Spirits Abroad and At Home

Welcome to Part 6 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Doctor Z Aung as moderator, Graci Kim, and Momi Mondal. The description for the panel was as follows:

Yōkai, manitou, aswang–these are some non-western spirits. Western SFF has mostly limited itself to European creatures. How do these natives of other lands’ stories compare to the more familiar ones? Can we learn about (and as writers, can we reveal) something about cultures by comparing their spirit tales?

At the panel, we were treated to the panelists comparing and contrasting the views of spirits from their native cultures, with Graci Kim representing Korean beliefs, Momi Mondal, the Bengali beliefs, and Doctor Z’s family’s Myanmar traditions.

While the panelists shared their knowledge based on their families and cultures, beliefs and traditions vary from family to family and from village to village and thus, are not intended to be a definitive statement on what all people from a culture believe or have believed in the past.

House Spirits

Traditionally, Korean house spirits are like deities — contained to a room or object. The Korean spirits are all about people fulfilling their expected role in society. The unmarried virgin ghost or unmarried bachelor. The evil ghost with a featureless face, haunting children, because she was unable to have children in life. These spirits inhibit a house, they don’t follow a family.

But not all spirits are ghosts.

In Burmese (Myanmar) culture, one prays to and gives offerings to house spirits. And there are spirits for houses, villages, and towns. These nature or house spirits are often people who died in service or tragically.

For the Bengali, the word for ghost means “dead humans”. Their only stories about animals are dead people coming back as such. They don’t have spirits that aren’t ghosts, because they have a polytheistic religion.

Originally, they had altars to their ancestors to watch over them, until other religions came in. Eventually, the concept of a heaven and hell were introduced to their stories. Their god stories are very different from their ghost stories, though.

Are The Spirits Positive/Protective?

In Korean tradition, the family watches over you. And dreams themselves can be messages from them. Graci Kim dreamed of her grandmother and gut pain. The dream went away when her granny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

For the Bengali, their gods aren’t necessarily positive or protective, they just are.

In Burmese culture, ancestor worship is regional, rather than gods. Plus, Hindi gods are always good. You familiarize the god to yourself, and the gods are all family, so that shows in how they react. They’re like your family or network.

What Inspires The Darker Tales?

Some are inspired by loss — lost children, lost spouses, people who died before they could fulfil their role in society.

Some are inspired by urbanization — talking to someone in the dark and realizing later, it was a stranger, not who you thought it was. These tales remind you to be polite and welcoming to strangers… so you don’t tick off someone with power.

Others are inspired by tragic events — chinese migrant workers who died were bound tightly and sent home, and looked like they were marching home, inspiring ghost stories.

And others exist to reinforce social roles — Momi shared that she’s from a lower caste Indian background, (what used to be called untouchable), but was so integrated these days, she didn’t know it until later and didn’t really suffer much from discrimination. Yet, in the films and stories, the bad guy was almost always from that lower caste.

Writing Tips for Non-Western Spirits

When writing ‘the other’… no one is stopping you, they just ask that you have a level of respect for the culture it derives from.

The lived cultural experience lends an intimacy that research struggles to duplicate. Before you tell the story, ask yourself: is there someone better suited to write this.

American science-fiction publishers typically are looking for the big stories with the strong cultural influences, not necessarily explorations of internal cultural clashes, not involving Westerners. Small stories work better as short stories, while diaspora tales are a totally different sub-genre.

Recommended Reading

  • Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad
  • Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • F.C. Yee The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
  • NK Jemisin’s The Great Cities series
  • Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen

What do you bring to your writing from your culture?

What cultures do you like exploring in your writing?

What do you think?

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