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Today’s guest is Zen Cho, whose recent debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown was selected for several notable Best of 2015 lists, nominated for a RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and longlisted for both the BSFA Awards and the Tiptree Award. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtfully written story containing humor and insight, and I especially appreciated how it captured the complexities of human emotion through its two main protagonists. She is also the author of the Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad and the editor of Cyberpunk: Malaysia and was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2013.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.”
– Joanna Russ

It was a woman who gave me Joanna Russ’s books, tatty mass market paperbacks with bizarre ’70s covers. I didn’t wholly understand them, but I was fascinated. What anger and what clarity.

It was through women’s voices that I got into science fiction and fantasy in the first place. Great British fantasists like Edith Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones, and science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin, were part of my gateway into the genre. So were the British and North American novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I read voraciously as a child in Malaysia. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Noel Streatfeild, L. M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Jean Webster–women living at times and places far removed from me–gave me a lasting taste for being immersed in foreign worlds using alien jargon, with curious social norms and novel technology.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones Dawn by Octavia E. Butler Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

And it was girls and women who told me I should write fiction; who encouraged me when I started; who read my work and told me they liked it. Women who taught me about craft and storytelling, who sent me calls for submissions, who put me in touch with agents and editors, who bought my stories.

So it’s strange that for several years, when I started writing seriously as a teenager, I wrote primarily about men. When I first read the quote by Russ above, I rang like a bell.

My development was a little different. I was younger and grew up in a world that hated women with slightly less open virulence. The stories I was writing as a teenager did push back at dominant narratives, to a certain extent. They were love stories about men in which men were losers.

But men were also winners. The fanfic I read and wrote consisted of stories about men, almost exclusively.

Yet I was growing hungry for something else–and it was in the pages of a manga by a man that I found it. I fell madly in love with shounen manga Bleach‘s Kuchiki Rukia, a funny, flawed, fascinating female character who was better than the narrative she was given.

Bleach Volume 2 Bleach Volume 54

Getting really into an adventure story for the sake of a woman seemed to unlock something in my head, even though the woman was really the loser in that particular story. (And even though I’m not even that keen on adventure stories–too much swashbuckling, not enough conversation.) Like most genres focused on the pleasure of the reader, anime/manga operates on identifiable tropes, and it’s often possible for a fan to work out the character who’s going to be their favourite before they even read or watch something. Mine was “the girl”.

It still took a few more years for me to work out how to write original fiction focused on girls and women like me. When you are from a background traditionally underrepresented in the fiction you consume, it takes a real leap of trust and imagination to believe that readers will want to hear about people like you. Even now I have to shout down the internal voice that insists nobody’s really interested in stories focusing on middle-class Malaysian girls and women. And that’s in the face of proof to the contrary–like the award given to my book of short stories about middle-class Malaysian girls and women by a panel of judges, none of whom belong to that category.

If you don’t have a model for telling your specific truth, it can be hard to work out how to express that. The women who came before opened the way for me. So it’s my job to lay the path for those who come after me. To make the next person, alien to herself, ring like a bell in recognition of an unlooked-for truth–something she’s always known, but hasn’t seen reflected back at her till now.

Zen Cho
Photo Credit: Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography
Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad, and editor of anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia, both published by Buku Fixi. She has been nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Pushcart Prize, and honour-listed for the Carl Brandon Society Awards, for her short fiction. Her debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a historical fantasy trilogy published by Ace/Roc Books (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK and Commonwealth). She lives in London.