That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

A New Reality: The Optimism of Zen Cho

I love so much those moments in a story that just make me wriggle inwardly with glee for how they reveal a character or a place or a society:

Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it was a half-hearted telling off. The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate. Ah Lee had listened without saying a word to their unconvinced lectures as they flew home.

I’ve been enjoying Zen Cho’s work in fandom since long before she began publishing original work. “The House of Aunts” (from her collection Spirits Abroad) is one of my favorite examples of her work. It’s so alive to the reader’s pleasure, with an underlying optimism that can survive even inconvenient realities like death and vampirism and school.

Cho doesn’t airbrush away those inconvenient realities—her vampires really do eat people, and they really are dead. But they can still be people, and still have friends and go to university and fall in love, because that is delightful, and capturing that middle ground is what makes the story so satisfying. There is nothing of the grimdark here and also nothing of the plastic and fake. You’re allowed to feel uneasy about the eating of people going on in the background and you’re also allowed to like the characters and be with them in their story.

You feel as you read that the author wants you to be happy, even if she is not going to lie to you to make you feel more comfortable. Which is a quality I find in the fanfic I love more generally—I think it comes of writing in a community with so little distance between readers and writers, where the desire to make art marries with the desire to give pleasure to an audience you know really intimately and of which you are a part. In that tradition, Cho wants to do something interesting, to tell us a story we haven’t seen before, and she also wants us to viscerally enjoy ourselves along the way. As a reader, when I feel a writer has those goals, it creates a kind of trust that carries me along with them. Even when they take me to difficult or uncomfortable or sad places, I still feel they are doing so because it’s where the story belongs, and even then still with the underlying desire to give satisfaction. As a reader, that trust lets me open up to the story more fully, to let it affect me more deeply.

Her protagonists also have this same quality, of being welcoming and yet firmly themselves, like a host who invites you to make yourself at home without trying too hard to make you comfortable. When you read about Ah Lee, or Prudence, or Zacharias Wythe (from her upcoming Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, which is also wonderful and which you should keep an eye out for), she’s not afraid to let you experience their difference and the unfamiliarities that come from seeing through their eyes and hearing their voices.

A classmate caught her staring at the boy the next morning.

“Eh, see something very nice, is it?” said the classmate, her voice heavy with innuendo. She might as well have added, “Hur hur hur.”

Fortunately Ah Lee did not have quick social reflexes. Her face remained expressionless. She said contemplatively, “I can’t remember whether today is my turn to clean the window or not. Sorry, you say what ah? You think that guy looks very nice, is it?”

The classmate retreated, embarrassed.

“No lah, just joking only,” she said.

“Who is that guy?” said Ah Lee, maintaining the facade of detachment. “Is he in our class? I never see him before.”

“Blur lah you,” said the classmate. “That one is Ridzual. He’s new. He just move here from KL.”

“He came to Lubuk Udang from KL?” said Ah Lee.

“I know, right?” said the classmate.

There is no weighting the narrative down with unnecessary explanation, whether the story is in Regency England or about a Malaysian pontianak or a dragon-haunted London. It takes courage to let the reader stumble over an unfamiliar voice or experience, but so often it’s those very stumbles that create the feeling of going on a journey outside our own experience, and that’s what I come to fantasy and sf and historical fiction to have. I want to let myself feel a part of another reality for a while, and Cho’s work does that brilliantly.

Naomi Novik is the acclaimed author of the Temeraire series, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon. She has been nominated for the Hugo Award and has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as the Locus Award for Best New Writer and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. Her latest novel, Uprooted, introduces a bold new world rooted in folk stories and legends—available now in the US (Random House) and May 21st in the UK (Pan Macmillan).

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