“The Asian Myths and Monsters of Tortured Willows”
Featured Author: Angela Yuriko Smith
Interviewer: Geneve Flynn
Southeast Asian mythology is much less familiar territory for many horror fans. While vampires, werewolves, and zombies are well-known, creatures such as the tiyanak, the penanggalan, the pontianak, and the nukekubi are less so. Does that make them scarier? Let’s dive in and see.
Tortured Willows is a newly released collaborative collection of sixty horror poems by four of the authors from the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson award-winning anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, Christina Sng, and Geneve Flynn showcase some of these creepy critters in their poetry. In this blog series, we chat to each of the contributors about their monsters.
Please say hello to Angela Yuriko Smith.
GF: Hi Angela! Please tell us a little more about Tortured Willows, and what inspired you to create this collection.
AYS: In some ways, I think this collection created itself. I wrote a lot about the spirit of the Uchinanchu people and I feel like they were so happy to have a little bit of recognition they refused to let me write tame poetry and move on. I learned more about myself and my family in the time I wrote these poems than I have in my entire life. It was the hardest and best thing I’ve written yet.
GF: That sense of personal resonance is so clear in your collection: as if you were a tuning fork that had just been struck. Speaking of personal resonance, your poem “The Nukekubi” is based on a real experience, which makes it even more chilling. What is a nukekubi, and when did you encounter her?
Picture attribution: https://www.evanseasyjapanese.com/nukeku 1
AYS: A nukekubi is a type of ghost whose head detaches from her body so she can travel. It is said to drink blood and cause harm for the sake of it. Incidentally, for all the Pokemon fans out there: Misdreavus is inspired by a nukekubi. I’d never heard of a nukekubi until I started doing this research and someone mentioned it. When I asked them to describe it I had chills because they were describing one of the ghosts from my teens. I was in Sweetwater, Tennessee which seems an odd place for an Asian ghost. I always thought she came with the house but now I wonder. Here are a few lines from my poem:
Like slick tentacles
her neck cords trailed to the ground
soaked wet from drowning
or perhaps from her own tears.
She couldn’t tell me.
GF: That sends ice down my spine; much creepier than the Pokemon version. As well as malevolent spirits, your collection features a benevolent creature called a shisa. What are they, and what do they mean?
AYS: Here’s a photo of two shisa I painted recently. shisa were at the beginning of my Uchinanchu rabbit hole, which is appropriate because they are guardians that sit on rooftops and by doors (and anyplace else you can squeeze them) so I like to think they were guiding me in. They are related to the lion dogs in other Asian cultures, but one of the big differences with shisa is they are always a male and female pair. The Okinawans feel that men and women are different but of equal importance. The male dog always has his mouth open to drink in the luck and frighten away the demons. The female keeps her mouth closed to keep the luck in and seal out demons. I read somewhere that all shisa are alive, and all shisa are benevolent guardians. This probably explains why they are everywhere in Okinawa. As soon as I discovered shisa I became obsessed, but there aren’t as many here in the US so I had to make some of my own. They hang on my front door now. These lines are from my poem “Dreaming of Shisa”:
There can never be
too many shisa.
Crouching on rooftops, watching
beside the front gate.
Ryukyu lion dogs—
he breathes the luck in. She holds
her breath to keep it.
GF: Your paintings are gorgeous—such perfectly balanced guardians. Thanks so much for introducing us to some of the mythology that features in your poetry. If you’d like to read the poems mentioned in this blog series, Tortured Willows is available from Yuriko Publishing.
Praise for Tortured Willows:
“Tortured Willows bleeds, sobs and howls with rage.”—Stephanie Ellis, writer and poet, co-author of Daughters of Darkness
“Thought-provoking, unapologetically brutal, and downright unsettling, Tortured Willows is a collection unlike any you’ve read before…and one you’re not likely to forget. Murray, Flynn, Smith and Sng have not just raised their voices, they’ve roared them into the pages, and the result is simply superb.”—Rebecca Fraser, award-winning author of Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract.
“In Tortured Willows, the many veils of a woman’s heart are peeled back, revealing multi-layered petals of an aching beauty, rooted on a stem of vulnerable resistance.”—Jamal Hodge, director, writer, visionary
“This is a brilliant book, insightful and scintillant. Construed as a thematic sequel to the award-winning Black Cranes (the anthology edited by Murray and Flynn and containing fiction by Sng and Smith), it may also be viewed as a distillation. The theme is strong, but the lessons reach beyond it. Cutting across rhetoric and euphemism, Tortured Willows will hold meaning for whoever dares read it.”—Kyla Lee Ward, Bram Stoker Award®-nominated poet
Bent. Bowed. Unbroken
The willow is femininity, desire, death. Rebirth. With its ability to grow from a single broken branch, it is the living embodiment of immortality. It is the yin that wards off malevolent spirits. It is both revered and shunned.
In Tortured Willows, four Southeast Asian women writers of horror expand on the exploration of otherness begun with the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women.
Like the willow, women have bent and bowed under the expectations and duty heaped upon them. Like the willow, they endure and refuse to break.
With exquisite poetry, Christina Sng, Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, and Geneve Flynn invite you to sit beneath the tortured willow’s gravid branches and listen to the uneasy shiver of its leaves.
Angela Yuriko Smith is a third-generation Uchinanchu-American and an award-winning poet, author, and publisher with over 20 years of experience in newspaper journalism. Publisher of Space & Time magazine (est. 1966), a Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist and HWA Mentor of the Year for 2020. To find out more visit angelayurikosmith.com.