Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister opens with two lines that are likely to strike a familiar sense of dread among Malaysians of a certain generation, especially those of us who went to secondary school in the 1990s:
The first thing the ghost said to Jess was:
Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?
A pengkid refers to a “tomboy,” or a girl exhibiting what others perceive as a masculine appearance or masculine traits, and exists as a code for the word that no one wants to say: lesbian. In a Malay-Muslim majority country like Malaysia, gender identity and sexuality are heavily policed and criminalised. Being a pengkid in my all-girls secondary school came with a whiff of illicit danger that could seem exciting and daring to teenagers within an extremely conservative heterosexual milieu, who were just becoming aware of their own sexuality, and who didn’t see boys of their own age on a daily basis. But the actual reality of being queer in Malaysia comes with an incredibly heavy price. The conservatism of the political and cultural landscape is reflected in the mindset of many Malaysians still, regardless of their religion, and regardless of their age. However, the prevalence of religious judgment and its political weaponisation are the underlying threads of connection between the conservatisms of different stripes with regards to how anything outside of heterosexuality is seen as wrong.
From the first page, then, Black Water Sister situates protagonist Jess in the midst of the domination of right-wing politics and the culture wars that are the ever-present topics of contention in Malaysian society. When we meet Jess, she has moved back to Malaysia with her parents and is deep within the struggle about how to come out to them and her extended relatives. Things are not going well in multiple different ways for Jess at the moment, despite possessing the jewel of every Asian parent’s eye: a Harvard degree. Jess is in a secret relationship with a girlfriend in Singapore that no one knows about; no one in her family knows about her sexuality and she’s terrified about how they will react and how it will affect them; she’s jobless and lacking direction; her parents have a mountain of debt back in the States and have to live with their relatives in Penang while they find their feet again. To top it all off, there’s a ghost in her head.
The ghost, as it turns out, is Jess’s dead grandmother whom she has never met. Having died within the last year, it turns out that her grandmother, Ah Ma, has some duties to fulfill to a vengeful god, having been a medium for said god over the course of her life. This complicated family history, which involves her grandmother’s entanglement with a gang member who goes on to become one of the richest men in Malaysia, is a story that feels as familiar to a Malaysian as the buzz of mosquitoes in the humid evening air. Ah Ma, by using Jess’s body, needs to get some things settled in the earthly life before her soul can move on, hopefully to rest forever. But right now a woman’s work, as it turns out, is never done, and Jess is caught up in it, having to oblige ancestral wishes in order to protect herself and the rest of her family.
Cho weaves a compelling tale that contains within it deeply complex strands that make up the urban Malaysian experience. Embedded within this story of the wars between spirits, minor deities, gods, and humans are the multiple ways in which humans wage war on each other. Class and labour underlie most of the issues that send Jess down a path that brings her face to face with violence and brutality. It’s this particular violence that is buried beneath the everyday banality of city life in Penang: rich property developers, oppressed migrant labourers and women, land grabs under the guise of “the economy,” and a catalogue of human suffering.
The religious element, where spirituality and black magic collide in order to produce desired results on the earthly plane, is the essential theme at the heart of Cho’s book. The spiritual realm of wandering spirits and errant gods mimics the way in which power works in the mortal world. There is the ever-present injustice of power being at the hands of those most able to wield it: the rich and those with access to resources. But in the ghost of Ah Ma and the god known as the Black Water Sister, Cho attempts to show how women who suffer under the double oppressions of labour and patriarchy turn their lifetime of suffering into a kind of energy that lives on in the afterlife, to be harnessed by others who similarly need protection from the rich and the powerful who wreck their lives with such impunity. As Cho writes,
It reminded Jess how the Black Water Sister had died, what she had endured. Men like Master Yap became divine after living revered lives, dying serene deaths and getting promoted by the Jade Emperor. Women like the Black Water Sister became gods because their lives were so shitty, their deaths so hideous, that people prayed to them to avert their vengeance. Because they had died with all that fury left to spend.
Yet the Black Water Sister is so terrifying precisely because she fulfills the wishes of those who also want to do harm. By means of their prayer, she acts as a source of bad in the world, to: “poison healthy minds, blight lives, cause accidents.” Enabling acts of violence on humans, fortified by the strength of other humans who wish to do ill by praying to her, she re-lives the moment of her helplessness—her death at the hands of an abuser—and tries to gain control of that moment by taking on the power of a feared and fearsome god.
The spiritual element of the book is what I found most interesting, yet it left me with questions that I’ve tried to push to the back of my mind over the years: What are the gods for? And what is the point if there is no sense of universal justice, only actions determined by force and violence depending on who is wielding the power at any given time? The labourers, who are working in life-harming conditions while building the very monument that adds value to a billionaire, need to pray to their own minor god for protection; meanwhile, the billionaire has harnessed the energies of a more powerful god to ensure that he continues to prosper. If this is what gods are for, when will the meek ever inherit the earth?
This fundamental question is at the heart of the book, and it’s one that is impossible to answer, in life and in novels. It’s also impossible to live in Malaysia for a significant number of years and to not have encountered, personally or through word of mouth, the insinuations of the workings of black magic and spirituality that determines the fate and course of lives: it is seen to be the undercover force at work that prevents people from becoming rich or successful in their careers; it is the reason why marriages fail; it is the reason why children are born with disabilities; it is the reason why your elderly parents fall ill or have dementia; it is the reason why some families are unhappy; it is the reason why every appliance in your house blows out after a few months; it is the reason why some children are errant and don’t follow the good path and become a pengkid. By making Jess the involuntary medium of a vengeful yet traditional god, Cho deftly weaves in multiple issues in her novel and gives a fairly accurate depiction of the social and cultural pressures that weigh upon the average urban, middle-class Malaysian’s life. You can be an atheist or a rationalist, you can try to point out the flaws in the logic of the spirituality that people think is at work, but you cannot escape its effects. Is this, as Jess wonders, a “prison of our own making” in response to the political and social helplessness we collectively feel? To unionise is difficult and requires cooperation, education, and sustained energy; to consult a god simply requires some time after work and someone to take you to a temple located at the fringes of the city.
Read as a straight “fantasy,” Cho’s novel is a pleasure on multiple levels: atmosphere and dialogue being her chief strengths. The heat and humidity of Penang feel palpable; the action proceeds skilfully from Jess’s aunt’s spacious house to the back alleys of the city to the lush, verdant compound of the temple. The part where Jess’s mother says, “She can’t be a medium! She graduated from Harvard!” or when the Datuk Kong (a variation of the guardian spirit colloquially known as Dato or Datuk, the Malay term for grandfather), having done his part in offering some protection, humbly requests for an offering: “nasi dalca with mutton kurma and kerabu kacang botol,” provide genuine moments of levity in what is otherwise a menacing, disturbing story. You may have left the mortal world, but your mortal cravings for fragrant rice and spiced meat dishes remain. See, spirits are just like humans! And some of them only want to take care of people! #NotAllSpirits
But for many Malaysian readers, myself included, this novel also lays bare deeply discomforting issues that percolate beneath the seeming mundanity of everyday life. The gods are ever present, and as long as nefarious people are praying for their own nefarious ends, there seems to be no escape. The larger question looms: where does this all end, if not even in the afterlife? For a book that carries such weighty topics on its back, for all of its immersion in the social and cultural trauma particular to Malaysia, the ending—premised on a potential redemption arc for ghosts and humans alike that seems to imply that all of what was endured can be put behind for a better future, despite everyone being complicit in each other’s trauma—feels too pat, too tidy. The implication is that simply facing one’s demons, and perhaps giving it a good hug, can realign the energies of the universe for the greater good. But we all know that justice doesn’t arrive that easily, if it even arrives at all. The effects of a hard life are all too serious and real, and its effects are felt down the ancestral line. The novel’s resolution and imagined redemption, on the other hand, rings false. If one were to take a good look around, one would realise that these hauntings never end.