Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, the remarkable new book from Lee Murray
Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, the remarkable new book from Lee Murray

BooksJune 3, 2024

A full-body experience: Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, reviewed

Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, the remarkable new book from Lee Murray
Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, the remarkable new book from Lee Murray

Chris Tse reviews Lee Murray’s genre-breaking book about women of the Chinese diaspora in Aotearoa.

Reading Lee Murray’s Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud is a full-body experience: your pulse races and your skin prickles in response to the searing and visceral imagery, and the heaviness of the injustices that Murray describes feels like weights wrapped around your ankles. This is apt, given the book’s conceit: the titular fox spirit slips on the skulls of nine women to feel their physical and emotional pain. The book is unflinching in its presentation of historical racism and violence as Murray borrows a well-known Chinese myth to uncover taboo stories about the lives and deaths of Chinese diaspora women in Aotearoa.

Although the book constantly shifts through time and space, pinging from one tragic story to another, the many voices it holds share something in common: they speak from a dark and cruel past, one that our country fostered in an attempt to mitigate the threat of Chinese immigration.

According to New Zealand’s 1867 Census, Chinese made up only 0.56% of our young country’s total population. Chinese women were an even smaller subset – there were only six of them in the country at the time. It would take more than 120 years for the gender balance between Chinese men and women to be equal in New Zealand.

The long journey to New Zealand and harsh reality of a pioneer life kept many Chinese women in China. These “gold mountain wives”, as historian Manying Ip describes them, stayed in their home villages in China while their husbands earned money overseas to support them. Even if these women did want to join their husbands, legislated restrictions born from New Zealand’s anti-Chinese sentiment made it practically impossible to do so. The poll tax on Chinese, which increased from £10 in 1881 to £100 in 1896, meant that Chinese men could not afford to bring their wives or children with them. Other restrictions and deterrents included the abolishment of naturalisation for Chinese New Zealanders, the exclusion of Chinese from the Widows Pension Act and, later, the exclusion of women from quotas of entry permits for Chinese. This is only the tip of a very large, very racist, iceberg.

We can demonstrate the cruelties of our history through statistics, legislation and historical records, but often the most glaring omissions are stories of actual lived experiences. These are the stories that are the hardest to gather, record and protect, particularly when they belong to marginalised groups or there is a reluctance to speak of the pains of the past. In Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, Murray (who is of Chinese and Pākehā descent) seeks to address this imbalance in our literature by drawing upon true stories to highlight the isolation and prejudice suffered by Chinese women in New Zealand from the early 20th century to the present day, all of whom were trying to survive “dangerous, dangerous days. Lonely days.” 

The cover of Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud, and author Lee Murray.

At the end of one of her poems, Murray references an old newspaper article from 1881 about the arrival of “a real Chinawoman in Wellington”, who the newspaper describes as “an almond-eyed difficulty”. Depictions and descriptions of Chinese in New Zealand at that time were notoriously racist and designed to stir up fear about the Yellow Peril. In some ways, Chinese women posed a greater threat than their male counterparts due to their ability to procreate, which could have devastating consequences for the burgeoning British colony. Therefore, those who did make it to New Zealand, some brought here against their will, found themselves in a strange and hostile land, exacerbated by language barriers and the lack of a support network: “You understand that there is no place for you in New Zealand or China or anywhere else. You are a strangeness and a stranger, and you belong nowhere. Your world is shrinking”. 

In her author’s note and interviews to support the book, Murray has discussed how she was motivated to write Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud after the rise of anti-Asian sentiment during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the misogyny that fuels anger directed specifically at Asian women. Although not overtly explicit, the book does invite the reader to draw parallels between how Chinese were treated and depicted in the past with contemporary experiences and reporting.

The book’s central figure and narrator is the nine-tailed fox spirit, 狐狸精 | húli jīng, which frequently appears in Chinese folktales and mythology. The fox spirit can be either benevolent or malevolent, so its presence can be interpreted as both a good or a bad omen depending on an individual spirit’s intentions for interacting with humans. Some stories depict the fox spirit’s ascension to heaven to become a celestial fox, which is what Murray uses as the central premise for her book. 

Painting of a fox spirit from Yanju’s tomb, Gansu Province. Painting from Yanju’s tomb, also known as Jiuquan Dingjia Gate No. 5 Tomb (的酒泉丁家闸五号墓), located in Jiuquan County, Gansu Province, China.

Murray, who has earned considerable success and international recognition for her horror writing, adapts the fox spirit’s ability to assume a human form as both a narrative framework to tell the stories of nine women and to imbue the book with its own shapeshifting properties. Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud blends genres, forms and source material in a startling and haunting way, often to emphasise the gap between the promises sold to migrant women and the cold reality of life in a distant, unforgiving country: “You wonder if there has been some mistake, some foul perversion or ghostly occurrence that has caused you to lose your way, leaving you placeless, faceless.”

The choice of the fox spirit as a narrator also allows Murray to play to her strengths as a horror writer, using supernatural elements to hold the collection together as a whole rather than simply presenting the women’s stories as discrete, unrelated poems. The overall effect is that the fox spirit becomes a rounded, compelling narrator that begins to embody the reader’s own frustrations and heartbreak as each story complicates the fox spirit’s own selfish desire to be free of the pain and suffering it must endure before reaching heaven. Even the fox spirit, who scuttles between different states of reality, is overcome by their own feelings of displacement (“This is no place for foxes”) before understanding the purpose of their journey: “You will bear witness. You will give these women voice and nourish them with hope. You will sing their spirits to the mountains and shout their stories from the tips of the red turrets. You will give them flesh and make them real.”

Historical cultural and societal expectations of Chinese women, and Asian women in general, have often relegated them to being subservient or treated as possessions. They were expected to be meek and silent, and to not have their own aspirations (“A wife should not wish for too much. What good is wishing?”). The nine women of this book are not named but reduced to the roles they were expected to play for others: wife, mother, daughter, girl, woman. Their stories are full of heartbreak, dashed dreams and mental health struggles, culminating in tragic endings that underscore the neglect and violence they endured. Some take matters into their own hands, driven by anger and rage to commit unspeakable acts themselves. Even then, their actions are dismissed as being “a woman’s act” – there is no desire by the men in their families or officials to understand what could motivate them to do such things. Once again, they are reduced to being objects that do not operate within the same moral boundaries set by Pākehā: “a strangeness”, “so alien”, “so unnatural”.

In a recent interview, the actress Anya Taylor-Joy spoke of how she has challenged directors about scenes where her characters were expected to cry instead of letting them erupt with the more realistic response of rage: “We have reactions that are not always dainty or un-messy.” This constant tension of whether or not we should let rage guide or consume us is prevalent throughout the book, emphasised by its structure of alternating fox spirit/woman chapters and Murray’s subtle use of repetition.

Murray’s book arrives not long after the publication of Grace Yee’s acclaimed Chinese Fish, which also repurposes historical records and old news articles as source material to depict the lives of Chinese diaspora women in New Zealand. Both books have been billed as verse novels or prose poetry collections, although I’d argue that neither label is entirely accurate given the slippery nature of how Murray and Lee tell their respective stories. There’s something to be said about both authors taking an approach to telling the stories of Chinese women that resists tradition and expectation while also challenging the roles prescribed to these women in both the family unit and society. Both books feel transgressive and fresh, long-awaited entries into our growing canon of literature exploring the Chinese New Zealand experience. 

Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud is a unique and spellbinding book that will hopefully introduce Murray to a wider readership in New Zealand. Murray breathes life into stories that would otherwise have been lost to time, working against the age-old reluctance to speak of topics such as hardships, anger, mental health or suicide. As much as societal structures contributed to the silencing of Chinese women, a lot of it was internalised as well to save face or not bring shame upon their families. We have a responsibility to honour the light and the dark of our histories, particularly when the stories and experiences from minority or marginalised communities have been absent or considered too upsetting or unpalatable. Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud reminds us that there is still so much to learn from our past.

Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud ($28, The Cuba Press), is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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