Asian horror appears to have been on the rise in recent years with literary events and awards lists featuring both indigenous writers and people of the diaspora—those living beyond Asia in other countries. These creatives are bringing old lore and fresh perspectives to the horror genre, addressing topics such as gender, tradition, racism, poverty, war, and oppression through the lens of their lived experience. And Asian horror stories run the full gamut from terror to triumph, from epic adventure to ethereal ghost tales, and from bloody battles to quiet suffering. Yet as rich and vibrant as they are chilling, Asian stories always present a challenge, told as they are at the intersection of cultures, languages, landscapes, and generations.
Throughout Asian Heritage Month, Kendall Reviews is celebrating Asian horror creatives, culture, and folklore in this exclusive interview series with contributors from Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith (Black Spot Books, Feb 2023)
Today, we welcome Angela Yuriko Smith, who is a third-generation Shimanchu-American and award-winning poet, author, and publisher with 20+ years of experience as a professional writer in nonfiction. Publisher of Space & Time magazine (est. 1966), producer of Exercise Your Writes, two-time Bram Stoker Awards® Winner, and HWA Mentor of the Year for 2020.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits is “Tearing Ourselves Apart: The Nukekubi” and is a personal reflection on how the expectations of being ‘a good woman’ can tear us apart from the inside.
Kendall Reviews: What is it about horror that appeals to you?
Angela Yuriko Smith: I was an early fan of horror from first grade when I discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum in my Catholic school library. I found the stories comforting and proof that I was normal. In all the other books I read, the houses didn’t have ghosts. Mine was full of them. Reading about other people’s ghosts made me feel included. It was comforting. I think when the nuns decided I read that book an unhealthy number of times and removed it from the library is when I became a horror writer.
KR: What makes Asian horror unique?
AYS: I think Asian horror is unique because the stories are accepted as nonfiction as opposed to other cultures that think of ghosts as fiction. We grow up with them. Even in my family where I am a watered-down third-generation Asian the spirits were very much among us. If we anger them, they are ghosts. If we don’t anger them, they are ancestors. Sometimes they are both.
KR: Please tell us about the supernatural, superstitious, or spiritual aspect that was the focus of your essay. What made you choose it? Have you been inspired to write about any others?
AYS: The ghost I chose was a nukekubi, a headless vampiric ghost—usually a woman. I chose this ghost because of an experience I had when I was thirteen years old living in
Tennessee. I won’t recount all the details because I tell the story in my essay, but this is what she looked like:
“In my vision of the door behind me, there was a head floating in mid-air behind the glass. A woman, her skin pale with a doughy, gelatinous look. She was soaked. Liquid ran down her face and long black hair as if she had just risen from the water. Her hair was plastered to her bloated face like flat tentacles. Her mouth gaped open in a silent scream. Her neck was torn from her body. Shreds of waterlogged skin dangled, along with cords and flesh, dripping onto the carpet.”
from “Tearing Ourselves Apart: The Nukekubi”
Doing the work for Unquiet Spirits has inspired me to keep writing about the supernatural experiences that were and are a part of my life. I am editing my first novel, Inujini, which takes place on a fictional Okinawa during WWII, but my telling of the story relies heavily on the supernatural.
KR: What do you hope readers will take away from your essay?
AYS: The possibility of forgiveness. When I first saw the nukekubi I was terrified. Though I never actually saw her again she haunted my dreams for years after. Later in life, I feel more sympathetic to her. Possibly she was a woman enraged by circumstance as I have been enraged by circumstances. From my essay:
“As an adult, I see her not as a terrifying entity, but as another woman. Haven’t I worn the same face, silently screaming in rage? Haven’t I worn this hideous mask myself, and seen it in the faces of the women in my life? My children, adults now, have seen the nukekubi in my features. I’m sure, in my screams, they too heard the deafening tempest.”
I hope readers can face the unsettling nukekubi they find in their own life, put aside fear and possibly even put a soul to rest.
KR: Any Asian / Asian diaspora creatives you’d like to give a shout-out to?
AYS: So many! Lee Murray, of course, who began this Unquiet movement with Geneve Flynn. Ai Jiang, Benebell Wen, Alma Katsu, Gabriela Lee, Yvette Tan, Yi Izzy Yu, Tori Eldridge, KP Kulski, Celine Murray, Grace Chan, Koji Suzuki, Bryan Thao Worra, T Kira Madden, Elizabeth Miki Brina… how much space do you have? I can fill it. These are just a few of my favorites.
Here is another short excerpt from Angela’s essay:
“I am the nukekubi and I am no longer unquiet. I’ve become whole enough to keep my body with me as I travel. I am strong enough now to use my words in the light rather than reserving them for use only in shadow. I no longer have to act in rage and vengeance because I’ve learned to release the tempest in small gusts of no.
I offer this nukekubi to all my unquiet sisters whose bodies are still too heavy to fly. May this meal nourish you enough to be whole and amplify your spirits.”
KR: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you. Any news you’d like to share?
AYS: This year I began a YouTube talk show, and the guest list includes Lee Murray, Alma Katsu, Linda D. Addison, Maxwell I. Gold, Benebell Wen and Kyle Toucher to name a few. I’m also finishing the edits to Inujini, working on my next poetry collection Hallucinated Jungle and a nonfiction book on Shamanic Evolution: Why Magic is Needed in Modern Times.
KR: Thank you for dropping by!
Catch up on Kendall Reviews Asian Heritage Month Exclusive Interviews and content please follow the links.
Kendall Reviews talks to Ai Jiang
Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
From hungry ghosts, vampiric babies, and shapeshifting fox spirits to the avenging White Lady of urban legend, for generations, Asian women’s roles have been shaped and defined through myth and story. In Unquiet Spirits, Asian writers of horror reflect on the impact of superstition, spirits, and the supernatural in this unique collection of 21 personal essays exploring themes of otherness, identity, expectation, duty, and loss, and leading, ultimately, to understanding and empowerment.
Website and social media links.
Youtube: Exercise Your Writes