Meet Black Crane Lee Murray
Lee Murray is a three-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee, HWA Mentor of the Year, an Honorary Literary Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Authors, and New Zealand’s most awarded writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Find her website here at LeeMurray.info.
Lee, your stories are populated by such well developed characters I think they must be fragments of real people you know, reassembled. Which of your stories/characters best represents you?
My character Lucy in my Black Cranes story “Phoenix Claws” is actually me, once upon a time, and my husband is Finn, the partner who loves yum cha brunch but not chicken feet, although he isn’t a plumber and I never took accounting. Also, unlike Finn and Lucy, a new couple who are learning to navigate a relationship with the conflicting demands of blended cultures, my ‘white ghost’ husband and I have been married for more than thirty years.
But the family tradition highlighted in the story exists: I was subjected to it and, to my horror, I have unwittingly perpetuated it. My other story in Black Cranes, “Frangipani Wishes,” is based on true events, never explicitly revealed to me, but somehow understood, in a strange form of familial osmosis. It is one of my saddest memories, and I’m still remorseful that I was the wrong generation, a girl with no power and no real understanding, that I did nothing to intervene. Would I, could I, if it were happening now? I don’t know, and I guess that makes me complicit.
I also wrote myself, or parts of me into my Path of Ra series (Raw Dog Screaming Press) which I write collaboratively with my New Zealand colleague Dan Rabarts. In those stories, Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, and Blood of the Sun, my character (Penny / Pandora Yee) is a Chinese-Māori woman who I believe shares many of my traits: she’s a stickler for rigour, doesn’t like to break the rules, and tends to overthink things. Like me she is still finding her way as an Asian New Zealander. She’s a scientist (as I was), who struggles to be acknowledged in her field. And Penny loves her family fiercely and would do anything for them, despite them occasionally being as annoying as hell.
I love how you have woven parts of yourself into your work. Two adjectives I would use to describe your writing is ‘powerful’ and ‘dark.’ What are some of your favorite themes to explore in your work?
Early on in my writing career, I learned that I wanted my work to address the things that frighten me, and as an anxious piglet sort who tends to overthink things, there is a lot that keeps me awake at night. If I’m lying in the darkness for hours ruminating on them, then why not write about them too? In my stories, for adults and for children, I’ve addressed global issues like the impact of technology, climate change, the importance of conserving our environment and especially our endangered species, and the very real fear that New Zealanders have of a catastrophic volcanic event. More recently though, my work has tended towards personal themes like loss, loneliness, isolation, persecution, erasure, and otherness, and horror, and in particular monsters and monstrosities, have become the lens through which
I explore those themes; they’re a staple of my work.
Tell us a bit about your heritage and your experience of ‘otherness’. Has this influenced what you write?
Recently a colleague asked me this question in an interview, so I’ll tell you what I told him: I was one of the first Chinese-Pakeha (European) children to be born to a bi-racial couple New Zealand. Not the first, but one of the first. In school, the only other Chinese children were my brother and two cousins. We ate weird food and had slanty eyes, so we got called all the usual things. “Ching-Chong Chinaman!” “Chink!” Yellow Peril!” “Wog!” “Hey, do you know Bruce Lee? Come here and I’ll show you.” Hey, you wing the wong number?”
But our cousins were full Chinese. My brother and I were only half. Which was somehow worse. Apparently, the titer of our blood was important and being only half Chinese meant we were lesser: we weren’t proper New Zealanders and nor were we properly Chinese. Our own family rejected us. My brother and I were five and six-years-old and we were other. I remember my Chinese aunt demanding that I choose whose side I was on. If there was a war with China, what side would I pick? Who did I love most: my mother or my father? How could I answer? Even then, I knew it was an unfair question.
As for whether my heritage and my otherness has influenced my writing, let’s just say that it’s beginning to. More and more those Asian ideals that I’ve grappled with all my life are creeping into my work. Perhaps it’s because I’m suddenly aware I’m fifty-five and long past the age most people ‘find themselves’. Surely by now I should have come to terms with my identity. So what if I’m all grown up and still there is no literature that reflects my Chinese-New Zealand experience? If I want to see that happen, then maybe it’s up to me to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. And perhaps that feeling is what prompted Black Cranes. And the fact that Geneve and I both arrived too early to a conference session, like the good conscientious Asian girls we’ve been raised to be.
The two of us got to talking in the lobby while we were waiting. Where were all the Asian horror writers? Where were Asian women’s experiences being highlighted? We could see a gaping hole in existing horror literature, but would our colleagues feel the same way? Was the timing was right, and would anyone would want to read an anthology of Asian horror? We had no idea. The response from our Black Cranes contributors confirmed they had been waiting for the opportunity, or perhaps they’d been waiting for something and couldn’t quite put their finger on it. And nor could Geneve and I have predicted the positive response to these wonderful stories, even though it’s only been a month or so since the book’s release. We couldn’t be prouder of these writers and their stories.
What has your experience been as an Asian writer? As a writer of dark fiction? How has this changed over time, or not?
I’ve been a full-time writer for fourteen years now, and for most of that time I’ve seen myself as a writer first, and then a New Zealand writer of mainly dark speculative fiction, so perhaps that is also the way I’ve been perceived. It’s only very recently that I’ve been brave enough to envisage myself as an Asian writer, perhaps because for so long my I’ve felt I had to hide that part of myself, make myself smaller, as if being born Chinese in New Zealand was something I should be ashamed of. Now I feel like I need to change that, to push back at that erasure, both from external sources, and also due to my own complicity.
What do you think of common depictions of Asian women in dark fiction? What, if anything, would you like to see done differently?
Geneve summed up those depictions when she wrote the back cover blurb to Black Cranes. We’re a slew of tired tropes: the tiger mums, the sly fatales, the submissive, the studious, and the conscientious. But I think you said best, Angela, in our Black Cranes online launch panel, when you said we need to see authentic diverse nuanced representations of Asian women in fiction. That is exactly what we need: characterizations which reveal us as the complex, richly layered shapeshifters we can be. Portrayals which speculate on futures for Asian women which go beyond the tropes and the traditions. Beyond the petals and the perfidy.
Oh, I love your phrase “petals and the perfidy.” Perhaps that will be another anthology—hint hint? How about other readings? Do you have any recommendations for works that have resonated for you as an Asian horror writer?
Everyone who appears in this book, including Alma Katsu and Tori Eldridge. Please check out the work of our Black Cranes contributors. There is a reason they appear in this anthology. As for other writers whose works have resonated for me, at a certain level, I’ve been intrigued and inspired by the works of writers like American Pearl S Buck (The Good Earth, 1931), Xinran (The Good Women of China, 2002), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, 1989), and Jung Chang (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, 1991), literary works likely not intended as horror but which read that way for me.
Yet my interest in those texts was tempered; I saw them as pertaining to me, but only in a detached and distant way. I recognized certain notions that had filtered through the generations and settled on me here, but also that the New Zealand context had subverted and changed them in various ways. It would have been wonderful to have explored these ideas in my reading, but when I was growing up, the Asian-New Zealand diaspora was largely ignored in literature—and still is.
Even now, I know of no stories which reflect my experience as a half-caste Chinese-New Zealander other than my own work. Perhaps, it is significant that I first saw myself in John Wyndham’s science fiction novel, The Chrysalids, as someone grossly flawed and banished to the fringes, only in New Zealand, where the only other Asian children I knew were my siblings or my cousins, there were no telepathic allies with whom to share my otherness. Finding this shared experience now with my Black Cranes colleagues has been extremely uplifting, and also a little sad.
Can you tell us briefly about your last project and what you’re working on next?
Thank you for asking. As well as Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, this year’s projects included my debut short story collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, which released in July from Things in the Well, Australia, and Blood of the Sun, the final book in the Path of Ra, a supernatural crime-noir trilogy co-authored with Dan Rabarts, which released from Raw Dog Screaming Press on 4 November 2020.
As far as my plans go, I’d like to carve out some time to work on a poetry project, some scripts, and another Taine McKenna novel. I also have ten short story commissions on the go, and since I’m a slow writer, barely able to complete 500 words a day, I think that’s enough to keep me going for a while.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with us, Lee. I have a lot of respect for you both as an individual and as an artists. I’m very happy to share you here today, and look forward to chatting again next Tuesday on the next Skeleton Hour! Remember, you can register for the online event on Facebook here.