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Questions For Zen Cho, Author Of 'Black Water Sister'


Jessamyn Teoh is at a crossroads: When we meet her, the central character in Zen Cho's new Black Water Sister, she's newly graduated, unemployed, and bound by a need to support her parents, who moved back their home in Malaysia after their American dream turned sour.

And of course, strange things can happen at a crossroads. Stuck living with her family in the city of Penang, hiding her sexuality and aimlessly hunting for jobs, Jess starts to hear a voice in her head. It's Ah Ma, the dead, estranged grandmother she never knew.

In life, Ah Ma was a medium, the host of a god named Black Water Sister. And in life, she and her god were wronged by a local bigwig. So now, after death, Ah Ma has a job for Jess: Get even.

At first Jess is terrified by Black Water Sister. But as it turns out, she's pretty well suited to being a medium. "Jess is diaspora and queer, and both those things are a bit like being a ghost among the living, or living among ghosts," Cho tells me in an email interview.

"It's something that sets you apart from the rest of the world, carving you out from what's default and treated as real. That's an explanation that's external to the book. The internal explanation, according to the narrative logic of the book, is that Jess is Ah Ma's true heir — she's the one person in their family who is most like Ah Ma."

Seems like everyone has expectations and assumptions about Jess — especially Ah Ma, who just feels casually entitled to the real estate in her head. She doesn't have a lot of power, as the story opens.

Perhaps not. Being in your early 20s, just out of college, can be a hard place to be. You don't fully know yourself yet and you're vulnerable to being hijacked by external pressures. Jess's external pressures just take an unusually persistent and intrusive form!

Language is such a huge part of the world-building here — I loved the rhythms of everyone's speech and the way I had to figure out a bunch of words from context. How did you develop the character voices?

The voices came naturally to me once I'd worked out the premise, which was how I knew it was the right book to write. The characters are all like people I might know in real life, only heightened for dramatic effect. I know a lot of pushy aunties, for example, even if none of them are ghosts or involved in organised crime. And Manglish (Malaysian English), which borrows words, phrases and grammatical structures from Malay, Chinese dialect, Tamil and probably more, is my first language, so it was easy to write the dialogue in it.

There was some discussion at the editing stage about whether the non-English words and terms that would be unfamiliar to a Western audience should be explained or translated or footnoted. I felt strongly that they shouldn't be, not least because it's unnecessary. As a kid in Malaysia, I read so much British and American literature in which so much cultural knowledge was assumed and unexplained, but as a reader you can figure things out from context. I don't really know what the DMV is to this day, but I've worked out you can get your driver's licence there.

To me, Jess, Black Water Sister and Ah Ma almost felt like a maiden-mother-crone trio, like aspects of each other.

They definitely function as images of one another. The Black Water Sister is the goddess Ah Ma serves, but she was also a human being once, before she was deified, and as a human she was not unlike Ah Ma – a working-class woman in an intensely patriarchal society. Jess is, of course, Ah Ma's granddaughter, and it's said explicitly that she's like Ah Ma – she's "clever at being angry" like Ah Ma and she looks like her. And as Jess unwillingly becomes the medium of the Black Water Sister, the boundaries between her and the goddess blur.

Jess is also really 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 don't value her any less because she's a daughter and who think she should be educated and safe and happy. Powerless as she may seem, this gives her resources neither Ah Ma nor the Black Water Sister have.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 18, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story referred to Penang as the capital of Malaysia. The capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur.
Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.