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Panel Interview: Lee Murray, Geneve Flynn, Angela Yuriko Smith, Christina Sng, Rena Mason, and K.P. Kulski

In the fall of 2019, two remarkable women showed up early for a panel session at a conference in Brisbane. The extra time gave Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn an opportunity to talk about their Asian heritage and the representation of women of Asian heritage in horror writing. That conversation was the genesis for Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology of Southeast Asian horror co-edited by Lee and Geneve.

Right from its release, Black Cranes was universally recognized as a groundbreaking collection, eventually winning the 2020 Bram Stoker Award for anthology. Yet, beyond the awards, the fourteen stories in Black Cranes signified much more. These stories placed stakes in the ground, each one subverting and challenging the expectations of Asian women and their roles in society and family—each one doing the much-needed work of showcasing the diversity and importance of women writers of Asian heritage to the horror genre.

Remarkable women rarely rest on their laurels. It is no surprise then that Lee and Geneve did not stop there. They joined forces with Angela Yuriko Smith and Christina Sng to release Tortured Willows: Bent. Bowed. Unbroken. These sixty poems explore otherness, expectation, tradition, silence, and erasure. With a sublime, powerful forward by K.P. Kulski, the four poets beautifully balance darkness with strength and joy forged in their sisterhood. There are many memorable words in Tortured Willows, but K.P. Kulski’s opening lines elegantly capture the cycles of trauma and survival in these poems: “We who are cut, heal. We who heal are cut.” The collection won the 2021 Bram Stoker Award for poetry collection.

In a third installment, Angela and Lee promise us Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror in February 2023. In this breathtaking compilation, Asian women writers of horror reflect on the impact of superstition, spirits, and the supernatural in this unique collection of twenty-one personal essays exploring themes of otherness, identity, expectation, duty, and loss, and leading, ultimately, to understanding and empowerment.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Murray, Geneve Flynn, Angela Yuriko Smith, Christina Sng, Rena Mason, and K.P. Kulski about their ongoing collaboration, most recently in Unquiet Spirits.

Lee and Gene, congratulations again on the 2020 Stoker Awards for Black Cranes! These stories are a gift, empowering in how they expand and break apart the narratives attributed to Asian women. Now that it’s been two years, and you’ve had some time to reflect, what impact, if any, has Black Cranes had on your own writing and projects?

Lee Murray (LM): Quite apart from the sisterhood spawned as a result of working with these exceptional women, Black Cranes has been pivotal in terms of my writing career. Not only because of the overwhelming response from readers, and the unexpected awards, but because, for the first time, I gave myself permission to explore my heritage and the horrors that simmer and seethe when you are the lesser half of a marginalized diaspora. It meant eviscerating myself and sifting through the entrails in search of truth and healing. And when our contributors flayed themselves open too, Geneve and I knew we were curating something very special. Since then, my storytelling approach has changed, expanding to include other forms such as poetry and essays, yet always going back to those entrails, diving elbow deep into those dark coils.

Geneve Flynn (GF): Thank you so much, Frances! Oh, gosh. It’s hard to overstate the impact meeting Lee and publishing Black Cranes has had on my writing. Sometimes the enormity hits me and I sit, a little stunned and, just maybe, a little teary. The collection and the reception it’s garnered has opened up so many doors and helped to create connections within the horror community in ways I never imagined. It’s also connected me to a sisterhood of fiercely talented, unquiet women, and that sisterhood has continued to grow and to create groundbreaking, important collections.

I’ve also found the courage to explore the themes, characters, myths, and settings that really resonate with me, and that echo my upbringing and experiences. I would have been stuck thinking “No one wants to read that” for a lot longer without Lee, Angela, and all the other Crane/Willow/Spirit sisters. Having a sisterhood also encouraged me to try different forms of writing. I’ve previously shied away from poetry and nonfiction, preferring the safety and masking that short fiction allows. Now I can say what a thrill it is to have works in a poetry collection and an essay anthology.

I enjoyed all the stories in Black Cranes, but I frequently come back to Rena’s story, “The Ninth Tale.” I appreciate the masterful way identity, sexuality, transformation, and duality are presented through the fox spirit even when she is at her most vicious. Rena, with so many options in Asian folklore and myth, why did you choose the huli-jing?

Rena Mason (RM): That’s an excellent question. Thank you for asking, and thank you for the kind words. There’s so much to unpack, but essentially, I wanted to write a story in the vein of classic Chinese myth character films. You know the ones—outrageous color palette, powerful yet playful characters with cheeky dialogue, like the Monkey King movies. But that’s the thing, they’re usually male leads, with the female characters as villains. There are parts in those movies that are super gory too, which I loved watching as a kid. Years before, I’d written a short story titled “Jaded Winds” where I had Chinese demons visit the antagonist in the story to foretell his fate, much like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I’d researched the huli-jing for her small part in that story, went down a total rabbit hole, and knew I wanted to revisit the character again. So when Lee asked me to write something for Black Cranes, I knew immediately I wanted to do a traditional horror folktale about a huli-jing. There’s so much to the huli-jing who have different names and powers across Eastern Asian cultures, we could do several anthologies and have a wide variety of stories every time.

Great answer! Rena, I’d like to stick with you and ask the same question: Has Black Cranes influenced or impacted your writing or projects? Other Terrors, co-edited by yourself and Vince Liaguno, immediately comes to mind.

RM: Absolutely. The friendship and support of my crane sisters gave me the strength and confidence to take on a big project like Other Terrors. Before Black Cranes, I’d written stories exploring the Chinese side of my heritage, but as our sisterhood grows, I’m keen to delve into my Thai heritage as well, which I may not have done without their encouragement. Every time we have a Zoom meeting or panel, we get to talking about life, and memories resurface, and then more ideas for stories come to mind. They’re all so fierce and incredible, I can’t help but be inspired. I even recently decorated my new office with black cranes in flight as an honor and reminder.

For Tortured Willows, some said that following a fiction anthology with a poetry collection is unusual. For me, it made a lot of sense after reading Christina’s “Fury,” Lee’s “Frangipani Wishes,” Gene’s “Little Worm,” and Angela’s “Vanilla Rice.” Much of the prose was already lyrical, poetic in form, and these stories explore war, intergenerational conflict, guilt, trauma, and love—the natural starting materials for master poets. That being said, Tortured Willows is often deeply personal, which is one of the reasons the collection is so special. I have to ask though, in the process of creating this collection, were you apprehensive about drawing from your personal experiences and family history? If so, why was it important for you to share these experiences?

Christina Sng (CS): For sure. When I was growing up, there was a culture of not talking about your family and personal life. As an adult, I struggled to piece together my family history from my grandmother, who told me in Teochew she no longer remembered, and from my father who told me snippets. The rest I pieced together and even so, the true story is probably somewhere in between.

History is important. We learn from it. But more importantly, we need to remember our family’s story because it is our story too. Science tells us that our grandmothers’ lives have an effect on who we are through our shared genetics. This knowledge helps us understand ourselves better. Sharing our stories helps us connect with others. I think it brings the world closer and makes us feel less alone in an increasingly distracted world.

LM: Yes, I was apprehensive, especially as a new poet entering into a collaboration with acclaimed poets like Angela and Christina. But after Black Cranes, we knew we had only scratched the surface, that all of us had so much more to say, and my Willow-sisters girded me with their courage. As for sharing our personal stories, I think it is the very fact that they are personal, the way the poems draw on the raw authenticity of our experience, that gives them their power. It’s hard to explain the dialogue that has evolved from Tortured Willows—with mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts—other than to say it has been, and continues to be, transformational. A start-point for a wider discourse. It makes me so proud to be part of the conversation.

GF: At first, very much so. Partly because this was my first foray into poetry, and partly because as an Asian woman, I feel the expectation to be sweet, smiling, demure; to titter politely. Having the space to finally express the feelings I’ve swallowed for many years was nerve-racking but also rather liberating. I think that bravery and honesty, from all of us, has made the collection resonate with readers and opened up a conversation with the wider community. I’m delighted and honored that readers have found Tortured Willows to be an educational text—helping them to understand beyond the stereotypes, the exoticizing, the lack of representation. In light of recent events, that feels incredibly important.

Angela Yuriko Smith (AYS): I wasn’t apprehensive going into the project, but in hindsight I should have been. A lot of Shimanchu culture has been suppressed by Japan. It was an insult to be called names like dojin, which meant aboriginal, so for a period of time many Shimanchu tried to erase their own culture to avoid persecution. It was an issue of survival. Because of this, a lot of second and first generation Shimanchu are just now reviving our identities. Many of us were just told we were Japanese. I was in my thirties when I discovered Shimanchu, or Okinawan, is a completely different people. It’s like saying Native Americans are Americans—this is true, but they have a distinct culture, language and physical make-up that belongs to them. So I approached this project, in my mind, thinking that Okinawan was a flavor of Japanese, just another variety. That’s how I went into the project. I was going to write some nice poetry about Japanese ghosts. Then I started doing research and found out some of the atrocities that the Shimanchu have endured—and still endure—at the hands of both the Japanese and American governments. I spent six weeks or so researching and crying before I could write anything. I didn’t expect Tortured Willows to have more impact in my life than any other collection I’ve written. Instead, it pivoted my entire purpose as both a poet and a person.

Belonging is a common theme in both Black Cranes and Tortured Willows. I often parse this word as to “be longing,” representing a constant state of desire for inclusion, community, and acceptance. K.P., you mention your family’s immigrant experience in your forward to Tortured Willows and, separately, tackle identity and racism in your story “My Skin Drum Garden” from The Dead Inside. As an accomplished historian who also writes historical horror, what do you think makes the horror genre amenable to these examinations and commentaries on race and identity?

K.P. Kulski (KK): “Be longing”: I love that, really brings home that feeling. To me, horror is an excellent tool to express unpleasant emotions no matter how extreme. It’s one thing to tell someone, “micro-aggressions makes me feel othered;” it’s another thing entirely to show a menacing shadow slowly hollowing out a person’s insides with a million tiny cuts. History scholarship is by nature of all scholarship, analytical, but bringing horror into historical fiction creates a lens to examine the emotional impact, peel back the layers and look into the eyes of the monster. It’s a second look at something we may know happened, but horror lets us experience it and that experience lends itself to planting a very personal compassion in the reader, which is vital when we are trying to discuss experiences like racism.

In traditional Asian horror folktales, resentful spirits, demons, and vengeful monsters are commonly women with little to say or do on the page except to get maligned, killed off (again), or dispelled. Christina, in several of your Tortured Willows poems, like “The Visit,” you give us the woman’s backstory. Why did you choose this refreshing perspective?

CS: While putting together these poems, I realize there is a lot of repetition in how these stories are told. There is rarely any backstory to her history and all the reader sees is a monster. I think it’s important to know why and how a character gets to where they are when you begin a story. It creates better empathy and a deeper understanding for her and what she endured.

I could talk all day about Black Cranes and Tortured Willows, but let’s move on to the next exciting installment in this series, Unquiet Spirits. Lee and Angela, what is Unquiet Spirits and why essays?

LM: Unquiet Spirits is the next iteration in the conversation, a collection of “messays” examining the impact of spirits, superstition, and the supernatural on the lived experience of women of the Asian diaspora—and in stunning prose from some of the world’s most articulate horror writers. Addressing the same themes as Black Cranes and Tortured Willows, and in particular generational trauma and expectations, our contributors blended fact, memoir, poetry, and fiction to create something different again, yet still hauled up from those same twisted, pulsating coils. So exquisitely powerful, it still gives me frissons to read it.

AYS: When Lee and Geneve started Black Cranes, they coined the phrase “unquiet voices.” I love that. It’s not aggressive. We aren’t yelling, but it infers that we refuse to be silenced. Tortured Willows was a result of still feeling “unquiet” after Black Cranes. The four of us still had things to say, so we expressed ourselves with poetry. The overwhelming enthusiasm we received for the that collection let us know that we weren’t the only ones feeling this way. The aptly named Unquiet Spirits is just that. We still had more to say on the subject, and we opened it up to other voices. The writers who have been a part of this collection of essays have been outstanding to work with. I’m so excited to release this to the world at large.

I’ve had the advantage of seeing the essays in this collection. No spoilers, but I will say I have never read anything like this. It’s moving, overwhelming, and unforgettable. Can you each give a little teaser about your essays?

GF: My essay is an exploration of generational trauma through the myth of a Malaysian ghost baby. Here’s a quote from the essay that sums things up nicely: “According to Southeast Asian lore, a kwee kia is a creature made from the spirit of a deceased human fetus, often aborted or stillborn . . . In their effort to assuage the apprehension they must have felt for my mother, my grandparents instead nourished the creature haunting them. It grew bloated and noxious in the dark corners of their home.”

KK: All these essays are so personal and mine is no exception. I find it interesting how many of us have expressed the sentiment that we aren’t quite sure we want our families reading what we’ve written, yet we needed so much to write it. “100 Livers” takes a dive into the stories of the kumiho, the Korean fox spirit, seeing her journey as one based on identity, thereby examining my personal challenges with identity as a mixed Korean-American.

RM: “The Lady of Phra Khanong” examines female duality roles from a famous Thai ghost story and growing up with a mother whose cautionary tales to her daughters were ingrained at an early age.

LM: Early Chinese settlers to Aotearoa-New Zealand referred to the country as the Land of Ghosts. Most never returned, their ghosts trapped on this lonely isle. “Displaced Spirits: Ghosts of the Diaspora” explores my perspective as a third-generation hungry ghost child. My daughter, Celine Murray, a fourth-generation hungry ghost, continues the narrative, dovetailing with an essay of her own. “Fox Girl” examines the fox spirit (huli-jing) as a metaphor for shifting identity and erasure.

CS: My essay explores the Pontianak who haunts this region and its connection to patriarchal origins.

AYS: In Tortured Willows, I had a poem about seeing a nukekubi in real life. In my essay, I relate the story behind the poem and make connections as to why a nukekubi, a vampiric floating head, would be visiting a thirteen-year-old girl in Tennessee. Neither of us belonged.

When people ask me why I write from my heritage, I respond that we carry what we have survived until it is made strong enough to carry itself outside of us. This series is in some ways a collective unburdening and awakening. What do you hope readers will take away from your essays?

GF: I wrote my essay in conjunction with my mum, and as I was writing, I realized that she was the one I was writing it for. My essay is a piecing together of how her life has unfolded, and why it unfolded the way it did. I hope, in the shaping of this essay, she found some peace and was able to put to rest some of the things that have haunted her. Ghost stories are a means to examine our history and the grief of futures forever lost, and to then, if not exorcise, at least understand the specters in our past. I hope readers might think of the ghost stories in their own lives the same way. In regard to the whole collection, I hope readers recognize, ache, learn, and ultimately, are transformed.

KK: I hope readers feel less alone. If you’re of Asian heritage in the diaspora, you will find this amazing collection will speak to you in a way you’ve probably never been able to experience but have always needed. For all readers, you will find the themes within are quite universal . . . identity, quest for belonging, bearing love for that which abuses us, finding our own way in our lives. With regard to my own essay, I hope someone reads it and walks away knowing this quest for identity—it is hard for all of us, even the liver-eating demon spirits.

RM: My wish is that younger generations will read these and still see themselves on the pages. To—if even for a brief moment—don the histories of their mothers, and know who they are, where they come from, and embrace the differences, and not shy away.

LM: I hope readers will see themselves in these tales. I hope they’ll taste the entrails and smell the rot. Hear the keening. That they will know the pain and fear suffered by women of the Asian diaspora. And, as a result, I hope these essays will promote understanding and compassion. Readers should bring tissues.

CS: A knowledge that life is still bleak and hopeless for many women on this day in our world, a fact often unseen because they are treated with contempt and disdain by society if they speak out about it.

AYS: These essays are all very personal as we each explore the spirits that have affected us through our cultural lens. In all the wonderful essays I find an underlying message of acceptance. We accept our ghosts and monsters, and by doing so we accept ourselves. I hope readers of all cultures and experience will be able to connect to their othered self and invite that aspect to step into the light. When we can all feel accepted enough to show our true forms to each other, I think humanity will be able to evolve to a kinder, happier existence.

When in the company of the league of remarkable women, I have to ask, what are you working on now and what’s next?

GF: “The League of Remarkable Women”—I like that! I grew up reading comics, and to think I’m now part of a band of superwomen amuses me to no end. I’m currently working on a horror novel based on the infamous pirate queen, Ching Shih. She was the most successful pirate of all time, commanding around 60,000 marauders at the height of her power. I’ve always wondered how she rose to such prominence. My answer, of course, is monstrous. I’m drawing on my background in psychology and weaving in Chinese mythology to create my favorite grounds to play in.

KK: I’m with Geneve, “The League of Remarkable Women”—I think we just found our new band name, or superhero troop. That’s fabulous. I’m working on several things. An Asian diaspora folk horror anthology called Silk & Sinew, very much inspired by the amazing movement that started with Black Cranes, has continued with Tortured Willows, and now Unquiet Spirits. I can’t wait to start talking about some of the names already attached to the project, it’s going to be absolutely mind-blowing. (Thank you, Angela, Geneve, Rena, and Lee for the title!) I’ve also been working on a novel about a Korean water ghost whose story very much involves an American daughter trying to connect with her mother’s dark past in Korea. And because I am an expert at overwhelming myself, I just began work on a pilot episode tie-in with Silk & Sinew. I shouldn’t forget to mention the release of my novella House of Pungsu, which is all about mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and women’s identity.

RM: I have a few things on my plate that include promoting Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology, getting back to writing a Thai ghost screenplay I started, finishing an alteration in my next novel, and researching and writing a hard fantasy short story about a Thai sorcerer battling a famous Thai swordsman.

LM: Today, I’m working on an NZ feature film, a fox spirit tale exploring the Asian diaspora, horror, and our relentless quest to belong.

CS: I love the title “League of Remarkable Women”! It sounds like a book waiting to be written. Right now, I am focusing on the year-end launch of my upcoming book on speculative haiku and short poems by Interstellar Flight Press, The Gravity of Existence.

AYS: I just finished writing my first novel titled Inujini, a magical realism story set in a fictional Okinawa during WWII. Inujini means “a dog’s death” in Japanese, meaning a death with no purpose. I’m in the middle of writing the screenplay for Inujini right now. I’m also working on a poetry collection with, speaking of remarkable women, you [Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito], Maxwell I. Gold, and Dan B. Fierce, along with a handful of short stories for different projects.

Thank you all for your time! I, for one, cannot wait to hold a copy of Unquiet Spirits. February 2023 can’t come soon enough!

Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito

Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito is a Chinese American writer in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not spending time with her family outdoors, she crafts stories in horror, science fiction, fantasy, or whatever genre-bending she manages. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Nailed Magazine, Buckman Journal, Flame Tree Press’s Asian Ghost Stories, Strangehouse’s Chromophobia, Startling Stories, Not a Pipe’s Stories Within, Mother: Tales of Love and Terror, Death’s Garden Revisited, and Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror. She also co-chairs the Young Willamette Writers program providing free writing classes for high school and middle school students. www.francesippolito.com