Folk horror, memory and dark traditions stir up Malaysian author's fiction debut


Kopi Soh's 'Looking After The Ashes' offers a glimpse into a Malaysian Peranakan family's past, with a folk horror backdrop for added twists. Photo: Penguin Random House SEA

Author Kopi Soh’s Looking After The Ashes might be a work of fiction, but for readers who grew up with the superstitions, old wives’ tales and stories mentioned in this book, it will feel like home.

How many times have we heard from our parents or older relatives not to clip our nails at night, to finish all the rice in your bowl lest you end up with a pockmarked face, or to not point at the moon or risk getting your ears chopped off?

Well, Kopi Soh (aka Cheah Swee Lian) still has both her ears but they have felt the wrath of whatever it was she angered, when as a kid, she pointed at the moon.

“I experimented a few times and yes, my ears almost always get cut when I point at the moon and I don’t know why!” she says.

Unsurprisingly, this has stuck with her throughout her life, alongside other gems like asking permission from the spirits before relieving yourself behind a bush or by a tree in the forest, or while swimming in the deep blue sea.

In this book, she recalls many of the taboos and superstitions she grew up with, for example the “Hantu Tek Tek” tale her father used to tell her.

“I have memories of my dad warning me that if this infamous lady with humongous breasts who lives in the longkang (drain) were to catch me, she would ask me which one I wanted, the breast with sweet milk or the other one with sour milk. He said if I made the wrong choice, she would never let me go.

Kopi Soh shared her childhood and family memories with KULit Baru, who later translated them into black and white drawings for the book. Photo: KULit Baru.Kopi Soh shared her childhood and family memories with KULit Baru, who later translated them into black and white drawings for the book. Photo: KULit Baru.

“The thing is, he never told me which was the right choice! But because of this tale, I dutifully stayed away from the drains for the longest time. For one, being offered some strange lady’s breast milk was not an appealing thing to me. And secondly, I didn’t want to be caught and never let go. I think this was sort of my father’s version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” she says.

Looking After The Ashes (published by Penguin Random House SEA) was a project that Kopi Soh had been working on for over a decade, although it was not initially meant for publication.

Apart from writing, she is also a crisis counselor and self-taught artist, who is known for her positive healing doodles.

Looking After The Ashes offers a glimpse into a Malaysian Peranakan family's past, with the dialogue and incidents not entirely fictional judging by some of Kopi Soh's inspirations. It goes beyond the Malaysian folklore, and offers real-life familial bonds retold with a “creepy” twist.

Without a deadline, these stories grew naturally as the author found her momentum. They were initially written as her personal recreation. When she was abroad and missing her family and home in George Town, Penang, Kopi Soh started putting these stories together. She was born in Kelantan and grew up in Penang.

“I was homesick a lot and in those days I didn’t have access to video calls, plane tickets were not so affordable and international phone calls were super expensive. My late father and I would communicate via Aerogram which took ages to reach. Through the years, I added more stories and it grew from writing to ease my own loneliness to sharing my childhood with my son,” she says.

Kopi Soh’s 'Looking After The Ashes' is based on the stories, taboos and superstitions she heard growing up. Illustrations were done by KULit Baru. Photo: KULit BaruKopi Soh’s 'Looking After The Ashes' is based on the stories, taboos and superstitions she heard growing up. Illustrations were done by KULit Baru. Photo: KULit Baru

In more ways than one, Looking After The Ashes is an important tale for her to tell.

“It is mainly for entertaining purposes. However, I do hope to create an awareness especially for my international readers that there is such a people as the Peranakans, a product of hybrid cultures. In the ravages of war, some Peranakan families fell into poverty and debt, forcing them to sell off many of their family heirlooms.

"During these perilous times, daughters were also hurriedly married off to non-Peranakans thus eroding our identity. Today, the future of our language and culture hangs in the balance. To ensure the continued existence of these people, I would like to tell their stories through this book,” she shares.

Looking After The Ashes is her first fiction title, which comes after the publication of two books, Oh, I Thought I Was The Only One and Oh...I Thought I Was The Only One 2, in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

The illustrations in this new book were drawn by veteran artist KULit Baru.

“For me, this book is for anyone who wishes to glimpse into a life that may be different or similar to theirs. People who have migrated away from Malaysia or who have left their homes might enjoy it because these tales remind them of home.

“People who are of a different culture may perhaps find it interesting and think about their own superstitions and cultural practices while growing up. Each family has their own practices and stories, not all families do culture the same way,” she concludes.

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