Asian Heritage in Horror: Interview with Gabriela Lee
Gabriela Lee teaches creative writing and children’s literature at the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines. Her fiction has been published in the Philippines and abroad, most recently in the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology, Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (New Zealand, 2020). She received the 2019 PBBY-Salanga Grand Prize, which was published as the picture book Cely’s Crocodile: The Story and Art of Araceli Limcaco-Dans (Tahanan Books, 2020). She recently contributed the chapter “Digital Liminality and Identities in Philippine Young Adult Speculative Fiction” to Asian Children’s Literature and Film in a Global Age: Local, National, and Transnational Trajectories, edited by Sharmani Gabriel and Bernard Wilson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). She is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of Pittsburgh. You can learn more about her and her work at www.sundialgirl.com
What inspired you to start writing?
I think it may be cliché already at this point, but I began writing because I loved reading as a child, and my parents were very encouraging about books and learning and stories. I was also a very shy child and wasn’t very good at talking with other people, so the written word was very appealing to me. I was also lucky enough to find myself in nascent fandoms when I was in high school, and wrote a lot of fanfiction that let me flex my writing muscles and taught me how to think in terms of experimenting with genre and character, of writing with a conscious eye towards an audience instead of just wallowing self-indulgently my own feelings (although fanfiction also encourages that a lot, haha). It turned out that being nerdy was an advantage in high school English classes. During my senior year in high school, when I started taking college entrance exams, I learned that you could get a degree in Creative Writing and that was when I decided to pursue writing as part of my formal education.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I wouldn’t say that I was drawn to horror; rather I had feelings of both attraction and repulsion towards it. When I was young, I was a huge fan of The X-Files, which was probably a couple of seasons behind what was airing in the US, but I remember watching one of the earlier episodes of Season 3, which I think is titled “D.P.O.” and watching a very young Giovanni Ribisi control lightning and terrorize his small town and I was hooked. I thought that horror and science fiction and adolescence were inextricably linked, and my nerdy brain was just eating it up. The books I read were also influential in how I thought about horror. When I was in third grade, I borrowed an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe stories from my school library. Reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” was a freakishly frightening experience and even though the house we lived in did not have wooden floorboards, I swear I could hear the old man’s dead heart beating through the floor. I was so scared that the characters from “The Masque of Red Death” were going to come through the pages that I literally buried the anthology underneath a pile of textbooks so that they couldn’t get out. But I couldn’t stop consuming these frightening, fascinating stories. I read Stephen King’s It a couple of years after, in sixth grade I think, and I was freaking out but I was also drawn to this mystery of “what could this be?” and “where did it come from?” and in between all of these horrific, frightening imagery was really a story that was trying to understand where consciousness and imagination came from, which were big questions that I felt horror was able to understand and explore.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Filipino characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
When I started writing, I never really thought about writing for someone else aside from a mainstream audience in the Philippines. It made sense to me to write about the world around me and my experiences, especially since a lot of aspects of Philippine culture and folklore contain what’s considered to be horror or paranormal elements, so it never really felt like it’s an imposition or insistence from anyone. It was simply the way the world worked, and how I understood the world around me, and how that reflected in the stories I was writing.
However, the more I read and wrote over the years, the more I realized that horror, as a literary genre, worked as a way to reflect and process social and cultural fears. I became more conscious of how horror could essentially be a vehicle for me to explore many of my fears – particularly the fears I experience as a woman living in a conservative, patriarchal, and culturally misogynistic society such as the Philippines. As a result, many of my more recent stories reflect these fears, and attempt to push back against it.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Writing horror has taught me about the precarity of my life in this world. Looking back, a lot of my earlier horror-adjacent short stories – I say “adjacent” because I didn’t intentionally set out to write a horror story when I first started drafting them – centered on women’s bodies and how they became sites of fragmentation, consumption, and revelation. For instance, in “Hunger,” I use the figure of the manananggal – a creature from Philippine lower mythology who could separate the upper half of her body from her bottom half, and whose probocis-like tongue would slip between the slats on a roof to suck out a fetus from a pregnant woman – as a way to explore heartbreak and grief. In another story, “Tabula Rasa,” I use sex and horror imagery as a way to explore the loss of memory and identity. In my most recent story, “Rites of Passage,” I use the tiyanak, another creature from Philippine lower mythology who takes the form of a baby in order to lull its victims into complacence before consuming them, as a way to think about how motherhood can be a terrifying experience. In a lot of ways, horror has allowed me the opportunity to reflect and sit with ideas and experiences that I find frightening and give me the chance to process them.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Right off the bat, I have to say that I’m not a fan of horror media – films, TV shows, books, comics. Just a big nope for me. I scare easily, and things get stuck in my brain on a loop, which is never fun. This might also explain why I consume spoilers – you can’t be scared if you know what’s going to happen!
However! I am, for better or for worse, someone who finds herself embedded in a particular cultural zeitgeist and so I probably know (at least) the broad strokes of a lot of horror- and horror-adjacent media, and I’ve noticed that horror has become more complex and more conscious of its power to provide social commentary in recent years. Not to say that it hasn’t done that even before (think George Romero’s films, or 80s horror camp, or 90s conspiracy theories about aliens and government control) but simply that it’s more and more overt. There’s a kind of collective manifestation of fear and a slow realization that the most frightening thing on this planet is ourselves. I’m thinking Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, or the most recent iteration of Stephen King’s It, or the Netflix series Stranger Things. Horror as a genre has moved away from monsters as Other, and kind of turned the spotlight on humans as monsters, and interrogate what it means to be monstrous and frightening and isolated from the rest of the world. Like, one of the best horror films that I forced myself to watch through was Train to Busan and I really enjoyed it because not only did it show how absolutely horrifying a zombie horde could be, but at the end of the day, the story was about a father’s love for their child, and how that drama played out in a subtle and satisfying way within the backdrop of a zombie outbreak.
I also see how elements of horror are easily blended with other genres like science fiction and fantasy, alternate history and time travel stories. I love how porous genres have become, and how it challenges both reader and writer to re-imagine and re-think what they expect from something labeled “horror”.
How do you feel the Asian community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
Well, it depends on which Asian community you’re talking about. Asia as a geographical space is massive and Asian cultures are more heterogenous than ever before, so it’s simply not useful to lump us all together in a single category and call it “the Asian community.” In other words, I cannot speak for all Asians.
However, I’ve observed that there seems be a kind of “Other”-ing of Asian horror films, especially when it comes to folk traditions or practices, such as using images of Chinese funeral rites (i.e. burning of paper money, joss sticks, etc.) as a shorthand for something scary that will happen. In fact, horror as a genre can be surprisingly colonial in nature, and what gets branded as “horror” sometimes depends on whether a White or non-White audience is watching. There’s also that sense that Asian horror films need to be “translated” or adapted for a non-Western audience, replacing the Asian characters with White characters (like in The Grudge or Dark Water) or completely relocating the entire narrative outside of its cultural space (like in The Ring), which then removes all of the cultural context that’s necessary for the story. It seems like American mainstream media refuses to understand why these stories work the way they do, or they don’t trust the audience with the cultural context. There’s also the problem of mis-translation or mis-labeling, such as Parasite being found under the “Horror” section of Netflix, which I thought was hilarious, especially after Bong Joon-ho said “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2020. Subtitles are how I experienced many of these films I use as examples here – obviously I’m not fluent in Korean or Japanese or Thai so the only way for me to access these films are through English subtitles.
In fact, most horror writers in Asia usually write in their local languages and remain untranslated, which is a shame since there’s been a flourishing of stories in recent decades, especially with independent writers and artists using various online platforms in order to directly reach an audience. Maybe the only exception to this observation is Japanese fiction and manga, both of which enjoy the support of translators who can regularly work on translating these stories from one languge to another.
I hope in the future that more Asians outside of the hegemonic identities that seem to dominate what is considered “Asian horror” can find representation without exoticization in mainstream media. I’d love to see more horror stories from Southeast Asia and Central Asia make their way into the popular culture, and to have respectful, insightful translations become available for those who cannot access the languages in which these stories were first written in. I would love more diversity and plurality in the genre when it comes to watching, reading, and creating Asian horror stories beyond what is commonly coded or stereotyped under the monolithic label of “Asian horror.”
Who are some of your favorite Asian characters in horror?
I am a huge fan of Alexandra Trese from the graphic novels, and now Netflix animated series, Trese by writer Budjette Tan and artist Ka-Jo Baldisimo. I love her no-nonsense attitude and the noir-horror atmosphere that’s evoked by the Manila urbanscape that she calls home.
Who are some Filipino horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
Some of the best writers I know in the Philippines are horror writers, and I’m happy to give them the space to shine here. I would definitely recommend Yvette Tan’s collection, Waking the Dead and Other Stories, as well as Karl de Mesa’s Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic-Punk. Eliza Victoria is a wonderful writer as well, and some of her best work are also horror-adjacent, including her novels Dwellers and Wounded Little Gods. There’s also a number of excellent horror comics in the Philippines: Trese, of course, and Tabi Po by Mervin Malonzo. There are also a few horror-themed anthologies that are available to give readers a taste of what contemporary Philippine horror explores, such as Demons of the New Year: An Anthology of Horror Fiction from the Philippines, and All That Darkness Allows: 13 Tales of Horror and Dread.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
The world is a fearful and frightening place these days, and it’s very easy to write something that allows us to sink into that feeling of endless dread. But horror is also about understanding why something is frightening and scary, and how we, as human beings, push back against darkness. Horror is not just about scaring someone, but about understanding what makes something horrific, and questioning our preconceived notions about what makes something frightening. So do your research, ask yourself the hard questions, and always interrograte the stereotypical narratives that exist around you. If you want to write horror, then write the story you wish you want to read. But beyond that, write for an audience who you hope will find, see themselves in your story, and read you