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Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

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A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, Spirits Abroad collects 10 science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian flavour.
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I first knowingly ran across Zen Cho at some point during Nineworlds, and then again at LonCon, in part through discussion of how fast copies of this collection had sold in the dealers’ room. I feel a little guilty, therefore, that it has taken me this long to get around to reading it, having scored myself a copy after the cons…

Spirits Abroad is a Fixi Novo book, and that means a few things. Primarily, it will use dialect and non-English terms, it will not translate them (though it does transliterate), and it will not italicise them; that leads to a smoother, more integrated reading experience in stories that are intentionally, in many cases, cross-cultural. It also won’t be apologetic about using Malaysian culture; Zen Cho is herself Malaysian, and the stories here all draw to a greater or lesser extent on that cultural heritage, without feeling a need to justify that. It’s a rather beautiful sight.

Of course, that’s the publishing house as much as the collection specifically; Spirits Abroad is more than simply unapologetic about being Malaysian. For a start, it’s a collection of damn good stories. There are ten stories collected in the volume in three loose categories; the first, Here, comprises about half the book and is three stories set in Malaysia while the second, There, is made up of four stories set amongst the Malaysian diaspora, largely in student communities in the UK, and the last, Elsewhere, is set in places that do not in fact exist. Each rough thematic grouping is consistent in that sense and in some of the themes that come through across the stories collected under those headings, but also has a variety in their actual content; Cho’s ten stories are so varied in what they’re doing, who they focus on, and what they are interested in, even while having shared characteristics, that to try to talk about the volume as a whole is almost pointless.

Instead, let’s briefly talk about each story. The three stories that open Spirits Abroad each deal with traditional Malaysian myths interacting with or living in the modern world; first the most familiar to Western readers, the idea of the witch, in a story that is as heartwarming and funny as it is emotionally moving and sad, packing a huge amount into only a brief space and discussing family, diaspora, the changes that happen in an individual when they leave their community and the strain of trying to assimilate to another country. The second story, ‘First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia’, is one that has elements familiar to any student radical – a group brought together to try to advocate for minority rights but instead devolving into a round of nostalgia for the past, and  dominated by a forceful personality; but Cho subverts expectations by introducing a mythical minority, the orang bunian, and drawing out of this a romance across worlds, that is beautiful and incredibly human in its emotional truth. The last story of Here, and the longest of the collection, is explicitly a vampire story and yet not, being about a family of pontianak; ‘The House of Aunts’ is a coming of age story, a feminist tale that really drives home the exploitation of women by men in their personal lives, and the myriad forms such abuse can take. It is also a teenage romance, and that combination works much better than it should; the lecturing of the Aunts to our protagonist on the theme “All men are bastards” contrasts with her teenage idealism and her own experience of the world beautifully.

There is a section that has a more uniform theme running through it; each of the protagonists of the stories is a Malaysian student in the UK studying, either at school for A-Levels or at university. Each of them is also straddling two worlds, having to deal with being in the UK while also being centred in the diaspora community; this is something a that is often discussed negatively in terms of tribalism, but Spirits Abroad excellently lays out some of the reasons for it – not least of which is not having to explain yourself if you associate with people coming from a shared cultural background, an automatic privilege to “domestic” students. The stories are wildly different in tone, from the brilliant humour and anti-romance of ‘Prudence and the Dragon’ (complete with scathing caricature of Boris Johnson) to the darker, creepier and yet still at times funny ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’; Cho’s control of voice and style is really strong, and going from story to story here is a joy as we see different parts of the Malaysian student experience in Britain dissected.

Spirits Abroad closes out on its most speculative section, Elsewhere. The three stories here are radically different from the previous works in that they don’t insert the supernatural into the everyday to create their analogies, but rather are wholly speculative; from the literally ancestral homes of ‘Liyana’ to the layering of alienness/alienation, cultural and physical, between diaspora generations in the science fiction of ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’, Cho creates incredibly human worlds that seem perfectly natural in her nonhuman settings. The stories here are the warmest in the collection, in some ways, feeling almost cosy at times, and while ‘Chang E’ doesn’t quite connect for me, a white Westerner living in their nation of origin, nor is it really intended to.

Zen Cho, in Spirits Abroad, shows such a variety of different storytelling approaches, but two things are clear; she has something to say with her fiction, and she will not be stopped from saying it. And a third thing, too – you should listen to what she is saying, not only because it is important, but because she is an excellent author of fiction, too.


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