Category Archives: Other People’s Stories

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.


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.



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!

Publications in 2015

I generally manage to avoid reading discussion of my writing, but one time I did see someone describe me as “not prolific”. I was all indignant: how can?! I write so many words, OK, all things considered!

But the melancholy truth is that I’m not very prolific. Given sufficient time I can crank out a decent number of words, but a fairly low percentage is fit for human consumption. Still, in 2015 my list of publications was short but satisfying.

Short fiction: Monkey King, Faerie Queen in Kaleidotrope (April 2015)

This was a hard story to sell, which puzzled me because it’s one of my favourite of my short stories. It’s about Sun Wukong wreaking havoc in Fairyland. What’s not to love? I’m pleased it found a great home in the end.

Anthology (editor): Cyberpunk: Malaysia, Fixi Novo (June 2015)

CyberpunkMalaysiaebookcoverwithtitleI edited Cyberpunk: Malaysia, which was a great experience but way too much hard work for me to want to repeat it! I’m really proud of it — it’s a great collection of stories and as good an introduction to urban Malaysia as you can get anywhere else.

Novel: Sorcerer to the Crown, Ace/Macmillan (September 2015)

IMG_0668My first published novel! It’s been wild having it out in the world. Currently it’s out in hardcover in the US, UK and elsewhere, and I never get tired of wandering into bookshops and seeing it on shelves. I find it even more exciting seeing it in libraries and seeing holds (!!) on the book. There’s also an audiobook, which I’m told is well done: US | UK (it’s the same audiobook, just different versions of Audible). Thank you so much to everyone who’s read it, reviewed it, posted about it on social media, and told me they enjoyed it. I’m very grateful.

Nonfiction: It’s sort of overegging it to call it nonfiction, but I did write a lot of guest posts, email interviews and the like this year, and people seemed to enjoy my Publishing Journey series of blog posts. I plan to write more! But must finish book 2 first. >:| <– this is my determined face

The list will be even shorter this year as the follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t scheduled for publication till 2017, but I do have at least one thing planned. You can sign up to my new release mailing list if you want to hear about new publications as they happen! It’s very low volume — I just send out an email when there’s something new by me that can be bought/read.

Catch-up: Science fiction, social justice and a film made from coasters

Happy New Year! It’s been quiet on this blog lately as I’ve been absorbed in working on the follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown and then took a complete break from writing over Christmas and New Year. It felt a bit alarming to be taking a rest with a deadline looming, but I think it was a good idea — there’s still a ton of work to be done, but I feel rejuvenated and much more capable of tackling it. I’ll probably stay pretty quiet till the book has been turned in, but here are some recent bits and bobs:

The Star did an end-of-year feature on me: Malaysian author Zen Cho: Forget critics, focus on the story. Thanks to Terence Toh for the write-up!

In December I was on a panel discussing science fiction and social justice with Daniel Jose Older, Walidah Imarisha and Mark Oshiro for Al Jazeera’s The Stream, an online daily TV show: Sci-fi for social change. First time I’ve done a panel via Skype!

Speaking of panels and diversity, I’ll be participating in Bare Lit Festival, the first UK literary festival focusing on authors of colour, run by Media Diversified. It’s taking place in February 2016 and I’m really looking forward to it. They’re fundraising to cover costs at the moment — do consider chipping in if it sounds like a worthwhile project to you: Bare Lit Festival fundraiser.

And my brother We Jun’s short film Coaster is out! It’s sponsored by Tiger Beer, who got people to send in story ideas on beer coasters — and picked the cast and crew based on coaster submissions! The film is a stylish, atmospheric story of revenge. It’s 15 minutes long and you can watch it on YouTube:

Nine Worlds 2015 update + book preorders

Nine Worldzzzz

On top of my three panels and a reading, I’ll now also be on Paul Cornell’s Only A Moment quiz panel on Saturday night at Nine Worlds. It’s a take-off of a well-known British radio and TV show. You’re supposed to talk for one minute on a topic given to you without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Those are my three greatest strengths in conversation! Updated full schedule here — do come and watch my inevitable downfall.

Thanks to everyone who’s ordered copies of SPIRITS ABROAD and CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA for receipt at Nine Worlds. I’ll be there from Friday and will try to set aside some time per day to just sit in the lobby or another easy-to-find public area with the books, so people can come pick them up from me. I’ll say where I am on Twitter, so keep an eye on that. I’ll also contact pre-orderers directly.

The books will be available in the dealers’ room for those who haven’t pre-ordered. Each will come with a SORCERER TO THE CROWN postcard inside it, like this:

A photo posted by Zen (@zenaldehyde) on

I haven’t got that many of these, but if you catch me at the con and would like a postcard, just ask — I might have a few left!

Sorcerer to the Crown limited first editions

Fabulous first edition bookshop Goldsboro Books is going to be stocking a limited edition of SORCERER TO THE CROWN! It will be hardcover, signed and numbered and will have SPRAYED EDGES. (If you don’t know what sprayed edges are, this great Hodderscape post on the physical make-up of a book will tell you.)

I have to say that I am personally a practical ebook/mass market paperback sort of person: small, affordable, portable paperbacks are the books I grew up on, and I’ve only started buying hardcovers recently to support people I know. It’s kind of dumb because I then end up not reading them, since my only real reading time nowadays is on my commute and I am already mean enough to my back and shoulders, not to haul around the sort of tome my friends and acquaintances produce. (THANKS, KEN LIU.)

But it is very exciting to think that SORCERER will have sprayed edges, and having seen the cover proof, I can tell you with confidence that the book is going to be a beautiful object — whatever you think of its contents! There will be only 250 copies of the limited edition. You can pre-order one here.


I am going to have copies of the super rare and totally awesome SPIRITS ABROAD and CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA paperbacks at Nine Worlds! A few of them are already reserved:


I KNEW I was going to find a retrospective excuse for having bought these incredibly cute post-it notes at Daiso.


And here’s what CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA looks like in the flesh. Shiny and chrome!

I’m hoping the books will be available at the Nine Worlds dealers’ room, but I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to arrange that. However, you can place an order for the books now and/or buy them from me directly at the con!

I am selling the books for £5.00 each, and I am happy to sign and personalise them for you. You can even ask me to do a doodle! I can only draw friendly elephants, though. Also, there will be ultra secret, super exclusive SORCERER TO THE CROWN swag, which I will totally give you FOR FREE. (I mean, I don’t want to inflate expectations. It’s just stationery. But I think it’s going to be nice stationery!)

If you think you’d like to buy them from me in person, I will beg you now to bring a £5 note if at all possible. Of course, it’s easiest if you pre-order using the form below — that will enable me to put aside a copy for you, as stocks are limited. And also it means I don’t have scrounge up £5 bills!


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Aliens vs. cyborgs

The days have been such a blur* since I arrived in Malaysia that I forgot to post about this article I wrote for Poskod.MY sempena Cooler Lumpur:

What being an alien taught me about stories

I am eight years old, a new pupil at SRJK (C) Kwang Hwa.

“This is my new friend from England,” chirps my classmate when she introduces me. I have never been to England in my life, but why should she know the difference between USA and England? Here in Penang both countries seem equally distant and unreal.

My family moved from Malaysia to the US for a couple of years when I was a kid, so by that age I already knew what it was to be an alien.

Basically it’s me wondering aloud “what is the proper subject of the Asian/Malaysian writer?”

Don’t forget I’m running two giveaways for my anthology CYBERPUNK: MALAYSIA. Enter for free, win a book that is both shiny and chrome!


* I haven’t really been busy, unless you count “sleeping only three hours a night” and “obsessing over the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell BBC series” as being busy. I do, but I admit there may be legitimate differences upon the point …