhere” are the most experimental thematically and perhaps for this reason, contain two of the most uneven stories in the book. “The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote”, for example, manages to use Manglish in an effortless way, rendering two unnamed characters like the forest spirit and the earth spirit distinct but familiar (one wonders if Cho was also commenting on race relations in Malaysia). Having said that, the story is somewhat diluted because the world of the spirits mirrors exactly the neoliberal and uneasy actual Malaysian society, and one is somewhat disappointed to learn that even the spirits seem caught up with issues of identity policing and rentier capitalism.
The second story in this section, “Liyana”, is melancholy, different in tone from “The Earth Spirit” and explicitly feminist; it’s not that Cho’s other stories aren’t, but there’s usually room in the others for some form of male presence that provides a way out of stereotypical heterosexual relations. “Liyana” is a sad story, one of absent, careless men and women labouring to maintain a dignified form of existence not just in the present, but also as a means of rectifying the splintered fragments of history.
The final story in the collection, “The Four Generations of Chang E”, uses interplanetary migration in a future dystopia to think about the alienation that lives on through generations of families when people from the “developing nations” move to the global north. In this story, the moon represents the West. Cho’s ability to accurately sum up third world despair, and to do it with a sense of humour and an appreciation for the absurd, is well on display here: “On the moon Chang E floated free, untrammelled by the Earth’s ponderous gravity, untroubled by that sticky thing called family. The story’s gift is in undermining the conventional narrative – that with each new generation born in the new place, there will arise some new form of understanding or enlightenment that will bring one back “home”, closer to one’s “roots”– but it does so gently, not with smugness or condescension, but with kindness, perhaps from the position of someone who once was (or is) similarly unmoored.
In this way, the stories in Spirits Abroad reimagines the idea of home and tradition and family without offering tidy or pat resolutions. Like fourth-generation Chang E, perhaps it is necessary to deal with the fact that “the narrative breaks”, to realise that the old stories alone cannot be recycled for eternity, and to learn how to imagine anew. Spirits Abroad is one such example, and it’s all the more exquisite for offering the rare pleasures of escapism, too.