In Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women, edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith, twenty-one Asian writers (all women as one might have guessed from the title) offer up a single personal essay each that both explores their heritage of ghost stories/folklore and charts their own experiences navigating the in-between world of shared cultures. Like many collections, it’s a mixed bag. For me, the collection as a whole didn’t wholly succeed, though it contains several strong essays. My guess, however, is that one’s personal identity and experiences will make this very much a your-mileage-may-vary type of book.
The stories cover a wide geographic and cultural range, including but not limited to Thailand, China, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, and with most of the writers evoking a mixed heritage, so that their experiences are even more richly diverse. The same holds true for the various spirits of the title: hungry ghosts, substitute ghosts (tsigui), fox demons, kwee kia (a “creature made from the spirit of a deceased human fetus … usually the size of a toddler, with a large head, red or black clouded eyes, pointed ears, fanged teeth, long nails, and green or grey skin”) and others.
Many of the ghosts in the stories are women. Women who, as Rena Mason writes, “had been good girls, good women, good sisters, wives and mothers who had done everything right in life. Then a random tragedy would befall them, causing them to become angry, vengeful, frightening — turn evil.” They’re meant, therefore, often as cautionary tales for those women who might be tempted to stray from their traditional roles or to break their expected silence. One of my favorite elements of the collection, though, is how several of the essays turn this reading on its head, do not encode the “hungry female” as evil or the man who “got rid of it” as the hero.
Along with a feminist reading of the traditional tales, approached not through the lens of critical theory but personal musing (the tone in these essays is much more conversational than academic), many of the writers make connections as well between the wandering, liminal nature of ghosts, and their own experiences inhabiting a space between two cultures, as well as how “immigrants understand the deep truth of reincarnation better than anyone, understand the sheer number of lives we can live within the span of a single one,” as Yi Izzy Yu puts it. Several as well note how any haunting serves as a metaphor for the long reach of trauma.
In terms of the big picture for why the collection as a whole didn’t feel a complete success to me, for one, I thought the collection suffered from too many essays in that it began to feel somewhat repetitive in nature, which is why I strongly recommend reading the anthology over time rather than in one to three sittings. In addition, some of the essays felt they weren’t saying anything new about the experience of being an other, an immigrant, a woman in a patriarchal world, a person of several cultures, etc. It’s not that there is nothing of value in these; it’s just that they didn’t feel fresh or particularly insightful. Finally, the language often felt a bit flat, as if the writers had sanded off their fictional flairs of style and vocabular and structure to “better fit” the non-fiction expectations.
That said, as noted in the intro, I did find several of the essays to be standouts in the collection. Yvette Tan’s “Fallen Leaves, New Soil” was one, along with Gabriela Lee’s “Sightings.” My favorite by far though was Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito’s “Belonging to Fear”, which I’d say was the most vivid and also the most individualistic of all the essays. It ranges wide in topic, has the most stylistic “oomph”, brings to life the “character” of her Popo, offers the strongest sense of unique voice in the collection, and its concluding paragraphs pack an emotional wallop. Even if you find yourself reluctant to finish the book, I highly recommend skipping to this essay and giving it a read.
As mentioned, I confess to being disappointed in the book as a whole, but it’s a “soft” disappointment in that also as noted, there’s always something of value in each of the essays even if I found myself wishing for stronger writing and more individuality. But also as I noted at the outset, while I can relate to some elements more personally, and also learn something from all of them, one’s own identity and experience might create an entirely different response, more so than is the case with fiction. So if the topic is of interest, I’d say give the book a shot, maybe starting with the ones I highlighted and then an essay or two at a time, working your way through at your leisure.