Hungry Ghosts, Jay Lake, White Supremacy, and Coolies
So in 2010 I was gifted a copy of Weird Tales' steampunk special to read at my leisure. Cherie Priest was in it, and besides which, Stephen Segal was totally nice and was hoping that time that I would eventually write something for him for the magazine.
In it, Jay Lake had a short story.
I have many reasons to dislike Jay Lake. One of them is this heinous novel. Another is his generally assholic attitude about race..And then there is this hokey piece of shit. I would then like you to take a moment to reflect on the fact that said hokey piece of shit was supposedly written to feature a SEAsian-esque heroine, AND is dedicated to his adopted Chinese daughter.
So anyway, in this Weird Tales issue he has this short story. I don’t recall the exact details but I know it was about a Chinese exorcist. Exorcising ghosts. I recall that this ghost was malevolent. For no good reason that I could recall. And this story was set in America. And the whole story was really all about the exorcist finding out how to exorcise the ghost. And you know what the story was called? “Hungry Ghosts.”
And that was that.
Except that was, obviously, not just that. I object to a white whiny Westerner using such a term, a culturally specific, mythologically embedded term, to tell what is such a white-washed story about exorcism. I objected so much, I wrote a whole post in response.
Let me re-iterate the facts for you:
- white dude wrote a story about “hungry ghosts”
- set in 19th century America
- with a Chinese “protagonist” (little more than a cipher)
You know what I DON’T recall reading in that story?
- Recognition of Chinese labourers being exploited in that period
- Acknowledgement of how actual Chinese hungry ghosts are like
- A Chinese hero who’s actually a hero, rather than lacking in personality
- A Chinese exorcist who actually knows how to RESPECT THE DEAD
Let me tell you why I’m rambling on about this right now.
I am reading about Chinese coolies, and how they were kidnapped, tricked, conned, into signing contracts they couldn’t read, taken overseas away from friends and family, kinship ties and community, and then pretty much sold into bondage. (We know this melody; it is a variation on a theme.) These people had a “contract.” Which made them marginally more legal and acceptable than enslaved Africans, since the abolition movement was underway. Which didn’t stop them from being abused: beaten, whipped, chained, murdered.
They responded with poems and prose of resistance. When commissioners from China went to Cuba to investigate, they did what they could to present themselves and give their own testimonies. If they couldn’t, because their “employers” were trying to limit them, they wrote on whatever scrap they could.
"We hope your honor can control Macao, prohibit abductions, release our souls." — Petition 15.
The 19th century. Chinese coolies replacing enslaved African peoples. Building the Trans-Continental Railroad (a story which the media would like to whitewash, too). Paper sons and distant families. Building new families and communities and ties and nationalities. (Because we are hua ren, and flowers bloom year after year despite bitter winters.)
And a white man gets to write about “hungry ghosts” and people will applaud how prolific he is and invite him to conventions and raise money for his cancer.
If I was peeved at Jay Lake before, I am livid now. Because how dare he. How dare he white-wash my culture and erase my kinsmen, however distant they are from me, their suffering and their pain, for the cheap thrill of exorcising ghosts?
The more I think about that story, the more I want to re-read it, just so I can be sure of what I recall: a faux mystery story trying to figure out how to get rid of a poltergeist, that failed to understand why it was behaving that way. Or perhaps it simply failed to help ME understand why it was behaving the way it was, because despite its Chinese hero, it was not a story for Chinese people. Not even remotely about Chinese people, even. Just about white people horror story anxieties wrapped up in yellow paper.
Oh but Jha, it was a long time ago. Asians are privileged now! They’re even white, sometimes. Why are you getting so worked up over something that happened so long ago?
I answer, if I cannot be allowed to feel for the community to which I belong, how can I hope to grow my heart large enough for the rest of the world? If I cannot feel for kinsmen of the past, how can I fight for the descendants of tomorrow? If I do not repay my debts to the people who died in the process of enabling me to be where I am, what can I give forward?
Ghosts are hungry for a reason.
And if white people want to whine about why PoC can’t let the past die—well, ghosts are hungry for a reason, and white violence adds to their numbers, day by day.
If you are not careful, gwailo, one day the hell money price will be your nation burning down to dust, returning lands to the people they belong and allowing your captured peoples the freedom they need to reach out and hold each other’s hands without you as obstacles.
And if we privileged bigoted white-identifying hua ren are not careful, one day our hell money price for the abuse of our fellow POC, especially the people enslaved before us, will be ourselves right alongside the gwailo.
We have ten courts of Hell, don’t forget that.