Nyogtha Volume II, Issue XXXIX
Well, due to a snafu with uploading, I won’t be able to do my original column until next week. But not a problem. This is why we writers generally have a stockpile of filler columns sitting around. The original column will be up next week and involves a hilarious transcript of retirement age occultists doing battle over the internet with each other in a long, drawn out, and very amusing battle of words. The best part is that it’s all true. When Widro and I get all the documents loaded up, we’ll be printing it here. Sorry about the delay beloved readers o’ mine, but it’s going to be worth the wait with all the laughter and insanity.
This week we’re going to be looking at ghosts from two different cultures. The original version of this essay of mine was published back in 1999. Like I said, filler column = reprinted material. Please note that although these essays do indeed cover ghosts from other cultures, the entire essay is in reference to two books of which the majority does not revolve around spirits, but that you should certainly go read anyway as they are considered some of the most important works by ethnic Americas to be written in the 20th century.
American writers have always had a special interest in ghosts. Poe and Lovecraft almost immediately spring to mind. Yet, those writers were born and bred with typical English-American views and stereotypes on the haunting apparitions of the undead realm. What happens when we read the story an American writer who was raised by a family from a different culture, say Chinese or Hispanic? Only by knowing a little bit of the folklore behind these ghosts can we truly understand what the writer is trying to say. By looking at Maxine Hong Kingston and Ana Castillo’s ghosts, and examining the type of spirit they represent in their culture, we will learn not only their metaphorical meaning, but their cultural meaning as well.
In the chapter of Woman Warrior entitled “Shaman,” Brave Orchid encounters what she calls a “Sitting Ghost”. However, in actual Chinese folklore, there is no such creature. In fact, the closest type of Chinese spirit to what Brave Orchid describes is a “Hoppin” Ghost. Belief in Hopping Ghosts revolves around the Chinese belief that each person has two souls, a superior rational one and an inferior irrational one. Unlike the Chinese vampire, the Chiang-shih, whose inferior soul stays behind in the mortal realm, the Ghost’s PO, or intellectual soul is what stays behind. It searches out places of knowledge and dwells there. That explains why the Dorm is haunted. A college is definitely a place of learning and knowledge. This is an interesting note, because unlike English-American ghosts are stuck haunting a certain residence or graveyard because something happened to them in life. They stay in the mortal realm for a reason. Chinese Ghosts have no rhyme or reason for existing, which is ironic because it is the rational part of the soul that becomes a Chinese Ghost.
When Brave Orchid decided to spend a night in the haunted room, she comes face to face with our Hopping Ghost. Like most hopping ghosts, the one Brave Orchid meets sticks to the typical MO crushing its human victims and draining its life away. As well, unlike English- American Ghosts, our narrator describes on page 69 of the text how she could feel the ghost. Chinese Ghosts have a corporeal form, something we are not used to as Westerners.
After her experience and return from her “journey,” Brave Orchid and her schoolmates engage in what appears to be an exorcism ceremony. The narrator describes the scene as, “The smoke curled in black boas around the women in their scholars’ black gowns. They walked the ghost room, this circle of little black women, lifting smoke and fire up to the ceiling corners, moving clouds across the walls and floors, under the bed, around one another (Kingston, p.75).” After this exorcism, the narrator says her mother finds a piece of wood, dripping with blood, which they in turn burn. This is the only way to kill a hopping ghost, by burning its link to the physical realm…in this case, it was a wooden log. Perhaps part of its coffin?
A very important part of this tale that we overlook is some comments Brave Orchid makes. On page 74, when Brave Orchid convinces her schoolmates to help her, she tells them how important courage is to defeat the ghost. Brave Orchid states firmly, “The hero in a ghost story laughs a nimble laugh, his life so full it splatters red and gold on all the creatures around him.” Later on, on page 75, when brave Orchid is exorcising the ghost, she proclaims, “Daylight has come yellow and red!” Most Western readers will undoubtedly ignore these lines, but to the Chinese, they are very important. Yellow and red are the colors of a Chinese Death blessing. They are also the colors of wards for exorcising ghosts and their ilk. Thus those colors represent the triumph of life over the undead and those passages become much clearer and much more important as we re-read them.
So what does this short little trip down memory lane have to do with the bigger story of “Shaman?” It actually stands for many things. First among those is that the mistranslation of the Hopping Ghost shows the difference between the Chinese-American narrator and the Chinese Brave Orchid. The ghosts doesn’t hop…so why call it by that name? It sits on you, so naming it a Sitting Ghost makes much more sense. Yet to the Chinese, they would never think of calling it anything BUT a Hopping Ghost, regardless of the fact that the name doesn’t fit. As well, the ghost story is an example of Brave Orchid, or more importantly Chinese women, are not second class citizens. They exorcise the ghost without any help from men. They show that they can be, and are, equals to men. This story is also a very stark contrast when the once independent and professional doctor Brave Orchid drops everything to come to her husband in America like a dutiful wife. Even though she is still very outspoken for a Chinese woman, she still kowtows to her husband and believes that all women are inferior to men, a point that is not wasted on the narrator, nor one Brave Orchid ever fails to remind her about.
Another meaning of the Hopping Ghost comes from the fact Hopping Ghosts are almost always males. One could say that the ghost crushing Brave Orchid could easily be a metaphor for the way the male dominated Chinese culture crushes and stifles its women population. This metaphor becomes even stronger when we remember the PO, or intellectually superior part of the soul is what makes up a Hopping Ghost. As we see throughout Woman Warrior, the many ways that the men in Chinese culture can hurt their wives and daughters is apparent. From the grandfather of the narrator’s friend calling his granddaughters maggots, (p.191) to Kingston’s comments in “No Name Woman” that women are merely objects for men’s pleasure when she says, “She Obeyed him; she always did as she was told (6),” it is constantly being reinforced that in this would-be enlightened communist society where all are supposed to be equal, one sex has the power, while one sex is considered less important than livestock or indoor plumbing.
Besides this story of the Hopping Ghosts, other kinds of ghosts appear. We have the Milkman Ghost, the Newsboy Ghost, the Police Ghost and White and Black Ghosts. It’s obvious that these ghosts the narrator speaks of are not kin to the Hopping Ghost, but are in fact, everyday people? Why does Kingston call them ghosts then? There are a few reasons. One is the literal reason, which is that a near translation of the word the Chinese use for, “Non-Chinese People” is Ghost. (There is no exact translation that I know of, as my Chinese is only Mandarin and definitely not the best in the world.) Another meaning is that for the young narrator, these non-Chinese are strange and scary. Culture shock of sorts. She grows up as a small child surrounded by people looking very different and speaking unintelligible sounds. No doubt those everyday people to us may be monsters to her. Yet there is still another meaning.
Even though Chinese ghosts are the part of the soul that was, in life, rational and superior, they are still rather mindless creatures. To the Chinese, Americans must seem like Ghosts. Same routine every day. Get up, go to work, come home, and sleep. We appear to be automatons to a culture that is less wealth and power oriented. Running on instinct, Their way of life is so alien to the Chinese people and their culture, that one can barely consider it human. This line of thinking is not unique to the Chinese immigrants. White settlers thought this way when colonizing the New World and Africa, and Hitler thought of the Jews in the same manner. To another ethnocentric culture, we are “ghosts.” For the young Kingston, utterly immersed in only Chinese we would seem like ghosts. Yet when she speaks as an older person, notice Kingston stops calling Americans ghosts. Instead of being isolated amongst Chinese immigrants, our narrator has grown up in America and adapted to the culture, something Brave Orchid never does, as even when the narrator is an adult at the end of “Shaman,” Brave Orchid still refers to Americans as ghosts (p.108). Whereas the narrator becomes a piece of the American “melting pot,” Brave Orchid and first generation Chinese immigrants still cling to their old ways, afraid of the Western ideas and culture. They become anachronisms never quite realizing that by being maladaptive, by clinging to a way of life that has no place in the hustle and bustle of an industrialized country, by refusing to fit in, they have become the aliens; they have become the Ghosts.
And so we see that in Woman Warrior that a ghost can mean much more than just the expected literal meaning. This holds true in another book by Ana Castillo, called, So Far From God. Many ghosts appear in her novel, and each one has a different meaning. The main ghost that Castillo introduces us to is the Legendary La Llorona. And to truly understand this ghost in Chicana context, we of course must know something about the folklore.
La Llorona, not her real name, was born in a tiny pueblo town. She was considered to be the most beautiful woman ever to live. Because she was so pretty, every woman in the village was jealous of her and spoke behind her back, assuming she was stuck up and egocentric. Every man in the village longed for her, but none ever spoke to la Llorona, as they were afraid they would be rejected. One day, however, a rich stranger came to the tiny village. He came to the village saloon and spent the night gambling and buying drinks for the patrons. Everyone liked the man, but he grew bored and was about to leave the tiny village when one of his new friends told him that the most beautiful woman who ever lived. The stranger went to her home and wooed her. La Llorona fell for him immediately, as he was the first man who ever spoke to her. He proposed and she accepted. They lived for a while under happy circumstances with Llorona being a dutiful wife.
Then she gave birth to a baby. Llorona was happy. Her husband was not. He had become bored with the tiny pueblo and irritated with the people. Even Llorona did not satisfy him anymore. The child was all the excuse he needed to leave. One night he left, and never returned. Llorona was convinced he was just on a short trip. But alas, he never did. The town grew to despise her even more, believing she drove the man away. Even her own family stopped speaking to her. And not knowing why everyone hated her so, nor why her husband left, she did the only thing anyone would do in this circumstance: she went mad. One night, during a monsoon, Llorona took her baby, went out into the storm, and threw her baby into the torrent of the river in a fit or rage. A second later she realized what she had down and let out the most unholy of screams. Everyone in the town heard it and was awakened in the middle of the might by it. She was never seen again; alive that is. Now her ghost supposedly walks along river banks looking for either her lost child, or for a replacement.
Although the traditional reading of La Llorona’s tale gives the spin that she was to blame, one can easily read into the tale that she was in fact, the victim. Jealousy and an unfaithful husband drove her to madness and murder. Instead of the normal way of reading this tale in the typical “Blame the victim” Scenario, Chicana writers have taken the legend and made her more sympathetic and pitiful. And she is the perfect ghost for this Castillo’s story.
We learn that our watery specter is actually a friend of La Loca. They are two of a kind. Both are insane, in one way or another, both are misunderstood by their communities, both have abilities beyond the normal human realm, and both are undead. After all, La Loca did come back from the dead, thus making her undead. It makes sense that the Undead would befriend one of its ilk. But what is her significance to the story?
In some Hispanic literature, La Llorona is a sign of great tragedy, much like the Banshee of Irish myth. And you can’t get much more tragic then having every daughter in the story die a terrible death. Cancer, AIDS and being gunned down by terrorists are not particularly nice ways to die. From that line of thinking it would make sense that she would be the ghost to deliver the news of Esperanza’s death. After all, she is a ghost who as Castillo puts it, “has cried over the loss of thousands…(160).”
Another reason is that which Castillo gives in her book. “Who better than La Llorona could that spirit of Esperanza have found, come to think of it, if not a woman who had been given a bad rap by every generation of her people since the beginning of time…(162-63)” Castillo is commenting on the fact that for feminists, like Esperanza, La Llorona is an important character. For Chicana feminists, La Llorona is a hero in a very macabre way. She stood up to society the only way she could, and after she was the victim of a man’s misdeed, she is the one that was punished. She is a perfect example of a woman crushed beneath the heel of male dominated society. Castillo even comments that for Esperanza, La Llorona was, “Nothing short of a loving mother goddess (163).”
Esperanza can easily relate to La Llorona, seeing that both were used by the man in their lives, but where Llorona gave into despair, Esperanza finally gained the upper hand and left her lover, who we find in chapter 15 pining over her death and loss as a woman stereotypically would.
La Llorona has another parallel character in this book: Sofia. Both Sofia and La Llorona’s husband’s leave them, but again, where La Llorona caves in to sorrows, Sofia, like her daughter becomes stronger. She continued on, raising her children, and gaining strength from them, as they gained strength from her. Instead of turning her babies into scapegoats for her sorrows, Sofia channels her rage at Domingo into being a better parent. Even though she is mocked by her small community for having the dysfunctional family from hell, and for the fact her husband left her, she perseveres. She manages to become Mayor and head and creator of M.O.M.A.S. And no in another respect, both La Llorona and Sofia become famous to the Hispanic culture. La Llorona becomes a bogeyman to children everywhere, but Sofia becomes a respected and beloved mother of a saint. However, if Sofia had allowed the desertion by Domingo and scorn of the community to affect her as La Llorona was affected, no doubt her name would be whispered at night just the same and her ghost would haunt the same streams and rivers. It seems like Castillo has recreated La Llorona into Sofie, but as a heroic character instead of a tragic one. It would also explain the relationship between La Llorona and Loca a little more. If Sofia were, in fact, a remake of La Llorona, then that would make Loca her daughter figure. Back from the dead AND a version of her child. Spooky.
And so in each book the ghosts represent something more than just a gruesome midnight apparition. They are more than just your revenant used to scare children into being good. They mirror the characters in the tale, tell a metaphorical tale, and yes, are even a good plot device to keep the story rolling. But the ghosts are as much products of the writers’ respective culture as they are characters in these stories. Without the folklore behind the ghosts, the true meanings are lost, and we cannot fully appreciate how Kingston or Castillo mold their creatures of their cultures into characters all their own.
On Saturday I got a cookbook entitled, Edamame: 60 Recipes Featuring America’s Hottest new Vegetable. Now, I am very skeptical about Edamame being a “Hot” veggies, much less the “hottest,” but it’s in my top two or three vegetables, so I had to pick it up. It’s only $5.00 on Amazon.com, and it’s a 133 pages long. For a hardcover cookbook, this is an amazing price.
Edamame is the Japanese word for “Soy beans.” When you go to a Japanese restaurant you can generally get these as appetizers. Sometimes they are cooked, and sometimes they are raw. As an appetizer, you eat them out of the pod. They are flavorful and amazingly good for you. The FDA recommends 25 grams of isoflavones a day as they help prevent heart disease. Edamame have 35 grams per half cup. They are also far better for you than all the processed forms of soy most vegetarians and vegans eat, being high in fiber, vitamin A, complex B vitamins, Calcium, and phytochemicals.
Please note that this week’s recipe comes from the cookbook I mentioned above and I made it for dinner Sunday night, so I can heartily endorse it. It is easy to make, not hard on your wallet, and very healthy for you. With prep time, it takes less than an hour to make and it is a wonderful introduction to a vegetable you might not have tried yet. I have added my usual notes and commentary however.
1/2 Cup dry-packed sun-dried tomato halves (10 halves/5 full tomatoes)
1/2 pound penne
1 cup shelled edamame
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (As always, only ever buy extra virgin)
2 leeks (white and pale green end only Rinse them well and slice them thin)
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup fresh goat cheese, crumbled. (3 ounces if you don’t want to use a measuring cup)
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (use the real stuff. Not the Kraft processed crap)
1/2 cup fresh basil, slivered
1. Soften the sun-dried tomatoes in 1 cup boiling water for ten minutes. Drain well and cut crosswise into slivers. Prepare the pasta according to the directions on the package. Add the edamame during the last seven minutes of the cooking. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water for the sauce and drain the rest from the pasta and edamame using a strainer/colander.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally until softened. Add the half & half and bring to a simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Stir in both the goat cheese and the sun dried tomatoes. Cook for 1 minute or until the mixture is thickened. Finally, stir in the grape/cherry tomatoes and the Parmesan cheese.
3. In a large bowl, combine the pasta and edamame along with the vegetable sauce mixture and the fresh basil into a large pasta bowl. Toss all until nicely blended. If the pasta absorbs too much of the sauce, take the leftover pasta water you held in reserve and add it until the consistency is creamy again.
Well that was easy…
In Wrestling, Hatton talks about how smart I was to stop watching wrestling in 2001.
In Comics, Mathan gets plugged for mentioning Bloodwynd: the only decent thing to come out of Dan Jurgen’s run on Justice League back in the early to mid 1990’s. And for praising Jonah Hex.
Next week is the fortieth issue of Volume II of Nyogtha. Hopefully we’ll be bringing you madcap Vampire Hunter insanity. As well, my final review for IP games (Street Fighter Alpha Anthology) will be up as well. Good game to go out on.
See you next week, and as always, I love mail!