Zain Chu, author of The Black Water Sister: NPR


Jessamyn Teoh at a crossroads: When we meet her, the central character in Zen Cho is new Sister of the black waterShe recently graduated, unemployed, and constrained by the need to support her parents, who are returning home in Malaysia after their American dream fades.

And of course, strange things can happen at a crossroads. Stuck with her family in the Malaysian capital Penang, hiding her sexuality and aimlessly searching for jobs, Jess begins to hear a voice in her head. She is ah ma, the dead, estranged grandmother you never knew.

In life, Ah Ma was a medium, host to a deity named Black Water Sister. And in life, she and her god were wronged by a local notable. Now, after death, Ah Ma has a job for Jess: recover.

At first, Blackwater’s sister was terrified Jess. But as it turns out, it is well suited to be a moderator. “Jess is an alien and queer, and they’re both a bit like being a ghost among the living or living among ghosts,” said Li Chu in an email interview.

“It is something that sets you apart from the rest of the world, which makes you come out of what is hypothetical and is treated as real. This is an interpretation outside of the book. The internal interpretation, according to the narrative logic of the book, is that Jess is the true heir to Ma – she is the only person in his family who Looks like ah what. “

Everyone seems to have expectations and assumptions about Jess – especially uh Ma, who feels qualified for real estate in her head. She does not have much power, as the story opens.

Maybe not. It can be hard to be in your early twenties, after college. You don’t quite know yourself yet and are vulnerable to hijacking by outside pressures. Jess’s external pressures take a continuous and extraordinarily intrusive form!

Language is a big part of building the world here – I loved everyone’s speech rhythms and the way I had to figure out a bunch of words from context. How did you develop the characters’ voices?

Sounds would come naturally to me once I got to the hypothesis, which is how I knew it was the right book to write it. All characters, like people I might know in real life, are only augmented for the dramatic effect. I know a lot of passionate aunties, for example, even if none of them are ghosts or involved in organized crime. Manglish (Malay English), which borrows words, phrases and grammatical structures from Malay, Chinese dialects, Tamil and possibly more, is my first language, so it was easy to write dialogue in it.

There has been some discussion in the editing stage about whether non-English words and terms that may be unfamiliar to Western audiences should be explained, translated, or annotated. I strongly felt that they shouldn’t be, not least because it was superfluous. As a kid in Malaysia, I read a lot of British and American literature where a lot of cultural knowledge was assumed and not explained, but as a reader you can learn things from context. I really don’t know what DMV is to this day, but I realized you can get your driver’s license there.

To me, Jess, Blackwater Sister and Ah Ma all felt like the Virgo, Mommy, Crohn’s trilogy, like sides of each other.

They definitely work as pictures of each other. The Black Water Sister is the goddess Ah Ma who serves her, but she was also a human once upon a time, before being deified, and as a human being she was no different from Ah Ma – a working-class woman in an intensely patriarchal society. Jess is, of course, Ah Ma’s granddaughter, and it’s downright said that she’s like Ah Ma – she’s “smart in anger” like Ah Ma and she looks like her. And since Jess inadvertently becomes the intermediary of the Black Water sister, the boundaries between her and the goddess are blurred.

Jess is also different from Ah Ma and the Black Water Sister, of course. The most important difference is that Jess was born in the modern era to parents who value her no less because she is a daughter and they believe that she should be educated, safe, and happy. As helpless as she may seem, this gives her resources that neither Ah Ma nor the Black Water Sister possesses.

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