Category Archives: Personal

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.)

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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.

My publishing journey: Love and resource

I know I said I was winding up my Publishing Journey posts for now, but I had another thought: about love and resource, and the debts we owe. It’s quite a big thought, so bear with me.

IMG_0670A few years ago I got a daruma and was told how you draw in one eye when there’s something you want, and you draw in the other eye when you have got it. I drew in one eye and then I waited. The thing I wanted was the same wish I always made, when visiting temples and blowing out birthday candles.

Like many writers, I have wanted to be a published novelist since I was very small. Of course when you are small you don’t really know what that means. You don’t think about the New York Big Five or global distribution or advances or royalties or awards or reviews. What you want is very simple: to be on the shelf next to the books you love. It’s to be as important, as interesting, as true, as a story.

Publication does not give you that. But it comes to stand for that. I grew up devouring Penguin books and now I am a Penguin author. It might not last, but it happened. Imagine that.

Even though publication is no longer what it was — even though I know that’s not what it means — it still feels enormously satisfying. It still feels like a gift I have given six-year-old me.

But that’s not true, is it? It’s been a very busy, though happy, few months for me, and I have been thinking about resource. What an enormous amount of love and time and resource has been poured into me.

Though I do work hard, I’m always conscious at the back of my mind of how little I have to do with anything I achieve. A while ago I realised with embarrassment that I did not mention in my post about revisions how much work my agent Caitlin Blasdell and editor Diana Gill did on the book. Hannah Bowman, who is not even my agent, read the manuscript twice before it went on submission. The post makes it sound like I was the only one working, but of course that is not true. And we have not even got to the people who typeset the book, who proofread it (and had to put up with my nerdy responses: “I think you’ll find the OED says that word has been in use since the 16th century … “), who have been sorting out publicity and marketing and sending advance copies all over the place, etc. etc. etc.

But much as I appreciate all that work, these are, after all, people for whom it is their job. They hope to see some concrete benefit from their work — and I certainly hope they do. Who I really think about when I think about love and resource is my maternal grandmother, my Ah Ma, who passed away earlier this year.

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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.

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 …

Strawberry Hills forever

Phew! It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks at work, but I had a day off today. (A whole day off! Er, if you don’t count working till 2 am this morning. Which, let’s not for these purposes. Whole day off!!) So Cephas and I went to Strawberry Hill House!


Strawberry Hill House is basically a troll house. As in, Horace Walpole was totally trolling via the medium of architecture. This is the only conclusion I can come to about a house that has wallpaper that is meant to make the walls look like they are made of carved Gothick stone.

(The walls don’t look like they’re made of stone. What they do look like is super cheesy!)

Horace Walpole also had a tiny pretty room dedicated solely to fanart of his novel The Mysterious Mother. I wish I was rich enough to build a room dedicated to fanart of my work. I mean, it would be empty, but still, it would be such an optimistic thing to have.

Pictures under the cut!

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