Looking in the Goblin Mirror is part of a chapbook on Mirrors published by Liminal, a platform with a focus on the Asian Australian experince. It is the second chapter in the Dear Ursula series.
I invited my mother Maria Ling Qing Huang to create a drawing and we inevitably dive into the imagery and experiences of the painful past. The role that image plays in our relationship is sacred as it allows us to bridge the ruptures of language, distance, sickness, time and culture, torn by experiences of migration and intergenerational trauma. In this way, mother’s drawings are a form of graphic medicine, creating the space for us to communicate our emotions where spoken language has otherwise failed. They are also portals into our archives of heartbreak.
From the many conversations with my mother, I write a letter to Ursula, an ancestral entity whom I share our mending journey with.
Looking in the Goblin Mirror (2022) by Maria Ling Qing Huang
It’s been almost a year since I last wrote to you. Since then, I’ve grown more familiar and comfortable with your hauntings. Perhaps I've become better at noticing your signals and finally recognising your need to be simply held while you weep and ache. Your outrages do not consume me in the same way. Instead, I follow you into your past, my past, our past—and I'm beginning to understand that your visitations are a way to listen to the knowledge of wounds beyond the beginnings and endings of my own life. You are here to bring me into conversation with you, and together, we time travel.
It has been a long time coming, but I’m visiting my mother on the island 16 years across the ocean. It is my third time back ‘home’, a fiery pit deep in the mouth of the dragon on a ghostly island—once a colonial prison—haunted by its violent shadows. It is here that I first met you, and the place from which I self-exiled. Each return is unsettling and painful in its own particular way, not only because encountering the island reminds me that I don’t and have never belonged here, but because I also encounter older versions of myself. Inevitably, I encounter older versions of you too.
At the airport my mother waits for me, unaware that you’re anxiously awaiting me too. As I exit the gates, my mother and I greet each other with an awkward embrace. It’s been too long and our bodies have forgotten how they fit in each other's arms. While our bodies have forgotten, you have not. Indeed, there is a space between us that you quickly fill. As we drive to my mother’s apartment, you appear again as a fog of malaise seeping out of the city’s endless suburbs. You do not waste time reminding me of the gut-curdling dread I used to have of this place. The streets are empty and lifeless apart from the other steel boxes hurtling down desolate bitumen arteries that have not changed since I left. It is not quite déjà vu, but a sense of emotional familiarity that stirs inside, a terrifying stupor that I cannot rouse from. I want to stab myself in one eyeball from boredom and cry from loneliness in the other.
To my relief, we soon reach my mother’s home. Like her own dispersed family, our relationship has been defined by geographic and temporal distance. It is only through the magic of our palm-sized screens that we get pixelated glimpses into each other's lives. She has given me a virtual tour of her new place, but I can tell she is brimming with excitement to give me the real thing. As she opens her front door, the smell of incense welcomes me to another dimension. Her home is a tiny temple nested within a newly renovated social housing complex reserved for elderly pensioners. At every hour of every day, LED lights from Buddhist paraphernalia scintillate and douse her living quarters with a golden radiance. By the entrance, a giant marble spins at the pinnacle of an electric fountain. Its faux rock base echoes the sound of a distant forest creek, and on a balcony facing a parking lot, prayer machines chant soothing mantras long into the night. It’s a shimmery palace of infinite altars, auspicious talismans and bagua mirrors, all carefully arranged in a manner that aligns with the cosmic current of Qi, to protect every corner of the house from nefarious spirits leaking from the underworld while attracting benevolent energies from the heavens. They’re as hard-working as any immigrant labourer. In her house of treasures, my mother has surrendered prime real estate to realms invisible to mere mortals, leaving only a small percentage of its square meterage for her earthly activities. It is both confronting and comforting to see that I am my mother’s daughter—we are but aliens making do on foreign lands, guided by a joyous horror vacui.
One day, she tells me of a neighbour, a woman in her nineties, who suddenly dies after fitting her bedroom wall with mirrors to create an illusion of spaciousness. ‘The mirrors killed her,’ my mother says. ‘Westerners don’t know the powers of the mirror. It isn’t just a vanity object—it’s a portal for spirits to come and go. It has special powers that cannot be messed around with willy-nilly. When people sleep, their spirits exit their human form and travel to the spirit world through the mirror. Little did the old woman know that by having mirrors next to her bed, reflecting her body, she blocked her spirit from entering back into her. This is the reason she died.’
I bicker with her. ‘But she was really really old and probably at the end of her life anyway. You live in an elderly home, that’s kinda what happens around here.’ My mother continues as if she has not heard one thing I’ve said, and tells me that mortals have to be very careful with mirrors. She implies that my Western perspective has blinded me to the dimensions that coexist in our timeline. And I, with my secular, Westernised lens, scoff at my mother's seemingly irrational sense of causality. Knowing that I’ve covered an entire wall with mirrors in the bedroom of my own apartment, I passionately refute her claims and dismiss them as superstitious and outlandish. Quietly, though, I’m terrified of the thought—but also can’t be arsed to take my mirrors down. Plus, I’ve spent so much money on them.
As you know most of our tensions arise from squabbling over the cause of our family’s suffering; depression, mental illness, intergenerational trauma, abuse, migration, feuds, greed, poverty, war, famine, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, patriarchy, racism, et cetera, et cetera. But I have come to realise that the underlying tensions are caused by ruptures between English and Chinese, the earthly and the spiritual, horror and hope. Serendipitously, image-making has become one way for us to mend some of those ruptures.
My mother’s latest drawing is called Looking in the Goblin Mirror. She says this mirror is enchanted and reveals a profound truth. What it reflects is not the beholder's image, but rather what the beholder thinks: it reflects their thoughts from their inner world onto their outer world. If the beholder has anxious and fearful thoughts, the mirror manifests this inner horror into the external world, hurting the beholder as well as people around them. She says that suffering comes from our own fearful and suspicious minds. She made this drawing to remind people that they don’t have to scare themselves with virtual horror stories. The problem, she says, is that people do not know the source of their pain, but this mirror shows the invisible mechanism which gets unconsciously passed down from generation to generation.
While we agree on the existence of the Goblin Mirror and its intergenerational reflection, we disagree on the provenance of its haunting. My mother believes that illness, physical or mental, is a punishment from God. When I first saw earlier sketches of the drawing, I felt a visceral ache in my body. It was difficult to see people plagued by demons depicted as hellishly violent and hateful. I understand her drawing comes from a place of her wounding. They are her rage spilled onto paper, justice envisioned as cosmological and earthly retribution where innocent and evil exist. I believe that image-making has become a way for her to release decades of fury accumulated by living in cultures that punish women for walking away from patriarchal abuse. I know she is a victim of perpetrators that have complicated histories of mental illness. But those perpetrators are my flesh and blood.
I plead with her. ‘Just because someone suffers from mental illness and intergenerational trauma does not mean they are evil. Yes—their actions were damaging and toxic—but they are not evil.’ I am not defending my family’s behaviour; I am defending myself, and I am defending you, Ursula. I tell her that you will always be with me, but that doesn’t make me evil. I do not think you are a condemnation from God for crimes my previous incarnations committed. Instead, I think you carry ancestral knowledge and wisdom that may offer deeper insight into the Goblin Mirror. I ask her to have more sensitivity for people who are haunted. I ask her to have more compassion for you, and for me.
The next day, my mother shows me a new addition to the drawing. Blue tones invoke a serene melancholy, a gentler contrast to the nightmarish greys. I recognise the same howling friar girl with a throbbing head bump from one of her older drawings, There is Love and Hate. She tells me this girl is her, but also represents people who have suffered at the hands of abuse. At the top of the image, another little girl is flying through the sky, looking down at all the mayhem. She lets me know that this girl is an angel of hope because children symbolise the future and the future is hopeful. She says that the angel also represents me, a child suspended between her warring parents, whose hope lies in not repeating their chaos. The little girl reminds her parents that they are, after all, in a theatre called Life, and people shouldn’t take it too seriously. My mother tells me that it is children who make parents responsible for the future, and that is a positive and important thing.
For a very long time, I thought she saw me as the devil’s spawn. I’m not usually a fan of Hollywood superhero movies—I’m averse to the inculcation of good and evil narratives. But strangely, I’ve found my life mirrored in Shang-Chi, a character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who ran far away from his home only to have to return and confront the darkness inside of him. As we mend our relationship by using images as a portal into our archives of heartbreak, I'm relieved to see that my mother does not perceive me as a tainted version of herself, nor an evil-lite version of my father—at least not in this moment in time. Through it all, I can see the complex shades of her love, grief, anger and sorrow. In the car on the way back to the airport, she blesses you. I did not expect that would ever happen.
She tells me that I've always been a yāojīng 妖精, a spirited child whose soul is old and powerful. She tells me to keep you close by and cultivate an acceptance, so that when the days are dark, I may use you, dear Ursula, for luminosity and clarity.