Black Water Sister
by Zen Cho
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 2, 2021
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Black Water Sister is based on the spiritual mediumship inherent in various popular Chinese religions. The main character is Jessamyn Teoh, who was born in Malaysia, as the author was, but she had grown up in the United States. She is a Harvard graduate, but had not started any meaningful employment, although she has followed her passion of photography. After several financial set-backs her family moves back to Penang, and she accompanies them. Jess's father has been offered a job and a place to live with his younger brother. Even before the move Jess had been plagued with vivid, disturbing dreams, and a mysterious voice in her head while awake. It is not until after the move that she discovers whose voice it is; her maternal grandmother, Ah Ma, who had died the previous year. Believing the voice and dreams to be the result of the stress she has been under, Jess keeps it to herself. It is not the only secret she has been keeping from her family.
Once in Penang the voice becomes more persistent. Ah Ma needs Jess's help with something, but she is very vague, except that it involves the spirit temple that she visited regularly. Internet research leads Jess to believe the temple is threatened by commercial development. The temple is in Air Itam, in a dense forest. No building, but numerous shrines and idols of gods, one of the most prominent being next to an ancient bodhi tree. On her first visit Jess encounters her uncle, her mother's brother, whom she hadn't seen in many years. It turns out he is a medium for the god Kuan Kong, the "God of War." Petitioners come to the temple to offer sacrifices to the gods, and to request favors from them. The meeting is interrupted by a group of men who threaten her uncle, beat him, and demand everyone else leave. Ah Ma demands Jess let her have control of her body, and in so doing Jess is able to drive the men away. Another young man, whom Jess thinks of as "Air Asia" due to the cap he was wearing, figures into the story the next time Jess comes to the temple. On that occasion, Ah Ma wants Jess to become the medium for the Black Water Sister, and to kill "Air Asia," whom she now knows is the son of the commercial developer threatening the temple. Black Water Sister does invade her body, but Jess is strong enough to defy the god, refusing to kill.
In between those temple visists, Jess had seen evidence of Black Water Sister sabotaging equipment and threatening workers at the adjacent construction site for new condominums. Jess was there with her father, who was installing appliances in the condo model showroom. Jess is torn between helping her grandmother protect the temple, threatening her father's job if the construction site is shut down, and keeping her sanity. Some of the gods worshipped by the Chinese and Malays had once been human, exemplary and devout. Buddhists call them bodhisattvas, similar to Catholic saints. Others might be based on legends, such as one Jess's mother persuades her to consult, the Monkey King, a character from the 16th Century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which Jess knows from its Japanese television adaptation. The Black Water Sister is different from either of those examples. The story is that she was murdered by her husband, that her blood nourished the bodhi tree, and that she haunts that area seeking revenge. Jess also learns that Ah Ma had been Black Water Sister's previous medium, and the god needs another. Once Black Water Sister had inhabited Jess's body, it was easier to do so again, although tradition says the medium has to be receptive. Since Jess refused to exact the god's revenge, Black Water Sister now haunts her wherever she goes, and Jess fears for her family. Even though others cannot see the god, some do not dismiss the notion that Jess can, including her mother and her aunt.
A love letter to Malaysia, the land, its people, various languages, and competing customs. Family and tradition are important, but without truth and trust both are limited. Even the gods are merely sign posts and guides along the way, spirituality has to come from within. An insightful look at a woman torn between traditions, between pleasing her parents and living her own life. There are several very intense scenes of violence, even though Jess doesn't remember some of them due to having been possessed at the time. She is able to get herself out of danger while under the influence of Ah Ma or Black Water Sister, but also on her own on occasion. She had long thought she was weak-willed, that her huge secret held her back from living the life she wanted. She was not the only one who has kept secrets. She never knew her grandmother since her mother had been estranged from her mother at an early age. Jess's mother never talked about it, didn't attend her mother's funeral, and once back in Penang does not associate with any of her family, until events demand it. Ah Ma has also been keeping secrets from Jess. The safety of the temple is only one thing on her agenda, and when Jess learns the truth she decides she has to settle things on her own terms, with or without Black Water Sister. Now she knows she has the strength of gods, nothing should stand in her way. She realizes the secret she has held dear is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, so on the last page of the novel she decides it is time to tell her parents that she is gay.
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