Hello everybody and we have Most Excellent news to share! Zen Cho – author of SORCERER TO THE CROWN, THE TRUE QUEEN and more recently, THE ORDER OF THE PURE MOON REFLECTED IN WATER – has a new book coming out in May next year and we have the full scoop, with the author herself telling us allll about BLACK WATER SISTER.
Ah Ma may be dead, but she’s not done with life yet . . .
When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s abandoning America with her parents, bound for Malaysia – a country she left as a toddler.
She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now Ah Ma’s mission is to deal with a gang boss who offended her goddess, and she’s decided Jess will help her – whether she wants to or not.
Drawn into a world of gods and ghosts, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good. And all the while, she has to stop her dead grandmother from spying on her personal life, spilling her secrets to her family and using her body to commit felonies. Suddenly, finding a job seems the least of her worries . . .
One of the standard questions you get when you’ve written is a book is: “What was your inspiration for writing it?”
I always find it hard to answer. A short story or a novella may come to me in a flash of inspiration, birthed by a single image or memory or sensation. But a novel is made up of any number of things, absorbs energy from any form of stimulation you feed your brain while you’re working on it. Here are some answers for BLACK WATER SISTER:
- When I was a child and living in the US (it was only for a short time), I drew a picture that made my mother say to herself, “If we stay, the children are going to get a complex.”
So we went home – that is to say, back to Malaysia. Some of this book is about what it might have been like if we had stayed a little longer.
- If home is the place where nobody can tell you “go back to where you came from”, though, Malaysia isn’t our home. That’s probably China, where a grandparent and some great-grandparents came from. They, and the other Chinese migrants who came south to settle in Malaya, brought their gods and ghosts with them.
- I always figured my family was not religious because we never talked about that stuff when I was growing up, beyond the occasional order “not to shout at the wind or the thunder god will punish you”, or the explanation that we had sweet sticky niangao at Lunar New Year to feed the Kitchen God, so as to gum up his mouth when he went to give his report on the household to the Jade Emperor.
When I got older, I realised that we never talked about that stuff because my family really believed. You don’t simply mouth off about gods and spirits. Someone might hear you.
- Some years ago I picked up a book in Malaysia – an academic text, published by a university press. On the cover was a grainy photo of a Datuk Kong altar under a tree, with lit incense laid out as an offering. The book was called The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia, by Jean DeBernardi, an anthropologist. It was about all the things my family hadn’t talked about. Once I read it, I realised I was going to write a story inspired by it.
- (Datuk Kong are really cool. Here’s an article about them.)
- I’m interested in the things that we don’t talk about because they’re dangerous – to ourselves; to our conception of the people we’re supposed to be; to our ideas of how the world should work.
- Black Water Sister is about the things families don’t talk about. Unhappy histories. Buried scandals. What people did that they shouldn’t have done. The push and pull of love and dependency and wanting to be free. Being someone who doesn’t fit what your family wants of you. Queerness. Gods and ghosts.
- It’s also about Penang, one of my favourite places in the world, and about hipster cafes, and gentrification, and being a stranger where you should belong.
- And – consistent with almost everything I’ve written – it’s about dealing with strong-minded aunties who have forcefully clear ideas about how you should lead your life. Not that I have direct personal experience of that or anything, cough.
It’s the most personal novel I’ve written yet. It may be my best. It’s funny and sad and strange. I really hope readers connect with it. You can pre-order it now at the links below.
Publisher page for Black Water Sister
Publisher page for Black Water Sister
Book Depository (free shipping worldwide)