Author Archives: Zen

About Zen

I'm a Malaysian writer living in London.

SORCERER TO THE CROWN on the Tiptree Award longlist

I’ve already squeaked about this on social media, but I’m thrilled that Sorcerer to the Crown is on the 2015 Tiptree Award longlist! The Tiptree is the coolest SFF award IMO, and they’ve highlighted an awesome range of novels, short stories, comics and nonfiction this year.

longlist-1-725x1024

I’m particularly delighted to see the shout-out for Kuzhali Manickavel’s Things We Found During The Autopsy.

The winners and honor list look very cool. You can find out more about them at the Tiptree Award website here: 2015 Winners, Honor List and Long List.

winner-1024x474

HonorList-collage-1-1024x392

Events in April and May 2016

Mancunicon was a roaring success on almost every level — thanks to the con comm for a great event, Guest of Honour Aliette de Bodard for letting me tag along and make her mugs of bad green tea, and everyone who came for dim sum.

(And I did indeed eat a grilled mac and cheese sandwich with pulled pork from the amazing grilled cheese sandwich place. They’re on Deliveroo! Amazing grilled cheese sandwiches AT YOUR FINGERTIPS. If you live in Manchester.)

Now here’s what I’ll be doing in April and May!

April

English PEN Literary Salon at the London Book Fair

Event: Zen Cho in conversation with Anita Sethi
Date and time: Thursday 14 April, 1 pm
Venue: Level one of Olympia, opposite Foyles Bookshop

I’ll be “in conversation” as part of the English PEN Literary Salon series, which I’m terribly impressed by mostly because I come before Judith Kerr. Judith Kerr!!! 

Apart from watching her talk, I’m hoping to swing by the Malaysia booth — it’s the first time Malaysia is having a booth and it’s being run by scrappy indies without any government or big corporate funding — as well as to catch Amir Muhammad’s talk: A Basket Is Not Just a Swear Word.

In Malaysia, ‘basket’ is a slightly more refined way to refer to a ruder word which technically means a male of illegitimate birth. It’s one of those quirky byproducts of English colonialism.

But here in the LBF, a Malaysian publisher talks about the state of reading, writing and publishing in his country.

He will do this while launching the first of an annual anthology, Little Basket, that aims to highlight Anglophone writing from Malaysia. He does not plan on using words like ‘Anglophone’ during his talk.

You will be able to get Little Basket 2016 during this session, so if the talk gets a bit boring you may just flip through it.

(The event page doesn’t say it’s Amir, but as you can see, it is obviously Amir.)

Given the timing it’s less likely that I’ll be able to catch the Chinese Science Fiction panel with Xiaolu Guo, moderated by Malaysian writer Yen Ooi, but you should go for that if the timing works for you!

I should also say that I was invited to do this as a direct result of Bare Lit. So huge thanks to the festival organisers for the opportunity. I’ll do my best to pass it on.

Signing in Stockholm

Event: Sorcerer to the Crown signing (I’ll sign copies of Spirits Abroad and Cyberpunk: Malaysia as well if you’ve got them, but sadly they’re quite hard to get outside Malaysia)
Date and time: Friday 29 April, 5 pm
Venue: SF-Bokhandeln, Stockholm

What it says on the tin really! After reading Ann Leckie’s blog post about her Scandinavian mini-tour, it occurred to me that since I was going to Stockholm, it might be worth checking if the bookshop she mentioned (1) stocked my book and (2) would like me to sign it. They did and they did! It’s open to the public so do pop by and say hi.

May

Åcon 8

Event: Guest of Honour at Åcon 8
Date and time: Thursday 5 May to Sunday 8 May
Venue: Mariehamn, Åland Islands

I don’t really know why I keep posting about this since memberships have sold out and everyone who would care must already know I’m going … but anyway I am going! Super looking forward to it — I am spending a whole week at Åland and have been warned I might run out of things to do, but as I have a book to rewrite I am sure that can only be good for me.

I haven’t written my Guest of Honour speech yet though /o\ I’ve never done one before. Crowdsourcing ideas now! What should I say?

Writing My Culture for Fun and Profit

Question

Here’s how the question goes, more or less:

Do you think you would be as successful if you didn’t write about Asian/Malaysian characters/myths/folklore/beliefs/spirits?

I don’t blame people for asking. It’s a natural question, in a way. It’s one of those questions white Westerners don’t get asked, though. (“You’re American, do you think you would be as successful if you weren’t writing about American characters?”) And to be totally honest, it is annoying, because the lurking question it implies is:

Are you writing about your culture because it sells?

Here’s what I ask back:

What’s the alternative? What else would I be writing?

But I know what they mean. They’re asking about the fact that I’ve strayed outside the unmarked default. In English-language fiction, this is writing about white Westerners — if you’re a fantasy writer, drawing on their ideas and images of vampires, fairies and ghosts. If you do that you’re just writing fantasy. Throw in a bunian or pontianak and suddenly it’s Cultural Heritage Day.

I always struggle to answer, partly because I want to flip the question over and examine its insides, but also because the answer is complicated. Here’s an attempt.

An answer

Yes. I think I’m quite a good writer. If I was persevering and worked hard, I think I could have written exclusively about non-Malaysian characters in non-Malaysian settings and eventually been published and slowly built up a readership, as I am doing now. (Sorcerer to the Crown is set in Britain and primarily about non-Malaysian characters, of course, but I suppose it’s outside that unmarked default and so doesn’t count for the purposes of the people who ask this question.)

There are plenty of examples of non-white people who write (or wrote) successfully about white people. To take just a few:

Here’s a post by bestselling thriller writer Tess Gerritsen about why she spent much of her career not writing about Asians: “Your English is so good!”

Sherry Thomas writes hugely popular historical romances set in England in English, her second language.

The majority of successful romance author Courtney Milan‘s backlist features white people on the covers. She’s talked on Twitter about realising she could write about people of colour like herself, but I haven’t found a blog post to link to on the subject.

One advantage of doing it this way is that people would probably ask me about things other than diversity once in a while. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s something I think about a lot and am genuinely interested in, but it’s not my ONLY THING.)

Another advantage is that it might be, well, easier to sell stuff. Consider, for example, YA author Natalie Whipple‘s experiences trying to sell books with PoC main characters: Diversity As Trend? Please. Or Cindy Pon’s Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy (tip #1: put in too many Asians).

But here’s another answer

No. For two reasons:

1) Writing, for me, is not about selling books or being popular. (Both of those things are great. I wouldn’t say no. But they’re not really what it’s about.) It’s about doing something that feels important with the limited time I have on this earth. It’s about articulating a worldview. It’s about cheering, soothing, uplifting, enlightening — all those great things art can do. If I wrote only or mostly about white people, Western settings, Western mythologies, etc. I would feel that I was not really doing the best I could do.

I’m not nearly as successful in this regard as I’d like to be, and of course my writing will never be as good as I would like, but I am trying.

2) I think readers recognise truth when they see it. For me, to write using local myths and beliefs is a form of accessing a deep truth. Something like the Regency voice is pure performance — I am doing something sort of serious with it, but it’s mostly play. Writing in Manglish is something else.

I think a book that captures truth is going to be better than one that doesn’t. And I believe that better books have a better chance of being read, of being loved, of helping people, of lasting.

People always talk about wanting universal stories. I don’t think universal means mainstream (meaning white or Western). I think the universal lies in the specific, and we each have our own specific truth. It’s the best resource we’ve got as writers — so we should use it.

Thanks to Tade Thompson for the post title. Check out his awardwinning tropical noir thriller Making Wolf!

My publishing journey: The Year of No

I’ve been fairly quiet on the Publishing Journey front as I’ve been busy, er, journeying. But epic fantasy author Juliet McKenna kindly invited me to write a guest post for her blog, so I wrote about identifying with Jonathan Strange for the first time and learning to say no:

My year of saying no

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

Come to think of it, it follows on quite nicely from my last Publishing Journey post on love and resource. Unplanned thematic continuity \o/

On a totally separate note, Sorcerer to the Crown is in the first round of DABWAHA! If you vote for it it might WIN and BEAT THE OTHER BOOKS (or at least it may not FLAME OUT and DIE A DEATH instantly). Vote, vote!

Diverse book clubs & meetups in London

A Twitter query following my panel at Bare Lit made me think there might be more general interest in this information. If you’re based in or near London, here are a few book clubs/meetups to check out if you’re looking to read more “diverse” literature* or hang out with like-minded bookish people.

African Fantasy Reading Group

The African Fantasy Reading Group discusses “all things AfroSFF”, including science fiction, fantasy, comics and movies. I think there is the occasional in-person meetup but also plenty of discussion on the Facebook group.

African Reading Group London

Breaking the bonds of genre restrictions, ARG! London meets monthly at Book and Kitchen to discuss recent books by writers from Africa and the diaspora. Check out the Book and Kitchen events page for upcoming meetups. There’s also a Facebook group.

Asian Book Club Meetup

I have foolishly never attended this, not least because I have forgotten my Meetup.com password, but this is a monthly book club run through Meetup to discuss books about Asia and by Asian authors (including diaspora): Asian Book Club – Asian Authors/Books about Asia.

What’s really nice about it is that in addition to regular book club meetings, there are lots of ancillary events — author events, joint visits to literary festivals, social meals, etc. Here’s a nice blog post about the book club by one of the organisers.

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club

I confess Super Relaxed Fantasy Club is the only meetup I attend (sort of) regularly out of these, because it’s so suited to lazy people. It takes place on the last Tuesday of every month on the top floor of a Central London hotel. There are two author readings, a bar and plenty of chat. It’s attended by SFF industry people, fans, readers and aspiring writers, and conversations I’ve had at meetups range from cats to the delights and horrors of the Stucky tag on Tumblr to the peculiar pressures of the dreaded second book.

It isn’t focused on BAME books the way the other groups are, but they do care about equality — they insist on gender parity in their readers and until the group of attendees grew unmanageably large everyone used to introduce themselves. It was a bit like the first day of kindergarten! (Or AA, I guess.) The organisers talk about the genesis and principles of the meetup here (but, like, in a really relaxed way).

Join the Facebook group or follow the Twitter account for updates. I’m reading in September!

Feel free to suggest more in the comments!

* The “diverse” is in quotes because it’s terminology I’m not totally comfortable with (on which see Kavita Bhanot’s great article, Decolonise, not Diversify). That said, it’s a useful shorthand.

Upcoming events, March 2016 – North London Literary Festival and Mancunicon

In case you don’t get my mailing list updates (they have an annoying tendency to go to spam), here’s a couple of things I’ll be at this month!

North London Literary Festival

Panel Discussion: Science fiction and diversity
Date and time: Tuesday 22 March, 15:30-17:00
Venue: Middlesex University, London

I’ll be on a panel about science fiction and diversity with Pat Cadigan, the Clarke Awards’ Tom Hunter and Kurt Barling at the North London Literary Festival, run by Middlesex University students. Admission is free, but register for the panel here.

Mancunicon

I’ll also be at Eastercon this year, after insisting I wasn’t going. /o\ I’m not doing any panels as I am attending as a lady’s companion, but I’m hoping to do lots of barcon so do say hi if you’re there. Of course, very happy to sign copies of Sorcerer to the Crown if anyone wants me to. I’m also planning to return here for amazing grilled cheese sandwiches. *____*