Black Cranes: Gingernuts of Horror Blog Tour
[The following text was published on Jim McLeod's Gingernuts of Horror site in September 2020, and subsequently lost when the site was hacked.]
It is nearing dawn now, the sky tinged blue-black, and the morning dew settling on our shoulders. I am still in the forest clearing with my Black Cranes colleagues. To my left is Geneve Flynn, my co-editor and friend, and joining us in the circle are contributors Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rin Chupeco, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Gabriela Lee, Rena Mason, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng. Conjurers of darkness all. Like a coven, we have gathered around the campfire to talk of writing, horror, and our uniquely Asian perspectives. To speak of otherness and isolation in this place which simmers with unquiet, the blackened silhouettes of the trees closing around us, their branches whispering and sighing overhead. So, with our cloaks wrapped close against the morning chill, we will conclude our conversation, but I must tread lightly because the next question is provocative, and these writers have shown their writing can be vengeful…
“So, dear ones,” I say, “tell me, if we don’t see our own experiences reflected in literature, do you think we have a responsibility to write those stories?” I wait, breath held, for their responses.
To my right, Elaine Cuyegkeng speaks first: “I don’t think people necessarily have an obligation to write their own experiences—but I do believe people have a natural hunger to see themselves, to write stories of their own experiences on their own terms. The question is whether they are allowed—I wasn’t, for example, strongly encouraged to write SF in the creative writing classes. I set the ‘Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter’ in Manila because it’s the world I know. It’s a story about identity and erasure, agency (and lack of) and navigating thorny power dynamics. (And also, I just really wanted to write a story about a Pinoy mad lady scientist.)” She grins at us, the far side of her face darkened by shadow. “I am a woman of simple needs!”
“I disagree,” says Nadia Bulkin, “because responsibility is a big, heavy word. I think if you don’t see your experiences reflected in fiction, you’re best positioned to write those experiences—but I don’t think you’re obligated to do so. I’ve always tried to write characters who are similar to me in temperament, partially because I feel like I can really get inside those characters, and I’ve written both white girls and Indonesian girls who are like me in that sense. But I’m still in the process of writing about being biracial, more specifically. There’s a lot about my identity that I’m still processing.”
Bi-racial myself, Nadia’s comment resonates. As the dowager-witch of this little group, with Black Cranes due to release on my fifty-fifth birthday, there is a lot about my own identity that I am still processing.
“I have a mixed response to this statement,” says Grace Chan, whose story ‘The Mark’ was nominated for the Norma K. Hemming Award for Speculative Fiction. “Both of my stories in Black Cranes (‘The Mark’ and ‘Of Hunger and Fury’), draw on intimate experiences, invisible sacrifices, and repressed emotions. These stories can be empowering for both the writer and the reader. However, it’s important to make sure our writing isn’t exploitative of our own or others’ experiences. Some stories you choose to tell; some you choose to keep to yourself. Some are for others to tell.”
“I don’t know about a responsibility to write these stories,” Geneve Flynn replies, “but I certainly felt a desire to, simply because I wanted to read them. Up ’til a few years ago, I realised that most of what I read was by white male writers. All the horror I was reading involved typically western monsters and protagonists. There were vampires and werewolves, demons and zombies. And almost always, a white, male hero. Where were the hantus (Malaysian ghosts)? Where were the hungry ghosts that hopped after you like a relentless jack-in-the-box? Where were the less-than-perfect Chinese daughters? Where were the Asian women who weren’t fetishised or treated as dragon ladies? At first it felt ill-fitting to try to write these stories. After all, where did I sit on the spectrum of Asian to white? Yes, I looked Asian and I had grown up in an Asian family, but I was also Australian in a lot of my sensibilities. I was either too Asian or too white to fall into any category comfortably. I had never read these stories, so how could I write one? Then I started reading up on Asian myths and legends, and conjuring up memories of the heat and humidity of Malaysia. I wrote ‘The Pontianak’s Doll,’ a story about the unjust drive to have male children, and to my surprise, sold it.... I met Lee at Genrecon in 2019, and we realised that these were the stories we wanted to see. Not only were we going to write these stories, we were going to champion them. Here, at last, was permission for me to open the box containing all my experiences, good and bad.”
I feel a pang of sadness when I hear Geneve say this. That she should need permission to tell the poignant and profound stories that reflect and explore her experiences. But given the passion of our contributors for our Black Cranes project, and the fury and power of the stories they offered us for this volume, perhaps we were all holding back a little. Were we afraid? Or were we simply waiting for others with our shared experience, a tribe with whom we could take that step together?
Rena Mason gives me a quick nudge, because Geneve is still speaking.
“With ‘A Pet is for Life,’” Geneve goes on, “I explored how Asian women are eroticised as objects of desire, but also as helpless creatures needing rescuing. ‘Little Worm’ tackles filial duty, and the expectations that are laid at the feet of Asian mothers and daughters. Some of my stories were uncomfortable to write and there is a residual urge to make myself palatable, to not take up too much space. But then I imagine someone like me, reading my stories and finally feeling like there is a clubhouse where they’re welcomed, seen. And that urge to shrink disappears.”
“I absolutely agree that it’s important to see ourselves reflected in literature,” says Rena Mason, “and to write and add to those stories if we’re able. My story ‘The Ninth Tale’ has to do with the strength and power of the feminine, subjected to a male-dominated world ruled by men, balancing the feminine and masculine, but also forcing the scale to tip in favour of the feminine, all while battling opposing forces of prejudice within one’s own race and culture. Writing this story was a lot of fun, and I owe many thanks to Lee for once again, forcing me to stretch my writing mind to new places!”
I smile. I never had any doubt that Rena would deliver an amazing story. “What about you, Angela?” I ask. “Do your stories in the collection reflect your experience?”
Angela Yuriko Smith nods. “‘Vanilla Rice’ was a turning point for me. Previously, I’d written outside of my experience with traditional Gothic elements. In that story, thanks to mentorship from Bryan Thao Worra, I zeroed in on who I am and used my experience as a blended Okinawan child growing up in a homogenised, Midwestern town. ‘Vanilla Rice’ was how I identified—white on the outside, yellow in. I share Katsue’s envy to be a fully integrated part of the Asian world her mother was ashamed of. I share Mieko’s desire to live vicariously through her daughter. In the end, Katsue’s physical transformation reflects how I saw myself, and still see myself. Like my character Katsue, I too have learned that self-acceptance is the only way to move forward. Allowing myself into my work defined all my future work from that point on. Bitter Suites, my 2018 Bram Stoker Finalist®, is built in the same world. The apartment building Katsue and her mother inhabit is around the corner from the recreational suicide hotel. I’m about to release Suite and Sour, the next book that continues that story, and Katsue becomes a character. By the third book, she is the main protagonist, like me in my own story. Incidentally, I have fellow Crane Rena Mason to thank for that story as she suggested I submit something to Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy by Laksa Media Groups Inc. (March 27, 2017). That anthology won Alberta Book Publishing’s Speculative Fiction Book of the Year 2018.”
We turn to Rin, and they pause a moment. “I’m hesitant about calling it a ‘responsibility,’” they say. “You owe no one an education when it comes to your work or about who you are. My books weren’t written to instruct people about my culture or my identity, and anyone who demands that from me is not the kind of person who will learn anything, even if I did. I want to write the kind of books I do because that’s what I enjoy writing and because they’re extensions of me, from being a lonely ghost who haunts herself even more than she haunts others in The Girl from the Well, to powerful witches and goddesses screaming defiantly into the void like The Bone Witch or The Never Tilting World. It’s about being powerful because you chose to be, like in Wicked As You Wish, wrapped in a very Filipino setting and character. ‘Kapre’ is a celebration of Filipino mythology too, but also of never putting yourself into labels because you are more than just what you are labelled as. The kapre in my Black Cranes story was able to be more than he was, because even strange things are capable of love. I would hope the same for people.”
“I’m so sleep deprived these days, I will confess to writing on instinct,” says Christina Sng, “and that includes stories about my life and the atrocities I see around me. But truly, I think my tale has been told many times and by much more skilled writers than myself that I try to bring triumph to my stories, to write it as if we’ve won. God knows, we need that.”
We all laugh at that. No one can deny 2020 has been an exceptional year, and we’re all exhausted, so a little triumph would be a welcome change. What does Gabriela Lee think? Does she feel the responsibility to tell her stories? I turn to her. “Gabriela?”
“I think that it’s the responsibility of the writer to follow a particular thread of thought as authentically as they possibly can,” she says. “For instance, in my story ‘Rites of Passage,’ I have to imagine what the experience is for a college-age girl to suddenly find herself pregnant. That has never been my experience, but certainly I’m familiar enough with the cultural pressures and demands on women in the Philippines that it did not feel strange or off-putting to me to write about that experience. I think the writer’s responsibility is to commit to the story, and what the story wants to become, at the end of the writing process. For me, my story was really about the horrors of motherhood and the unnecessary pressure that Asian cultures have on women in terms of becoming or being a mother. And though I am not a mother (nor do I ever want to become one), I’ve watched and listened and held the hands of friends on the edge of nervous breakdowns because of motherhood. The dominant narrative is that motherhood is great and fulfilling and wonderful, and I’m sure for many women, that’s the case. But horror isn’t about emphasising the dominant narrative; it’s about exposing the dark underbelly of it and examining the detritus that remains. I think it’s the responsibility of the writer to be brave enough to put her hands into that darkness and try to pull out what little light remains.”
We must put hands into that darkness and try to pull out what little light remains.
With Gabriela’s words I douse the embers of the fire. The sun is rising, the sky between the trees pink with promise and hope. Our Black Cranes rise from their places around the campfire, like their stunning stories, ready to head into the day.