Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

It’s weird feeling like I’m perfectly suited to review this book as a diaspora Malaysian but also feeling inadequate to review this book for that very same reason. The experience of reading Black Water Sister was like stepping back into old, comfy clothes and wandering around my hometown, but a small part of me was squinting at my own familiarity from the outside, wondering if my history was doing too much work filling in the gaps in this gripping urban fantasy/horror novel. “What gaps?” the happy part of me argues, to which the critical part responds, “Exactly!” Can I even find any flaws — any incongruencies, anything an intelligent person might not be able to reasonably infer — when my own background autofills any missing details before I can even register them?

So I’m going to lean into my Malaysian heritage instead when reviewing this book, with apologies to anyone who might find the culture or language difficult to relate to or comprehend. I want to believe that this is an accessible book to all readers, but the fact that I’m even having this internal argument gives me pause. What I can confirm is that this book is 100% authentic Malaysian, from the Manglish to the weather to the mores, good and bad. The cadences of the language are both correct and, when translated to English in the text from the original languages, elegant. The attitudes towards race and religion and sexuality map perfectly with Malaysia in the 21st century, showing off my mother country respectfully but honestly. Zen Cho does a brilliant job of presenting Malaysia as it is, a country of many influences jostling together in search of harmony, an imperfect union that keeps striving towards respect and coexistence.

Which also makes it the perfect setting for this tale of a young woman trying to find herself while beset by supernatural forces. Jessamyn Teoh grew up in America but moved back to Penang as an adult with her aging parents. Closeted and unemployed, she’s still trying to find her footing in an unfamiliar country where the weather alone can drain the unaccustomed into lassitude. Her girlfriend wants her to get a job in and move to Singapore where they can be together, but Jess is worried that her parents are too fragile for her to move that far away. The last thing Jess expects or needs is to suddenly start hearing a voice that claims to be the spirit of her recently deceased, estranged grandmother.

Ah Ma is not the kindly sort of grandma. Jess’ mom had discouraged any sort of relationship between Jess and her own mother, which is why it comes as a surprise to Jess to learn that Ah Ma was a spirit medium in life, and kind of an awful person. Worse, Ah Ma expects Jess to follow in her footsteps, with regard to religion at least. While Jess has been feeling pretty rudderless since moving to Malaysia, she’s pretty sure that that’s not the life she wants, especially when Ah Ma’s post-mortal machinations involve seeking revenge against a local tycoon and invoking the considerable power of the malevolent Black Water Sister. Jess’ life is complicated enough without becoming the vessel for vengeful spirits, with the constant threat of losing her own life in the process.

I can’t explain how wonderful it was to read this book, a contemporary, polished repackaging of the Malaysian horror pulps I read as a teenager eager for everything supernatural. It is, quite frankly, a perfect framing. Jess has always felt like an immigrant, whether in the US or Malaysia, and her “outsider” point of view lends itself well to a story of alienation and rage, as she grapples with Ah Ma and Black Water Sister breaching the bonds of mortality itself to make sure they are remembered, and if not understood then at least respected or feared. Jess’ POV is also great for subtly critiquing the worst of Malaysian excesses, whether it be corruption or exploitation, while also appreciating the unique spirit of multiculturalism that has Bangladeshi Muslim construction workers praying to a Malay spirit in a Chinese cosmology for protection. BWS is a perfectly Malaysian book, portraying the eternal tension between then and now, between development and superstition, between being your own person and caring for your family, and I felt so at home reading it. But also, it is a universal book about growing up and finding out what’s important to you and learning and modeling empathy and kindness, while overcoming your fears and learning how to use your righteous anger to stand up for yourself. Frankly, I loved it, and I hope you will too.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho was published today May 11 2021 by Ace Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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2 comments

    • Vasha on June 13, 2021 at 11:43 am
    • Reply

    Great review. FWIW, although I don’t know a word of Hokkien or Malaysian, have never been to Malaysia, and have never even had a conversation with someone from there, I could follow the dialogue in this book pretty well. I didn’t mind skipping over unknown words; the only thing that threw me off occasionally was not recognizing character names since people were referred to so many different ways (next time I read the book I will take notes on names, and probably consult a dictionary and Google Earth.) I am certain I missed quite a few nuances, but it was nonetheless an enthralling and moving book. Quite dark, in spite of some humor (the whole part with the visit to Master Yap’s temple is both hilarious and awful in an amazing mixture), Kor Kor’s resolute Christian dismissal of the significance of gods and ghosts is funny, but also it’s another way of nicey-nicey not talking about the suffering of the past. No wonder Jess has such a negative reaction to the idea of her mother converting to Christianity — ghosts and gods are saying something important and so many people don’t want to listen. I myself come from a family where there is a great reluctance to talk about anything unpleasant, though not to anything like the extent that characterizes almost every single person in this book; so I found myself very moved by this depiction of a culture of silence — where women did not speak their anger openly, and after death they were feared but still not spoken of — and Jess’s struggle in it.

    1. Consider this your first conversation with a Malaysian then! 😀 Yes, I agree about the names: even as a Malaysian, I had to think hard about the honorifics vs given names, but I’ve found I have the same trouble with novels about European nobles (Balzac, especially, is dreadful with this.)

      Jess’ negative reaction to her mother talking about converting comes partly due to knowing that her mom doesn’t actually believe in Jesus, and partly due to an impatience for people who run away from local problems by embracing a foreign colonizer to come fix things instead of fixing said problems themselves. Ghosts and gods in this cosmology are a bit like politicians: you can entreat them to use their abilities to help you but it’s entirely up to them — and their interest in you and your offerings — whether they will.

      As for the culture of silence, oh gosh, I’m not sure how to explain how the misogyny is different from how it is elsewhere. Women weren’t burned as witches in Malaysia, to begin with: in fact, the supernatural is used as a cloak to protect women. The reason angry women aren’t spoken of in death is to avoid their attention, not because people shun them but because people fear their righteous anger. Misogyny is widely acknowledged as a bad thing that is difficult to fix, so when a woman dies in violence and her spirit haunts the earth, it’s because it’s the only vengeance available to her. And Black Water Sister is not merely feared, she’s worshipped: you certainly don’t see that happening in Western cultures! (with the possible exception of Joan of Arc, who was hardly considered angry.)

      Malaysia has such a complicated culture of the feminine supernatural, and I’m really glad Zen Cho is illuminating that for a wider readership. You should check out her Spirits Abroad collection of short stories, too: it’s very good! Hanna Alkaf also recently wrote a book, The Girl And The Ghost, about a young Malaysian girl and the supernatural entity she inherits, that I eventually need to review once my work schedule calms down (whenever that is!)

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