Perfectly Ordinary People
By Dylan Kwok
In one scene in Zen Cho's Spirits Abroad, a pontianak chats with a human about her condition, but asks him to call her a vampire rather than a pontianak.
When asked why, she replies: "It's not such a nice word."
It is here we see the difference between Cho's fantasy and Western fantasy. Mainstream Western fantasy tends to sanitise and exoticise. Wizards go to boarding school, vampires dress in tailored suits, and monsters serve at chic coffeehouses.
Conversely, Cho's stories portray the reality of folklore and myth in Southeast Asia, which is this: that those who believe in the supernatural and dabble in rituals are perfectly ordinary people, from teenaged girls to Goldman Sachs bankers.
And of course, that there is nothing genteel about a pontianak devouring someone's guts.
In the opening story, 'The First Witch of Damansara', a young witch eager to honour her deceased grandmother learns to craft traditional paper offerings of clothing, houses and servants herself – off YouTube. In 'Balik Kampung', a dead woman goes to a Hungry Ghost Festival to feast, and to ask a medium for information on her loved ones. Another story, '起狮，行礼 (Rising Lion – The Lion Bows)' tells of a lion dance troupe who dances to fight evil spirits.
This blending of fantasy and reality is not new. Magic realism has long existed in Latin American fiction. But it is refreshing to see it in a Southeast Asian context. One moment Cho's characters can be discussing minority rights, the next they're casually chatting with an orang bunian – an invisible forest spirit.
What makes this transition believable – smooth, even – is Cho's skill in putting colour in her scenes and flesh on her characters. They pop from the page. In 'The Fish Bowl', she describes a girl who hides her personal artwork in the family computer, "inside five nested folders named things like 'Nota_Bio_Encik's Cheah's class'". Later, in 'First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia', she describes how conference attendees were "greased into contentment by the free buffet lunch". By capturing the essence of the real world, Cho makes it so much easier to believe when fantastical elements finally glide into frame.
But there is a careful line to toe here, because writing too realistically can become, well, predictable. It is exciting to read about an ordinary person interacting with a ghost, a talking koi or an orang bunian. Conversely, a mythical creature trying to adapt to the human world is an equally interesting story. You can even get quite a bit of mileage from fantasy characters in fantasy settings.
But what do you get if you put ordinary people in an ordinary setting? Well, nothing out of the ordinary.
And here is where some of Cho's stories stumble. In trying to keep the magic subtle and characters realistic, some of the stories box themselves in, resulting in narratives that seem too straightforward, with the characters marching towards conclusions that are all too familiar. They're not bad tales by any means – the writing remains beautiful, and scenes poignant – but narratively they bring nothing new to the table.
But there's more to the collection than characters traipsing about Cho's native Malaysia. Indeed, Spirits Abroad is split into three sections: 'Here', for stories set in Malaysia, 'There', for stories set overseas, and 'Elsewhere', for stories set in fantastical settings. It is in the second section, 'There', where Cho's work really shines, because she juxtaposes Western and Asian traditions, folklore and sensibilities.
In 'One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland', we see a pack of Malaysian boarding school students fight a panicked battle against a horde of English fairies. In 'The Preservation of Angela's Past Life', we meet a girl who must come to terms with her younger self tailing her, an unfortunate side effect of spending too much time near a magical dragon.
It is here where Cho dismantles the idea that Asians are naturally more comfortable with the supernatural. By letting her characters struggle in Western milieus and Western magic, she instead suggests that Southeast Asians, like any other demographic anywhere, are people comfortable with the familiar. It's not, of course, that her characters cannot deal with fairies or dragons. They can, but it takes them time to warm up to these new creatures, and eventually they deal with them in their own fashion.
In 'One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland', the Western teachers leave the embattled students instructions on how to fight the fairies, and while the instructions are useful, the protagonist uses the data to concoct a brand new method of dealing with them. Her actions, in a way, symbolise the expatriate experience: of people adapting, but not assimilating, to their environment.
While Cho focuses her energy on her characters adapting to magical situations, she weaves in a few anecdotes reflecting normal cultural shock. In 'Prudence and the Dragon', she writes an amusing section about baguettes:
The strongest tale in this section is undoubtedly Cho's Hugo-Award winning novelette, 'If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again'. The first story of the collection not to be narrated by a human (or former human), Cho tells the tale of an imugi called Byam, a creature of Korean folklore, who aspires to be a dragon. After failing to turn itself into a dragon over the course of many millennia, it decides instead to turn itself into a human so that it can take revenge on the humans that prevented its ascension to dragon-hood.
But instead of revenge, it finds love. And it is through this love that Byam finally begins to change. The changes that Byam undergoes to adapt to its human form and its human lover reflect the immigrant experience in many ways, from having to learn a new way of life to getting a driver's licence, to having to understand human culture and ambitions. It's a touching tale to finish off the section of 'There'.
Rounding out the book comes 'Elsewhere', a mixed bag of stories that take place in various exotic locales: hell, the faerie realm, the moon. Elsewhere.
It is here, however, that Cho's skill in imagery falters. The descriptions feel flatter, colours duller, and overall the sense of concrete imagery that pervades the earlier stories is gone. And while that makes sense somewhat, since the places described are fantastical, it feels like a letdown after all the vivid imagery of Malaysia, England and their inhabitants she has rendered before.
At times too, the last section feels like Cho is leaning too heavily into the theme of "spirits abroad". The final story, 'Four Generations of Chang E', a tale about immigration to the moon, racism and rabbits, can seem too preachy about the plight of immigrants. Another, 'The Earth Spirit's Favourite Anecdote', while a cute story on its own, reads like a thinly veiled metaphor. Compared to the subtlety Cho displays earlier, these pieces almost feel like vehicles to carry a pointed message rather than stories.
This is not to say that the metaphor doesn't work, but that in this kind of fiction, the story should be more important than the metaphor. Another story in this section, 'Monkey King, Faerie Queen', which literally depicts an East versus West tale between the eponymous characters, succeeds because of its wit, strong characterisations and sheer fun.
This section also contains 'The Terra-cotta Bride', the most original story in the whole anthology. Featuring Chinese Hell, a child bride (in said hell), a polygamist husband, corrupt demon officials, the Terracotta Army, and a scheming group trying to outsmart the gods to gain eternal life, it is in this story that many of the independent themes of the collection – of death, immigration, love and the fragility of life – come together. Cho reminds us that one day each of us will emigrate from the land of the living to the land of the dead. But then she asks, what will we take with us? What will we leave behind? What parts of us would change, would we want to change? And what parts would remain?
What happens to love in the face of eternity?
The story, of course, answers none of those questions, and in fact, asks even more. But that is what the best stories do.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 4 Oct 2023