Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho. ★★★★
Spirits Abroad is a delightful collection of short stories by Zen Cho. I’d previously enjoyed her novel The Sorcerer and the Crown and a couple of her short stories (specifically “Prudence and the Dragon” and “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life“). Zen Cho is a Malaysian fantasy author who often combines English fantasy tropes with Malaysian life and folklore. While many of her stories deal with serious topics (such as Angela disconnecting herself from her heritage and repressing her bisexuality in “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Lives”), they are often humorous at the same time. Zen Cho is an immensely talented writer, and I enjoyed this collection to no end.
If you want to get a taste of Zen Cho’s work without investing in an entire collection, many of these stories are available for free online. In “Prudence and the Dragon,” a Dragon visits London and becomes enamored with Prudence, an ordinary med student. “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life” is a sequel story focusing on Prudence’s friend Angela. The only other connected stories in the collection are “起狮，行礼 (Rising Lion–The Lion Bows)“ and “七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum),” which follow a lion dance trope in England which uses their dances to perform exorcisms. “The Four Generations of Chang E” is a science fiction story about immigration and the different generations of one family that immigrates to the moon and assimilates (or tries not to assimilate) with the local lunar people. I’ll admit to being a bit confused by all the women being named “Chang E.” Was each successive daughter given the same name, or was this supposed to be the same woman somehow? Then again, the ambiguity only makes the story more interesting.
The last short story also available online is “The House of Aunts,” the story of Ah Lee, a young Malaysian vampire who lives with her five aunties. When Ah Lee begins to fall in love with a boy at school, the aunties are disapproving and full of dire warnings, but Ah Lee wants a life apart from them. There’s a free audio version available at PodCastle.
Other stories are only available in print, and some are specific to this collection. “The First Witch of Damansara” is the opening story, in which a young woman who’s immigrated to England has to return home for her grandmother’s funeral. Complicating matters, Vivian’s grandmother was a witch and her sister has inherited the power. Oh, and her grandmother’s spirit is hanging around and emotionally blackmailing the family to try and get the burial she wants.
“First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” might be the funniest story in the collection, despite the title. A forum on minorities in Malaysia is derailed when an orang bunian (a mythological invisible race that lives in the jungle) arrives wanting to discuss invisible people’s rights. Oh, and the failures of the modern education system.
Probably my favorite story of the collection is also the darkest: “The Fish Bowl.” Su Yin is a student under intense pressure to perform perfectly. She’s struggling to get by when she encounters a magic koi fish. The fish will grant her wishes, but in return, she’ll have to pay in pain and blood. It’s clearly a story about academic anxiety and self harm, and it’s one I related to a tad too much. My high school could be incredibly intense when it came to academics, and it wasn’t until after graduation that I realized so many of peers were also having mental health trouble. For all its fantastical elements, “The Fish Bowl” was a little too real.
My second favorite story is “The Mystery of the Suet Swain,” which deals with stalking and harassment. Sham and Belinda are both Malaysians attending college in England and are best of friends. When someone named “Suet” begins posting photos of Belinda online, Sham is determined to get to the bottom of it and support her friend.
“Balik Kampung (Going Back)” tells of a hungry ghost returning home to see her husband and finding out why she died. In “The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote,” an earth spirit has a series of exasperating encounters with her landlord. “One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland” takes the English boarding school setting, populates it with international students, and puts them in battle with local fairies. In “Liyana,” a girl is born from a pineapple. “Jebet Dies” is my least favorite story in the collection. I can’t begin to tell you what it’s about; it makes no sense to me. Maybe I just don’t have the cultural background to understand it?
Cho uses content warnings on all her stories with options to skip to the next one if you so choose. I decided to read them all, but I appreciated the warning. It might have been useful if I was having a bad anxiety day. Anyway, this was a fantastic collection that I highly recommend.