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Spirits Abroad

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"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."

A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.

Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, Spirits Abroad collects ten science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian sensibility.

284 pages, Paperback

First published June 21, 2014

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About the author

Zen Cho

54 books2,359 followers
I'm a Malaysian fantasy writer based in the UK. Find out more about my work here: http://zencho.org

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 223 reviews
Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews502 followers
September 5, 2014
I have to admit it was with some trepidation that I received the news that I had won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway. I've not had great experiences with works set in South-East Asia (e.g., The Book of Salt, The Harmony Silk Factory). I am happy to say, however, that this work was head and shoulders above them, both as an authentic South-East Asian voice and as an engaging read.

As a Singaporean, I can tell you that her depiction of Malaysia and Malaysians is the real deal, folks. For example, she does not make the egregious mistake of describing the smell of a durian from the POV of a South-East Asian as "the odour of rot and decay". Instead, she describes it as a "creamy rank richness". She does not have uneducated Hokkien hard labourers fling out statements in the images and rhythms of educated Englishmen, saying things like "Will I fight for the liberation of man's soul from the chains of bourgeoisie?". Instead, she captures to a T the rhythms and cadences of English as spoken by Malaysians:
“But you, Ah Lee, you have all the opportunities. We have lived so long, we have saved enough money. Maybe if you study hard, if you get a scholarship, you could even go to England like my uncle the doctor, your Tua Tiao Kong. Your English is so good. You have a good chance.”
And she even has the quiet confidence to unapologetically use Manglish (i.e., Malaysian English) vocabulary:
"Maybe they didn’t shout, “Oi, macha!” when they saw him, or request that he “relaklah, brother,"…
This may not seem like much to readers whose literature's acceptance of the vernacular dates back to Chaucer, but let me tell you, but its authenticity is very grounding to someone like me. So, please Ms Cho, if you ever read this, please please please don't ever sell out to commercial interests by tailoring your representation of Malaysia to suit a Western market.

The fantastical elements of her short stories are firmly based on Malaysian / Chinese myths and folklore. Among the mythical creatures she features are:

The Pontianak or female vampire of Malay myth

The toyol, a demon baby of Malay myth

The 殭屍 (kuang shi), the Chinese version of the zombie
Chinese zombies

Happily, she uses these myths not as exotic appendages but as potent metaphors for issues close to her heart, most notably, inter-ethnic relations and feminist issues. "House of Aunts", for example, which features the Pontianak touches on issues of teenage romance and teenage pregnancy; and "The Mystery of the Suet Swain" a la The X Files touches on stalking. The only clanger for me was "The Earth Spirit's Favourite Anecdote" which flirted dangerously close to ethnic stereotypes notwithstanding its ostensible message of peace.

For all my talk about issues, Zen Cho's stories abound with humour and compassion. The fantasy writer she most reminds me of is Connie Willis, in particular, Willis's short stories, and I hope she regards this as a compliment. If Connie Willis is a writer you've enjoyed, I'd thoroughly recommend this collection. Happily, while I do think this collection is well worth getting, you can sample some of the stories in it (entirely legally) at the links on her site, zencho.org.

Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books696 followers
February 26, 2023
Delightful. Not all of the stories were equally wonderful, but this was a colorful, funny, heartfelt and imaginative foray into Malaysian mythology and family life. I really enjoyed all of them, especially the story about the Aunts and the Dragon.

I don't even have to add content warnings because the author thoughtfully added them to the beginning of each story!
Profile Image for Veronica Roth.
Author 60 books460k followers
October 29, 2022
In 2021 I was on the jury for the Ray Bradbury Prize, LA Times' prize for science fiction and fantasy, and this collection of short stories was our winner (no small feat, as the competition was stiff). These stories are an excellent blend of warm and funny, dark and thought-provoking-- among the best short fiction I've encountered, in a genre that is particularly strong in short fiction. This collection was a joy to read.

My personal favorites: "The First Witch of Damansara," and "The House of Aunts"
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 58 books8,105 followers
June 12, 2017
This was absolutely fantastic. Funny, sad, deeply anger-inducing, warm and fuzzy by turns. Steeped in Malaysian mythology, which sounds purely amazing, as well as Chinese and some English, and written in switching voices with loads of Malay-English and no concessions to non-speakers so you just have to immerse yourself. This is not a hardship. There is undoubtedly a huge amount I didn't get because I don't know the legends, but I got enough to put this squarely into my fave specfic reads of the year.

Also, these stories are mostly about women--families, female friends--and it's gloriously Bechdel-shattering. Friendship is one of the major themes at work here (depicted unsentimentally and often hilariously) which is I suspect why the overall effect of the book is so engaging and uplifting, even though many of the stories tackle dark and bitter themes. Prudence and the Dragon has to be my favourite: millennia-old dragon in human form falls for plain dumpy girl because she's funny and offers her the world; girl is mostly concerned with getting her university work done and not falling out with her bestie over it. Bestie is stunningly beautiful, doesn't get to be the heroine, and has her own companion story that works out perfectly.

A wonderfully satisfying and immersive reading experience. Get it, stat.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,149 reviews1,119 followers
October 29, 2020
I am glad my third attempt in reading Zen Cho's work paid off. Maybe because the setting is so familiar to me, but I am just in awe of her ability to weave these local myths and legends into a compelling narrative. I believe my Indonesian buddies would find this enjoyable too ;)

The book was hyped alot during the last few online conventions I attended and I could definitely see why. One interesting thing is the non-italicizing policy of the publisher, Buku Fixi, for non-English words - I am now in total agreement of this.

A perfect read for those who are in the mood to try a different kind of horror fic or just want to try a specfic work from Malaysia/Southeast Asia/Chinese diaspora.
Profile Image for Beth.
910 reviews102 followers
February 22, 2023
Here we are again with a book that I've been reading for a discussion group, and have overthought it to the point that I don't have the energy to write a full review. I'd apologize if I didn't know for a fact it will happen again. :D I tend to think of myself as "not a short story person," and have had a couple false starts with this collection in the past. Once I managed to soldier past the first story, things went smoothly and I enjoyed this book a lot.

My copy was the ebook edition from 2014, and I read the small handful of stories that were included in the 2021 edition, but not this one, online.

If you're interested in getting a "far too detailed for a casual impression" look into what I thought of the individual stories: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...

For overall thoughts about the book--shorter than my typical review, and misses a number of aspects that I would have liked to go into in more detail, but is better than nothing, probably: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/... (post 7)
Profile Image for Elizabeth (Plant Based Bride).
410 reviews3,737 followers
March 30, 2023
Spirits Abroad is a deeply moving, occasionally subversive, and at times laugh-out-loud funny collection of SFF short stories inspired by the author's Malaysian culture - full of joy and loss, heartbreak and love. Queer love, in particular, is celebrated, as is the rich storytelling tradition of Malaysia, with deeply relatable characters, complicated family ties, allegories for depression and self-harm, women taking back their power, and so much more through the lens of mythological creatures and fantastical places grounded in some form of reality.

I adored so many of these stories, but my favourites have to include "If At First You Don't Succeed, Try Try Again," "The Fish Bowl," and "Prudence and the Dragon."

I would highly recommend this collection to anyone looking for a well-crafted collection of SFF short stories inspired by fairytales and legends!

I’m so glad this was our book club pick for August.

Trigger/Content Warnings: body horror, gore, stalking, emotional abuse, sexual violence, colonization, self-harm, depression

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Profile Image for Beige .
246 reviews82 followers
December 10, 2020
Woohoo, I finished a short story collection! Something I haven't done in years. Although, Cho made it easy with her dry humour and focus on 5 key F's: friendship, family, food, fun and folklore. A winning combination.

The collection is currently moving to a new publisher, so unavailable for purchase at the moment. In the meantime, some of the stories are available online for free. Here is the first one...
The First Witch of Damansara @Uncanny Magazine

Thanks to my fellow buddy readers at Worlds Beyond the Margins for selecting this and helping to make it one of my favourite BRs of 2020.

artist: Zhou Fan
Profile Image for Sunil.
932 reviews118 followers
August 20, 2014
Zen Cho utterly charmed me on a Loncon panel about South and Southeast Asian SFF, so of course I bought her book of short stories, which do indeed reflect her boisterous, whimsical personality. As a Chinese Malaysian living in London, she draws from several cultures in her storytelling, and the book is divided into three sections: "Here" (stories set in Malaysia), "There" (stories set in England), and "Elsewhere" (stories set, well, elsewhere). For the non-Malaysian reader, it's a great way to be introduced to various aspects of the culture, including food, language, and folklore, and for the Malaysian reader, it's SFF for YOU.

Every story is good, and one of my very favorites, "One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland," is only available in this collection, which contains seven reprints and three new stories. I love Cho's dry sense of humor. "The House of Aunts" describes eating people in such mundane terms that I regularly burst out laughing, and "Prudence and the Dragon" has such an offbeat wit that I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe. But the stories aren't comedic romps; they're character-based with heart. The collection ends on a strong note with "The Four Generations of Chang E," which the blurb helpfully informs the reader is a metaphor for the Chinese diaspora, even though it is fairly clear from the story itself, which packs quite a punch.

I devoured this book in a single day. Zen Cho's voice needs to be heard: it's fun, fresh, and important.
Profile Image for Freya Marske.
Author 13 books1,673 followers
April 14, 2018
I'm not a regular reader of short stories, but sometimes I come across collections that make me want to do nothing but read them for the rest of my life. Or possibly just beg Zen Cho to write short stories for the rest of HER life, which would be a terrible idea because I do, also, require the other two noves in her magical Regency series to exist.

This collection is a delight. I zoomed through the first half of it with increasing incredulity that just as I'd decided on a favourite, along came ANOTHER FAVOURITE, and ANOTHER--and then had to force myself to slow down and ladle out the latter half story-by-story to make it last longer. The prose is chatty and clever, strong and transparent like good glass, and I recognised parts of the characters in myself. I didn't recognise a lot of their specific experiences, but I felt like I was being carried confidently through them in a way that was generous and illuminating. The various Malaysian ghosts and monsters were interesting or exasperating or creepy as hell, and I loved how unapologetically and casually romantic a lot of the stories were.

I CAN'T PICK A FAVOURITE, YOU CAN'T MAKE ME, but gun to my head I think my top three were The House of Aunts, The Mystery of the Suet Swain, and The Earth Spirit's Favourite Anecdote.
Profile Image for Kathrin Passig.
Author 49 books394 followers
January 20, 2023
Ich dachte immer, ich mag keine Kurzgeschichten. Stellt sich raus, ich mag nur keine Kurzgeschichten, in denen Leute unglücklich verheiratet sind und die Handlung darin besteht, dass es draußen regnet oder jemand Bus fährt. Kurzgeschichten mit Drachen und Gespenstern, kein Problem.
Profile Image for Jaanaki.
130 reviews37 followers
October 31, 2018
I love reading mythology,folktales and fables that are unique to regions across the world .Every community and group has loads of stories that have been handed down across generations. These are the stories we are told as children by our grandparents and any recollection of them however old we become brings nostalgia.
I have wanted to read Malaysian writer ,Zen Cho for quite some time now and I was overjoyed when her short story compilation "Spirits Abroad",was available in Kindle print for RS 210. This was a delightful read .I enjoyed all the stories especially ,"The House of Aunts " and "Prudence's Dragon".Zen Cho has woven these stories using creatures like orang minyak,toyals and other hantus that exist in Malaysian mythology among the Malaysian and Chinese communities .The stories also talk of problems that many teenagers face -peer pressure ,first love ,the need to live up to expectations ,fear of dark corners ,the fear of rejection and so much more .I had to look up Google for some of the local dialect terms ,but it was worth it.
All in all ,a very enjoyable read ❤️
Profile Image for Joel.
554 reviews1,621 followers
June 1, 2015
One of the best speculative fiction collections I have ever read! Loved.
Profile Image for Shira Glassman.
Author 27 books507 followers
September 7, 2016
This Malaysian and Malaysian-diaspora fantasy shorts collection brings extremely intimate and personal concepts into the sphere of fantasy fiction--like unexpected difficulty in schoolwork or performing arts after being at the top of your class, or blooming into your suppressed bisexuality. Far from being the fantasy of broad, sweeping, epic stories about clashes between dynasties or magical orders, this is the fantasy about household magic, about supernatural creatures that have the same feelings and hopes and family structures we mortals do, and about one-on-one friendships and relationships. They even enjoy the simple, hedonic pleasure of food.

Other key themes of the book's fifteen stories include Malaysia's multiculturalism, with Chinese traditions coexisting alongside Christianity and Islam plus all the legends and fantasy creatures that are uniquely Malaysian, and women, both mortal and supernatural, interacting with their female family members, especially across the generations. I was fascinated, incidentally, by the variety of undead within Malaysian mythology, with the type of ghost varying by gender, manner of death, etc.

Some of my favorite moments:

The House of Aunts, which is available to read for free here, is a sweet YA paranormal romance starring a teenage vampire who lives with all the protective, overbearing yet nurturing female relatives of her family who share her condition while posing as a living student at school. At one point in the story she won't let the Muslim boy she has a crush on share her lunch, telling him that it's pork. (Readers: it's not pork.) This is just so goddamn cute and grisly at the same time that it made me smile, and also is a model way to recognize ethnoreligious diversity in a spec fic setting.

"The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life", also available free, is about a young woman who suddenly acquires a supernatural shadow: her own self, as a teenager. Through a series of amusing or poignant moments she interacts with her old self as she travels to Japan to teach English and learn Japanese, until finally the two selves merge again and she becomes the whole person she was meant to be from the beginning. This is one of the anthology's two stories about women who like women. The other one is:

"The Mystery of the Suet Swain", in which a lesbian fights a demon Nice Guy. I mean all of that literally, including the demon part! The story leaves it unclear whether or not she and the "I said no to the last eleven guys who asked me out" best friend will date after the main character rescues her, but I think it's a good story either way (and I say yes, sure, they date.)

This one is a darker moment, but there's a part in the self-harm/self-destructive metaphor story "The Fish Bowl" where the MC is struggling with performing music she hasn't practiced, so as a price for the magic to make her get through the piece, the titular magic fish drains blood from her in a way that shows up as four angry red streaks down her arm representing the four strings running down our fingerboards. As a violinist, this is a sharp and accurate piece of imagery. In fact when I read that line I immediately fired off a tweet to the author saying "you get us."

There are so many other creative ideas in this book that I could go on and on -- including the old favorite fantasy setting of an English boarding school but still populated by Malaysian diaspora characters, and another one where a troupe of Chinese dancers in England are secretly ghostbusters also, but hopefully by now I've convinced whoever's reading this to give the book a whirl. Every once in a while I add a line to my reviews to the effect of "if you like my books, try--" and this is one of them.

I advise buying the eBook so that you can stay abreast of trigger warnings without my help, since the author has commendably included a lot of warnings and clicky-things that go to her notes and "skip this story if you don't want to read about X" and other helpful tidbits. Obviously stay out of "House of Aunts" if cannibalism is a major squick, although I found myself craving gribenes (chicken skin fried in chicken fat) after I read it because I am, truly, a trash can. :P
Profile Image for lauraღ.
1,474 reviews60 followers
December 19, 2021
To love a new world, you had to get close to the ground and listen.

An absolute delight. Everything I want out of fantasy. Spoke to me on so many different levels. Every single story in this collection was good. I didn't adore every one of them, but the ones I did love, I loved SO MUCH, I want to burst thinking about them.

One, I love stories written in and including dialect. English is never so beautiful to me as when it's put into the hands of colonised or enslaved people, and contorted and transformed and mixed with native languages, given new syntax and grammar and just made into something new. It's why I love Caribbean literature, and I especially adore it when it's in in sci-fi and fantasy. (Shout out to Kai Ashante Wison.) There's just something about dialect when used in tandem with magic and fantasy that's just... I LOVE IT! This was my first major exposure to Malaysian dialect and I loved it to pieces. Didn't take long to get used to it.

Two, Zen Cho's writing is everything. Witty, beautiful, packs a punch, simple. She writes really effective descriptions, makes wonderful lush use of nature and settings. I went into this not knowing anything in particular about Malaysian spirits or folklore, but with Zen Cho's writing and a some intermittent googling, I devoured these. I love how she melded fantasy and the modern, in rural settings, in cities, abroad, in her home, in other worlds... This was just such a creative collection, and every story had something great to offer. A lot of great interrogation on feminism, love, immigration, colonialism... this was all so good.

Also, gotta say, I went in expecting it to be all straight and... I was wrong! Wonderfully wrong!! And of course, the queer stories ended up being my faves.

A few words on a few stories:

Marvellous collection. Really can't wait to read more of this author.
Profile Image for Rebecca Wilson.
144 reviews12 followers
January 24, 2018
I could not have loved these stories more. I always want to be reading books that make me feel like this one did, and I will definitely be reading it again. I loved Sorcerer to the Crown with all my heart, but these stories are even more original and definitely more poignant. FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND STARS. In summary, I will be preordering every future book Zen Cho writes, setting up a google alert now.
Profile Image for Moon.
63 reviews15 followers
November 8, 2020
Zen Cho absolutely killed it during FIYAHCON, so I felt the urge and bought Spirits Abroad on Smashwords before it was pulled from their site, because this is going to be reprinted by Kelly Link's and Gavin Grant's Small Beer Press (which makes a lot of sense).

The book is divided in various parts and I liked the first blocks better than the latter. I suppose that it has to be with the tone, which is a little bit different: There's a half of the book in which the tone is lighter and with a lovely witty humor, and another half in which the book gets darker (which I don't really mind, it's just that I like the wholesome/lighter stories, except for the violence against the fairies, which is not cool!).

The stories I liked the most were:

- The First Witch of Damansara, with a woman whose different identities (and the ones that surround her and take part indirectly) are so carefully interwoven —how she sees herself as a traitor because of how she is frowned upon both with the eyes and with words. The shadow of the grandmother, with a really big presence within all the story. The little sister with the difficult behaviour... It was so great.

- First International Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia is humor at its best. I've been an activist and have both participated and organized forums like this one, and Zen Cho nails them. She's a master of characterization, just a few strokes, a few sentences and you get the archetype right, as there are many people like the ones that appear on their stories. Zen Cho complained in her notes that this was seen as 'preachy'. Preachy my ass!! And Peachy! 🍑🍑🍑🍑🍑

- The House of Aunts, so praised on all the Virtual Cons I have attended and now I see why. What an aunt gang, with really nuanced aunties, each one of them with their different ways to be, framed within a likeable teenage-angst-vampire-romance story. It's a really, really great story.

- The Four Generations of Chang E also needs a mention by me, because its another one that made me feel at home. As Asian diaspora in Spain, this metaphor about the whole diaspora, was on point. I know that Zen Cho is wary of the subject, as there is so little, she feels the weight of having to write about something that has a lot of different experiences. But I related to it a lot.

But there are really lovable things in all her stories. The need for friends in dire situations, the light humor, the characterization, the melancholy of being uprooted no matter where you are... I didn't have a clue about Malay culture, but the collection made me feel at home. Which is really difficult, because for me, home is a four letter word.

Really solid four stars. Thankfully, my superstitions are completely westernized.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Sunny.
666 reviews3,416 followers
December 3, 2021
4.5 stars! So many amazing short stories ! unbelievable ! A combination of Malaysian and chinese folklore with technology and death interweaved flawlessly as always
Profile Image for Siao.
151 reviews8 followers
June 27, 2015
GOT STORIES ABOUT ORANG BUNIAN LAH, GOT TEENAGE PONTIANAK LAH, GOT ORANG MINYAK ALSO. The orang minyak a bit gross lah, Facebook stalk pretty girls and take pictures.

Also leh, the language is memang like that one. A lot of slang, so leh...quite fun to read. But not as contrived as the Rose Chan one. This one's a little more believable.

I didn't know ghosts also got such a sense of humour. Keong Si also can make jokes leh.
Profile Image for Regina Ibrahim.
Author 20 books105 followers
January 10, 2020
Zen Cho ada style... ya benar... setiap satu bagaikan novela... cepennya panjang, ada ketikanya bagai sengaja dijela jelakan.. tetapi ia masih menarik untuk dibaca.
Dialog dan penerangan seterusnya mantap. Kita percaya bahawa Zen Choo akan tampil dengan karya karya yang lebih menarik di masa akan datang.
Ini merupakan buku penamat di tahun 2019
Profile Image for Matthew Galloway.
1,021 reviews30 followers
August 17, 2021
Absolutely wonderful stories that cover a range of emotions -- funny, sad, moving... I loved getting fantasy stories related to tales that I'd never heard before. It certainly makes me want to read the original folklore as well.
Profile Image for Kab.
340 reviews19 followers
January 8, 2023
Zen Cho is my new favourite short story writer. Generally I find magic realism exhausting and irrelevant (García Márquez). Spirits Abroad is the first work I've read whose magical elements complement the stories—which pulse with inventiveness and humour.
Profile Image for kari.
608 reviews
October 15, 2018
Zen Cho seems to be interested in different aspects of her stories than I am, but this collection is lovely, original, and beautifully written - and thus her word magic works on me, too.
Profile Image for Emily M.
347 reviews13 followers
August 11, 2022
Such a fun book! I loved learning about Malaysian mythical creatures that I hadn’t previously been familiar with. The author also uses them in interesting way to talk about issues like immigration, inter-racial marriage, LGBT identity, and the pressure to perform well on exams or send money home to family. The tales are divided into three sections: ‘Here’ (Malaysia), ‘There’ (Abroad, mostly the UK), and ‘Elsewhere’ (Hell, Fairyland, the moon, etc.).

Some of the stories also highlight the difficulties inherent in translating myths. For instance, both kuang shi and pontianak get referred to as “vampires”, although “zombie” and “ghoul” might be closer. However, in the latter case this is deliberate, as the ponitianak prefer the positively glamorous associations that vampires have acquired in recent years! Also, the story about Sun Wukong, the monkey king and his visit to Irish fairyland is hilarious and very much in character from what I’ve gathered – he is the progenitor of many a hot-headed demon-fighting shonen anime protagonist, after all. It reminds me I really need to find a good translation of ‘Journey to the West’!

There are multiple stories with sapphic characters, including ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ (which I’d read previously) and ‘The terracotta bride’ (which had been on my list). There’s also a few non-binary characters, such as the imugi in ‘try, try again’…although, since they aren’t human and that’s always implied to be the standard for their species, it is more just a fun detail rather than “representation” per se.
Profile Image for Josie.
203 reviews15 followers
November 14, 2022
I'm in two minds when it comes to this book.

I honestly thought the book was phenomenal. It is everything I love about speculative fiction - funny and folkloric, dry yet dripping with wonder. However, that wasn't what made the book so special. The book was especially special because Zen Cho made it Malaysian. She took speculative fiction on its head and applied it to the Malaysian context, using local imagery and drawing from the rich lore of Malay and Chinese paranormal superstitions.

Here the characters don't have beans on toast for breakfast, but we do see lots of them spreading kaya and going to kopitiams for a snack. Our characters here talk about exams, piano and violin lessons, gripe about bossy aunts and Mat Rempits. All so painfully Malaysian ... it feels less like a book than it did a portal to a childhood I had that is now long gone. Except, you know, infused with paranormal stuff, like the undead and magical dragon dances and weird wish-granting fishes.

The best part about the book was undoubtedly its dialogue. Here we have ghosts and schoolgirls and earth spirits talking in full blown Rojak language. It was refreshing to read writing that so very clearly elucidates the nuances of Manglish, such as how characters subtly shift the content of their speech compared to which ethnic group they speak to (peppering in more Malay words for inter-ethnic communication and more Hokkien/Mandarin when talking with their grandmothers).

Look, Manglish isn't very beautiful. It's not elegant. It is dry and choppy. It is hardly the dialect you want serenaded at you. Which was probably why it was a little jarring to see it spoken by kuntilanaks and pretty ladies and vampires. But it is what truly encapsulates Malaysia - without it, you won't understand the country. It's not elegant, but it is unbelievably witty. It carries with it the dry humour and vivid scepticism of a populace often underlooked in global media. It is the tongue of old wives tales, of mothers scolding their children, of schoolkids playing football in the field, of wry banter. It was incredible to see the language - often blatantly ignored in 'higher circles' because of its low-brow quality - reflected so acutely on paper like that. It made Zen Cho's writing truly irreplaceable.

But here's the thing. This is a book written for a Malaysian audience. Zen Cho adds in short cultural notes after every story, but they don't help unless you're already familiar with Malaysian society. I cannot guarantee that even Singaporeans or Indonesians will understand it - the former will be able to understand Manglish and the subtle irony behind the stories and the latter will be able to understand the intricacies of Malay folklore motifs ... but only Malaysians will be able to understand both. It will be even worse for those who are not from the two countries; you will have to look up words at every turn of the page because of how culturally-specific every single line of her writing is, half the dialogue will whiz by you, and you won't be able to truly capture the comedic effect and satirical motifs of topical Malaysian issues such as racism and inter-ethnic relations. I don't know if this is something I can gush about with everyone and anyone that I meet. But perhaps that's the point.

Perhaps it's not the kind of book I'm meant to gush about and recommend. Perhaps it really is the kind of book that I'm supposed to leave fondly simmering in my kindle, waiting for me to open it once more and read stories from a bygone era of my life.
Profile Image for Justus.
616 reviews73 followers
August 17, 2021
I quite liked Zen Cho's The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Cho is Malaysian and writes unabashedly in Malaysian English. The story itself was lovely and the use of Malaysian English, as opposed to American English or British English, makes you realize how far-reaching soft-power dominance can stretch.

This is a collection of short stories in a similar style. They are primarily urban fantasy about Malaysian mythology and folk lore. Many (most?) of the stories are about a young 20-something ethnic Chinese Malaysian emigre in London. To the point where it actually got a bit...repetitive and I was wishing she would right more that wasn't so obviously drawn from her own experiences.

Once again, Zen Cho writes with an unapologetic Malaysian flair. Which I mostly dig but at times I feel like she sometimes loses sight that it can alienate a global audience without some affordances.

This was the secret the family had been hiding from Vivian. Nai Nai had become a kuang shi.

Wait, what's a kuang shi? Let me go Google that. This kind of thing actually comes up pretty frequently in the stories. She isn't always great about giving enough details about the thing from Malaysian folklore for us to figure out what it is, so the words are just kind of an opaque jumble.

But reading Zen Cho also shows the power of "own voices", she's able to slip in tiny little cultural details that someone who hasn't lived in an Asian country might not even think to include. Like how you don't go around saying thank you to family members.

She had never thanked an aunt for anything before. It was understood that they would do things for her, that that was the way the world worked.

Likewise, Cho's background means we get a snippet like this about being nostalgic for the humid sticky heat of Malaysia:

The air outside the airport had been cold beyond belief, but the bus had been warm — not an honest sticky heat, but a stultifying man-made warmth that smelled of dusty upholstery.

But all of those nice, small details don't really add up to especially engaging stories. There are a few gems: everyone seems to love "House of Aunts" which is about being an eternal Malaysian vampire in a household of generations of eternal vampire aunts; the ultimate in multi-generation living and culture clash. (Though kind of weird that the high school boyfriend is okay with the fact that he's dating someone who literally commits murder on a regular basis...)

But so many of the stories left me flat. "First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia" is probably my least favorite but lots of others felt fairly....rote? Or by the numbers? A particularly egregious example: "Prudence and the Dragon" which is dangerously close to a kind of Twilight-inspired fanfic about a mousy girl who has the superhot dragon fall in love with her for no good reason.

Whatever the reason, few of the stories really moved me or made me go wow.
Profile Image for Sara Norja.
Author 7 books24 followers
May 20, 2016
What a delightful range of stories in Spirits Abroad! This is one of the best short story collections I've ever read. I often seem to describe Zen Cho's writing as "delightful", but really, it is! Reading Spirits Abroad was so great. I couldn't wait to get to read each story. Cho gives us vivid characters, usually Malaysian, with wonderfully natural speech patterns (complete with Malaysian English discourse markers), and inventive settings and concepts that spin each story forwards. True to its name, Spirits Abroad involves a lot of ghosts and other spirit creatures. The living are in conversation with the dead here. And the stories are in conversation with each other: the collections forms a very coherent whole.

I loved the emphasis on families, both difficult and dear. Friendships too. There is such a wide range of relationships in these stories, not just limited to romantic.

Also: I was really impressed by how the ebook had content warnings in front of stories with potentially upsetting content, complete with an ebook link to the next story. So considerate!

All in all this collection is an utter delight. I will be rereading many of these stories, so much comfort read potential here! I clearly need to just get anything that Zen Cho writes in the future, because I've loved everything I've read so far.
Profile Image for Suzi.
285 reviews15 followers
June 25, 2019
I'd like to go read everything by Zen Cho now please! This is an excellent collection of short stories. Cho has a clear and strong voice and crafts a great story. Her work draws from Malaysian mythology, but also has a very contemporary feel. The stories are full of strong women, complicated families, and interesting mythology.

I also definitely recommend reading this in the Kindle format vs paperback. For one thing, the ebook version has more stories than the print version. The bonus material is interspersed through the book and doesn't feel any lower in quality than the other stories. For another thing, the hyperlink game is very strong. At the end of each stories there are two links, one to the table of contents and one to the author's notes. At the end of the notes for the story, there's a link to the next story. Nice.

And this books has Content Warnings! A few of the stories start with Content Notes and
then have a link to skip to the next story if you don't want to read the story. I've never read a book that had Content Notes, it made me so happy! I didn't skip any of the stories, but knowing what I was getting into was a nice feeling.

I will definitely be reading Cho's novels shortly and looking out for future publications.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
Author 69 books971 followers
October 11, 2014
*4.5 stars*

Witty, delicious and enormously fun, this was my favorite short story collection in years. Zen Cho's voice is entirely her own, but the closest comparison I can come up with is Connie Willis for the wonderful combination of humor and intelligent fantasy.

Usually when I read a single-author short story collection, I need to take breaks between reading each story. This time, though, I just devoured the whole book and had a wonderful time doing it. There are stories that are incredibly funny and also surprisingly romantic, like "The Earth Spirit's Favorite Anecdote"; there are stories that are dark, truly scary AND funny and sweet, like "The House of Aunts"; there are a few stories that are just heartbreaking. Most of them made me laugh, but a couple made me nearly cry. Out of the 15 short stories in the collection, the very last 3 were the only ones I didn't thoroughly enjoy, but even those had a lot of good points and might work better for other people.

I will definitely be re-reading this collection many times in the future - it was just so smart AND so much fun - a wonderful combination!
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