Debut Author Snapshot: Yangsze Choo

July, 2013
Yangsze Choo As if traditional marriage isn't hard enough, try marriage to a ghost. The question of life after death is a certainty in Chinese folklore, which once took reverence for the dead to an extreme with spirit marriage, an ancient custom that wed the living to the dead. Debut author Yangsze Choo brings the complex supernatural world of the Chinese afterlife front and center in The Ghost Bride, a historical fantasy set in 1890s colonial Malaya (what is now Malaysia). Studious young Li Lan is shocked when her opium-addicted father asks her to wed the recently deceased son of a wealthy family. Her ghostly intended soon visits her in her dreams to claim that he was murdered, and her own spirit leaves her body to travel through an underworld fraught with demons.

A fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent, Choo is currently working on her second novel set in Malaya while also blogging about the perfect marriage of her two loves, eating and reading.

To honor the dead, paper offerings are burned during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar for the Ghost Festival, when the spirits of the dead are believed to visit the living.
Goodreads: What myths and references from Chinese folklore did you use to create your version of the afterlife?

Yangsze Choo: Ghost stories are the main weapon of Chinese grandmothers, who use them to terrorize and enthrall small children! I remember many sweltering nights, during the rolling electricity blackouts we sometimes experienced in Malaysia, when the adults would swap strange tales. We children would lurk around, ears perked. I can vividly recall the sensation of wrapping myself in a blanket even though it was stiflingly hot, because I was so frightened!

There's also a strong Chinese literary tradition of supernatural stories set in an afterlife similar to the government administration of Imperial China. It's a very odd combination—a sort of magical, shadowy bureaucracy that's both maddeningly corrupt and tantalizingly strange. I read a lot of these tales when I was a child, but the characters were often flat archetypes, e.g. "a young scholar," etc. I always wondered exactly what happened and how you'd feel if, for example, the beautiful girl you picked up had no feet. Or if it turned out that you were married to a shape-shifting fox.

An elaborate paper mansion built for the spirits during the seventh month's Ghost Festival.
The other thing that's interesting is the notion that paper offerings become real in the afterlife. Hence, some very elaborate structures are made and burned for the benefit of deceased ancestors. In the olden days they used to be things like horses and houses, but sometimes mansions and yachts are burned. I was quite surprised recently to see paper iPads and Gameboys available as well as paper Louis Vuitton suitcases!

But [this idea] did raise a lot of questions for me. For example, if the Chinese afterlife received burned offerings of food, did they taste good? At one point my character Li Lan actually goes to work in the kitchens of the dead, preparing paper food, and one of the problems she faces is that it has very little flavor. It's such a rich and fascinating mythology, and it was so interesting to imagine how things might have turned out.

GR: What inspired you to write about spirit marriage?

YC: The seeds for this particular book originated when I was doing research for another novel I was writing. While going through some old articles from the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper, I found a brief mention of spirit marriages that offhandedly declared them "increasingly rare." This was so intriguing that I ended up putting aside my first book to write this one instead.

Life-size paper horses to draw a chariot. A modern take on paper offerings—iPhones and even power plugs!
In fact, I have a theory about the fundamental difference between Asian ghost stories and western ones. The traditional European ghost story is very similar to a detective story. You need to find out who died, what happened to them, and the tale is "solved" when the ghost is laid [to rest] or the criminal is led to justice. In contrast, many Asian ghost stories are about managing relationships with family even after they're deceased. The dead have needs like any other relatives—you have to provide them with houses, make sure you're burning enough paper money for them, even arrange marriages and settle disputes. In a Chinese ghost story you can never escape your relatives!

It also happened to coincide with a long-term observation I had that while traditional Asian culture tended to repress women while they were alive, the tables were completely turned after death, as the most vengeful spirits were often female. In some ways I think the prospect of being married off to a dead man touches on all sorts of fears for women—in addition to an arranged marriage there's family pressure and, worse still, a bridegroom who's actually dead.

GR: One Goodreads reviewer says, "Choo did a great job of creating a spunky female character who still fits into the conventions of her time period." How did you develop the character of Li Lan?

YC: That comment makes me really happy, because it sometimes bothers me when historical characters have completely modern sensibilities. I think it's natural that Li Lan, my main character, should be concerned with the conventions and aspirations of her time. She understands very well, for example, that it's important for her to get married and, not only that, to make the best match possible. There's so much riding on that, including the comfort and old age of the servants in her household who are dependent on her.

To me, Li Lan is a girl who wants to travel. She wants to visit other countries and see new sights, but she"s hampered by social and financial restraints. I think of those incredibly detailed 19th-century novels, like The Swiss Family Robinson and Jules Verne, and how so many of them were aimed at the armchair traveler—people who had no chance to embark on such voyages. In Li Lan's case she gets her wish, but her travels turn out to be to the shadowy Chinese afterworld, in the gray border between spirits and humans. It's a terrifying place, yet full of strange beauty.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

YC: I'm working on my second novel, also set in Malaya, but this time in the 1920s, 30 years after The Ghost Bride. That part of the world is very dear to me, and I think it's something I can write about with authenticity. As a Malaysian of Chinese descent, I feel that there are so many peculiar and interesting things about Southeast Asia that I'd love to share with readers.


Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by Gabrielle (new)

Gabrielle Carolina This brief interview makes my hands extra grabby for a chance to read TGB!


message 2: by Lori (new)

Lori Spielman I've been looking forward to The Ghost Bride since I first heard about it, months ago. Congratulations, Yangsze Choo.


message 3: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Like the earlier post, I am especially intrigued and eager to read The Ghost Bride after this interview.


message 4: by Becky (new)

Becky VERY EXCITED for this book to come out! Can't wait to read it.


message 5: by Atta (new)

Atta Arghandiwal I am so looking forward to reading this. Congratulations for a great job.


message 6: by Terrie (new)

Terrie I too am looking forward to reading this book. Something different, for a change.


message 7: by Missy (new)

Missy Looks amazing can't wait!


message 8: by Chantal (new)

Chantal I'm really looking forward to reading this book. Finally, something else.


message 9: by Sally (new)

Sally this sounds like my 'cup of tea'.Just finishing a Harry Hole which has taken me too long to finish Need something totally different.


message 10: by Carole (new)

Carole This sounds a fascinating book, can't wait to read it! I have visited Chinese temples and seen the elaborate paper offerings for dead relatives, the whole concept is intriguing .


message 11: by Donna (new)

Donna Sounds very intriguing--definitely want to read!


message 12: by Chantal (new)

Chantal And for those who are interested: you can read the first 2 chapters on Amazon.com as a preview!


message 13: by Becky (new)

Becky Ezra very interesting subject for a book, cant wait to get it by post.
thank you for informing so great potential book!


message 14: by Rossana (new)

Rossana Karunaratna I agree!! This subject sounds so interesting and related to our own lives in surprising ways!! Want to read this book!!


message 15: by Ramesh (new)

Ramesh I have to read this novel very difrant feeling and experiance.


message 16: by Katie (new)

Katie Can't wait to read this one! The author interview makes it sound just that much more intriguing!


message 17: by Sabrina (new)

Sabrina Kudos to a fellow Malaysian!! Proud.


message 18: by Baljit (new)

Baljit Am glad to here of another Malaysian writer tapping on our rich and diverse culture. must get this book now!


message 19: by Noody (new)

Noody Hannoody big liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike


message 20: by Yvette (new)

Yvette Added to my Kindle reading list!


message 21: by Anastasia (new)

Anastasia Eppy can't wait...:) to read this book.....


message 22: by Kakada (new)

Kakada Eng wow, it catch me, interesting one ;)


message 23: by April (new)

April robinson can't wait to get my hand on this book !!


message 24: by Carole (new)

Carole I have read it now, and got hooked as it is so strange, weird and fascinating that I couldn't put it down.


message 25: by Chris (new)

Chris I read this excellent book last weekend and enjoyed it immensely - highly recommended


message 26: by Helena (new)

Helena Montreaux currently reading this. i absolutely love it so far!


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