How Heritage Affects the Stories We Live and the Stories We Tell
An interview with Lee Murray, multiple award-winning author of Grotesque: Monster Stories
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand. Her unique perspective as a Chinese New Zealander has been instrumental in the success of her writing, from her military thrillers to supernatural crime noirs, culminating in her first collection Grotesque: Monster Stories and the birth of Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology by women writers of Asian descent, edited alongside Australian-Chinese editor Geneve Flynn. In this interview, Murray talks about her life as a Eurasian in New Zealand and how it has influenced her writing.
Interstellar Flight Press: Tell us about yourself and your Asian influences through your parents, your environment, and your heritage and history.
Lee Murray: I’m a third-generation Chinese New Zealander. One of the first Eurasian babies born to a married couple in this country — not the first but one of the first — I’ve lived in a kind of shifting no-man’s land for more than a half-century.
It’s as if I have never been properly Chinese, and nor am I properly Kiwi; my compatriots, still demand to know where I come from, because the assumption is, I must not be from here.
“Go back to China,” I’ve been told. I don’t belong there. I don’t belong anywhere. Even within my own family, my siblings and I represented the other. Imperfect. Muddied.
However, I’ve always felt a yearning for Māori stories. There are a lot of shared values and beliefs between the Māori culture of my homeland and the Chinese culture of my heritage: a certain synergy.
Both cultures are founded on the deeds of supernatural ancestors, live by a mandate to protect the natural world, are imbued with a sense of community over individual, and tell simple compelling tales which teach respect and honor.
But there are differences too: where the Chinese have a benevolent dragon bringing prosperity and happiness, the Māori taniwha can be ruthless. In recent years, I’ve been exploring stories at the intersection of these cultures, perhaps as a stepping-stone to inclusion.
As a child, like my mother before me, I never saw a story that reflected my experience as a Chinese-New Zealander and perhaps that exacerbated my feelings of otherness.
IFP: Are there stories your parents told you or you heard as a child that differ so much from the typical horror stories we frequently encounter?
LM: Like most New Zealanders growing up in the 1970s, my reading tended towards European stories — Grimm’s Fairy Tales, (so gruesome!), Tales of the Little Wood, Dim the Dragon, Peter Pan, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — partly due to post-colonial influences on texts available here, and partly perhaps because my European dad was the one who read to us at bedtime.
Dad was a wonderful storyteller in his own right, making up amazing feel-good tales about plucky everyday heroes, like the adventures of the talking frogs who lived in a creek at the bottom of our garden, and the resourceful steampunk inventor whose mission was to save the environment.
I don’t recall Mum ever telling us a traditional story as a child — possibly because my siblings and I don’t speak Chinese, or perhaps because there were four of us and she was always busy picking up after us — but her life experiences and the cultural pressures that shaped her life have certainly impacted me and my writing, especially in more recent years.
Born in New Zealand, my mother (Pauline) visited China with her mother and her sisters when she was about five (she’s 78 now).
Once, while walking to the local school with her sisters, a water buffalo blocked her path, and, tiny thing that she was, she was so terrified of the beast that she leapt into the river to avoid it — despite not being able to swim.
Another time, she visited an outside lavatory and discovered a huge snake, longer than she was tall, coiled on top of the cistern; horrified she backed away, deciding not to go after all.
For a child from New Zealand, where the fauna consists mainly of birds, her terror at encountering these foreign creatures is understandable, and might explain some of my own fascination with creature feature tales.
IFP: That sounds terrifying! I can only imagine it looked like a small dinosaur to her. When I was growing up, the largest animal I saw was a rat bigger than my cat. Needless to say, I am not terribly fond of rats till this day. Of all the Asian horror tales you’ve heard, what is one such story that stands out in your mind? Have you translated these stories into fiction? Tell us about these stories.
LM: Hungry ghosts have always fascinated me. A pitiful creature with a distended belly, these haunted souls are perpetually hungry but, despite all attempts, they cannot eat.
The ghosts have typically committed some sinful act during their lifetime, often causing harm to the family’s reputation. More often than not, hungry ghosts are women, guilty of greed or laziness or some supposed sexual transgression.
Like the Red Riding Hood fable, which served to keep young European women on the path of the good and virtuous, the hungry ghost mythology serves to reinforce expectations of servitude, humility, and purity on Asian women.
I set out to explore these themes in my story ‘Frangipani Wishes’ in Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, where my character is haunted by the hungry ghosts of her mother, even as she is preyed on by an older man and succumbs to the shameful rejection and betrayal.
The story is inspired by something that occurred in my own family. It also allowed me to draw on the twin harbors of Hong Kong and Wellington, while spinning the tale of a woman’s lifetime of suffering.
I’ve recently written a story called ‘The Moon Goddess’s Granddaughter’ for the Pixel Project anthology Giving the Devil His Due, a work which is intended to raise funds and awareness of the issue of domestic violence, and which is due for release in September this year.
For this work, I wrote a contemporary prose-poem recounting the legend of the Asian moon goddess Chang’e through the lens of domestic abuse.
You’re probably aware that, in older versions of the tale, Princess Chang’e drinks an elixir of immortality to escape the tyranny of her husband, a former hero, who has become too puffed up with his own importance.
The goddess’s pet hare delays her husband’s pursuit, allowing her to escape to the moon, where she endures beyond his reach.
For me, this story embodies the experience of abuse survivors, especially Asian women encumbered by expectations of submissiveness and face, for whom escape is a rare recourse and any revenge is likely to be quiet and without violence.
IFP: This is often the case in places with a prevalence of patriarchy where women are regarded as property, of which there are still many in the world, including Asia. Tell us about how this heritage affects women with Asian roots, even those not living in Asia itself.
LM: For Asian women, there is an internal rage that comes from making yourself small, from denying your own needs in the service of others. Quietly and without fuss. Never being allowed to be yourself.
It’s as Alma Katsu says in the foreword to Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women:
“Above all, Asian women are supposed to be submissive. Obedient, invisible, without wants of her own and so content to devote herself to making others happy. This is the expectation that I found hardest. Not that I, for a minute, thought I was supposed to be that person. But I found the mere expectation soul-crushing. That anyone could expect another person to negate themselves, that this was the natural order of things. That anyone would negate themselves voluntarily.”
IFP: That is the life for many women in the world, I believe, probably from the time people owned land. There is anthropological evidence that indicate women had a more egalitarian existence prior to this age but it has died out due to inequality and the instability of societies. Things have changed greatly in the last century but we are all still very much affected by violence against women, especially domestic violence which exists in a place we are meant to feel safe. Given the universality of many of our shared tales and from a unique Asian point of view, how would you frame your stories so that a universal audience can easily identify with it?
LM: Interestingly, the two stories I mentioned earlier are told in a prose-poem style and from the second-person point of view.
Both were intentional choices, literary devices, I thought, which contributed to the flavor and the integrity of the story, but now I wonder if instead that I employed that ‘you’ and that ‘imagery’ in order to create a safe distance between myself and the narrative.
A way of revealing a truism, while taking myself out of the story. This is me, or it could be me, but it is also not me, which is, of course, is the secret of all good fiction.
IFP: Shh… we are not meant to tell… ;) What are good sources you would personally recommend for readers to learn more about horror in Asia given how diverse cultures in Asia are?
LM: With Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, my co-editor Geneve Flynn and I clearly identified a gap in the current horror literature; up until that point there had been a scattering of work exploring Asian themes from our colleagues, but only rare compilations of their voices and their stories.
The response to the anthology suggests there was demand for it. And it’s not just readers who are hungry for more; since the anthology released, our contributors have mentioned renewed interest in exploring their Asian heritage through fiction.
And what about other Asian cultures? Recently, an Indian reader who’d enjoyed Black Cranes asked me why we hadn’t included stories from other Asian cultures. Why wasn’t there an Indian-Asian version of Black Cranes, for example?
There simply wasn’t space. But we’re delighted that the question was asked because it means we are starting a wider conversation.
Thank you for your time, Lee, and for sharing your insightful thoughts with us!
Note from the interviewer: All Amazon book links benefit Animals Asia should you choose to place an order. My children and I have supported them from the time they were born and continue to do so. Thank you, on behalf of the moon bears, for your support!
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a three-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories.
Her latest anthology projects are Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, co-edited with Geneve Flynn, and the AHWA’s Midnight Echo #15. 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.
Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.