Interview with Zen Cho

On this episode of The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Heather Rose Jones does an Interview with Zen Cho

Episode 33c

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

NOTE: This month’s On the Shelf incorrectly announced this month’s guest as Molly Tanzer. The Molly Tanzer interview will appear at a future date.

In this episode we talk about

  • The Malaysian influences in Zen’s fiction
  • 19th century English literature and engaging with colonial legacies through fiction
  • Her favorite historic eras that may see stories in the future
  • The challenges of researching less-represented historic eras and regions
  • Being inspired by the gaps and omissions in mainstream history
  • The similar challenges of writing queer characters and writing non-Western characters

Listen to this episode here

Publications mentioned:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Zen Cho Online



please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

[Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with a lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment today the lesbian historic motif project is delighted to talk to zen cho whose recent novel the true queen falls in the increasingly popular genre of Regency fantasy while expanding the scope of that genre to include non-white and queer protagonists welcomes n so the true queen is something of a sequel to your first novel sorcerer to the crown which I loved but with new central characters why don’t you tell us something about the series and specifically about the two Queen follows the adventures of a young woman named Luna by which readers associates the loser she doesn’t have any magic she’s just an ordinary young woman who just happens to be under a curse that’s stolen her memories and she’s supposed to go in a quest basically to try to break this curse which is killing her sister and so that’s precedes her to England and a certain sorceress Royals for teaching so it’s also slightly so but the the sorcerer Royale that you mentioned is that the character then from sorcerer to the crown that’s right so so several two characters from the book point of view in the story is that bikini characters so in both novels and in many of your short stories characters have strong connections with Malaysia which for the listeners right now that is in fact where Zen is at the moment while we’re doing this recording at all surprising because you were born and raised there but so why the attraction of Regency England that’s the surprising part what did what caught your interest about that setting I think it’s only surprising if you don’t know what I think this applies to almost anywhere you know to many countries outside the kind of us in developing countries but you know the majority of the books won’t be by Malaysian authors won’t be punished have been punished their major they’ve obeyed books that have been imported from Asia five he said supply books everywhere so so you know they are books by Haitian American authors mainly about American people the child reading a lot of British particularly and a lot of 19th century British fiction the reason for that is that I was a voracious reader as many writers you know were as children and I was really only allowed to buy one book per week we’d go to the bookshop on the weekend I kind to allow me one book I obviously couldn’t be overly expensive book so I made a great discovery which was the penguin popular classics which is a series of sort of each paperbacks mass-market mark paperbacks which were sort of five each which is less than two dollars in today’s exchange rate and wouldn’t have been very much you know there’s exchange rate at the time either and so so something like Jane Eyre is is a lot of reading for lesson two bucks yeah and so there’s a particular sort of economically efficient way for me to you know get the reading material I needed and for some reason I don’t know who made this decision but the painted popular classics are basically the 19th century so they kind of start you know Jane Austen one-third their earlier authors and then they kind and around the maybe 1920s you know roughly kind of accordion era Sasaki is gonna be later later authors and apart from a couple of French authors the majority British as well so is this kind of very clear corpus of fiction that’s right you know I came to the very young age and time you know sort of wonderful influences work and I think that’s that’s why I come at the 19th century continues to exert this fascination over my imagination and I think you know do you know that it’s kind of 19th century fantasy is it’s a really common subgenres that kind of driving one and and it’s not just people from former British colonies necessarily that write it so I think it’s to say something about the kind of the power of the 19th century and kind of what what happened that you know I think that’s when the kind of the foundation of our modern world pretty built and I think that’s part of why it kind of keeps drawing people to it oh that makes a lot of sense so you imprinted on it through the available literature well that’s right yeah and I see as well as a kind of way of engaging I guess with the Malaysia’s Imperial you know kind of go past us a colony of British Empire which is something I’m really interested in doing yeah but what’s really clear in the pair of novels is that you are not just playing and someone else’s sandbox you are bringing you know your shovel and pail into the sandbox and building your own structures there and I really loved that that you’re not just recapitulating the types of stories that people set in Regency but you know bringing your own stories into it and making it yours yeah I think this is a kind of synthesis for it so you know the fact that it’s a reader and off these books means that to me I was always I was saying that they belong to you just as much as they belong to any other reader they as much as they belong to me as an American that’s right I was gonna say spell is that the historically you know you know the colonies were worst intellectual in Britain as Britain was on them so so I kind of see sources as punchy cleaners kind of part of this project of making that visible yes in a way I’m not implanting anything new you know it was always there right yes I’m sorry for having interrupted you on that so I was delightfully surprised when I found out from someone who had read an advance copy that the true Queen included queer characters because there wasn’t actually any clue about that in the promotional materials what inspired you to take your characters in that direction and could you talk a little bit more about that in the promotional materials that they’re there definitely there’s a queer romantic subplot but there’s very much a subplot and the kind of main relationship the core relationship in the book actually it is between two women birds between mother and her sisters sake and so it’s just I tend to write fantasy but it can always include a kind of strong romantic subplot I just kind of enjoyed that and and everyone in the book every major character in the book almost every major character in the book is a woman to the point that when I was kind of discussing this with my age before you know kind of at some point of the writing process my agent said well you know what about the romance you know we you know there have to be some male characters it also thinking if you write a story that you know queer romance or end or a story that’s majority one gender just so you can use the person’s name rather than you know sisters their relationship would be the core the kind of driver people you know I mean in general just having I think queer romances as well as straight offenses in my stories is important to me I think just I just think it’s nice the lesbian talk show relies on support the support of you our listeners the support of those who like and review our show on their favorite podcast app the support of our patrons on patreon and the support of our sponsors we hope you’ll continue to enjoy and support the lesbian talk show so I know you also have a historic romance set in the early 20th century are I think that would set in London that’s right Paris like of Judea are there any other favorite historical periods that you would like to explore in fiction in the future yeah which is I’d really like to set a story of fantasy and the kind of how I say this kind of fourteen to sixteen hundreds roughly in maritime Southeast Asia so so a story set among the classical kingdoms of America and Southeast Asia which I mean can Lane archipelago Indonesian you know Philippines as well that kind of whole area because you know at that time is is going on loads of kind of cultural intermixing of hybridity because Southeast Asia is kind of between India and China which are big powers at the time you know the kind of major cultural producers as it were and then you have this this region which you know it was also a pilgrims coming on the way from China to India Buddhist you had you know obviously loads of royal families loads of kind of kingdoms in this very small payments obviously it’s you know it’s a sea based society and I think it’s just really interesting time but actually it’s not that well so basically if you want to research Regency England for a book it’s super easy there’s there several books actually written specifically for romance [Music] well it’s important if they’re taking it off more challenging and so I’m kind of on an ongoing basis and find out more about that period so eventually I’ll be able to write a novel or a few novels set during that era yeah that’d be fascinating looking forward to that do you have a formal background in history or did it all come out of your love of historic fiction I’m a lawyer I trained as a lawyer but I think you know I think what I say is that history is taught and really weird with Malaysia which there are lots of emissions I mean anywhere but but the emissions are particularly obvious okay because they’re not done very skillfully and there’s lots of things the powers that be are interested and so when I was growing up there all these things that sort of puzzled me you know even many basic things I you know like for example why are the book shops full of english-language books from by people who are the collegian yeah I guess informal sources I started realizing there was kind of a bigger story and that’s that’s really what piqued my interest in it and I think that’s something you can find in any history so saucer to the chrome is very much because it’s about you know England’s first African sorcerer royal that was very much inspired by you know going to museums I kind of see these paintings from Europe you know European historical paintings had you know black people in people and then realizing that the history of black people ding wood for examples it’s much longer than people suppose you know it’s Jeremy the story as it’s told in the UK gently starts with the wind rush generation could have mid 20th century when most people come over from the Caribbean to to work as bus drivers or you know nurses and so you think the British government had a kind of explicit recruitment campaign but in fact obviously British people black people you know far earlier and that’s kind of mm-hmm yeah I know that one of the books that is on my shelf waiting for me to find time for it is about black people in London in the 16th century and more you learn about it the more it changes how you imagine those time periods that’s right so one of the things I often ask authors about is the challenges that they face in trying to write queer characters and historical settings that are both true to the historic setting and relatable for the modern reader and what I was thinking about that question it occurred to me that in some ways that might even be an easier thing as a writer to tackle then you know I’ve tried to figure out how to put this but you are writing characters and cultural settings that will be unfamiliar to the majority of your readership and you do it very well and I’m wondering you know is writing queer characters any different for you than presenting your non-western characters to a Western readership is you into a setting but I think that’s slightly wrong because queer people have always been in every set you know in these settings but um but perhaps you know not not understood in the way that we understand you know queerness and identity and so on it’s a chirality now and I I so that’s true as well kind of you know these enormous and characters culture settings and when the one thing that I do in sorcery to the componentry Creed well particularly true quickest but from the point of view of the characters from Malaya is it is kind of a translation so I’m writing in a fairly archaic English you know one that sort of it’s reminiscent say Jane Austen’s English or or you know the English of that that was used in that coming so quite involved sentences you know and look period sighing and that kind of thing which is it’s it’s almost a character in its own right but I’m writing from the point of view of you know an Asian character who basically wouldn’t have spoken English and I kind of get over that by imagining it away but what are the things I kind of to clean myself as I was going along was was just translating say Malay in bahasa which is a sayings that traditional things that Roberts into English and the favorite one that I found actually was and this means something like you know give you an inch and you take mile is to us to ask the Dutch know you’re like the Dutch asking for Lian I think it takes up what one way I kind of deal with it is is to take myself to to kind of approach it and say look for my characters I want I want it to be the case that you know to be Asian it could be clear its normative that’s just who they are you know and and not to kind of have a kind of false consciousness in a way like I have loads of kind of you know he’s kind of double consciousness but it wouldn’t have been the case for for someone in early 19th century Malaya who was you know who didn’t have much to do with the British and so you know kind of human experiences normative the default for my character and then I go into and I explain too much because I you know I’m conscious as you say that many of my readers will be for many of our businesses will be kind of exploring culture and presenting stuff but um I always I always write to kind of an imaginary version of myself 16 years old haha me no speaky who really wanted this sort of story but just didn’t have to just can find it anywhere and what I always think as well is that look I was growing up you know in Malaysia pretty Central Asia you know reading about reading Dickens for example reading about horse carriages and time to change so you know ulcers and you know nobody nobody provided glossary I kind of struggled through you know and so I think readers you know I think we just can take things on I think I think that can be a tendency to kind of make things a bit too digestible for the Western reader because you know because everything has been designed for the in yeah that’s been published but I think actually you kind of give yourself a chance you can kind of thumb you can read things that are kind more foreign than you and you realize and yeah and it’s it’s fine well and to some extent any modern person who’s reading Jane Austen is doing something similar you know she was writing for her contemporaries and yeah yeah there’s no need to go to footnotes to understand what’s going on in the stories yeah too much yeah I know I am I very much prefer stories that toss me in the deep end and say you you could swim right so what projects are you currently working on that you’d like to share with the listeners very soon so hopefully will be a longer gap between publications as there was between source for the to be and if you want to hear more about that either signing up to my mailing list I’ve got two mailing lists but once a new release mailing list so I only send out emails when I’ve got a new story out and that’s probably the best way to keep track what I’m what I’m publishing I’m gonna also be saying social media I’m on Facebook Instagram Twitter as an aldehyde so that’s Zen alde hyd e and it’s a dumb dope because aldehydes are made up of carbon Oxygen’s it’s it’s toast oh yeah I remember when I first realized that and kind of you know had this this dope moment it’s like of course so you’ve got your website zensho org and you’re on Twitter and Facebook what you just said any other social media that you’d like to tell people about but you can find mainly the subscription form Ford amazingness I mentioned on my website uh-huh fabulous I’ll include links to all of that in the show notes so thank you so much for sharing your time with the lesbian historic motif project thank you Amy [Music] I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please read it and subscribe on itunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]