Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 May 2021, 23:11 p.m.

Willis and Cho

I meant to mention here that some months ago? I reread Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. So, I have a strong memory of having read Doomsday Book previously, back when I lived in Berkeley. In particular -- and my memory gets hazy on this -- I remember reading it in an aisle -- possibly while standing up -- at the late Black Oak Books in north Berkeley, not far from Chez Panisse, not that I had the money to go to Chez Panisse back when I was a student. I also have a strong-yet-fuzzy memory of meeting a guy at Black Oak and having a really nice conversation with him, and then going to dinner with him, and then him dropping me off at or near my apartment, and never learning each other's name or running into each other again, and only much later thinking "hold on, was that a date?" So that goes to show the level of basic human interpersonal domain knowledge I had around this time, which means that any novel I read at or before that era will likely reveal new levels to a less-doltish modern Sumana.

Doomsday Book, right. If there was a past Sumana who thought "how could people act so foolishly during a pandemic?!" then present Sumana is disillusioned and no longer doubts the verisimilitude of such a portrayal. I have been for years and am still a non-fan of the way so many scenes in Willis's stories are driven by missed phone calls and people who just will not listen or learn. It's like an endless fugue on the futility of communication. But this book does the main thing it tries to do, helping you see that the Black Plague interrupted real lives and that even when one cannot stop the big wave of history from sweeping across and drowning people, kindness matters, gestures matter, witnessing matters. It's a grand tragedy and it pulls at the heartstrings.

Just today I finished Zen Cho's latest novel, Black Water Sister. If you love Zen Cho already then you should absolutely go ahead and get this one, and if you've never tried her work, go ahead and start with this one! (Excerpt to start.) A closeted gay woman moves, with her mom and dad, back from the US to Malaysia, and discovers even more secrets to untangle. Suspenseful, funny, observant. I loved how familiar so many touches felt to me -- the rhythms and constraints of long stays with family, trying to find private time for private calls across time zones, Englishes where people say "why did you off the light" instead of "why did you turn off the light", and so much more that evidently translates among different Asian families. And I appreciated how this book got at the experience of coming to one's heritage country as an adult, after (previously) only experiencing it as a child, and starting to grasp how politics, real estate development, old familial dynamics, and chance decisions have shaped the people and places that one took for granted. Cho also -- like Maureen F. McHugh and Philip K. Dick -- has the skill to show us a protagonist making unwise decisions that we know, and sometimes she knows, are suboptimal (Jessamyn! Stop putting it off and reply to those text messages already!!), yet keep us rooting for her anyway.

It's been quite a ride to watch Cho work over the years and develop certain themes in greater and greater depth. She's written short stories (in particular I'm thinking of "The Guest" and "The Perseverance of Angela's Past Life") about contemporary queer women coming to terms with their own sexuality and finding acceptance. And she's written so many contemporary (or set in the future) stories about women coping with death, the dead, the undead, etc. vis-a-vis family and sometimes diaspora -- "The First Witch of Damansara", "Balik Kampung", "Everything Under One Roof", "The House of Aunts", "The Terracotta Bride", "The Four Generations of Chang E", and "First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia". In particular Black Water Sister is intriguing to view in comparison to "The First Witch of Damansara" which shows us two granddaughters, one angry and one (the point-of-view character) an emigrant or expat to the West who is attempting to be sensible. Jessamyn in Black Water Sister is in some ways a Westerner and starts off doubting the supernatural things that are happening to her; to blossom she needs to access her own rage.

This is Cho's first contemporary novel (all her past novels and most of her novellas/novelettes have been in historical or fantasy-historical settings), and I find myself thinking about Courtney Milan's Trade Me, her first contemporary novel after a string of historicals, in which she brought to the fore aspects of her own personal experience she hadn't previously infused so directly into her fiction. Further books since then -- including her historicals -- have grown more radical, more attentive to what ground-down people need in order to break free into their own lives. It's fallaciously appealing to make 1-to-1 analogical predictions about authors' trajectories, but I do see Black Water Sister as a kind of culmination of some themes in Cho's work, and I look forward to seeing her build from there into cool new places -- always keeping her protagonists' distinct wryness and sometimes unnerving practicality.