Review: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

… Embarrassing relatives became less of a problem after Vivian left Malaysia. In the modern Western country where she lived, the public toilets were clean, the newspapers were allowed to be as rude to the government as they liked, and nobody believed in magic except people in whom nobody believed.

— The First Witch of Damansara


If you live near the jungle, you will realize that what is real and what is not real is not always clear. In the forest there is not a big gap between the two.

— First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia


“That’s why you can’t share my nuggets,” Ah Lee said wildly. “They’re not not-halal because they’re make of pork. They’re not halal because they’re made of human.”

— The House of Aunts


That is the sound of me swooning at the mention of Zen Cho’s short story collection Spirits Abroad.

… it seemed outrageous to her that all their efforts should have been foiled by a chimney.

— One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland


Jia Qi could still Tiong Han and Simon’s legs under the lion’s head. The lion always started off as human. In the beginning you could tell it was paint and wood and paper and cloth. At the start it was only a show.

— (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows)


Belinda seemed to think that using tactful words for unfortunate things could make unpleasantness go away. The tactic had not worked with the eleven boys unrequitedly in love with her, but she kept trying – as did they.

— The Mystery of the Suet Swain


If you’ve read Sorcerer to the Crown, I don’t need to say more; you’re already running to the bookstore to buy Spirits Abroad. But if you haven’t been introduced to the glory that is Zen Cho’s writing (here is a very good place to start), you might want to sit down with something pungent handy to fend off going faint in the knees with bliss. A durian will do.

Why I Love This Book:

  1. Dragons! Pontianak! Spirits! Kuang shi! Fae! Orang bunians! Nüguo! Ghosts! The world is richly populated with relatives, friends, lovers, and sometimes enemies who are not – or not entirely – human.
  2. Pardon me, I’m just going to swoon over the relationships all over again. Six determined aunts, one stubborn grandmother, a quick-tempered younger sister, room-mates, best friends, inconveniently persistent dragons, land-lords as hard to pin down as Howl Jenkins, adopted children – the characters breathe. They shout from the page and leap off it, they lecture the reader, they become friends…
  3. The stories are pointed, funny, deep, sometimes sad. You will laugh and then realize that a remark is aimed at you. And you will agree.
  4. The speech patterns, the cultural background, the many ethnic and religious groups hanging out together, the non-human populations, often the setting as well, are intensely Malaysian, and I love it. Technically, of course, this book isn’t translated, and in fact many words are not translated into English at all. They don’t need to be.
  5. This also, technically, is not children’s literature. Ha! As if anyone who can ready YA would not devour these stories. (Also, could whoever complies those short story anthologies for high school use PLEASE replace those gloomy, depressing, and largely-white-male tales with these? Generations of students will thank you on bended knee.)
  6. I love how the assumption of a white audience is tossed out the window. Did I understand everything? I think so. Would my understanding be deeper if I had a preexisting knowledge of Malaysian folklore and customs? Absolutely! Did my lack of this knowledge mandate non-comprehension? Not in the least. The stories draw the reader in swiftly and surely; the first paragraph of the first story alone is impossible to resist.
  7. The depiction of love. Sibling love, parent-child and grandparent-grandchild love, best friend love, romantic love – okay, we’re back to the relationship thing again. The relationships are so good. You will swoon. Just you wait.
  8. It is such a relief to read stories that are so wholly, so effortlessly feminist. Reading, one can almost forget that there are people who are not intersectional feminists. It is such a release to leave those people behind and step into a world – into ten worlds – where anything is possible.
  9. Did I mention that one story is set several centuries after Sorcerer to the Crown?

“Come away with me,” said Zheng Yi. “I will show you sorcerous wonders, the likes of which you have never imagined. You will learn how to put your hand into fire and grasp its beating heart. You will speak to fairies, and they will speak back if they know what’s good for them. I will teach you the secrets of the moon and the language of the stars.”

Prudence threw the hairdryer at him.

“I’m not interested in astronomy!” she snapped.

— Prudence and the Dragon


Highly recommended.