Queer Asian Reads: Spirits unleashed in Zen Cho’s fantasy masterpiece

A watercolor painting of a pale snake over a black sky with white clouds. A crescent moon is in the sky to the left of the snake, and a full moon is in the sky to the right of the snake.

(Andrea Zheng • The Student Life)

During one Lunar New Year celebration, my friends and I almost set a tree on fire. 

That night, after eating together and reflecting on our wishes for the new year, we decided to release paper lanterns. By that time, it was late — past midnight. Had we not been so tired, perhaps we would have considered that releasing these lanterns with their open flames near a stand of trees might not have been the best idea. 

We all watched with awe that quickly turned to horror as the first flickering paper lantern rose and then slowly drifted into the waiting branches of the nearest tree. By some New Year miracle, the fire did not spread to the leaves, and we watched the lantern burn out with our hearts in our throats. 

The next day, when I told my father, I thought he’d laugh. Or be concerned for my safety (which he was). But the very first thing he said was, “Don’t you kids know that you’re supposed to release the lanterns on the fifteenth day of the new year and not the first? Ay, you don’t know what you’re doing — this is how traditions change.” 

His words strike at the heart of a dilemma I face as a child of the Chinese diaspora. How do I engage with “traditions” when my home is an ocean or more away from their source? 

These questions illuminate why I loved reading Zen Cho’s 2021 short story collection “Spirits Abroad” so much. Cho is a Malaysian writer of Chinese descent who grew up in Malaysia before moving to the UK for college, where she currently lives and works as a lawyer — her time management skills are impressive. 

First released in Malaysia in 2014, the updated “Spirits Abroad” includes nine new stories. All of the stories involve some element of fantasy or sci-fi, but what makes Cho’s work distinct is that she pulls from Malaysian and Chinese myths to re-imagine their fantastical creatures and gods spilling out into the modern day. 

The stories in the book are organized into three sections, “Here,” “There” and “Elsewhere,” referring respectively to Malaysia, England and an in-between spirit world. 

In each story, Cho asks: “What if?” What if a woman’s past self literally follows her around until she makes peace with her queerness — “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life”? What if a lion dance troupe actually helped people get rid of ghosts, as in “起狮–行礼 (Rising Lion—The Lion Bows)”? 

Or what dramatic, rom-com-esque twists would occur if an orang bunian, an invisible figure from Malaysian folktales that lives in the forest, shows up to a political forum to convince his long lost love, an elderly Malaysian woman, to return to the forest with him — “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia”?

These questions create stories with fascinating juxtapositions and sparkling wit. But behind each “what if?”, the real question Cho is asking is about how traditions and myths meld and change as the world around us changes. How do I reconcile my family’s histories “there” with my life “here”?

Cho’s answer, it seems, is to weave Chinese, Malaysian and English into a beautiful mixture—and in doing so, she challenges the assumed whiteness of fantasy. 

Cho writes most of her dialogue using Malaysian English, or Manglish, a term she’s always liked because, as she said in an interview with Locus Magazine, “it sounds like ‘mangled English.’” 

For example, in “Balik Kampung,” a hungry ghost named Lydia returns to the living world during Chinese New Year to figure out how she died. She gets stuck in a traffic jam of souls leaving the netherworld and listens to another spirit discuss their plans once they get out. 

“‘No lah, I’m not gonna do all this possessing stuff. Die already, no point holding grudges. I’m gonna go home, see how my relatives are doing, smell my ah ma’s rendang,’” the spirit says. 

Or, another especially poignant line comes when Lydia remembers her father arguing with her mother about paying full price for something. Her fathers asks, “‘What for heart-pain over a small thing like that?’” 

This “mangled” English of Cho’s pushes back on the assumptions of how to write “good” English, and opens up a space of creative possibility for writers who feel stifled by expectations of “proper” (i.e. white, upper-middle class) English. 

Cho’s multiple influences also show up in her choice to write fantasy. She cites “great British fantasists like…Edith Nesbit” as major influences in her work. However, in an essay cheekily titled “Writing My Culture For Fun and Profit,” she explained that “to write using local myths and beliefs is a form of accessing a deep truth,” a truth which she feels she couldn’t articulate if she only wrote about white people in Western settings. 

Cho’s writing is not about fulfilling a liberal fantasy of multiculturalism — as in, “Look! So many diverse cultures! Yay!” Rather, what is so special about her stories is the way that they challenge language and genre; Cho treats “tradition” not as a stiff box, but as fertile soil for new forms of writing to bloom. 

Hopefully, soon I can plant some flowers of my own. 

Reia Li PO ’24 discovered when she was ten that it was possible to read too much because she found herself narrating her life in her head like she was a character in a novel. 

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