Interview with Zen Cho

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, PodCastle, Fantastique Unfettered, Steam-Powered II and year’s best lesbian speculative fiction anthology Heiresses of Russ. She is a Selangor Young Talent Awards finalist and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

On tomorrow’s World SF Blog we will be featuring a story from the author.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get into speculative fiction?

Thanks for interviewing me!

I always knew I wanted to write speculative fiction. A lot of the books I’d grown up reading and loved most were fantasy or science fiction and I enjoyed the escapist aspect. As I’ve grown older I’ve also come to appreciate the tools sff gives you for throwing fresh light on familiar situations and “real life” problems or ideas.

I suppose what appeals to me most, and what I seek in sff, is strangeness.

How would you describe your writing?

Malaysian fantasy. In terms of style, I like what P. G. Wodehouse says about there being two ways to write novels: “One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn …” My stories are probably more on the musical comedy side.

How did you first get acquainted with the genre?

It was what was on the shelves when I was a kid hungry for books. The books I steeped my brain in and took inspiration from were mostly British fantasy — Edith Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien — but I read a few of the usual American sff authors as well, Asimov and McCaffrey and the like.

Could you elaborate more on Malaysian fantasy? Does it mean Malaysia as a setting, or Malaysian characters, or some other quality? (We’re also wrestling with this question when it comes to Philippine speculative fiction.)

In practice nearly all the stories I’ve written for publication either take place in Malaysia or feature Malaysian characters, so that’s not a question I’ve really exercised myself over! I think it’s possible for a story to have a distinctively Malaysian sensibility or Malaysian qualities without taking place in Malaysia or featuring avowedly Malaysian characters, but it would probably take more than its being written by a Malaysian author for it to qualify as “Malaysian fantasy” in my eyes.

What made you decide to write with the short story format?

It took me a while to figure out how to write anything longer, so I started with short stories. I’ve been working on longer projects, actually, but I’ve found the short story both a good training ground and a rewarding format in its own right. I like how condensed it is.

You mentioned some British and American authors. Are there any Malaysian authors – not necessarily genre – that you’ve read?

Yes, but not nearly so many as British and American authors. Most of the better-known Malaysian authors who write in English write literary fiction, which doesn’t appeal to me as much as genre. (I read for excitement, and tend to find dragons and comedies of manners more exciting than the emotional issues of middle-aged dudes ….) The best known Malaysian author I like is probably Shamini Flint, who writes fun detective novels. For non-fiction I’m a big fan of Shanon Shah, who writes a couple of columns for the Nut Graph, a Malaysian news site, and historian Farish Noor.

Has living in London affected the way you write (and if so, how?)?

In the sense that any life experience affects one’s writing, certainly. It’s made me think a lot more about diaspora and issues of identity — what makes me Chinese or Malaysian when I live in Britain? Living as a member of a small minority has also given me an interest in communities that exist on the margins of the mainstream, both nowadays and in history. London is a particularly good place for learning about whose stories get recorded in textbooks and literature, and whose stories are forgotten. People often think of Britain as being historically a racially homogenous country and that may be true for many parts of it, but London has been multiracial for hundreds of years. Of course, every country and every city has its hidden histories, but the advantage of living in London is that its histories are very well recorded and easily accessible.

What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently absorbed in Eileen Chang’s The Book of Change, which is the second of two semi-autobiographical books written by Chang in English, chronicling her student days in Hong Kong during the war. I admire Chang a lot, though I could never write like her (and I’ve tried!). Her family makes Amy Tan’s mothers look like pussy cats.

I’ve also just finished Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is very entertaining pop linguistics about how language influences how we think. The curse of having a Kindle means I have several books on the go at once — the sff ones I’m currently reading are The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin and Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves.
What projects are you currently working on?

I’m plugging away at a YA urban fantasy novel set in Kuala Lumpur which contains every id-pleasing trope I can think of — the more over-the-top the better — without bringing in vampires or werewolves. It’s taking up most of my energy at the moment so that’s about it.


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