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 J.A.W. McCarthy, who is the Bram Stoker Award and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories (Cemetery Gates Media, 2021) and Sleep Alone (Off Limits Press, 2023). Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Vastarien, PseudoPod, LampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). She is Thai American and lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest. You can call her Jen on Twitter @JAWMcCarthy, and find out more at www.jawmccarthy.com.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits is Thai Spirits & Longing to Belong and is a personal reflection on her experience as a half-Thai and half-white woman growing up in the 1990s without a firm grasp of her Thai heritage.
Kendall Reviews: What does Asian Heritage Month mean for you?
JAW McCarthy: It means a spotlight on our accomplishments, but also recognition of how different we all are and the wide variety of skills, passions, and talents we have to offer. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about our heritage. When I was growing up, assimilation was very important to my family; my parents knew I’d have a tough time as a mixed-race kid, so they did everything they could to make sure I’d fit in with my white peers. My Thai mother faced a lot of prejudice, and she didn’t want me to experience that. Those concerns—though coming from a place of survival—as well as my own childhood indifference, greatly limited my knowledge and acceptance of my Asian heritage. As an adult, curiosity has turned into a need to understand who I am, where I come from. Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity to learn more, ask my mother questions about our family, and just sit and listen.
KR: What is it about horror that appeals to you?
JAWM: Horror allows me a place to explore and face what I fear. We’re living in a terrible period of time and horror stories not only reflect this but help us process the experience. It can be entertainment, escapism, but also documentation of our current existence. Good, relatable horror has a beating heart: empathy.
KR: What do you hope readers will take away from your essay?
JAWM: Something that I wish I’d learned and embraced a long time ago: You are enough. Because I’m half-white, I never felt like I was Asian enough. I felt like I didn’t have the right to speak on the issues that affect Asian communities. I felt like I couldn’t claim that huge piece of my identity. My doubt cheated me when I was younger. I wish UNQUIET SPIRITS had existed back then. If I’d had that book, young me would’ve seen that she was not alone. She would’ve had a lot of pride in who she was and where she came from.
KR: What was your experience of the ‘messay’ approach?
JAWM: This was a new one for me. This was also my first nonfiction piece, so I really appreciated the casual looseness of the messay. It was confessional and encouraged vulnerability from me, which is how I approach my fiction. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Thai folklore beyond my own personal interests, so I appreciated being able to relate what I do know to my own life experiences, as well as acknowledge my disconnection from my own heritage. I’ve felt a lot of shame because of that, but it’s been meaningful to hear from others who related to my essay and disconnection, to know that I’m not the only one who grew up never fully belonging to my Asian half or my white half.
KR: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you. Any news you’d like to share?
Off Limits Press just released my first novella, SLEEP ALONE. And my story “The Only Thing Different Will Be the Body” (A WOMAN BUILT BY MAN, Cemetery Gates Media) is a finalist for a 2022 Bram Stoker Award.
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…
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.