Interview: Zen Cho

This interview was first published on the now deleted local blog on 2nd January, 2015


Zen Cho is the author of Spirits Abroad, published by Fixi NOVO, and editor of the imprint’s upcoming Cyberpunk anthology. She is also the self-published author ofThe Perilous Life of Jade Yeo.

This Q&A with Cho was carried out via email and was in danger of going on indefinitely as her answers raised even more questions and also gave me plenty of food for thought …

The Magic Faraway Tree and Blyton’s other books that feature magic, fairies and other non-human characters were a great source of wonder and inspiration for young Malaysian readers.

Tell us a little about the evolution of your writing. Have you always written fantasy? Either way, how has and why (do you think) your writing changed from the time you first started writing fiction til now? 

I started writing when I was a kid, writing lots of first pages inspired by Disney films and Enid Blyton. But I only started sharing it with other people when I got into writing fanfic in my teens. In my twenties I finally figured out how to write original fiction for publication, and haven’t stopped yet.

Fantasy has always been a big part of the things I’ve written.

The main thing that’s changed over time is I think I’ve found my voice. Because I primarily only read books in English I’ve always been heavily influenced by Western tropes, and that’s been hard to get away from in my writing. I’m still figuring out what I want to say in my fiction and how to say it, but I think I’m starting to get a grip on that.

With you, is writing like an addiction? How long can you go without it?
Not at all! I find writing quite hard and try to avoid it as much as I can, haha. I’ve been blocked for years at a time before, so I can go a long time without doing it. But I feel better about everything if I’m writing regularly, so I make myself do it. It’s a bit like exercise! It’s not that fun most of the time, but it’s rewarding.

Of course when the writing goes well, there’s nothing like it.

My problem is that I grew up reading a certain kind of fiction, say by Elizabeth Bowen, so, in the beginning I was writing in a way that did not gel with local content. What sort of books did you read as a child and a teen? And did they influence the way you wrote (and write), and if so, how?
That’s interesting, and it totally makes sense to me. I really had to grope for a natural, unself-conscious voice in which to write about Malaysia and Malaysians. In a way I guess that’s what every writer has to do, no matter their background – find their own voice – though maybe we’re hampered by not having as many models as an American or British writer would have.

terry p
Reading Pratchett might have sealed Cho’s fate as a fantasy writer.

I have a very standard ex-British colony background in terms of childhood/teenage reading. Lots of British kids’ lit – Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, E. Nesbit – then a lot of the Penguin Popular Classics, because they were so cheap. They used to sell for RM5.80 per book. So that was Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. I read Lord of the Rings when I was 12 and found Terry Pratchett when I was 13, and that must have sealed my fate as a fantasy writer!

Jade YeoDo you only write fantasy and scifi? If so, why?
Nope, I write other things as well, though SFF predominates at the moment (more F than SF). My self-published novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is historical romance, and my short story Double-Blind in Fixi Novo’s Love in Penang anthology is contemporary.

I’m never really sure how to answer this question, to be honest. All writing to me is about imagining alternate worlds — even if you’re trying to represent the real world as you see it, as a writer you have to build it from scratch in your story and persuade people to believe in the simulacrum. So my question is, how do people decide never to include fantastical elements in their work? Why do writers choose the genre “depressing stories about middle-class venality, with no dragons anywhere”? It’s a mystery to me!

I think, in some cases, it could be because these writers have no experience of worlds containing dragons, in the fiction they do read. There has to be some seeds for the imagination to grow and no dragon (and other kinds of fantastical) seeds have been planted in their consciousness.
But cannot be these flers have really never had any fantastical seeds planted in their heads, right? Did they miss all the episodes of Journey to the West? Never watchDragonball or Doraemon or Sailor Moon? Never hear of Taming Sari or Puteri Gunung Ledang? Never have a relative or a friend or a teacher who told them about ghosts or jampi, in Malaysia? Human beings believe such weird things. I feel like the fantastical is the air we breathe.

spirits abroad
Spirits Abroad: The print edition’s cover (left) is by Teck Hee, while the e-book cover is by Likhain.

Having read so many manuscripts by Malaysian writers about beautiful vampires, aspiring wizards and sword-wielding heroes on quests, we love that your stories in Spirits Abroad don’t reference the western traditions of the genre. What and who are your influences and inspirations?

I think Spirits Abroad is in conversation with a lot of Western SFF genre traditions, actually. ‘The House of Aunts’ is literally inspired by Twilight. But it’s true that the stories don’t just adopt Western vampires, wizards, etc, and that was a conscious choice.

True, even if you do write about vampires, they don’t come off as derivative. Now that you mention Twilight I can see what you mean about House of Aunts being inspired by it, but the premise of the story and the characters are wholly original and so it’s not immediately obvious. 

I think Malaysian writers benefit from being exposed to lots of different sources of inspiration, across countries and cultures, and with a bit of effort we can produce art and books that are both authentically Malaysian and kind of authentically everything.

poppiesMy oldest literary influences are primarily Western writers, but Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh represents what I’d like to be able to do some day a big, smart, funny book, packed with romance and adventure, informed by history and glorying in the richness and diversity of its non-Western setting. My other big inspiration in what I try do with my writing is my family. My mum has given me an enormous amount of material, though she doesn’t actually like my stories because they’re all about dead people. Pantang!

What do the rest of your family think about your writing? Are you a lawyer by profession? Do you get nagged about wasting your time writing?
Oh, they’re really proud and supportive. My parents definitely did that Asian thing of “study a sensible subject so you have a back-up plan”. But my mum is very artistic and I remember her writing stories when I was a kid. They don’t nag me about spending time writing at all; they can see I’m quite practical about it. I think they treated it a bit more like a hobby before I started getting published – once I had an actual book out it became more real to them.

Why do you think there is so little Malaysian fantasy, given the region’s folklore and love for the supernatural? 
It depends on how you define fantasy! If you include horror – and there’s an argument that science fiction and horror are just subgenres of fantasy – we have plenty of that. Genre categories like science fiction and fantasy are just marketing categories anyway. They’re useful for the purposes of discussion, and they make navigating bookstore shelves easier, but that’s why I don’t have much interest in quarrels over the literary fiction vs. genre divide (jokes about preferring books with dragons aside). It’s like arguing that you’re superior because you prefer one type of peanut butter over another.

I agree about genre categories being marketing categories, but I guess I personally tend not to think of ghost stories as fantasy (because ghost are totally REAL-lah!). Also, I think I’m rather out of touch in terms of local sci fi. I didn’t realise it existed. Can you recommend any titles?
Perhaps I have a broad definition of fantasy. But if it was all elves and halflings there would never be any authentic Malaysian fantasy, right?

sunI have a list of M’sian SFF writers on my website: It’s a bit out of date, there’s also a writer named Yen Ooi who I met quite recently but haven’t added to the list yet. She’s also based in London and has published a SF book called Sun: Queens of the Earth. Oh, as you’ll see I also think of Zed Adam Idris’s Batu Belah in the book you edited as being SF! Also, once the cyberpunk anthology I’m editing for Fixi Novo is out, there’ll be a bunch more titles.

That’s not even including the stuff in Malay, which I am totally ignorant of. But Fixi alone have a number of SFF titles.

Have you read The Ghost Bride? What do you think of it? 
Yeah, I liked it. I’ll be interested in reading what Yangsze Choo writes next.

What did you like about it? I thought she could have been more subtle and artful in her explaining of cultural details. The way that was handled caused the story to drag somewhat, for me, but it might be OK I you have zero knowledge of what she’s describing.
I liked the premise and setting, and I thought her prose was very evocative and readable. I also found the explanations of the cultural details jarring, but it’s often hard to strike the right balance with that sort of thing when you’re writing for a Western market. Even before you get to the audience, you have to either hope for an editor who’s sensitive about this stuff, or be ready to push back quite hard.

As you are currently based there, are you looking to be published in the UK?
It’s not so much where I’m based that matters as much as the story. My current project is a historical fantasy novel set in London, so I imagine a UK audience might find it more interesting than a Malaysian audience. Also there’s more money in the US/UK publishing industry, if you write in English. Must be practical ma! That said, I’m really interested in publishing outside the West. Maybe I should be focusing on breaking into the Indian Anglophone market.

How different, if at all, do you think your writing would have to be to be accepted by a publisher in the West? 
Many of the short stories in Spirits Abroad were first published in Western zines, so not that different, I guess? The main difference is how much explanation you feel (or your editor feels) you have to put in about stuff a local would get without explanation. I don’t mind explaining unless I feel like the editor is pushing for a change because it somehow fits Western ideas of what an Asian or Malaysian story should be.

That’s interesting. I wonder if there is more openness in literary journals and zines – I mean, more acceptance of different styles and concepts and content. I have not read any Asian novels published in the West that didn’t, in some way, present Asians in a way that, to me, seemed to pander to various exotic stereotypes. However, I wonder if this is just because I am not too widely read in terms of Asian novels of this kind.
I should say I’ve mostly only been published in genre zines and anthologies. (The literary journals mostly don’t pay.) I know what you mean about Western-published Asian novels being kind of self-exoticising. I think a lot of South Asian novels manage to escape this.

And how do you feel about writing specifically for Western  readers? 
I never really do that. I personally always write for myself in the past – I think about what I would’ve liked to read when I was, say, 16, and write that. I know a lot of the time that a Western audience may be reading the result, but I don’t worry about that. Actually a lot of my readers in the West are from the Asian diaspora – they get that feeling of living between two or more worlds that I feel is a big part of the Malaysian experience.

You’ll be editing Fixi NOVO’s collection of Cyberpunk short stories. What did you think of the editing process for Spirits Abroad? Can you describe it? 

It required a very quick turnaround! The editing process for Spirits Abroad involved line-editing rather than structural edits, and I think we really only did a couple of passes, one of which was proofreading. I don’t know whether the process would have differed with a novel, though.

Would you have liked more input from your editor? More substantive editing? I know it’s hard to assess yr own work (how able are you to do that?), but how satisfied are you with the final product? Are you the sort who agonises endlessly abt the quality of yr work?
I try to minimise that kind of agonising, firstly because I don’t like being unhappy, but secondly (and more importantly) I find it’s not conducive to writing more or even to writing better. I’d rather think about the stories themselves than navelgaze about the quality of my writing.

I didn’t want more substantive editing on Spirits Abroad, because a lot of the stories in it had previously been published, so there didn’t seem much point in working them over again. I’m pleased with the final product, in the sense that it’s done what I wanted it to (i.e. collected my stories and brought them to a new audience).

A regional author said to me that, at this stage, she felt it was more important to attain critical mass, and that we should not be bogged down by the quality of local literature. Can you comment?
I agree with her! As long as books are being produced and people are buying and reading them, I’m not too worried about quality.

How, in your opinion, can the quality of Malaysian books be improved? 
It’s improving. I find a lot more stuff that I’m interested in reading than I would’ve done 10-15 years ago (though that’s partly due to a change in me as much as any change in the Malaysian publishing industry). I’m not a publishing professional as such and only have a very partial view of Malaysian publishing, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment on how it could be improved, but I’m with your regional author who talked about critical mass. The more stuff the better, in my opinion — I think you sort of work your way to higher standards.

What we’ve noticed though is this ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it mentality’ when it comes to sales vs quality. Some of the stuff published is really dire, yet flies off the shelves for various reasons, and this justifies the lack of attention paid to improvement esp in terms of the money and time spent on editing. Comments?
But that happens everywhere, no? It’s not like it’s an issue peculiar to Malaysian publishing. Sturgeon’s law and all of that. We just have a smaller pool, so we have a correspondingly small number of non-crap works.

But maybe I’m not quite understanding the problem, or the solution you’re suggesting? My view is that if lots of people write lots of not-great stuff and lots of people read it, everyone gets a bunch of practice and after a while you have quality works emerge and readers who can tell they’re good. But is your suggestion that if people said, ‘Let’s publish less crap’ they’d spend more money and time editing and that would mean fewer books would be published, but they would suck less?

What are you reading now? Any recommendations?

I’m reading Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson, which is about two sisters who are daughters of a demigod and a mortal woman. It’s all about magical families being annoying, so just my kind of thing.

Have you finished it? Final verdict? And have you read The Goblin Emperor? My favourite read this year (2014).
I liked it! I thought the plot could have been tighter, but it’s not really the kind of book you read for the plot. I haven’t read Goblin Emperor, but have heard a lot of good things about it.

kelabuWhat Fixi titles have your read? How about books by other Malaysian or regional publishers? Anything you particularly liked?
Not as many as I’d like! I’m enjoying Nadia Khan’s Kelabu(I’m sort of reading this at the same time as Sister Mine). She has a great voice. Blaft Publications is an Indian indie press and they publish Kuzhali Manickavel, who writes these funny, bizarre short stories, very literary and entertaining – she has two collections out. With Malaysian books I read more nonfiction and history – I like Farish Noor’s essays.

For more about Zen Cho, visit her site at

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