In Zen Cho's "The House of Aunts," a newcomer to a small town falls in love with a taciturn loner at their new high school. As their friendship deepens, strange details begin to accumulate around the mysterious paramour. Finally, they turn out to be a vampire, turned as a teenager, and compelled to live the life of a normal kid by their large, close-knit vampire clan.
There's probably an interesting discussion to be had about how, in the short three-years-and-change since "The House of Aunts"'s publication, we've gotten past our need to be outraged over Twilight so that we can more fully devote ourselves to being outraged over Fifty Shades of Grey. Nevertheless, even in 2015, Cho's reference point is as obvious as her games with the Twilight premise are delightful. For one thing, in her telling of the story, the vampire is the girl. For another, the vampire is the story's protagonist. For a third, the vampire isn't a vampire, but a pontianak, a creature out of Malaysian folklore who is said to rip out the intestines of its victims. And for a fourth and most important difference, while "The House of Aunts" is a love story, it is very definite about the kind of love that it considers most important, and most nurturing. When teenage vampire Ah Lee's large clan of vampire aunts decide to hunt down and eat her paramour Ridzual (for, it must be said, thoroughly justified reasons), Ah Lee acts like a proper YA heroine and stands up for her love ("'Who ask you to eat my schoolmate?' she said shrilly. 'How'm I suppose to go back to school now? So lose face!'" [p. 113]). But then she sends the boy away, because "I need to talk to my family" (p. 114).
The most refreshing and powerful statement made by "The House of Aunts" is its reminder that, for young people in particular, the bonds of family can be much more important than the object of a weeks-old infatuation. Though Ah Lee rebels against her aunts and craves relationships outside their sometimes stifling group, she also depends on their no-nonsense attitude and uncompromising support. Ah Lee's romance with Ridzual is sweetly and tenderly drawn, and the reader can't help but hope that they'll make things work. But the genius of "The House of Aunts," and its true focus, is in how it paints the bond between Ah Lee and her aunts as something that would quite obviously drive any teenage girl out of her mind with frustration, but which is simultaneously the most nurturing, loving environment any child could hope for.
She sat down on the sofa in the living room and wept for half an hour.
"Girl, what's the matter?" said Ji Ee.
"What's happening?" said Ah Chor.
"Hao ah," said Ah Ma. "Crying!"
"Crying?" said Ah Chor. "Ah Lee is crying?"
"You're crying, is it?" said Sa Ee Poh.
The diagnosis bounced from aunt to aunt, each aunt repeating it to another for certainty.
"So old already still crying!" said Ah Chor.
"Nobody has died. Your stomach is not empty. What is there to cry about?" said Sa Ee Poh.
"Ah girl, don't cry lah, ah girl." said Ji Ee. (p. 102)
The story ends with Ah Lee and Ridzual getting over their difficulties, but the purpose of their reconciliation is less to end on a note of romance, and more to finally reveal to the reader how Ah Lee became a vampire, and how her aunts supported her even in the face of mistakes and public shame. The story's conclusion—"With six aunts behind you, you can be anything" (p. 125)—leaves very little question which love story we should be focusing on.
"The House of Aunts" is not the only story in Cho's debut collection, Spirits Abroad (which collects ten stories, three original to this volume), to take a familiar piece of Western pop culture and transform it not only by making its setting or characters Malaysian, but by inverting its assumptions about gender and relationships. "The Mystery of the Suet Stain" reimagines Holmes and Watson as Sham and Belinda, Malaysian students in Cambridge. Here, Holmes's aloofness is partially the result of Sham's being a lesbian, and thus left out of the games of heterosexual matchmaking rife within the close-knit Malaysian community. Watson's affability, meanwhile, becomes something much less benign when he's recast as a beautiful girl who doesn't know how to turn away her insistent, demanding suitors—one of whom may be a demon whom only Sham can get rid of. "One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland," meanwhile, is a familiar story of fairies turning up in an English boarding school, but the students in this case are recent arrivals from Asia, who are annoyed at being asked to deal with this incursion of alien folklore.
It would be a disservice, however, to sum up Spirits Abroad—the co-winner, along with Stephanie Feldman's The Angel of Losses, of last year's Crawford Award for debut fantasy—as a pastiche of Western popular culture. All three stories discussed are vibrant pieces of work in their own right, whether or not you can spot the reference (as noted already, Twilight's moment of zeitgeist is nearly over, and yet "The House of Aunts" is as moving and funny today as it was when I first read it three years ago, and will probably long outlive its reference point). In other stories in the collection, Cho draws more purely on Malaysian folklore and on its intersections with modern life, with equally vivid results, and it is the presence of that cultural influence that rings most powerfully in all the works here. What ties the collection together, and makes it a unique and important work of modern fantasy, is its focus on culture and community. Whether they are living in their ancestral home or venturing far away from it—whether they are human or fantastical—the characters in these stories are shaped, guided, and rooted in their culture, their history, and their family, and it is those ties that remain paramount throughout their adventures.
Divided into three parts—"Here," which contains stories set in Malaysia; "There," whose stories are about Malaysian characters in the UK; and "Elsewhere," about worlds that are futuristic, fantastic, or both—Spirits Abroad is characterized by Cho's wry humor and her ability to sum up a character, a situation, or a mood in a few well-chosen words. A character's parents embrace her "with sportsmanlike enthusiasm" (p. 13), a young community organizer is "a long, bony piece of irony" (p. 41). That ability to say so much with just a few words is a crucial tool in Cho's efforts to convey how her characters and situations are shaped by the history and community that surround them. In "The First Witch of Damansara," the atheism of the heroine's late grandmother is hushed up, "less out of a concern that [Nai Nai] would be outed as a witch, than because of the stale leftover fear that she would be considered a Communist" (p. 15). Even an outsider to Malaysia's history can't help but pick up on the wealth of cultural and political nuances in that sentence—the way that atheism and Communism are juxtaposed, the fact that fear of being tarred as a Communist is "leftover."
"The First Witch of Damansara" initially seems like a story about a clash of cultures—its heroine, Vivian, lives in the UK, shocks her parents with her revealing clothing, and is the only member of her family without magical powers, to the disgust of her more traditional younger sister. With obvious symbolism, she spends the story debating whether she will be married to her British fiancé wearing a Western wedding dress (whose white color is symbolic of death in many Asian cultures) or in a bright red cheongsam. But if the story's premise leads us to expect a crisis, and a forced choice between the two cultures paralleling the choice of marriage apparel, its conclusion is that there is no choice at all. No matter what clothes she wears, Vivian can't be anything but the product of the culture and family she was raised in. Far from being disconnected from her roots, it is she who is able to lay the unquiet spirit of her grandmother to rest, to ensure that she is given the funeral rites that would have made her happy, and to make peace within her family.
Despite the presence of stories that riff on Western culture, Spirits Abroad isn't interested in cosseting or handholding Western readers. Malaysian and Chinese terms are dropped into the narrative with little or no explanation (and, in keeping with the manifesto of publisher Fixi Novo with which the book opens, are not italicized), and the nuances of the communities the stories are set in—Malaysian villages, space colonies, and student dorms alike—are treated as the norm, not an alien puzzle to be worked out. A particularly strong example of this is "The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia," in which the organizers of the titular congress discover that among their delegates are representatives of orang bunian, invisible spirits out of Malaysian folklore, who complain: "Don't we deserve the chance to fight for our rights? Nobody ever did a survey of our opinions. Nobody wants to know what we think. We are being marginalized!" (p. 51). The beauty of the story, however, is in conveying how the orang bunian's marginalization is part of the complex tapestry of ethnicities, religions, and interests in Malaysia—as soon as the spirit delegate makes their presence known, a debate springs up over whether they are Malaysian or Chinese, Muslim or Buddhist, and thus to which group they belong, or have the right to claim belonging to.
There's a wealth of history and politics in stories like "The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia" that is almost impossible for an outsider to parse (for example, and as noted by Cho in a recent interview with Sofia Samatar, a complicating aspect of her own ethnicity is the fact that she is not just Malaysian, but Malaysian-Chinese; it's a nuance whose full import foreign readers will have trouble grasping, and yet its presence can be clearly sensed in several of the stories in the collection). But Cho's characters are so immersed in their settings that getting to know them inevitably results in learning those settings. All of her characters, be they home or abroad, are steeped in a sense of community, of belonging in a particular place, and of taking that sense of place with you when you leave home. That feeling of belonging is something that can shift and change, which sometimes incorporates loss and social anxiety. The final story in the collection, "The Four Generations of Chang E," is an allegory of immigration and transformation, in which four generations of women make their way from the Earth to the Moon, defying the traditions of their own culture and prejudices of outsiders to make new lives for themselves, until finally the last of them realizes that "Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home" (p. 284). But for every character in this collection, some ties to the past and to their community still exist. Just as Ah Lee needs her aunts more than she needs her boyfriend, the characters in the other stories in Spirits Abroad need their bedrock of familiar culture, even if they've chosen to leave home or to rebel.
It is from this tension between rebellion and community that most of the stories in Spirits Abroad draw their humor. To put it another way, Cho writes in a romantic mode (she has also written works of mimetic romance, such as the novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo), but with a decidedly matter-of-fact sensibility. No matter how fantastical the events of her stories—or how romantic their proceedings—her characters are standing on a solid foundation of good sense, which reminds them that love is great, but what about getting good grades? So the narrator of "The Earth Spirit's Favorite Anecdote" may be a magical creature seeking the permission of the forest to dig a hole, but what he's really after is a business arrangement, and he's befuddled and wrongfooted when love comes into the picture. "Prudence and the Dragon" begins with a dose of pure surrealism:
The buses in London turned into giant cats—tigers and leopards and jaguars with hollow bodies in which passengers sat. You could still use your Oyster card on them, but bus usage dropped: the seats were soft and pink and sucked at you in a disturbingly organic way when you sat down, and the buses were given to stopping in the middle of the road to quarrel with one another. (p. 204-5)
But the story quickly becomes a domestic drama, with the titular dragon setting his sights on mousy, oblivious medical student Prudence as the maiden whom he plans to whisk off to another dimension, in the meantime appearing perfectly happy to wait on her hand and foot.
When I first read "The House of Aunts" three years ago I was stunned by its inventiveness, its vivid depiction of its setting and culture, and the deep feeling that underpinned its central relationship between Ah Lee and her aunts. I marked Cho as an author to watch, and Spirits Abroad cements my feeling that she is one of the most exciting voices in genre writing right now. Her wry and incisive portraits of Malaysian folklore and culture are fascinating to an outsider like myself, but what makes her remarkable as a genre writer is the light, assured touch of her fantastic worldbuilding, and the humor she leavens it with. An excellent collection in its own right, Spirits Abroad is also hopefully a promise of even greater things to come.