Jessamyn Teoh is at a crossroads: When we meet her, the central figure in Zen Cho’s new Black Water Sister, she is freshly graduated, unemployed and has to support her parents who have moved away from their home in Malaysia after their American dream.
And of course strange things can happen at an intersection. Jess lives with her family in Penang, the capital of Malaysia, hiding her sexuality and aimlessly looking for jobs. She hears a voice in her head. It’s Ah Ma, the dead, estranged grandmother she never knew.
In life, Ah Ma was a medium, the army of a god called the Black Water Sister. And in life, she and her god were hurt by a local bigwig. Now, after death, Ah Ma has a job for Jess: Get Even.
At first, Jess is scared of the Black Water Sister. But as it turns out, she’s pretty well suited to being a medium. “Jess is diaspora and queer, and both things are a bit like a spirit among the living or a life among spirits,” Cho tells me in an email interview.
“It’s something that sets you apart from the rest of the world, and sets you apart from what’s standard and treated as real. That’s an explanation that is outside of the book. The internal explanation, according to the book’s narrative logic, is that Jess is Ah Ma’s true legacy – she is the only person in her family most like Ah Ma. “
It seems like everyone has expectations and assumptions about Jess – especially Ah Ma, who only casually feels entitled to have the property on her mind. She doesn’t have much power when the story begins.
Maybe not. Being in your early twenties, just leaving college, can be a difficult place. You don’t know yourself completely yet and are prone to being kidnapped by external pressure. Jess’ external pressure just takes an unusually persistent and intrusive form!
Language is such a big part of the world structure here – I liked the rhythms of all the speeches and the way I had to figure out a series of words from context. How did you develop the character voices?
The voices naturally came to me once I worked out the premise. So I knew it was the right book to write about. The characters are all like people I know in real life, just heightened for dramatic effects. For example, I know a lot of pushy aunts, even if none of them are ghosts or are involved in organized crime. And Manglish (Malay English), which borrows words, phrases and grammatical structures from Malay, Chinese dialect, Tamil and probably more, is my native language, so it was easy to write the dialogue in it.
During the editing phase, there was some discussion about whether the non-English words and terms that would be unfamiliar to a Western audience should be explained, translated, or footnoted. I had a strong feeling that this shouldn’t be the case, not least because it is unnecessary. As a child in Malaysia, I read so much British and American literature that presupposed so much cultural knowledge and was unsettled, but as a reader you can find things out of context. I don’t really know what the DMV is to this day, but I found out that you can get your driver’s license there.
To me, Jess, Black Water Sister and Ah Ma felt almost like a trio of virgin, mother and woman, like aspects of each other.
They definitely act as images of each other. The Blackwater Sister is the goddess who serves Ah Ma, but she was also once human before she was idolized, and as a human, she was not dissimilar to Ah Ma – a working class woman in an intensely patriarchal society. Jess is, of course, Ah Ma’s granddaughter, and it is specifically stated that she is like Ah Ma – she is “smart at being angry” like Ah Ma, and she looks like her. And when Jess reluctantly becomes the medium of the Blackwater Sister, the lines between her and the goddess blur.
Of course, Jess is also very different from Ah Ma and the Black Water Sister. The most important difference is that Jess was born in modern times to parents who value her no less for being a daughter and who believe that she should be educated and safe and happy. As powerless as she may seem, that doesn’t give her resources to Ah Ma or the Blackwater Sister.