“The Asian Myths and Monsters of Tortured Willows”
By Geneve Flynn
Featured Author: Lee Murray
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 mythological creatures in their poetry. In this blog series, we chat to each of the contributors about their monsters.
Please say hello to Lee Murray.
GF: Hi Lee! Congratulations on your wonderful poems! Please tell us a little more about Tortured Willows, and what inspired you to create this collection.
LM: The response to Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology comprising fourteen stories by horror writers of Southeast Asian descent, has surpassed all our expectations, so a second volume of some sort seemed inevitable, although perhaps not quite so soon! Nor had I expected that second volume to take the form of a poetry collection. Tortured Willows arose out of a discussion between you, me, and Angela Yuriko Smith not long after the Bram Stoker Award announcements. We were all still reeling about the reach of the book and the broader dialogue the stories had provoked, when someone (okay, it might have been me) suggested that a collaborative poetry collection might allow us to expand on, and even deepen, the dialogue introduced in Black Cranes through use of media other than prose. What if we were to write a collection of poems that explored the themes of otherness and expectation as they applied to our own diaspora? Perhaps we could reach an even wider readership? Angela, always effervescent, was wildly enthusiastic. Poet Christina Sng, whose novelette “Fury” (her longest work to date) features in Black Cranes, also felt she had more to say. You said yes. That’s when the terror set in. While I was thrilled to work with my Crane sisters again, I’m fairly new to poetry other than as a consumer of it, so what followed was one of the most intensely terrifying periods of my writing life. I was a fledgling poet with only around a dozen poems published previously. What did I know about writing a cohesive series of poems which might dovetail with work by experienced, acclaimed poets like Angela and Christina? But, keen to learn more about the New Zealand-Chinese diaspora as it applied to women, including in my own family, I dived in, using poetic forms and historic archives to structure and inform my work. I approached each individual poem as a tiny story whittled down to its bare bones. And of course, since Tortured Willows is a collection of horror poetry, it seemed as natural as air to turn to Asian myth and monsters for added inspiration.
GF: I loved getting a glimpse of some of your very personal experiences as part of the New Zealand-Chinese diaspora. Your poem “tiyanak” draws a comparison between being drained from the many demands and expectations placed on Asian women and the care of a grotesque vampiric baby. Please tell us more about this creature.
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LM: The tiyanak is a monster of Filipino origin, although similar creatures exist in other Asian cultures. The creature is formed when the body of a dead foetus or infant is inhabited by an evil spirit, or it occurs as the result of a union between a demon and a human. Often found mewling in the forest by hapless travellers, the tiyanak is an insatiable and vengeful vampire, appearing as helpless human baby at first, and later, when it has ensorcelled its victim, it reveals its true vampiric and parasitic self, even as it devours them. The creatures are said to have bloodshot eyes, pointed ears, and tiny sharp teeth. In some versions, they have elongated limbs and wrinkled old-man skin, which they shed in the same way a snake does. Author Isabel Yap describes the creature beautifully in her story “Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby” in Margrét Helgadóttir’s gorgeous anthology Asian Monsters:
“I held you against my heart and let you rest there, and I could feel your red eyes boring into my skin, hear you hissing. I was afraid, but love is like that. Sometimes, it requires bravery, asks us to quell our fears. Your teeth! Your eyes—fire dancing! And the way all of your skin creased around your face, into terrible wrinkles…” (page 67).
Gabriela Lee is equally eloquent in her story “Rites of Passage” which appears in Black Cranes, describing the monster’s “red-rimmed eyes that do not have a speck of white—the entire sclera is firelight bright” (page116), its smile as “blood coated” (page 116), and its skin darked by the sun and some slick substance that seems to coat it from head to toe” (page 115). For me, the tiyanak was the ideal metaphor to describe the expectations placed on Asian women, who are socialised to sacrifice their own desires in favour of family and community, even to the point of death. This is a lesson I have learned well, so much so that I find it hard to say no. As a result, there are times when I’ll still be awake at 2- or 3am for nights on end, working on other people’s projects at the detriment of my own goals. I wrote “tiyanak” at just such a moment. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
it latches on
to gorge on blood and milk
its tiny claws grip-grasping
tiny teeth rasping
feed me, feed me
GF: Such a chilling image, so perfect to depict how expectations can drain us dry. You reference another creature, the nine-tailed fox in “fox girl.” Where does this myth come from, and what does it symbolise in your poem?
LM: The inspiration for my poem “fox girl” was Rena Mason’s gorgeous story “The Ninth Tale” from Black Cranes. Of course, I already knew of the shape-shifting fox spirit of Asian mythology (among them Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese) and the nine mortal iterations the creature must go through in order to return to the celestial realm as her true self, but Rena’s story was so beautiful and so imbued with magical folklore that I was inspired to revisit those tales again. In general, the fox spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman while still retaining some of its fox attributes: paws, ears, or even the tails representing the lives it has lived. Consider this first paragraph of Rena’s “The Ninth Tale” from Black Cranes, for example:
“The fox spirit straightened the skullcap, moist with blood, atop her head then stepped over the headless corpse from which she’d taken it. Her hind paws transformed into petite, human lotus feet adorned in pointy shoes embroidered with golden silk. This visit, her name would be Júhua, like the chrysanthemums woven in the fabric near her toes. The eight tails behind the fox spirit became long braids, winding themselves into intricate loops and circles, concealing the bone that aided her in keeping a human guise.” (page127).
The story, and my subsequent reading, got me thinking about how fox spirits are outsiders, women travelling through time and across lands while wearing another person’s skin, all with the view to achieving enlightenment and (hopefully) returning to their home in the heavens. I likened their journeys to the Asian diaspora in New Zealand, and I was lucky enough to secure a fellowship to write a short poetry collection on this theme. “Fox spirits are very lucky,” writes Ho Pham in Vixen. But that isn’t always true for the women whose form the creatures inhabit. As I dived into New Zealand’s newspaper archives, I uncovered some horrific tales about Chinese women’s lives here, and although I intend to explore the notion further, I was immediately prompted to write a poem and capture my reactions. “fox girl,” a terzanelle, was the result, the repeated lines intended to show the ongoing iterations of the creature’s lives and the common themes of otherness and persecution. Here are a few stanzas from the poem:
in a former life, in another time
a fox girl departs from the land of jade
in a former life, in another time
to a distant cloud where fortunes are made
nine obedient wives, all refugees
a fox girl departs from the land of jade
amid ugly tongues and eyes that won’t see
one hangs herself in her husband’s kitchen
nine obedient wives, all refugees
*Watercolour by Lee Murray.
GF: Oh my goodness! I love both the poem and your stunning artwork. The fox spirit illustrates the diasporic experience so beautifully.
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.
Lee Murray is an author, editor, screenwriter, and poet from Aotearoa-New Zealand. She is the winner of 12 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, three Australian Shadows, two Bram Stokers, and a Shirley Jackson Award, and has been a finalist in the Aurealis, British Fantasy, and Imadjinn Awards, among others. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and short fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories. Other works include non-fiction title Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips with Angela Yuriko Smith, and several books for children. LitReactor’s Editor of the Year for 2021, Lee is the curator-editor of eighteen volumes of speculative fiction, among them Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (with Geneve Flynn). She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021. Tortured Willows, a collaboration with Angela Yuriko Smith, Christina Sng and Geneve Flynn was released in October 2021. Read more at https://www.leemurray.info/