Canada Reads Along 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

Cover image for Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller

by Clayton Thomas-Müller

ISBN 9780735240070

“One of the mysteries of creation is how closely saving yourself and saving the world are linked. If you don’t take care of the world, you will only end up harming yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t do the world any good. We’re all part of the world. It is an illusion to think any of us can be separate.”

Growing up as a young Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Clayton Thomas-Müller faced a rough childhood marked by intergenerational trauma, racism, and abuse. After the death of his great-grandparents, his family became disconnected from their traditional practices on their tribal lands in Jetait in northern Manitoba. His itinerant youth took Thomas-Müller from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, with a detour through juvenile detention before landing back on the streets of Winnipeg on the cusp of adulthood. Life in the City of Dirty Water is the story of how, after all this suffering, Thomas-Müller reconnected with his heritage and became an environmental activist who has worked with organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org.

Thomas-Müller is the biological son of two residential school survivors, though the men who he called father, who helped raise him, whose names he took, were not all one and the same. It is very much a history of intergenerational trauma, and his mother’s story is that of a very young woman from northern Manitoba who became pregnant as a teenager, and had to leave home to go to the city to access the services she would need to support herself and her child as she tried to complete her education. Their journey is not one of smooth sailing, but “he has my full support and permission to share his story; as his mother, that is the gift I can give him at this junction in his life,” Gail Pelletier writes in her forward to the book. Family remains an important theme throughout, both in how families support one another, and how they are fragmented by trauma.

Life in the City of Dirty Water describes Thomas-Müller’s non-linear path into the world of environmental activism, even as he remained tangled with the gangs his family was involved with, and continued to occasionally sell drugs to meet his obligations or help support his family. The latter part of the book turns frequently to Thomas-Müller’s anger at the world, and the way that anger both fueled his activism and also threatened to burn him up from the inside. Anger “consumes you even as it nourishes you” he warns, as he recounts a brutal schedule travelling across Turtle Island and around the world to fight for Indigenous rights in order to protect the environment. In these sections, he recounts both his work with environmental NGOs, and also how the Indigenous practice of the Sundance helped him heal and reconnect with his heritage despite growing up in the city.

Life in the City of Dirty Water employs a chatty and discursive style. Thomas-Müller’s narration is conversational, and his memoir has the feel of an oral tale that has been written down. I read this as an e-book but would be very curious to hear the author’s audio narration, as I have a feeling it might do the tale better service. The story is semi-chronological, but also ranges widely. He will make passing mention of an interesting fact or detail that sounds as if it could be a story in its own right, and then never return to it. There can also be a sort of whiplash to his blandly matter-of-fact narration of some extremely traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, mixed in with descriptions of much more quotidian occurrences. It speaks to the extent that violence of all kinds was normal in Thomas-Müller’s early life, but also conceals a deep hurt that will not bear more interiority or closer examination.

Life in the City of Dirty Water was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by author and ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. Simard argued that Canada faces an uncertain future grappling with the dual consequences of climate change and intergenerational trauma, two key themes of this memoir. She presented Life in the City of Dirty Water as a book that shows how we can turn anger into action at this crucial crossroads, and care for the earth by first healing ourselves. She felt that it was unique among the Canada Reads 2022 books in offering readers that path forward.

This first day of debates always moves quickly, with good portion of the time taken up by panelist introductions, book trailers, and a pep talk by the authors for their defenders. This year was no different. Often the book that is voted off first is the one that takes a few hits or draws attention and the best strategy on the first day can be to simply fly under the radar. This year’s theme is One Book to Connect Us, and host Ali Hassan’s questions focused on how the books on the table bridge the divides between us. Life in the City of Dirty Water did not come in for particular criticism, however Clayton Thomas-Müller’s memoir did stand out in that it was the only non-fiction book on the table this year, a fact that was called out by panelist Tareq Hadhad.

When the time came to vote, Malia Baker cast the first vote against Life in the City of Dirty Water. In the post-show Q&A with Ali Hassan, she pointed to the book’s multiplicity of stories and that she felt the meat of the activism narrative didn’t come until the second half. Three other books received one vote each, with Suzanne Simard voting against Washington Black, Christian Allaire voting against Scarborough, and Mark Tewksbury voting against What Strange Paradise. Citing the way the book sometimes read like a narrative resume, Tareq Hadhad cast the second vote against Life in the City of the Dirty Water, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

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The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

“The space between two shores is the ocean and being caught in between feels like drowning. And, really, what is the point of tears among so much salt water?”

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long.

The Magic Fish is set in 1998, when Tien is thirteen. He is out to his best friend Claire, but not to their other best friend, Julian, in part because Tien is harbouring feelings for him. He has contemplated coming out to his parents, but he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese, rendering his truth inexpressible. Nor is the American cultural milieu particularly welcoming. News of the murder of Matthew Shepherd plays in the background of one scene, and when Tien and Julian dance together at a school dance, Tien is called in for counseling with the school priest, who advises him against coming out to his parents. “All the parents I’ve counseled described the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It feels like a death in the family,” the priest warns, even as Tien’s mother has returned to Vietnam to attend an actual funeral.

"I'm always a little lost these days. There was a time when I knew exactly where I was supposed to go."

Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales that weave through The Magic Fish. The first one is read aloud by Tien to his mother as she works on her sewing in the evenings. The second is told to Tien’s mother by her aunt back in Vietnam when she returns home for the first time in many years. The final fairy tale is one she reads to her son, modifying the narrative to convey things that have gone unspoken between them for too long. Each tale has its own unique visual aesthetic, reflecting the imaginations of Tien and his mother. They are stories that are familiar in various versions across cultures, but known in English as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work.

Communication is a theme throughout The Magic Fish, specifically in the struggles Tien faces to communicate with his parents, who do not speak much English. In Vietnamese, Tien lacks the specific vocabulary he needs to come out to his parents, making this already challenging difference feel like an even more unbridgeable gap. However, we also see this theme in Tien’s hesitation to come out to Julian, with whom he does share a language, but whose rejection he fears. Meanwhile, Tien’s mother Hien is also struggling to keep in contact with her family back in Vietnam, to remain connected to them across time and distance. The story she chooses to tell Tien is that of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice when she goes to her new home above the sea, just as Hien lost much of her ability to communicate when she moved to a new country where she did not know the language. In the United States, she turns to stories both to improve her English vocabulary and pronunciation, and to find common ground with American-born son. In this way she is finally able to convey her unconditional love and acceptance. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Cover image for Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier with art by Val Wise

by Crystal Frasier

Art by Val Wise

Lettered by Oscar O. Jupiter

ISBN 9781620109557

“The team is great. They’re the only people who really stuck their necks out for me last year when I came out. But sometimes they’re so eager to prove how much they support me that they don’t listen to what I want.”

When the guidance counselor tells Annie and her mom that she needs some additional extracurricular activities to round out her college applications, Annie is less than thrilled when her mom pushes for cheerleading. Grumpy and unsociable, Annie feels like the exact opposite of a peppy cheerleader. Worse, her past behaviour has alienated more than one member of the team. But her former friend Bebe pushes for the squad to give Annie a chance, the same way they gave Bebe a chance when she came out and transitioned last year. With Bebe and her friends, Annie learns how to be part of a team, and file down some of her sharper edges and defensive impulses. As the two girls repair their friendship, they discover that they may have other feelings for one another as well.

Much of the story in Cheer Up has to do with the different ways in which the people in Bebe’s life support her in the way she needs, or fail to. Bebe’s parents are tentatively supportive of her transition, but they don’t understand that transitioning is literally saving her life. “They think of me transitioning as a luxury. And they’re worried it’ll distract me from getting good grades and getting into college,” Bebe explains to Annie as the two are reconnecting. Meanwhile, the cheer team is almost too supportive in certain ways, sometimes failing to listen to Bebe’s preferences, like the fact that she doesn’t want to run for homecoming queen. Annie has to find her own position in Bebe’s life, and strike the right balance when her combative nature clashes with Bebe’s tendency to go with the flow and pick her battles carefully. Annie has never stepped down from a fight in her life, and their two personalities make a great contrast.

I initially missed the memo about this being a love story, despite the subtitle, and thought that this story would be about repairing Annie and Bebe’s past friendship. Bebe and Annie used to be friends, and we’re never told why they no longer are at the start of the story. It seems that their falling out happened a couple years ago, whereas Bebe’s transition happened the previous year, so the two events do not appear to be directly related. The story does not delve into what led to the rift, or addresses how it might impact their romantic relationship moving forward. However, I loved the way Cheer Up addressed Bebe’s uncertainty about her sexuality—something that had been on the backburner in the midst of her transition—and her worries about how being openly trans might play into the way potential romantic partners perceive her.

The sweet and hopeful nature of the story is complemented by bright, full-colour illustrations by artist Val Wise that really made this graphic novel a joy to read. If you’re looking for a fun, heartfelt read that handles serious issues with a light hand, check out Cheer Up.

MXTX Mini Reviews

Today I’ve got three danmei (m/m romance) novels by Chinese writer Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX), recently translated officially into English for the first time. All three are also xianxia, a Chinese fantasy genre where the characters cultivate near-magical abilities through meditation or other practices that allow them to direct their life force. One of these novels, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, is the source material for the popular television series The Untamed on Netflix, starring Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Originally published as web novels, they’ll debut in English in multiple installments over the next year, so I’ve covered the first volume of each here.

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation

Cover image for The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 5

ISBN 9781648279195

“No matter how thoroughly Lan Wangji was praised as an unrivaled rare beauty, nothing could help the fact they he looked profoundly embittered, as if he had lost his wife.”

Once deemed one of the most talented young cultivators of his generation, Wei Wuxian met a tragic end after he deviated from the orthodox path and invented demonic cultivation in order to put an end to an otherwise unwinnable war, only for his allies to turn against him when peace was achieved. When he is unexpectedly reborn thirteen years later in the body of an abused young man named Mo Xuanyu, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery that has unexpected connections to unfinished business from his first life. To solve the case, he’ll need to work with Lan Wangji, with whom he has a tumultuous history. But unbeknownst to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has many regrets about not standing by Wei Wuxian the first time around, and he won’t allow this second chance to slip away. Mysteries and politics abound, but the real draw here is the complex relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. As a self-sacrificing character who is often oblivious to others’ regard for him, Wei Wuxian becomes absorbed in the mystery, refusing to allow himself to confront his feelings for Lan Wangji, or accept that they may have been reciprocated all along. As they work together to solve the mystery, incidents from their past are slowly revealed, eventually forcing a reckoning between the two.

The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System

Cover image for The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 4

ISBN 9781648279218

“Dying for Shizun or dying together with Shizun, either one is something this disciple will gladly do”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s first novel, The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, has a more humourous tone than her other works. In many respects, it is a satire of a certain type of web novel. Shen Yuan is an avid reader of such stories, and he dies cursing the terrible writing of Proud Immortal Demon Way by Grandmaster Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky (a pen name like Mo Xiang Tong Xiu). He awakens within the world of the novel, having being transmigrated into the role of Shen Qingqiu, the evil master of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s protagonist, Luo Binghe. In the original novel, Shen Qingqiu meets a terrible fate. If Shen Yuan wants to survive, he’ll need to find a way to avoid becoming the antagonist. However, he is bound by certain rules of the System, a video game-like structure that governs the changes he is trying to make to the plot of the novel in order to save himself. This book is cracky, snarky, meta, weird, and deeply fannish as Mo Xiang Tong Xiu skewers tropes and upends clichés. The new Shen Qingqiu bumbles through, never realizing that Luo Binghe’s feelings for him are more than a disciple for his master. After all, in Proud Immortal Demon Way, Luo Binghe always gets the girl. Shen Yuan is just hoping not to end up dead.

Heaven Official’s Blessing

Cover image for Heaven Official's Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 8

ISBN 9781648279171

“On the night of Zhongyuan Festival, sometimes when people strolled they might discover a road that never existed before. Such a road should never be taken, because if they walked the wrong one, they would enter the Ghost Realm and never return.”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s most recent novel is also her longest, with a projected eight volumes for this English translation. It’s perhaps no surprise then that I felt this first volume was a bit of a slow start, mainly serving to introduce the vast array of characters. We meet Xie Lian, former crown prince of the lost kingdom of Xianle, when he ascends to the Heavenly Realm for the third time. While it isn’t unusual for a god to fall from grace, to fall and then rise again not once but twice is not just unusual but laughable. Xie Lian is known among the other gods as the Laughingstock of the Three Realms. When his third ascension destroys the palaces of two other heavenly officials, he must descend to the Mortal Realm to investigate a case in order to earn merits to repay his debt. Along the way he encounters San Lang, a mysterious youth who seems to be unusually knowledgeable about everything and unperturbed by even the most unnatural events. If you enjoy novels about gods behaving badly, the officials of the Heavenly Realm are no better behaved than the Greek gods. Shenanigans are afoot, and Xie Lian is about to drag his own messy history right into the middle of the heavenly politics he has spent the better part of eight hundred years trying to ignore.

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Korean American Non-Fiction Mini Reviews

Crying in H Mart

Cover image for Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

by Michelle Zauner

ISBN 9780525657750

“Hers was tougher than tough love. It was brutal, industrial strength. A sinewy love that never gave way to an inch of weakness.”

In her memoir, musician Michelle Zauner explores how losing her mother to cancer impacted her Korean American identity, and the relationship food plays in maintaining a connection to her heritage. The daughter of an American father and a Korean mother, Zauner grew up in the United States, visiting Korea in the summer with her mother. Over a period of a few years during her twenties, Zauner loses her aunt and grandmother in Korea, and then her mother dies of cancer. With each death she feels her connection to Korea slipping away, as if it is embodied in the people rather than the place. One aunt remains, and they struggle to connect across the language barrier of Zauner’s rudimentary Korean, often turning to food as a place to connect. Because her mother never taught her to cook, Zauner makes that exploration herself, both in trying to recreate Korean comfort foods for her mother while she is dying, and then as a way to claim that space for herself after her mother is gone. Their sometimes tumultuous relationship is recontextualized by the fact that Zauner will never see her mother again, never get another good day with her. Crying in H Mart is a visceral account of the slow destruction of cancer, about what death takes from us, and what it gives back. Love, family, grief, and food twine together in this exploration of identity and loss.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Minor Feelings

Cover image for Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

by Cathy Park Hong

ISBN 9781984820365

“Minor feelings are not often featured in contemporary American literature because these emotions do not conform to the archetypal narrative that highlights survival and self-determination.”

Minor Feelings is a series of essays about the intersection of art and Asian American identity that encompasses both history lessons and art theory and analysis, as well as stories from the author’s life. Cathy Hong Park is a Korean American poet who studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the early 2000s, where writing about her heritage was dismissed as “identitarian” or “ethnicky.” The titular concept and the one that gained so much traction for this collection is “minor feelings,” which she defines as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric,  and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality questioned or dismissed.” For readers, this concept is a valuable lens through which to examine which types of stories about minorities we tend to laud, and which are dismissed because the emotions they contain are unpleasant or uncomfortable, or do not result in triumph and overcoming affliction. “Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place,” she explains. Cathy Hong Park also explores what it means to speak or write with “bad” English, and what impact the tacit decision not to speak or write about her rape and murder has had on the legacy of artist and novelist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Minor Feelings is a broad and sprawling collection that covers vast ground while exploring the question of what it means for Asian Americans to create art in a system that is designed to cater to the white experience.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

All You Can Ever Know

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

by Nicole Chung

I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard of or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence.”

Nicole Chung was prematurely born in 1980s Seattle to struggling Korean immigrant parents who already had two other daughters at home. Told that her biological parents were unable to afford the medical care she needed, or provide for a child who might be sick all her life, they placed her for adoption. She was raised in small town southern Oregon by white parents who touted a colour-blind philosophy, and were ill-equipped to help a lone Asian child navigate what her race meant in a town where almost no one else looked like her. Writing clearly and eloquently about her own experiences, adoptee Nicole Chung describes the mythologizing of the adoption narrative, and how this comforting, pre-packaged story ultimately backfired as she struggled to find her identity. But if the adoption narrative proved to be oversimplified, so too was the stereotypical reunion story of a biological family lost and then joyfully found. Reaching out to her biological relations proved to be just as complex as navigating the intricacies of interracial adoption. In this exploration, Chung excels at taking the adoption narrative beyond “good” or “bad,” instead seeking to portray the institution that created her family in all the complexity that neat narratives seek to oversimplify. Her story refuses to be so constrained.

Read my full review from 2018

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Himawari House

Cover image for Himawari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

ISBN 9781250235565

“The storefronts and signs, once faceless strangers, now greet me like new friends. Every new word I learn lifts the fog around me a little more, revealing the colors and shapes of the world around me.”

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her growing up in America, and feeling the pressure to assimilate. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels just as cast adrift there as Tina and Hyejung, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together they navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home.

Harmony Becker is the artist of the Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, by actor George Takei. Himawari House is her solo graphic novel debut. Nao’s cultural background reflects Becker’s, and she also studied abroad in Korea, adding a depth of realism to her fictional take on these experiences. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Becker employs grey scale art that adapts to the seriousness of the scene, becoming more cartoonish or exaggerated in funny moments, or when the characters are overwhelmed by their emotions and resort to humour. The visual depiction of spoken language is also masterfully handled, conveying both the struggles of codeswitching and the increasing mastery the characters experience through immersion.

Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean. Many scenes are rendered in multiple languages. Even English is not just one singular language but a multitude, articulated in the different accents and dialects of the various characters. Hyejung’s English, learned in Korean, is different from the American English Nao speaks, but for them it is still a more comfortable common tongue than Japanese. In Masaki, we find a character who is uncomfortable speaking English, but who reads it well at an academic level, demonstrating that there are different types of fluency. Tina, meanwhile, speaks Singlish with her family, something that none of her housemates realize until they overhear her on the phone one day and realize it is different than the way she speaks English with them. Communication is complex and multifaceted, and never to be taken for granted, but love in all its forms can stretch across language barriers.

Though all three girl travelled to Japan to find themselves, perhaps the most important thing they find is one another, and the home they build around their common experience. They laugh and cry together, supporting one another through cram school, crappy customer service jobs, crushes requited and unrequited, and unexpected bouts of homesickness as they come of age in a world completely different from the ones they grew up in. If finding our place in the world is hard, it is made easier by finding the people we belong with.

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Across the Grass Green Fields (Wayward Children #6)

Cover image for Across the Grass Green Fields by Seanan McGuire.

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213594

“Regan had known from the beginning that Laurel’s love was conditional. It came with so many strings that it was easy to get tangled inside it, unable to even consider trying to break free. Laurel’s love was a safe, if rigid, cocoon.”

Regan Lewis only ever wanted to be normal. Unfortunately for her, fate had other plans. Knowing that there is nothing but social ostracism waiting for her back at school after she reveals a secret, she find her doorway to the Hooflands, a realm of unicorns and centaurs perfect for a horse girl like her. But when humans come to the Hooflands, it means something is coming, something that requires a hero. And it is very useful for heroes to have thumbs and fit into small spaces, after all. But the centaur herd that finds Regan looks at her and sees a child, not just a human hero. And so they decide to keep her safe for as long as they can, until her quest presents itself.

Across the Grass Green Fields is part of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series in that it involves a child going through a doorway to a fantasy world. However, it stands apart in that Regan neither starts nor ends at Eleanor West’s school, and meets none of the series’ recurring characters along the way. It has been suggested that you could reasonably start here rather than with Every Heart a Doorway, but that would mean missing out on a lot of the interconnected structure and logic of the portal worlds. The series is in many ways cumulative, and even entirely separate stories are in conversation with one another.

One of the striking things about this series is that McGuire writes like an adult who remembers childhood viscerally. Not just the fun and the magic, but the vulnerability and confusion, the casual cruelty and fickle whims. The most compelling part of Across the Grass Green Fields is perhaps what Regan goes through before she finds her door, not the adventure that she discovers beyond it. Regan’s playground friendships are fraught, clearly depicting the “strange feuds, unexpected betrayals, and arbitrary shunnings” that many adults seem to have forgotten. In this it reminded me of the complex friendship depicted between Lundy and Moon in the fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream.

Regan is a people-pleaser, and the only thing she dares to claim for herself is her love of horses. It is not so strange as to get her ostracized by her peers, an acceptable obsession for girls. In everything else, she bends to the whims of her dictatorial best friend Laurel, and tries not to completely lose herself. When Laurel ostracizes their mutual friend Heather for not being the right kind of girl, Regan choses Laurel without hesitation. It is not until Regan finds her door, and meet the centaur girl Chicory that she discovers a friendship that gives and takes in equal measure, and demands that neither party give up parts of themselves for the sake of the other.

Regan’s quest comes late and fast, and is in some ways anti-climactic to the rest of her adventures. She has experienced much of her personal growth in the Hooflands long before she goes to the palace to meet the Queen. This is simply where she proves that she has learned what the Hooflands had to teach her about friendship, destiny, power, and the importance of being yourself.

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Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780451487995

“Jess didn’t know how much of herself would survive the process, what of her would come out the other side. But you had to die before you could be reborn.”

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business with a local gangster turned real estate developer who plans to tear down the god’s temple to build a condominium tower. She has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her get her revenge on the developer and save the temple. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly.

The story begins with the family returning to Malaysia, and Jess’s time in America quickly begins to feel like a different life. Although Jess is in a long-distance relationship, we do not learn much about her time with her girlfriend. Soon, she begins “to feel like she’d made Sharanya up, like she’d never had a girlfriend at all.” This serves to characterize how all-consuming Jess’s situation in Penang has become, but it also leaves the reader with minimal investment in the relationship when Jess’s erratic behaviour begins to cause some strain between them. Sharanya feels even less real to the reader than she does to Jess. Ultimately, however, this is a story that is more about family and history than romance. Jess’s mother has never spoken much about her family, and that silence contains a vast sea of omissions.

Jess has an American brashness about her that quickly gets her into trouble as she tries to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Penang, where bribery and corruption run rampant, and seemingly upstanding businessmen often have dark pasts. Even a simple mechanic can be more than he seems, as Jess discovers when she learns that her mother’s brother is also a spiritual medium, a dangerous and not necessarily lucrative lifestyle. Opposition to the impending condo development lands her uncle first in the hospital and then in jail, and Jess faces multiple beatings and an attempted rape as she becomes more deeply involved in Ah Ma’s vendetta. Through dreams and memories, Jess also shares in the experiences of her grandmother’s hardscrabble life, and the short life and violent death of the woman who would become the blood-thirsty god known as the Black Water Sister.

The standout character of this story is one who is dead before it even begins. Jess’s maternal grandmother Ah Ma has a sharp tongue and a steely core. She is a woman who lived a hard life, and the pragmatism that necessitated has followed her into the afterlife. A little thing like death is not going to keep her from exacting her revenge on Ng Chee Hin or saving the temple from his greed. Ah Ma can also be surprisingly funny. “Sometimes I don’t pay attention lah. You think your life is so interesting meh?” Ah Ma says dismissively when Jess interrogates her about what measure of privacy she can expect when she’s being haunted, and why Ah Ma doesn’t know everything that is going on around them. If you enjoyed characters like Mak Genggang in Cho’s previous work, Sorcerer to the Crown, Ah Ma is cut from similar cloth and has a commanding presence in the story. Powerful, complicated, and determined, she is forced to contend with a granddaughter who has all the same capacities but not necessarily the same priorities.

Black Water Sister is a truly standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission as much as with the gods before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho