It’s been a while since I read a book with a manifesto printed inside the front cover. Spirits Abroad is published by a Malaysian imprint that stakes its ground out very explicitly on page one, and it’s so tempting to get all academic and unpack that through the sociolinguistic frames of World Englishes, ELF, the Expanding Circle and so on. For now though we’ll just focus on one point: Fixi Novo’s deliberate and specific repudiation of italicized loanwords, as “italics are a form of apology.”
To return to the book; quite apart from the politics, the decision not to italicize loanwords is definitely a good one, as the vast majority of the characters speak in a Malay-Chinese dialect, and there’s a lot of dialogue:
“Nanti kena rotan by the discipline teacher than you know,” said Ah Lee. “You know Puan Aminah doesn’t even let us wear colored watches. Must be black, plain black strap.” She showed him the watch she was wearing. “Metal watch also cannot. Too gaya konon.”
There’s no glossary. I like this; the refusal to bend to the deadening hand of globalization and the osmotic pressure of the Anglo-American hegemony. For my part there is, of course, the danger of a kind of reverse fetishization of the exotic (i.e. one of the many shades of Orientalism), but that’s a risk worth taking, I think, because big words and deepthinks aside a lot of this is just pretty damn cool. ‘Local flavour’ is a hideous way of putting it, but a principal purpose of literature is to transport you from where you are to where might be, and this linguistic confidence in local varieties is one of the most vital and elegant ways of achieving that. A text where every third or fourth word is in italics would be the very opposite of those things and work actively against the use of dialect’s otherwise immersive effect.
With that said, ‘vital’ and ‘elegant’ are also both good descriptions of Spirits Abroad in general, and Cho’s narrative voice more specifically. For the most it’s pretty unobtrusive (not least because all that dialogue is an object lesson in letting characters speak for themselves) but every now and then it pops up with a bit of metatextual commentary that manages to be gently sardonic without ever falling over into the annoyingly clever-clever. That general lightness of touch is one of the principal strengths of the book; the characters and their narratives are so clearly and evocatively drawn that there’s simply no need to go overboard with the more ‘literary’ aspects of style, and as a result Spirits Abroad is a pudding which is never knowingly over-egged (unlike the metaphors in this sentence, sadly). That lightness is complemented by Cho’s manifest skill in making the remarkable seem mundane. That’s not the wrong way round and it really is a compliment:
Where Prudence came from, spirits were an everyday thing. You knew they were there and you acknowledged them when necessary… In Britain people were far too sophisticated to pray to their spirits. Instead they wrote articles about them.
This reframing of the seemingly fantastic as the everyday is perhaps the key manifestation of the deeper discourses on dislocation and belonging that run through the book, and the pattern is set early: the opening story – The First Witch of Damansara – sees a returnee student (re)adjusting to family life back in Malaysia, and the second – First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia – does exactly what it says on the tin, with the added intrigue of an extra-marital affair between a retired MP and a orang bunian jungle spirit. I think any immigrant/emigrant would be able to recognize those aspects of culture shock (and indeed reverse culture shock), assimilation, and othering which so often work through the exotification of the normal, which often has benign intent but in effect is definitely not. Case in point: Yes, I can use fucking chopsticks.
Spirits Abroad contains ten stories, divided into three sections titled Here, There, and Elsewhere, set in Malaysia, The UK, and more speculative locations respectively (seriously, I know I keep banging on about sociopolitics but with even the contents page adopting such an unequivocal stance you can’t not be aware of it). All contain fantastical aspects to varying degrees, from haunted Chinese cabinets, to bickering, overprotective Malasyian pontianak (which are kind of like vampires though not really), to love-blinded dragons and their socially inept objects of affection, and even if the weightier sub- and surtexts aren’t your bag then all can be appreciated for their simpler virtues of being entertaining stories well told. This is a very good book. I should have mentioned that earlier, I suppose.
It’s customary at this point to pick a favourite, and I think the nod has to go to The House of Aunts, featuring those aforementioned pontianak. The narrator is a teenage vampire who, having died in childbirth, finds herself spending her afterlife living(?) with generations of her undead female relatives, while simultaneously struggling with a crush on the new boy in school. It manages to be by turns amusing, sweet, and genuinely terrifying (‘cos, y’know, vampires). Honorable mentions also for both Prudence and the Dragon and One-Day Travelcard for Fairyland. The former featuring that bewildered dragon attempting to woo the prosaically ignorant Prudence (funny, very funny), and the latter a group of exchange students fighting off a siege of homicidal fairies through the very English application of strategic boredom (making the fantastic mundane, remember?).
A special mention should also go to The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote and The Mystery of the Suet Swain. Sod it, look, they’re all good, all right? but I want to talk about these two because they’re neat illustrations of another thematic thread of this book, which is that of awkward romance (though in truth this is really just a subordinate discourse to those of acceptance and belonging). The Suet Swain is a nicely done holmesian pastiche in which a romantically indecisive student is stalked by lard demon, and Anecdote shows us the inept romancing of a spirit of the earth by one of the forest. The romantic relationships in Spirits Abroad are mostly, for want of a better word, interracial, and characterized by initial misunderstanding and eventual acceptance. The exception is that lard demon, who comes from Malaysia to the UK and relies on an immigrant community looking the other way to act out all kinds of appalling behaviour. Little reading between the lines necessary on that one, sadly. What you keep, what you leave behind, and what follows you despite your best intentions: all these factor into the immigrant experience, and the accommodation of initially uncomfortable remnants of past lives is addressed with an unusually sympathetic exorcism in 起狮､ 行礼 (Rising Lion – The Lion Bows). In fact, fat-face aside, sympathy and empathy abound in what is an overwhelmingly optimistic book.
It closes with two of the shortest stories, Liyana and The Four Generations of Chang E. To be honest both fell a little flat for me, and I feel like a bit of a churl for saying that because I think if I’d read them in a different context I’d have liked them much more. Liyana is a charmingly melancholic tale of sisterhood and obligation (which reminds me a lot of Tidbek’s Cloudberry Jam) that just felt slightly out of place when compared to the rest of the collection, and the metaphor around which Chang E is constructed is pretty blunt. By itself I think it would stand up well, but given all I was saying about the lightness of touch in the preceding stories closing with such an obviously allegorical piece seems a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack an already open nut.
These are minor quibbles though (and they are very minor). Cho’s otherwise seamless integration of the supernatural into the commonplace magnifies, somewhat paradoxically, the unadorned humanity of her characters. This is not an easy trick to pull off once, never mind that here it is done so consistently and so well. In sum this is a wonderful little book that can be read on many levels (clearly), and both encourages and rewards engagement with all of them. Spirits Abroad is witty and affecting, gracefully imaginative, and unapologetically political. More like this, please.