Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:
This is #ownvoices short fiction–Malay speculative fiction by a Malay writer. The Malay rep is deep, both in terms of the content of the stories and the language of the stories themselves.
There is a smattering of queer representation in some of the stories here, notably in “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life,” “The Mystery of the Suet Swain,” and “The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat.”
Mental health issues are explored in “The Fish Bowl” with a great deal of empathy.
Content Warnings for Book:
Refreshingly, there are content warnings scattered throughout the book! Where there are stories which contain issues like self harm or gore, Cho has provided content warnings right up front. I appreciated this. I didn’t skip any stories, but I like being able to go in knowing that there are things to expect.
As a collection, Spirits Abroad examines what it is to be a young feminist Malay woman in the world today, both in Malaysia and abroad. Nearly all of the protagonists of the stories in this anthology are young women, and nearly all of them are dissatisfied and struggling with something. Nearly all of them, even when they are at their most good-natured, are chafing at invisible constraints, at the things they are forced by those around them to sacrifice.
As with any collection of short stories, some will speak to a reader more than others. It’s like letting the person at the doughnut shop counter choose your dozen for you: inevitably, they will choose a doughnut you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. If you eat them all, sometimes you find a new flavor that might become a favorite. Sometimes you remember why you never eat that flavor. I wasn’t expecting to like every single story in this anthology. I never expect that; I think it’s an unfair expectation to put on an anthology. But I was expecting cohesion, and a standard level of quality, and I think this collection hit both of those marks.
At sixteen pieces, there was room for paring down. And there were a couple of pieces that did strike me as less strong as the others. “The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat” was a muddled piece. Even contextualized by the informative author’s note it still had structural issues that made it hard to parse. “The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote” is tonally out of step with the rest of the collection, featuring, I think, the only non-human protagonist. This story also featured a non-binary character continually referred to as “it,” which made me, as a non-binary reviewer, continually uncomfortable.
These stories don’t detract much from the overall experience of the collection as a whole. Cho’s command of language is remarkable, and she has some incredibly good pieces in here. The collection starts with a bang: “The First Witch of Damansara” is funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with a sly undead grandmother thrown in the mix. “The First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” is an incredibly well-written story, and one that speaks so much about choices and secrets. “The Fish Bowl” creates such a sense of claustrophobia and desperation out of so little that I read it twice in a row–this one is not for the faint of heart. Much of this book is not for the faint of heart, but it will make you want to read it anyway.
Takeaway & Rating:
Zen Cho’s collection of short fiction explores the pressures and sacrifices of everyday life using Malay folklore as metaphor for things like stalking, academic pressure, and grief. She does this with a steady hand and a clever voice–you will definitely find two or three stories that stick with you for weeks after reading them in Spirits Abroad.