Category Archives: Malaysia

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!


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.


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


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!

Rambling about writing at Kinokuniya KL: a report

As I mentioned in my previous post about my event at Kinokuniya KL last Saturday, Kino is the bookshop of my teenage years, because it was so huge and had what was at the time an unmatchable selection — not only of SFF, but YA/MG, manga, Asian literature, etc. etc. etc.

Then later a giant Borders or two opened closer to home in PJ, rendering the long trek to KLCC unnecessary, so my memories of Kino are really crystallised in time. It was nice to go back, especially as I got to admire the World SF table they’d kindly let me curate in person. (I didn’t put my own books on the list lah obviously. They added those themselves.)

Photo 13-02-2016, 08 54 42

To my left (your right) there used to be an excellent Japanese stationery section. I didn’t go there that often because I’d’ve spent all my money on books by the time I got there.

A closer look at the selection, from Nigerians in space through Paris in the wake of a magical war to Hitler as a PI!

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As for the event itself, it was really fun! I’d planned to fill up one hour but ended up taking around two. It was nice of Kino not to chase us out!

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Here’s me holding forth

I was really worried that people would do that Malaysian thing of being too shy to raise their hands, and then only creeping round to ask questions afterwards one-on-one. (I mean, I can raise my hand as one of the people who does this. Except I wouldn’t raise my hand, of course.) I even prepped a friend to keep the chat going if no one volunteered questions: “Ask me about law! I can tell them about EU directives!”

But fortunately everyone was awesome and there were lots of questions! Thanks to everyone who asked — you are my hero and I am eternally grateful.

The only specific thing I remember saying was my explanation of the importance of plot. It goes like this: I used to think I didn’t really care about plot as a reader, but I’ve since learnt a bit more about how stories are made, and I now think that plot is to story like bones are to a person you fancy. You might say, “I’m not attracted to people based on their bones, I’m really more interested in their personality or whether they have a full head of lush hair.” But if you met someone who had no bones, at all, whatsoever, you might rapidly reconsider how important bones are to their attractiveness.

Anyway, so I’m still trying to figure out the bones of story.

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My Stormtrooper ring is so photogenic! Nowadays I pretend John Boyega is secretly inside it.

The highlight of the event for me was meeting readers, obvs, but a close runner-up is the fact that illustrator Charis Loke gave me what, as far as I know, is the first piece of fanart for Sorcerer to the Crown!

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I love it. I am so happy.

A close-up:

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There really is nothing like seeing the figments of your imagination being brought to life by another so sympathetically. I’m going to sleep with it under my pillow eat it so it becomes a part of me frame it and put it on my wall and admire it forever.

I also signed some stock for Kino, so if you missed the event you can still pick up an autographed copy there! If you’re not that fussed about autographed copies or a 20% discount on your second item (also available in-store), you can buy the books online: they stock the US hardcover and the trade paperback with the UK cover, both RM75.

Photos are by me, Daphne Lee, Aaron Lim and my BFF Maxine Lim, who combines with all other ideal qualities of a best friend that of taking only flattering pictures of me.

Q&A + signing at Kinokuniya KLCC – 11 am on Saturday, 13 February 2016

I’ll be doing a Q&A and signing at Kinokuniya in Kuala Lumpur in February!

Photo by Marisa Repin

Photo by Marisa Repin

Date: Saturday, 13 February 2016
Time: 11 am to 12 noon
Venue: Kinokuniya, Level 4, Suria KLCC

Description: It’ll depend on how Kino chooses to set it up and how many people attend, but my plan is to sign books and chat to people. I’ve called it a Q&A partly because maybe people do want to ask me questions about things, but mostly because the other natural thing to do is a reading. And I don’t really like doing readings. Nonetheless I may do one if it seems like the right thing to do. We’ll see!

Here’s the Facebook event page, in case you find Facebook event pages useful! It’s open to everyone so do come if you’re free and bring your friends.

I’m really looking forward to this! I spent many happy hours in Kinokuniya as a teenager, reading all the books they didn’t wrap and sitting on my hands to warm them (the air-con is always turned super high IIRC). When I told my parents I was doing this event they said: “Really, Kinokuniya? They’re going to let you in there, after all those books you read for free???”

But to be fair I’ve also spent a lot of money there over the years! What with this and the Forbidden Planet signing last year, I don’t know that I have many Personally Significant to Zen Book Places left to do events at. Maybe MPH at 1 Utama. And the Penang and KL children’s libraries!

As a nice plus, for me but also for anyone who turns up, the World SF table I curated for Kinokuniya will still be up in February. Features a selection of science fiction and fantasy books by authors from outside the US and UK. As you can see just from this picture alone, it includes books by Aliette de Bodard, Cindy Pon, Ken Liu, Nalo Hopkinson, Geoff Ryman and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, as well as lots more, including some homegrown Malaysian talent. It’s up now, so even if you’re not coming to see me in February you should go check it out!

Photo by Marisa Repin

Photo by Marisa Repin

Roundup: fanfic, shrimps, hipste Kelate and more


On Thursday I went to Broadcasting House (!) to take part in the first episode of Late Night Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, which was on women in fandom. It was super fun — like a convention panel, only you had to keep remembering you were talking to a mainstream audience and stopping to define terms like “fanfic”. If you’re interested in listening to a lively discussion of women in SFF, the geek culture wars and fanfic tropes, you can download the podcast here:

Reclaiming the Nerdiverse

(And yes, we did discuss A/B/O on national radio with all our relatives listening. /o\ I confess I’m one of those old fandom grumps for whom A/B/O does nothing. In my day we had “we are spies who have to pretend to be married for implausible reasons and we fall in love as a result” and we were happy with that!!)

I also did a podcast with the fabulous Fran Wilde (Updraft out super soon!) and Aliette de Bodard (House of Shattered Wings out even sooner!), talking about food in our books:

An Intimidation of Shrimp: A Cooking The Books Roundtable

At the link I also reveal ~all my writing secrets~ and share my Big List o’ Regency Foods. I said this on the podcast, but I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes explaining my methods and Watson going, “Oh, you’re nothing to call home about really, that’s easy!” Sigh. Anyway, if you’d like to know what “ruffs and reeves” are, go check it out!

Ghost words

I’ve been posting quietly to Where Ghost Words Dwell, the discarded writing collage project I do with a bunch of cool writers. Here are two of my most recent contributions:

The Green family goes to the mountains

Magical relatives berbalas pantun. This is from a story I was bouncing around with a friend a few years ago, inspired by our trip to Ladakh. The photo is of the glorious mountains, taken at Leh airport. It’s not at all a habitat that suits me — I spent the next seven days or so in the most wretched altitude sickness — but I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the outskirts of Kota Bharu, in a rental Perodua

Again, a snippet inspired by a holiday — this time a rather more prosaic one, a road trip in Kelantan with my BFF. We went to lots of wats and failed to eat any roti hamlet, laksam or nasi kerabu. (I know, I know … what were we even doing.) Eventually this inspired a short story called Everything Under One Roof, which Rose Lemberg accepted for her anthology Alphabet of Embers. The word count for Alphabet of Embers was 1,400 words so I had to cut everything non-essential, including the snippet at the link!

The drawing of a hipste Kelate is by my phenomenally talented cousin Alina Choong and is posted with her permission. It’s based on the boss of Kopitiam Kita, which you should definitely visit if you’re ever in KB. Siti Nurhaliza went also k.

Sorcerer to the Crown

Ala, you knew it was coming.

If you’re in the UK, first edition bookshop Goldsboro Books is running a competition for people who pre-order Sorcerer to the Crown! Order Goldsboro’s special limited edition (SPRAYED EDGES!) before 10 September, i.e. the UK release date, and you’ll have a chance to win an invitation to the book launch. Come and talk to meee! You can pre-order the limited edition here.

The Book Smugglers also ran a giveaway for the book. Closed liao, sorry, but you can still read my post on the Inspirations and Influences Behind Sorcerer to the Crown.

I also did a guest post for Pornokitsch on Five Fictional Girls and Women I Will Love Forever. Features Anne of Green Gables, Rukia, Lucy Snowe, Elizabeth Bennet and Eowyn. No surprises, but lots of *___*-ing … you will point out that this doesn’t have anything to do with Sorcerer to the Crown, because it’s part of The Apex Book of World SF 4 promo push, but little do you know! One of those five characters inspired Prunella Gentleman. You should tell me which you think it is!

And JUST TODAY Publishers Weekly gave Sorcerer a starred review:

Cho’s tale knits together a dizzying array of taut story lines populated by complex characters with interesting backstories. Zacharias brings to mind another orphaned young wizard whose combination of grit and melancholy captured readers’ hearts, and ingenious, gutsy Prunella simply shines.

How totally amazing. You couldn’t ask for better.

Social mediaz

As always, if you’re interested in receiving updates on my stuff in real-time, Twitter or Facebook is probably your best bet. My Facebook page is public and I don’t add back automatically, but will if you drop me a message saying hi. I’ve also started using Instagram! Not a lot there at the moment, but what I’m going to do is post pictures there instead of Twitter. I crosspost Instagram posts to Twitter and Facebook, though, so better not follow me on all three — after lemas only.

ARCs, giveaways, reviews, conversations

I’m sure the title of this post is terrible for SEO (search engine minimisation??) but it is going to be a grab-bag of things I’m catching up on. If you would like to get updates on writing stuff in REAL TIME, Twitter is generally my first port of call for reporting book news (I am zenaldehyde!) and I cross-post to Facebook as well nowadays, though the posts aren’t identical because Facebook permits me to be as verbose as I naturally am. I can be found here on Facebook: my profile is public so anyone can follow it, but if you’d like to be friended do drop me a message to let me know who you are.

On to the news!

Sorcerer to the Crown: galleys, giveaways and more!

Ace/Roc sent me galleys of the book! My gosh. It looks like a REAL BOOK. And it is covered with quotes by authors I admire hugely!


Naomi Novik! Ann Leckie! Courtney Milan! Karen Lord! Charles Stross! Kate Elliott (on the other side with the dragon, you can’t see it in this picture)!

And as of today, awardwinning YA author Justine Larbalestier, who says Sorcerer is:

Georgette Heyer meets Anthony Trollope with some Edward Said and a very big dash of feminism. Romance, magic, frocks, intrigue and lots of politics … I was in heaven. More please!

If you’re in the US, you can enter the Penguin BEA 2015 sweepstakes for a chance to win five new releases from Penguin Random House, which just might include Sorcerer to the Crown and/or Aliette de Bodard’s fabulous new novel The House of Shattered Wings. You don’t have to be at BEA to sign up — you just have to be resident in the States. (If you’re not in the US and want Aliette’s book, you can join the 500 people jostling for a free copy over at her own ARC giveaway!)

Otherwise, watch this space, because I am going to do a galley giveaway here soon. Subscribers to my mailing list will get a MAGICAL ADVANTAGE, so sign up now! It’s a new release mailing list so you don’t get regular news when you’re on it — I just send out an email when I’ve got new fiction out that you can read or order. Here’s a previous example.

The House of Aunts and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted

Speaking of writers I admire hugely, Naomi Novik wrote a really kind post about The House of Aunts on

A New Reality: The Optimism of Zen Cho

You feel as you read that the author wants you to be happy, even if she is not going to lie to you to make you feel more comfortable. … As a reader, when I feel a writer has those goals, it creates a kind of trust that carries me along with them. Even when they take me to difficult or uncomfortable or sad places, I still feel they are doing so because it’s where the story belongs, and even then still with the underlying desire to give satisfaction.

Naomi links this to fanfic writers and writing, and I thought it was interesting because it’s precisely this quality that I like in Naomi’s work. (This must sound like the most sickening logrolling! But long-term fandom friends will vouch for the fact that I was reading and squealing over Naomi’s stories since I was 16. (I actually went to look at the earliest story by her that I remember reading when it was being posted, and that was in 2000, so I was actually 14. 14 years old.))

I spent most of her newest book Uprooted with every part of me clenched in terror lest everything would not turn out OK, but I also simultaneously knew that everything would not only be OK but more than OK — marvellously, eucatastrophically more-than-OK. And the author saw me through, as I knew she would. You should read Uprooted.

Interviews and roundtables

The Star interviewed me, KL Noir: Yellow editor and Cyberpunk: Malaysia writer Kris Williamson, and romance author RodieR about the increasing popularity of genre fiction in Malaysia:

Is genre fiction picking up steam with Malaysian readers?

Our books are all finalists in the Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards. Voting closes on 31 May so you still have a couple of days to vote for the winners!

And I spoke with Charles Tan, Aliette de Bodard, M Sereno, Bogi Takács and JY Yang for a roundtable on “diversity” and the kind of conversations we’d like to have for the Book Smugglers’ SFF in Conversation feature:

On Diversity

Actual fiction (kind of)

Finally, my new post went up at Where Ghost Words Dwell today! This is a group project I’m doing with a bunch of other cool SFF writers, where we string our discarded writing together on a blog, along with links and images. Today’s contribution is a piece of lost text from The House of Aunts:

At age 16, in Lubuk Udang

You can check out this explanation to get an idea of what the project is about, or better yet, read the whole blog through.


I’m really excited to finally be able to talk about the Table of Contents for CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA! Here’s the line-up:

“Underneath Her Tudung” by Angeline Woon
“Codes” by Anna Tan
“Personal” by Sharmilla Ganesan
“Attack of the Spambots” by Terence Toh
“ONE HUNDRED YEARS: Machine” by Rafil Elyas
“What The Andromaid Reads at Night” by Ted Mahsun
“KAKAK” by William Tham Wai Liang
“The Wall That Wasn’t A Wall” by Kris Williamson
“The Twins” by Adiwijaya Iskandar
“October 11” by Chin Ai-May
“Undercover in Tanah Firdaus” by Syamsuriatina Ishak writing as Tina Isaacs
“Unusual Suspects” by Tariq Kamal
“The White Mask” by Zedeck Siew
“Extracts from DMZINE #13 (January 2115)” by Foo Sek Han

So there are a number of Fixi stalwarts in the list, but this is also the first SF story sale for some of the writers, and the first fiction sale for at least one. Which is awesome!

It was really tough winnowing down the 100 odd submissions to this final selection, and there were great stories that I ultimately wasn’t able to include for fairly random reasons. I did a first slush read and narrowed the list down to a group of “maybes” that ended up being the length of two novels. And then I had to refine that down to “yeses plus maybes that are really very close to yes, but I need to think more about how the stories fit together”, which eventually went through the fire to become the final ToC. So by now I have read every story that has ended up in the anthology 5-6 times each, and I’m not sick of them yet — which I think is a good sign!

(I was also the pickiest editor Fixi has probably ever had, and can only be grateful to the authors for not telling me to bleep off, but instead doing sterling work on their stories.)

Recurring themes in the anthology: the war of the rich on the poor, religion (duh), moral policing, migrant labour, the multiple purposes of art, cities. It’s a very urban anthology; it’s a very Malaysian anthology. It’s skeptical but it’s also optimistic. I think people will enjoy reading it. I hope they find it as entertaining and heartening as I did, pulling it together.

It’s launching at the Cooler Lumpur Festival, whose theme this year is Dangerous Ideas — quite zhun because the anthology is full of dangerous ideas. The festival’s taking place this year from 12-14 June and I’m going to be doing a couple of things for them, and will of course be turning up to the launch if jet lag permits. So do come if you are around, and come say hello!