The Outsider

Vivre au jour le jour. That has always been my motto. I do not have a plan as I never had one, and most things happen by default. I must have taken  the word ‘existentialism’ too literally.  

I have always thought that we should be free to do what we want so long as we do not harm or hurt anyone but in reality, aside from following law and order, there are always familiar and customary obligations, societal expectations and tough decisions that require you to be calculating whether you like it or not. The difficult part is how to navigate these obligations by making changes and eliminating things that are holding you back. It is never going to be easy to break away from how we have been conditioned to think and act or expected to respond due to our cultural, social and educational background. I often find myself avoiding to think about things that are unpleasant and hurting but that is not going to make them go away. It is important to pay attention to what goes on in our head without labels or judgments if we want to get to know ourselves. Thoughts happen 24/7. But if you have a quiet mind, you will see clarity in your tasks at work and whatever that happens in your life. I find that I chance upon things I am curious about or some idea or research that I need when I pay attention to what goes on in my often fragmented mind. I believe in serendipity and somehow when things fall into place, they may appear as sheer coincidences but I think it could be because you pay attention and it is your consciousness that might have drawn you to the thing at the time. I reckon, it is all a matter of intent, and we must be aware of our intent. Often they are neither good nor bad.

As a rule, I am not a fan of ghost and fantasy stories but recently when I came across an interview conducted by Tom Pepperdine with Zen Cho about her writing process interview with Tom Pepperdine, I felt compelled to check out the writer’s latest novel, Black Water Sister,

Zen Cho has cleverly spun a story about supernatural forces by weaving together the family drama involving the protagonist’s present and the ghost of the past that is essentially her mother’s estranged relationship with her grandmother and uncle. The story is about Jessamyn Teoh and her family’s shenanigans. It begins with strange dreams that she starts having before she leaves the States and returns to Penang with her mother. Jess is a Harvard graduate and presently unemployed. She is a closet gay carrying on a clandestine long-distance relationship with Sharanya who is doing a doctorate in Singapore.

Nineteen years ago, Jess and her parents moved to America when she was a toddler and now that they have lost all their money, they are returning to Malaysia. Her father has already gone ahead and started the new job his brother-in-law has arranged for him. As Jess helps her mother pack away their belongings for their return, she starts hearing voices in her head. She subsequently learns that they are voices of her maternal grandmother who passed on the year before. Jess and her mother arrive in Penang with a few weeks to go before Lunar New Year. They have been invited to stay with her Kor Kor, her dad’s sister. Before returning to Penang, Jess has imagined that Kor Kor’s house will be quiet since her children are away but she is wrong as the house is perpetually full with visiting aunts or uncles or some young relatives. Amidst all the exchange and gossips amongst her aunts and uncles, Jess has to decipher the voices in her head and find out what her Ah Ma wants from her. She learns that Ah Ma, her late grandmother was the medium for a deity known as Black Water Sister who had died a tragic death. Her grandma has unfinished business and she needs to borrow Jess’s body to make mischief and forestall some new housing developments by a business magnate who has instigated a court action with a view to demolish the temple that houses Black Water Sister and various gods. Jess ends up being drawn into the world of spirits and sorcerers . There are superstitions and all things taboos that her family and relatives do not want to talk about. Family members get spooked when someone mentions that there is some spirit that is lingering around the house. They beat about the bush by giving different names and do not utter the word ‘ ghosts’ when they mean “ghosts” because spirits somehow cause unease amongst the aunties and uncles. For Jess, though her parents are not especially pious , their approach is to leave the gods alone, in the hope the gods will return the favour. Despite her Western acculturation, part of her is not a hundred percent sure about ghosts and the supernatural forces. She is confused and needs to get rid of her grandmother who has taken over her body. She is appalled when her Kor Kor tells her that she has been waking up at 2a.m. and spoke good Hokkien, a dialect that she normally speaks haltingly, liberally mixed with English. To top it all, she has no memory of her midnight conversation with her aunt. Through her Ah Ma’s ghost, she gets to know the maternal grandmother she never had a chance to know while her grandma was alive. It is a poignant yet hilarious story.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter One.

Jess smothered the thought. Dad was only in his fifties. Asia was rising. This move to Malaysia wasn’t a failure, for Jess or her parents. It was a new beginning.

Her subconscious wasn’t convinced. In the manic run-up to the move, she started having vivid dreams about Malaysia.

At least, she assumed it was Malaysia. The dreams were permeated by overpowering sunshine, an intense glare she had never seen anywhere else. The perpetual sticky heat and vivid greenery were familiar from visits there. But nothing else was familiar.

She was almost always engaged in some mundane task—scrubbing plates, hanging up faded laundry on a clothesline, washing herself with a bucket of gaspingly cold water from a tank. Sometimes there was a baby she was responsible for. It never seemed to stop crying. She found herself staring at its scrunched-up face with stony resentment, hating it but knowing there was nothing to be done.’

Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

Her mother believes that if the moth flies into your house, you cannot chase or kill them because they are the spirit that passed on, the spirit of your ancestor.

Here is the excerpt on the conversation between mother and daughter when they come across a moth on the wall :

What’s what?” Jess followed Mom’s line of sight. There was a big brown moth on the wall, next to hte window. “Oh.”

Mom hated creepy-crawlies of all kinds, which was weird given she was the one who’d grown up in this bug-ridden climate.

Jess got up. ” I’ll get rid of it.”

No, don’t need to do,” said Mom. ” Leave it alone.

It’s fine , Mom.” Jess riffled through the desk, looking for a sheet of paper to scoop up the moth with. ” I won’t kill it. I’ll let it out of the window.”

No need. Better don’t touch,” Mom was saying when Dad poked his head around the door.

What’s the matter? Why are you all quarrelling?”

Not quarrelling lah,” said Mom.

I’m going to get rid of this moth, but Mom wants to keep it as a mascot,” said Jess.

Mom rose to the bait, predictably.” What mascot? I’m just saying, this kind of thing, don’t need to do one.

Moth? What moth ? That moth? ” said Dad, though it wasn’t like there was more than one to choose from. ” Mom is right. Better don’t kacau. Don’t need to test.

Test what ? ” Jess started to say, when it clicked.” Wait. Is this a superstition?”

As far as Jess could tell, all Chinese superstitions were about either money or death, and the ones about death were nearly impossible to learn about because talking about death was taboo. Her parents were cagey enough that this had to be a death one.

People say if the moth fly into your house, cannot chase or kill them, ” Mom said finally. ” They’re the spirit that passed on, the spirit of your ancestor.

Ah,” said Jess.

She looked at the moth. Maybe this was Ah Ma’s idea of closure.

Black Water Sister, Zen Cho

Black Water Sister is a multi-layered story filled with suspense and dramas about retribution and injustice. It reminds me of the sword fighting and fantasy movies that my parents used to take us to watch except that the novel is set in contemporary setting. Its author has also included Sunwukong , the monkey god in the story. While I did grow up watching Wuxia movies and Journey to the West, they were not my favourite genre when come to films for entertainment value.

Zen Cho has been candid in capturing the behaviour of aunties and uncles and all the various colourful characters in the story. Her vivid descriptions of the fighting and the gods do bring the scenes to life. It is not an easy feat to coin a fantasy story that mixes the mundane and subject that relates to superstitions and faiths.



2 thoughts on “The Outsider

  1. Wow! Zen Cho is like the role model for us Malaysians, especially in the SFF genre, so I’m so stoked to see you reviewing her book her. Admittedly, I haven’t gotten around to her work yet, but soon! This is what you get for being a slow reader, lol. Thanks for this!


    1. Hi Stuart There is this whole lot of books that I want to read and some books get read sooner than others, Black Water Sister happens to be one. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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