Today is my stop on the Black Water Sister blog tour, hosted by EDPR. I’m delighted to be sharing an extract from the book that gives a real flavour of why this book is as brilliant as it is.
A huge thank you to EDPR for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for participation in the blog tour.
The first thing the ghost said to Jess was: Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?
The ghost said it to shock. Unfortunately it had failed to consider the possibility that Jess might not understand it. Jess understood most of the Hokkien spoken to her, but because it was only ever her parents doing the speaking, there were certain gaps in her vocabulary.
Jess didn’t take much notice of the ghost. She might have been more worried if she was less busy, but in a sense, she’d been hearing disapproving voices in her head all her life. Usually it was her mom’s imagined voice lecturing her in Hokkien, but the ghost didn’t sound that different.
Even so, the ghost’s voice stuck with her. The line was still repeating itself in her head the next day, with the persistence of a half-heard advertising jingle.
She was waiting with her mom for the guy from the moving company. Mom was
going through the bags of junk Jess had marked for throwing away, examining each object and setting some aside to keep. Jess had spent hours bagging up her stuff; this second go- over was totally unnecessary. But it was a stressful time for Mom, she reminded herself.
It was a huge deal to be moving countries at her age, even if she and Dad called it going home. Back to Malaysia, they said, as though the past nineteen years had been a temporary aberration, instead of Jess’s entire life.
“We said we were going to cut down on our possessions,” Jess said.
“I know,” said Mom. “But this hair band is so nice!” She waved a sparkly pink hair band at Jess. “You don’t want to wear, Min?”
“Dad gave me that when I was ten,” said Jess. “My head’s too big for it now.”
Mom laid the hair band down, grimacing, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to put it back in the garbage bag. Her innate hoarding tendencies had been aggravated by years of financial instability. It seemed almost to give her a physical pain to throw things away.
“Maybe your cousin Ching Yee can wear,” she murmured.
“Ching Yee is older than me,” said Jess. She could feel her voice getting sharp.
Patience didn’t come naturally to her. She needed to redirect the conversation. The line came back to her. Does your mother know you’re a—what?
“Mom,” Jess said in English, “what does ‘pengkid’ mean?”
Mom dropped the hair band, whipping around. “What? Where did you learn that word?”
Startled by the success of her feint, Jess said, “I heard it somewhere. Didn’t you say it?”
Mom stiffened all along her back like an offended cat.
“Mom doesn’t use words like that,” she said. “Whatever friend old you that word, you better not hang out with them so much. It’s not nice to say.”
This struck Jess as hilarious. “None of my friends speak Hokkien, Mom.”
“It’s a Malay word,” said Mom. “I only know is because my colleague told me last time. Hokkien, we don’t say such things.”
“Hokkien doesn’t have any swear words?” said Jess skeptically.
“It’s not a swear word—” Mom cut herself off, conscious she’d betrayed too much, but Jess pounced.
“So what does ‘pengkid’ mean?”
It took some badgering before Mom broke down and told her. Even then she spoke in such vague roundabout terms (“you know, these people…they have a certain lifestyle…”) that it took a while before Jess got what she was driving at.
“You mean, like a lesbian?” said Jess.
Mom’s expression told her all she needed to know.
After a moment Jess laughed. “I was starting to think it was something really terrible.”
Mom was still in prim schoolmarm mode.
“Not nice. Please don’t say such things in front of the relatives.”
“I don’t know what you’re worrying about,” said Jess, bemused. “If they’re anything like you, I’m not going to be saying anything in front of the relatives. They’ll do all the saying.”
“Good,” said Mom. “Better not say anything if you’re going to use such words.”
The hair band lay forgotten on the floor. Jess swept it discreetly into the garbage bag.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho is published 10th June by Pan Macmillan, priced £12.99 in hardback.
About the author
Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia and now lives in London. A Hugo, Crawford and British Fantasy Award winner, she is the author of novels Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen and short story collection Spirits Abroad. When not writing, she works as a lawyer.