Hungry Ghosts: Tales from Asia and the Diaspora

Hungry Ghosts: Tales from Asia and the Diaspora

20 December 2018

Ruby Weatherall

As dusk turned to darkness on the spookiest night of the year, Xiaolu Guo, Khairani Barokka, Zia Ahmed and Vayu Naidu took to the stage. Each performance treated our audience to an eclectic mix of scary, strange and bone-chilling tales from Asia and the diaspora, which centred on the notions of spiritual embodiment and physical transformation.

Although each artist offered a unique approach to storytelling, their collective engagement with cultural myths and legends emphasised the importance of local oral traditions and superstitious rituals across Asia.

Jarred McGinnis of The Special Relationship introduced each act, which included Sarina Nihei’s “short but frightening film” Rabbit’s Blood (2017). This unnerving animation depicted the struggle between a suspicious group of men and a team of man-like rabbits, whose eerie sound effects, disjointed scene changes and menacing glances held the audience in suspense.

For the show’s opening sequence, Xiaolu Guo recounted an excerpt from liaozhai zhiyi, or Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1640-1715), who she described as “the most important ghost writer from China”. Pu’s fantastical, magical and mystical stories are scattered with an array of religious and cultural references, including the traditional Chinese preoccupation with spirithood and immortality.

Xiaolu also told “a tale of love and deceit” between a mortal medicine man, a wise snake and an evil, jealous tortoise, taken from her memoir Once Upon a Time in the East. She described this story as the reason why she was “always scared to eat crab meat as a child”, for fear of ending up with a Buddhist monk in her stomach.

With a similar focus on the frightening powers of transformation, Khairani Barokka (Okka) offered a personal rendition of ‘Malin Kundang’ – a Javanese folktale about a mother who turns her ungrateful son into stone. As Okka is from the Indonesian culture of Minang Kabau, which is “the largest matrilineal culture in the world”, she explained that the majority of her mythological role models growing up were similarly fierce “female assassins”.

To celebrate its one-year anniversary, Okka read two poems from her first poetry collection, Rope, followed by a poem from her fittingly-named anthology, Spells, and an excerpt from her first book, Indigenous Species. She captivated the crowd with a mixture of Baso Manang, Javanese, Indonesian and English references, while avidly articulating the gruesome details of each story and ending with a tumultuous and gripping tale about the complex, disruptive legacy of Indonesia’s colonial past.

In contrast, Zia Ahmed performed a non-sensical, dreamlike tale of a normal-day-out-gone-wrong, as well as an amusing rendition of Pakistan’s own ‘Big Foot’ parable. His description of the monster as “half-man, half-ape, in-between states” skilfully linked the monster’s feelings of alienation and abnormality to the transitory experience of migration. This encapsulated the evening’s emphasis on altered, imagined realities and the curious space between life and death, fact and fiction, corporeal and psychological experience.

During an epic rendition of The Hindu Story of Rama and Sita, Vayu Naidu commanded the stage with her graceful movements and flawless articulation. She secured the audience’s attention by asking them to repeat the phrase ‘”thakita, thakita, thakita, boom-boom” in a spooky, low whisper, which added a sense of suspense when describing a monster “the size of Shoreditch” and her menacing, ten-headed brother, Ravana.

Vayu ended the evening with a tantalizing cliffhanger scene between Ravana and his prisoner, Sita: “and slowly, from behind him, he drew out a head, severed, streaming with blood, it was Rama, his eyes vacant and gouged out, his neck chopped, his long hair swimming around Ravana’s fingers…”.

This bloodcurdling array of scary-tales was part of the 12thAsia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, held in partnership with The Special Relationship at Rich Mix, in Shoreditch.

Watch the full event here