Bingo 22: Uncannon
Reason 1 Black Water Sister should be taught: It’s based entirely in the author’s personal background, Malaysian with some Western influence. The story follows Jessamyn/Jess whose legal name is something a lot more culturally specific (it’s only mentioned once and I couldn’t find the bit where Jess mentions it), is a queer woman in her early 20s moving from the US back to Malaysia with her parents because her dad got a job there. I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t seen snips of other reviews, but apparently Jess’s experiences are quite true to life for the children of immigrants born in the US or moved here when they were very young, and it’s also quite accurate about some of the Malaysian language and other cultural references.
Jess (Min to her parents) is Harvard educated and closeted to her family; she’s hiding the fact she’s got a long distance girlfriend, and she doesn’t have a job or clear career path. Not long after she gets to Malaysia, she realizes her grandmother who died a while ago is haunting her, and that she (Ah Ma, the grandmother) wants Jess to help her get vengeance for some great wrong so her spirit can maybe move on. Ah Ma was once the spirit medium for a deity called Black Water Sister, and in trying to help Ah Ma (somewhat begrudgingly), Jess comes face to face with the god a couple of times.
Reason 2 Black Water Sister should be taught: It really emphasizes the idea that maybe, not everything is written for every reader. Zen Cho has said this was a very personal book for her, written for her people, and as far as I can tell, that’s true. There’s a lot here that I don’t know or isn’t familiar to me, and it’s not translated or explained at all. I know nothing of Hokkien (language), prefacing someone’s name with something as a form of familiar address or folkloric beliefs concerning traditional gods and communicating with them. Jess doesn’t know some of this either, having spent most of her life in the US, and she gets irritated when her grandmother or anyone else expects her to know things she doesn’t really have much chance of knowing without being told. I am not Malaysian, and I’m not first generation American. This book was not written with someone like me in mind, and sometimes it’s good to have a reminder of that.
Reason to hesitate teaching this: Besides being probably a bit too challenging for many of the students at my particular school, this book should come with a content warning: there are massive consent problems that Jess experiences throughout the entire novel, often herself but also in a few places during a memory or spiritual encounter in which she might be seeing someone else’s memories. Ah Ma possesses Jess’ body more than once, not always with permission, and the same happens with Black Water Sister. There’s a good bit of violence, some fairly graphic, and Jess is not a willing participant in some cases. Some of the women whose pasts are relevant include domestic violence which is more implied, but is still pretty openly present. It’s not gratuitous, and it becomes relevant by the end once Jess realizes Ah Ma’s and Black Water Sister’s pasts and the reason they (Ah Ma and the god) connected.