I am eight years old, a new pupil at SRJK (C) Kwang Hwa.
“This is my new friend from England,” chirps my classmate when she introduces me. I have never been to England in my life, but why should she know the difference between USA and England? Here in Penang both countries seem equally distant and unreal.
My family moved from Malaysia to the US for a couple of years when I was a kid, so by that age I already knew what it was to be an alien. I’d been an alien in America, where on my first day at school the boy who became my best friend introduced himself by teaching me how to pronounce “th” correctly (“it’s not ‘de’ or ‘dis’, it’s ‘the’ and ‘this’!”).
Now I was back in Malaysia, with a clipped northwestern American accent. Since I didn’t speak Mandarin or Malay, I could only understand 20% of what anyone at school said. I still seemed to be living on another planet.
Like many lonely kids, I sought refuge in books. But nearly all the story books I read were about white Westerners. I should have watched anime, read manga, paid attention to Hong Kong movies and Korean TV dramas. But I only really cared about books. And what they taught me was that white people were the only ones who got to have adventures.
The field I now work in, as a fiction writer, is Western Anglophone science fiction and fantasy (SFF). Currently, culture wars are being fought in SFF. People who are used to their favourite kinds of stories being about their favourite kind of people — straight white able-bodied men, usually American — are dismayed by the appearance of aliens in their fiction. Like women with agency, and non-white people with thoughts and feelings.
To those on the margins of these quarrels, they can seem promising, but also limiting. What space is there in Western SFF’s push for diversity for a Malaysian who wants to write about Australians fighting zombies on Mars?
Of course, it is good to consume and produce stories about people who are different from you. But what you choose to read and write about is not value-neutral, though it is personal, and not entirely within your control. I know that when I was a child I absorbed a certain poisonous something from the books I read, that told me that Asian culture was not as interesting or valuable as Western culture.
Books taught me that white people were the only ones who got to have adventures.
We live in a world where some people are thought to deserve stories – to deserve fascinating inner lives – more than others. This has terrible consequences. Men, women and children are murdered for the colour of their skin. People fleeing devastating discrimination are abandoned on boats to die. Poets wait out short lives in factories so people in other countries can enjoy small luxuries.
Still, I have sympathy for my fellow Asian and Malaysian writers who don’t want to be restricted by the expectation that they will write about their own cultures. Kazuo Ishiguro is probably sick of that particular interview question.
For my own first novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I abandoned the Malaysian setting of several of my short stories in Spirits Abroad. Sorcerer to the Crown is a cross of Georgette Heyer and P. G. Wodehouse set in 1800s London, teeming with sorcerers, magic spells and dragons.
But it’s not all foreign to my experiences. As a black man in Georgian England, the main character, Zacharias Wythe, is himself a kind of alien in the only place he can call home. And though the book is set entirely in England, central to the events of the novel is a tiny fictional island in the straits of Melaka.
You can’t get away from yourself in the work you produce – and that’s a good thing. That’s what I’d say to other Malaysians trying to work out what stories are theirs to tell:
Look again at the Western writers whose books crowd our shelves – what’s really, lastingly good about them is a specificity that can’t be reproduced. Look at Jane Austen and her perfect sentences about people from her world. L. M. Montgomery birthed an entire tourism industry by writing about a farm girl in a Canadian kampung. Even Terry Pratchett — the streets of his Ankh-Morpork give off the stink of London’s sewers throughout the centuries.
We’re waiting for you — me and my eight-year-old alien self, who wasn’t sure what she could be if she wasn’t Malaysian or Chinese or English or American.
Tell us our stories. Bring us home.
Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer based in London. Her debut collection of short stories Spirits Abroad is published by Fixi. Her forthcoming novel Sorcerer to the Crown is published by Pan Macmillan and Ace Books. She is the editor of Cyberpunk Malaysia.