Writer, editor, and translator Josh Pachter’s Mahboob Chaudri stories can be found collected in The Tree of Life. He is a regular contributor to EQMM’s Passport to Crime department as a translator, and he has been publishing fiction since 1968. Here he writes about how he came to write his story “Pisan Zapra,” which is featured in the November 2016 issue of AHMM.
For Christmas of 2014, my in-laws gave me a fascinating little book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders (10 Speed Press, 2014). As I leafed through it the next morning, I chuckled to find gezellig, which is my favorite untranslatable Dutch word, and came to a dead stop four pages later at pisan zapra, which is listed as a Malay noun meaning “the time needed to eat a banana.”
Now that’s a title for a short story, I thought, and it seemed obvious that the story it was a title for would be set in Malaysia, and would unfold over a period of no more than a couple of minutes—the amount of time needed to eat a banana.
I did some basic research and discovered that there is disagreement as to whether or not the expression is legitimate Malay. Some sources say yes, while others—including numerous native speakers of Malay—say they’ve never heard it.
As I continued poking around the Internet, I stumbled across some fascinating information about a vengeful vampiric spirit known as the pontianak. In Malay folklore, the pontianak are said to be the ghosts of women who died in pregnancy, generally depicted as pale-skinned beauties with long hair, dressed all in white. A pontianak usually announces its presence through the cries of a baby; if the cry is soft, it means that the spirit is close. Although it lives in the trunk of the pokok pisang—the banana tree—its presence is sometimes accompanied by the fragrance of the plumeria flower, followed afterward by a terrible stench. The pontianak identify their prey, I learned, by sniffing out clothes left outdoors to dry. (For this reason, some Malays refuse to leave any article of clothing outside their residences overnight.) A pontianak kills its victims by digging into their stomachs with its sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. If you have your eyes open when a pontianak is near, it will suck them out of your head, and, when the pontianak goes after a man, it may rip out the poor slob’s sex organs with its hands.
So, pisan zapra and the pontianak. Who could ask for anything more? This turned out to be one of those stories that pretty much writes itself—or perhaps it was a vengeful Malay spirit that guided my fingers on the keyboard. . . .
In any case, I wrote the story and submitted it to Linda Landrigan, and I am absolutely delighted that she selected it for inclusion in AHMM in this 60th-anniversary year. Although I’ve been publishing in EQMM pretty regularly since my first appearance in its pages in 1968, this is my first appearance in Hitchcock’s since 1986—half the magazine’s life (and almost half my life) ago. It’s great to be back!
Now I hope you’ll excuse me while I go eat a banana and make sure I get the laundry off the line before nightfall. . . .