At the beginning of Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, Jess Teoh moves back to Malaysia with her parents. The recent Harvard grad is struggling with typical post-college angst and also trying to figure out how to come out to her family (or if she should come out at all). But then the ghost of her grandmother, Ah Ma, starts talking to her, revealing that Ah Ma was a spirit medium devoted to a god called the Black Water Sister, and that she and the god intend to use Jess’ body to get revenge on a local businessman from beyond the grave.
You’re perhaps best known for your historical fantasies. What drew you to Black Water Sister’s contemporary setting?
I love historical settings, but I've also always wanted to write a novel about Malaysia, where I grew up, and the people I grew up among. Black Water Sister's protagonist, Jess, isn't me—her family and problems are different from mine—but in creating them, I drew a lot on my own life. And even though it's set in the 21st century, it's still in many ways a novel about history and how it shapes our present.
Jess is an unwilling heroine and, in some ways, an underpowered one. The feeling that she’s trapped in her fate with the god only grows as the book goes on. The idea of the reluctant hero is such an interesting one that’s been done in so many different ways. Do you have any favorites from literature?
I've been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which is an old favorite and a formative influence, and of course Frodo Baggins is a classic example of the underpowered hero who has a quest forced upon him. I think that's a big part of the lasting power of that book, this idea of small hands moving the wheels of the world. The journey from being or feeling powerless to finding your power has an immediate relatability that makes it a very compelling narrative for a storyteller to draw on.
“I'm much more interested in what is than what should be."
How do you think Jess’ life might have been different if Ah Ma hadn’t spoken to her?
The book starts with Ah Ma saying to Jess, "Does your mother know you're a pengkid?"—pengkid being a Malay slang term for tomboy or lesbian. Jess' journey brings her to the point where she can give the answer that she needs to give. If Ah Ma had never spoken to her, I like to think that Jess would someday find the courage within herself to give that answer, but it might have taken a much longer time.
This book features gods both major and minor, real and created. What drew you to writing about a “small” god (one of your own creation) instead of one of the “big” gods?
What interests me about histories and stories and places is often the specific, the local—the small, if you like. What isn’t generalizable to other places and peoples. For example, probably my favorite Malaysian gods are the Datuk Kong, local guardian spirits who are primarily worshipped by the Chinese community but who themselves may be Malay-Muslim, Orang Asal (Indigenous) or from some other ethnic background or faith tradition. If you pray to a Datuk Kong at a specific shrine, you won't necessarily find that Datuk Kong anywhere else. A helpful Datuk Kong features in the book.
I wanted the Black Water Sister to be a god that was similar in scale, a god who is very much of her time and place. I was also conscious that in writing about spirit mediumship and the Taoist pantheon, I was writing about a living faith tradition. By making up a god, I was trying to put a respectful distance between the story I invented and the actual religious practices that inspired it.
Both the god and Ah Ma are incredibly strong and often terrifying, but they’re also surprisingly weak if you know how to push them. What fascinated you about supernatural forces that are simultaneously so powerful and so weak?
The three main women in Black Water Sister—the god, Ah Ma and Jess—function as images of one another. So in the same way that Jess is weak but has strengths that neither she nor the god and Ah Ma initially suspect, the god and Ah Ma are strong but also weak in ways that Jess and the reader discover over the course of the book. Part of the reason why it's important for the god and Ah Ma to have weaknesses is that, even though they're Jess' adversaries, they're also bound to and dependent on Jess. One of the book's major themes is interdependency—what responsibility do you owe those to whom you are connected by blood or circumstance?
Some of my favorite (and more lighthearted) scenes in Black Water Sister involve Jess’ aunt and mother arguing about the efficacy of their respective religious beliefs. Where did those scenes come from, and why did you want to have your characters discuss different belief systems?
It seemed natural to me to include such discussions. There tends to be an idea of religions being mutually exclusive: If you say you're Christian or Muslim, that implies a whole worldview that excludes any belief drawing from any alternative faith tradition. But that doesn't actually match the reality in a multicultural society like Malaysia.
My aim wasn't to suggest that any one vision of the world is the correct one but to represent that diversity of belief that exists within families and communities and even individuals. As a Chinese Christian, for example, you may still revere your deceased relatives, in accordance with the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship. I suppose some people would say that is wrong, but when it comes to this sort of thing, I'm much more interested in what is than what should be.
What does your writing process look like? Has it changed at all during the pandemic?
It's changed with every book! To complete my first novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I wrote in the evenings and weekends while working full time as a corporate lawyer. I went part time after getting my book deal, so I benefited from having a couple of working days a week to devote to writing the follow-up, The True Queen. Black Water Sister is the first novel I've completed since having a baby—and that really messes with your schedule! The pandemic aggravated the "lack of time" issue, but I'm lucky to have a very supportive partner and family. I aim to write a little bit on a regular basis, so not every day, but most days. That will get you surprisingly far.
You’ve published several published books, but you still work as a lawyer. Do you find that any lessons from your work as a lawyer bleed into your writing, or vice versa?
Like many creators, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to writing. This is genuinely unhelpful. It makes you feel that the best outcome, if your work can't be perfect (and no work can ever be perfect) is for it not to exist. The single most helpful thing my legal career taught me was that the work just has to be good enough. Clients won't pay for you to spend hundreds of hours on something to make it perfect; it just has to solve whatever problem they have. Bringing that "good enough" mindset to my writing has made it possible for me to write much better stories than I otherwise could have done.
Not a moment is wasted in Black Water Sister. Was there anything that you left on the cutting room floor that you wish could have made it into the final book?
In earlier drafts of the book, Jess was aided by a retired Indian Malaysian teacher called Puan Thilaga. Puan Thilaga represented a few different things—the diversity of Penang and the syncretism of its religious traditions, but also the possibility of acceptance and reconciliation, because she had a different attitude toward queerness than the older generation of Jess’ family. I ultimately cut Puan Thilaga's chapters from the book as they weren't really pulling their weight, but I miss her.
In a recent Twitter thread you talked about your love of Tolkien and the necessity of good food writing in epic fantasy. There are also some memorable moments with food in Black Water Sister. Why do you think great fantasies often feature great food?
My favorite books tend to combine the sublime with the mundane. Fantasy is a great vehicle for that because it's capable of conveying a sense of the numinous—the inscrutable, the magical, the extraordinary—while also being attentive to the small details of everyday life, like what meals the characters are having.
Who are you reading right now? What are you most excited about in fantasy today?
We're in a real golden age of fantasy at the moment, with so many exciting voices from historically underrepresented groups being published. Shelley Parker-Chan's alternative history novel She Who Became the Sun is bound to be a huge hit. It combines drama, romance and tragedy in an epic reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of China's Ming Dynasty. I'm also really looking forward to reading Isabel Yap's debut short story collection, Never Have I Ever, which mixes magic and Filipino folklore with immigrant tales; T.L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead, an Edinburgh-set urban fantasy about a teenage speaker to the dead who draws on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to solve a mystery; Aliette de Bodard's Fireheart Tiger, a romantic fantasy brimming with political intrigue set in a precolonial Vietnamese-esque world; and the concluding installment to Fonda Lee's Green Bone Saga, an epic family drama with all the style and excitement of a Hong Kong gangster movie.
Author photo by DJ Photography.