#REVIEW: Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho

I have four or five of Zen Cho’s books by now, and I’m pretty certain I’ve only talked about one of them on here, her Sorcerer to the Crown, which came out way back in 2015, before the world went to hell. I’m not in the mood to bury the lede here, so I’ll put this right up front: this is my favorite of her books, and by a pretty substantial margin. Black Water Sister tells the story of Jess, an American in her early twenties born to immigrant Malaysian parents, who moves back to Malaysia with her family at the beginning of the book, with a Harvard degree under her belt but no real plan on what to do with her life.

Then her grandmother’s spirit moves into her body, and she learns all sorts of things about Malaysian religion and Malaysian gods, and she has to protect a temple from a local gangster who also happens to be the fifth-richest guy in Malaysia, while fighting with her long-distance girlfriend and pointedly not starting a relationship with the only person her age she talks to throughout the entire book, who is a guy and would be a romantic interest in any other book.

And, yeah, it turns out her grandmother is … maybe a little malevolent? Just a titch? A little wee bit? It throws some curveballs you’re probably not expecting.

That’s not why I liked the book, though. This one is a great example of a Book I Liked For the Writing, although I have fewer problems with the story than I usually do with books I enjoy in that particular fashion. The interesting thing here is that this book reads as far more personal to Cho than her previous work– she is, herself, a young Malaysian woman, and while she’s writing a character younger than her I have to assume that some of Cho’s own experiences have made it into the book. If nothing else, the way she writes Malaysian dialogue is just fantastic. Don’t know any Malaysian? Too bad, she’s going to throw some words and phrases out there and if you can’t intuit them from context you’re out of luck. That said, the dialogue in this book is almost entirely at least translated into Manglish if not explicitly written that way; most of the time the Malaysian characters are speaking English to Jess, and the deeper I got into the book the more sidetracked and fascinated I got by how the creole actually works. Malaysian uses a lot of emphatic particles that English doesn’t use, for starters– lots of ending sentences with “lah” and “ah” and “meh” and other syllables like that, and while I never quite pulled together exactly what was going on (and the damn Internet has been no help) the name system they’re using is interesting as hell too. I loved listening to these characters in a way that I haven’t in a long time; I have lots of writers I like whose dialogue I’m big fans of, but this is the first time I can think of where the author’s representation of speech in a culture I was unfamiliar with was so interesting.

(Also, and this is a minor detail, but some of Jess’ relatives are Christians, and it’s fascinating to see the way that Malaysians apparently treat Christianity as an item on a buffet of religions, to be sampled as needed. Conversion to Christianity is pondered at one point in the book as a way to get another god (no shit) to leave them alone, and they treat it about as seriously as I might ponder picking up a new pair of shoes upon discovering that my current ones hurt my feet. It’s like “Oh, we could do that,” and that’s it.)

I can’t attribute reading this one to #readaroundtheworld, as Cho is not only an author I’ve been following for a while but isn’t even the first Malaysian I’ve read this year– that honor went to Cassandra Khaw’s All-Consuming World, and I think Khaw has another book coming out in a month or so, so I’ll have read at least three books by Malaysians this year. But it definitely pairs nicely with the project, and this is exactly the type of book I was looking to read more of for the project. My one complaint? This may not be something that bothers you, but Jess is a bit of an asshole, and not always in a good way. She’s got a filthy mouth in a way that feels jarring compared to everyone else (Jess, as the only American-born, first-language English character in the book, talks significantly differently from every other character) and the couple of times she tells her grandmother to fuck off are … kind of a trip. She also does a bit too much lying in the book for my tastes; she’s lying to her parents about being gay, among other things, and while she’s got a long-distance girlfriend she’s also lying to her through most of the book, as her girlfriend is described as too rational to want to hear Jess complaining about things like being possessed by local deities and gangsters trying to kill her. It means a lot of the book’s energy is devoted to Jess keeping secrets from everyone around her, and keeping track of who knows what, and it can be kind of wearying, to be perfectly honest. But as weak spots in a book go, a young MC acting like a selfish young person isn’t necessarily the worst fault the book could have. I enjoyed this one quite a lot. I think you will too.

On the young’uns and their talk

I do this thing nowadays where when I come up with something I want to talk about I now have to take a minute and decide whether I want to put it on the blog or TikTok. I think this one is actually going to go both places, but framed differently. I have to be briefer and funnier over there than I think is necessary on the blog– not that brief and funny isn’t good here, but I think people have more patience with prose than they do with video.

That out of the way, does anyone out there– and I’m talking mostly to the teachers who might be reading this– feel like the jump in new slang terms from last year to this year has been more thorough than any particular single year of school? New words and phrases emerge all the time, of course, and no group of kids speaks exactly like the one a year before or a year after them, and definitely not like the ones two years before or after them. But there’s something going on this year where these kids are throwing around a lot of words that I’ve not seen in previous years, to a degree that I feel like I’ve never seen before.

Some are more obvious than others (you know what “sus” means the first time you hear it) and others are a little bit more difficult– everything in the universe is either “cap” or “no cap” to my 8th graders right now, and I haven’t, uh, sussed out exactly what that one means yet. But there’s something going on here. It’s not just that I’m getting older; this has been a thing for my entire career, because it’s how youth culture works. I was too old for middle school slang when I was out of college; I’m not really any more too old for it at 44.

On pronouns

My pronouns are he/him/his. This should not come as a surprise to anyone as I suspect my identity as a cis male is fairly obvious, at least to anyone who notices the traditionally male name affixed to the site, and certainly to anyone who has ever seen me in person. There was a time when my hair was long, curly, and glorious, and I was addressed as “ma’am” once or twice in public in my college years only to have the person hastily correct themselves upon seeing what the front of my head looks like.

To be clear, I think normalizing making your pronouns explicit even if you’re cisgendered is a good thing. At least two of my online profiles (Twitter and TikTok) contain them, and I do my best to call people what they want me to call them. There have been times where I’ve had to discreetly inquire of a third party what someone’s pronouns were, and I’ve had students recently who either wanted to be they/them or were out as trans, at least in my classroom. Those types of kids are the exact reason I do stuff like this. I feel like it’s the right thing to do.

I’m not going to review Dr. Meera Shah’s You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion, or at least not beyond this paragraph, and the reason is that you already know everything you need to know about the book from the title, including whether you want to read it. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s also not really surprising in any way.

Well, okay, the way it handles pronouns is kinda strange, and I wanted to talk about that a little bit. Now, this is a book about abortion, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the subjects of nearly every chapter are people who can get pregnant, and nearly all of those are cisgendered women. One chapter focuses on a cis man, whose name is Mateo, and that chapter focuses on the effect that abortion can have on the partners of the people who get abortions. One subject identifies as genderqueer and is they/them.

Every single chapter is titled with the name of the main subject of the chapter, with their pronouns, italicized, in a smaller font, and in parentheses, below the person’s name, along with the word “Pronouns”. So, like this:

BEATRICE

(Pronouns: She/her/hers)

Also, when other individuals are introduced throughout the text, their pronouns are also provided immediately after their name is first used– but oddly inconsistently, as it’s not used for everyone. (I swear that Dr. Shah directly addresses her rationale for this at some point in the book, but I can’t find it, and it doesn’t appear to be in the introduction, which is the most obvious place.)

At any rate, that’s what triggered the post: because for some reason this became distracting as hell over the course of the book, and I wanted to kind of talk it out and see if anybody pushed back at me. Putting your pronouns on a profile (or, as I did at a con once, on a sticker that you’re wearing) has the advantage of letting strangers know how to refer to you. Again, sometimes it’s more obvious than others– no one is going to look at me and call me “she” unless explicitly told to– but I get why it’s a thing and I participate in it.

This book does things like this:

When I spoke to Dr. Hoobity (Pronouns: she/her/hers), she told me that…

Not a direct quote, but stuff like that happens all the time– an explicit listing of the person’s personal pronouns, annoyingly including the word “pronouns,” immediately followed by a use of one of those pronouns. That risk of confusion or causing inadvertent offense just isn’t present when you’re writing about someone, because you’re going to use pronouns all the time. It’s hard to write about people without using pronouns, and in a book that is about people who can get pregnant it becomes even more ridiculous because nearly everyone identifies as she/her. Even the genderqueer person’s pronouns are explicit nearly immediately; the first use of singular they made it clear very quickly, and they talked about being genderqueer in the chapter. I was fully expecting (and would have been interested to read) a chapter at some point about a trans male’s experience with pregnancy and abortion, but it never happened. The one chapter about a person identifying as male is Mateo’s, and he’s cis, and his chapter is basically about cis men.

It didn’t ruin the book or anything like that, don’t get me wrong, but it was distracting enough that, well, I wrote the post about pronouns instead of about the actual book. Am I off-base here, or do other people feel like this would be distracting for them as well?

On actual helpful ed tech

I am tired– okay, that’s always true, but it’s basically bedtime and I just wanted to take a moment for this– and so this will be a brief piece, but: my lesson for my 8th graders today involved something that I don’t do a lot in my classes: note-taking. I defined and provided a bunch of examples of rational numbers and irrational numbers, mostly me talking and writing on the board and the kids being surprisingly dutiful about writing it all down.

I have a student in one of my classes who speaks basically no English at all. She is– there is some debate about this, and every time I remember to just cut to the chase and ask her about it, she’s not in the room– either from Mexico or Guatemala, or possibly Guatemala via Mexico, I’m not sure, and she only speaks Spanish.

She uses Google Translate to get by in my classroom. I’ve got her paired with another kid who speaks a moderate amount of Spanish and they have their Chromebooks out at all times and the one kid will translate anything important I say into Spanish for her. Unfortunately, this wasn’t working very well today, since I was writing quite a bit and the other girl had to take her own notes as we were going.

She came up to me and told me (in English, which I was impressed by) that she didn’t understand what I’d said after the lecture, and the amazing thing is that between my own limited-but-not-nonexistent Spanish abilities and the translation software I was able to translate all of the notes for her in maybe an extra five or six minutes. At which point she happily– and, I noted, accurately– did her assignment.

I am very old-school in my teaching despite having spent last year literally working as an ed tech advocate. It’s nice when something works like it’s supposed to and actually makes my job easier.

In which I remember your life better than you do

I haven’t done an education post in a good long while; let’s see if I’ve still got the chops.  Seen this lately?  It’s making the rounds on DevilBook:

31483742_10209939830931981_3036515949554434048_nI succumbed to my baser urges and replied to it on one person’s page, and let me make it clear that I’m not holding her responsible for this, as the notion “Americans should be better educated” is one that I’m gonna hold to and agree with pretty much no matter what the circumstances.  However, what I’m not gonna be okay with is the idea that most of these concepts (and others like them; there are several variants of this little meme picture) aren’t taught in school.

They are.  In damn near every high school in America and most of the middle schools too.  I have personally taught about at least half of these things.  You just didn’t pay attention, because you were a dumbass kid and this was adult stuff and it was boring.  The problem is no one ever writes a meme post about “Shit I should have paid better attention to in school.”  It’s always the teachers’ fault.

You took an econ class in high school, right?  It’s mandatory in Indiana.  That class covered accounting, money management, taxes, and credit all by its damn self.  I covered all of those things, excepting only “good credit,” with my middle school classes in a required class you might be familiar with; it was called math.

Nutrition?  I bet you took a Health class at some point.  Required in Indiana in both middle and high school.  Job and careers?  I actually taught a class called Careers to middle school kids.  Pretty sure something similar exists in high school too.  Self-defense, okay, I’ll give you that one, but the rest of them?  Give me a damn break.  If you weren’t paying attention, I don’t even blame you, because expecting little kids to be intimately curious about shit that won’t affect their lives for ten or fifteen years is a little unreasonable, but the idea that the subjects were never covered is nonsense.  They were mandatory.  You just blew them off.  And that’s on you.


A moment, then, on the last part, about being “forced” to be “fluent” in at least one other language.  I am actually pro-foreign language education.  I just think that goddamn near everyone in America should be taking Spanish.  A solid majority of American citizens, especially anyone who works in a job facing the public, could do with, if not fluency, at least a passable working knowledge of Spanish, enough to get through a basic conversation.  I’ve had some furniture sales that were conducted damn near entirely in Spanish and I’m not remotely fluent.  But I can get by if I need to.  That level.

The notion that Americans, as a whole, require something called “fluency” in any language other than English is fucking ridiculous, though.  Is it good?  Sure.  Is it necessary?  Crazy talk.  Go ahead, bring up Europe.  Europe has 300 languages because when Europe was growing up you were going to be born, live, and die within fifteen miles or so of the same goddamn spot and it’s easy for languages to bifurcate and split during a couple of millennia of that type of social evolution.  Africa, Asia, same thing.

America?  America used to have lots of languages until the white folk moved in and killed everybody who spoke them.  Now?  English, party of 350 million.  If I’m in Germany, I can get in my car and drive for eight hours and I’ll for damn sure be somewhere where people speak a language other than German.  If I’m in America and drive for eight hours I may not even be out of my state.  Are there localized pockets of people who speak other languages than English and Spanish?  Sure, tons of ’em, there’s lots of Poles and Pennsylvania Dutch around here, for example.  Are there jobs where knowing another language is useful?  Sure.  Does every American need to “be fluent” in a foreign language?  Come the hell on.


Apropos of nothing, I just looked up and saw this from the window next to my desk:

unnamedThe walls aren’t that yellow, but I haven’t altered the color balance in this picture at all.  In the last ten minutes the temperature has dropped from ninety to sixty, rain has started, and apparently outdoors is in black and white now.  

Weird.