I recently came back to Penang from America, a move between accents, languages, cultures, and names. Coming back to Malaysia—where kaypoh aunties with strong opinions about what is acceptable abound—always means taking a black marker to the ever-growing file of my life. Don’t say anything on the thorny subject of my grandmother. Don’t let slip anything gay, least of all the person I dated in college. Don’t let anyone—especially not my parents, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much—see how much it is killing me to be the one who holds all their expectations and dreams.
If this sounds exactly like the premise of Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, that’s because it is. Jess is closeted, unemployed, and uncertain if she really wants to move to a country she left when she was a toddler. When she starts hearing the voice of her dead Ah Ma in her head, she finds herself unexpectedly sucked into a world of hungry ghosts and hungrier gods, who use humans—in some ways, the hungriest of all—to carry out their wishes. Ah Ma is stubborn, acerbic, and determined to strike against a gang boss who offended her god. Through Jess, the will of the Black Water Sister has a conduit. But is Jess willing to be a vessel for the vengeful god?
At its heart, this book isn’t about ghosts, or queerness, or complicated relationships with family and culture (though it certainly contains all of these things). This is a book about the violence and injustice done to women who are bound by love or propriety or culture or religion to people who hurt them. From Ah Ma, who toiled in the rubber plantations only to return at dusk to an abusive husband, to Jess’s mother, who struggled for 19 years as an immigrant in America, to Jess herself, Black Water Sister provides a rare glimpse into the complexities of multiple generations in a Malaysian Chinese family. Even the minor comedic characters—most notably Jess’s Kor Kor (paternal aunt), who spends a significant chunk of time trying to convert Jess to Christianity—feel so authentically messy and well-intentioned that they take on a life of their own beyond the page.
And oh, how can I not talk about Penang as it appears in the book! Between Pak Din’s nasi dalca (which is indeed on Jalan Jelutong) and the mention of older uncles walking backwards in the Botanic Gardens (still a common sight despite the current MCO), the Penang Jess lands in is one that I immediately recognize from my own life. Cho also briefly touches on the plight of Malaysia’s migrant workforce, and, while she avoids getting too embroiled in the issue, her decision to paint them into this contemporary picture of Penang is a quiet assertion that migrant workers are an integral part of Malaysian community, and that we must uphold the basic human rights of races other than Indian, Chinese, and Malay.
I hesitate to speak of representation or authenticity when the reality is that books tagged #ownvoices and #diversereads are too often held to impossible standards in order to determine if they are “good representation.” I hesitate to even call this an “#ownvoices review,” because, though I am recently graduated, unemployed, lesbian, and spend my days sitting around in a general haze of depression, and in that regard my narrative is essentially interchangeable with Jess’s, no one review—mine or anyone else’s—should be made to represent an entire state, country, people. All I will say is that this is a book about Malaysia, written by a Malaysian, about a Malaysian, reviewed and highly recommended by a Malaysian. Qualifiers such as “raised abroad” or “love interest is tertiary to the plot” detract from the understated beauty Cho has captured in these pages: the in-betweenness of diaspora, queerness, and just how far a ghost can travel to haunt you.