Category Archives: Malaysian writing

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!

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!

SorcererGalley

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 Tor.com:

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.

CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA Table of Contents

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!

Malaysian SFF writers and projects: a directory

I’ve been conscious for a while that I’m no longer able to keep up the list of Malaysian SFF writers in English that I put up awhile ago — because I’m busy, but also because there are more of us than ever! I think it is helpful to have a directory for interested readers and people who want to connect with other local writers, but it needs to be updated regularly if it’s to be of use.

So I have now set up a Google doc which people can update themselves to add their own details and projects:

Malaysian Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Directory

There are two worksheets — one for authors and one for projects. Guidelines for contributions are at the top of each worksheet. People should feel free to add writers or projects they’re aware of as well as the things they’ve done. Also, this directory differs from the original post, as people working in languages other than English should feel welcome to add their stuff to it. I only limited the original post to English because that’s the main language I read in.

The original post will stay up, but once the directory has been populated a bit more I will change the link in my sidebar so that it goes to the Google doc rather than the blog post, and the post will no longer be updated. I will be monitoring the directory and editing from time to time for formatting, etc., as well as deleting anything that seems inappropriate. Please comment on this post or email me if you have any questions or suggestions.

Q&A with Daphne Lee

I had a really interesting (and long!) email exchange with Daphne Lee of local, a reviews/opinion site focusing on Malaysian and Southeast Asian literature. We talked about writing fantasy, finding a voice in which to write Malaysian stories, how your reading influences your writing, Western/Malaysian publishing, and a bunch of other things. Read the interview at the link below!

Q&A: Zen Cho

A couple of other small updates:

There are 12 whole copies of SPIRITS ABROAD in stock at Amazon! Small victories, but after months of its either being out of stock or having only 2-3 copies available for sale on Amazon, this is very pleasing. (If you would like to buy the dead tree version of SPIRITS ABROAD but don’t want to give Amazon your money, friendly indie Big Green Bookshop should have a couple of copies for sale. They haven’t got it up on the website, but you can email them for details. And of course, there is always the ebook!)

Submissions for CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA have closed. Thanks to everyone who sent in a story. We’ve received 99 submissions and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into reading them and putting together the anthology.

Spirits on the move

A few Spirits Abroad-related updates ….

Fixi has sold (most of) the first print run, so the book has gone into a second printing! Really delighted about this. Thanks to everyone who bought a copy.

image

The book’s back in stock on Amazon, so you can order it here if you would like the paperback: Spirits Abroad at Amazon.

(If you want to order the book on Amazon, don’t worry if it looks as though it’s out of stock — the reason for this is that Amazon is conservative and only orders as many copies as it needs to fulfill customer orders, plus a few extra. But Amazon always orders enough to fulfill orders placed by customers, and Fixi has plenty of copies going spare, so if you place an order you’ll definitely get the book — it may just mean you’ll take a little while to receive it.)

And there’s always the ebook version, of course. Most of the Fixi Novo books are now available on Smashwords, if you’re interested in trying out Malaysian pulp: Fixi Novo at Smashwords.

image

Spirits Abroad is kind of the odd duck out, as I’ve now hiked up the price to a princely US$3.99, plus of course the lavish detail of Likhain‘s cover is very different from sleek Fixi Novo house style.

Speaking of which, Likhain’s posted about the process of creating the piece that became the cover: Call it abundance.

I want to say there are voices and stories that cradle our hearts when we’re at our most fragile and closest to breaking, and it’s these voices that we return to time and time again — we can trust them with our pain, our bodies, our selves.

image

She’s sending me the painting! So excited. We have just moved, and I dream of colours on our walls. (Er, leant against the walls rather than affixed to them in any way that would breach the terms of our lease, of course).

Likhain’s also a brilliant writer, and her poem has just appeared in Strange Horizons: Seeds by M Sereno.

Swallow a seed and it will sprout within you,
becoming your veins, invading your bones.
Those poets and conquerors knew this. Knew the mouth is an altar.

It’s about a lot of stuff. Do read it.