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AsianFictionPoetryVerse Novel

Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud
by Lee Murray

Exploring the 'wilderness of the uncharted' in a stunning mix of history, myth, poetry and fiction.


If her latest book is anything to go by, multiple Bram Stoker award-winning author Lee Murray isn’t reclining on the comfy laurels of her horror, sci-fi and fantasy oeuvre, opting instead for the wilderness of the uncharted. Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud is a stunning novel-in-verse by the fiction winner in the 2023 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement. Murray binds the histories of nine Chinese diasporic women in Aotearoa to a classic mythology of the shape-shifting nine-tailed fox spirit, húli jīng, 狐狸精, its blend of memoir and Chinese myth defying anything as traditional as a three-act structure. It begins roughly around the 1920’s and spans almost a century, about the length of time it takes for the húli jīng to ascend to its celestial form.

The risk-taking is mutual on the part of her publisher. Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud was the 2023 recipient of the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, thereby landing a publishing deal that occupies an important place in Aotearoa, even it is overshadowed by some of the splashier opportunities like the Allen & Unwin NZ Fiction Prize or the Michael Gifkins Prize (with Text Publishing in Australia).

Late novelist, poet and playwright Laura Solomon intended her legacy to go towards writers with a ‘unique and original vision’. In the three years it’s been running, its choices have been nothing but eclectic: inaugural winner, Lizzie Harwood’s Polaroid Nights, was a fast-paced crime novel which depicted 1990’s Auckland through the hectic hospitality industry; YA novel Between the Flags by Rachel Fenton dealt with bullying amidst a surf lifesaving competition. Fox Spirit perhaps most strikingly demonstrates the boldness of vision that the prize celebrates, with its highly original take on the exploration of identity and reclamation of the immigrant narrative.

Murray’s roots in the genre of horror remain in its unflinching descriptions. These are women remembered only as grim headlines in long-faded newspapers or snippets handed down from their families: their vignettes include suicide, infanticide and medical misadventure:

Your flesh strains and your lungs burn. The ghost doctors are shouting now. Their hands are hooks in the fish slit. They slash with their blades. You lean forward, see they are dragging your organs through the slit.


They cannot see the dragon.


When they are finished, your womb is destroyed, your heart is broken and your spirit is too dull to act. Worse, you have no son. You will never have any more sons.


Your head drops, and the ether bag sighs and glances away.


The skull tumbles to the floor.


You let it fall.


Leave it there.


Done with this body, with this life, you slip off the velvet chair and while the dragon watches glint-eyed from the corner of the room, you whisk your fox spirit out of the fog.


the quiet pause / between breaths


Later, the newspapers say:


She was put under anaesthetic for the purpose of examination, and expired.


They do not mention the mouse, the rat nor the dragon. The poor woman is dead, so it’s of no consequence, and it hardly matters now how they say it because the woman was Chinese and she didn’t speak English and she probably couldn’t read, anyway.

There’s palpable anger here too, most powerful when constrained. A lover ‘likes his five-spice chicken far too much’ while a dead body is ‘crumpled on the back seat like an abandoned chip packet.’ There are a few moments where this reader would’ve liked more tightening: the verse ‘maple / in its container / rootbound’ is such an acute image that further down the passage, the conclusion – ‘It is hardly living. Barely living’ – feels redundant. But these are minor details. Murray adeptly fastens a celestial view to an earthbound one with sublime poetry and prose that lights the dim corridors between the past and present, history and myth. And Aotearoa’s landscapes are ominous in their stark beauty.

Impatient, you creep to the edge of the cumulus clearing, to the edge of a lake of coldest blue, a lake born of a woman’s jawbone and edged with glittering pumice and ancient ancestral mountains, and for the smallest instant you could think you were in heaven, were it not for the chafing prism of bone tightening around your skull.

Names and dates are mostly withheld, but the details that are gleaned invite the reader to draw even closer as their stories unfold. Women who were uprooted and replanted on often hostile soil, met with prejudice, isolated in an alien culture, and were often a mismatch with their only means of support – the husband who brought them to Aotearoa in the first place. Their narratives also stay consistent with the attitudes of the times and are therefore unmitigated by contemporary psychological insight or empathy around mental health by the people around them. Consequently, we aren’t given any contemporary sense of ‘closure’.

Murray grants them something else instead. Under her keen eye, the women emerge as their own person, their hopes, desires, fears and compulsions transcending the altar of memory. The húli jīng, who in Chinese mythology resides in liminal spaces and is neither good nor evil, serves as a vessel to their stories, bearing witness to struggle, to sorrow, the craving to belong. And to the endurance that stays steadfast through these forgotten histories and marginalised voices.

Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud

by Lee Murray

Cuba Press

ISBN: 9781988595771

Published: April 2024

Format: Paperback, 138 pages

Angelique Kasmara

Angelique Kasmara’s fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in NZ Listener, Newsroom, Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her debut novel Isobar Precinct (2021, The Cuba Press) won the 2017 Wallace Foundation Prize, was shortlisted for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Awards (Best First Novel) and will be published by Bolinda in Australia in 2024.