Fan Fiction, Oral Narrative, and The Book

Fan Fiction, Oral Narrative, and The Book
By Derek Newman-Stille

Last night, at a panel on fan fiction at Can Con in Ottawa, I began thinking about fan fiction as something connected to oral narrative and our human history of storytelling. I connected fan fiction to my past research in Classical Greek Literature and thought about the relationship of fan fiction to the multiplicity of versions of stories in classical myth, and also connected it to my current research in Fairy Tales, which also exist in versions and have a complicated relationship to the idea of the book (particularly since people like the Brothers Grimm took multiple versions of fairy tales and sought to book them down into single texts). 

I want to start by thanking my fellow panelists Erin Rockfort, J.M. Frey, and Genevieve Hebert-Jodoin for engaging with me in a discussion around these ideas and for critically questioning them and exploring them with me. Their expertise and knowledge were incredible

The notion of fan fiction depends on the idea of having one singular text – a book – as the source for a story. It depends on the idea of art as property and depends on the notion of the author as the singular creator of a text. In the context of the wider world and the history of storytelling, this is actually a rare phenomenon and a distinctly modern, western phenomenon.

Storytelling comes from oral narrative, from telling tales out loud. These stories rarely exist in singularity. Stories are told again and again with variations and each storyteller modifies their story to adapt to their own voice, but they also adapt their story to their audience, responding to the particular people in their audience and particular events in a community. So a single storyteller’s tale is likely to shift in the telling and retelling. This is some of the magic of oral narrative – the ability for a story to adapt, be changeable, mutable, shifting to tell the story that the teller feels the community needs. As an example of this for modern Western readers, when you read a book to a child, generally you will adapt even a book so that the story fits with that child and their particular circumstances, so the character becomes “a ginger haired girl, just like you” and she faces bullying just like the child you are reading the story to. As we tell stories, we adapt and shape them to the purposes they need, to tell the stories children need to hear at a particular moment

This expresses the adaptability and flexibility of story itself, and expresses something intrinsic to storytelling – that each time a story is told, elements shift and new aspects to the story are brought to light while others disappear.

For most of our history as human beings, stories have existed as oral narrative, as tales told aloud, and actually, in the West, even though we frequently identify stories with the notion of a single-authored book and intellectual property, the vast amount of stories we encounter are actually still oral narrative. We call them gossip. We tell stories constantly about the people around us, unwittingly shifting and changing them in the retelling. Our memories change too in the retelling and our knowledge of the “truth” of a story will shift as we remember details differently.

So there is an intrinsic shiftability and malleability to stories. They aren’t static, but rather change. So, the notion of a single-authored propertarian story is something quite unusual. The book can be perceived as a stagnation of a story, trying to halt it at one particular moment and preserve one single telling.

Even texts like the Iliad and Odyssey, which are perceived as being canonical, are tales frozen at a particular moment and ascribed to the poet Homer. Yet, these tales existed as oral narrative, being told and retold and shifting with each telling. When the Iliad and Odyssey were written down, they still existed in multiple versions with multiple small differences. Even today, these texts exist in multiplicity because each translator provides a different version.

The nature of the book is contentious. It can be seen as something that stops the adaptability of a text, but even early books had different versions. When books were copied by hand, they shifted in the writing, with scribes often changing words, missing words, or substituting words. Once we have the invention of the printing press, there is a bit more consistency and sameness in versions of stories.

The printed book allows for propertary rights and a more intense ownership of a particular story, but there is still the human impulse to tell, retell, and adapt stories. We have a desire to see versions of texts, to make texts our own as readers and to retell them in ways that preserve that adaptability of storytelling. Fan fiction, to me, is an acknowledgement of the adaptability of text, the power of a text to exist in polyphony, and be subject to the mutability of oral narrative. So notions of the primacy of a single text are distinctly modern and western, and they attempt to halt a story from its adaptability, from something built into the act of storytelling itself.

Frequently, fan fiction is perceived as bing something distinctly modern, but it is something that is intrinsic to storytelling – adding to our stories as they are told and retold, adapting them to our particular cultural moment, our needs at the time of telling, and the particular audience we want to reach. Fan fiction is just another part of the living narrative that is characteristic of storytelling, and it allows for a text to shift, grow, and change. 

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Secret Identities

Secret Identities

A review of James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded (Tor, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, continues his exploration of the superhero. Gardner focusses his narrative on the perspective of another of his superheroes, Jools, whose superhero identity is 99, an homage to Wayne Gretzky. 99 has the ability to be the best in the world at any given profession and has access to all of the knowledge of wikipedia, which she calls her WikiJools ability. Yet Gardner’s heroes are never so simple, and Jools’ incredible ability also contains the potential for her to fall into the mad genius role.

In Gardner’s superhero universe, characters are constrained by story and by superhero tropes. The universe literally shapes people into comic book tropes. Gardner uses this method to examine tropes of superheroes and to complicate them, but, like in most of his narratives, Gardner is most interested in the power of story and the way that stories shape the characters and people that come into contact with them. In having his characters resist the roles their world tries to force on them, Gardner uses these characters to illustrate and complicate those tropes, playing with what it means to be a superhero, a supervillain… or someone who doesn’t want to be either. Characters recognize that certain things will work in their universe primarily because they make a good story.

As much as Gardner is fascinated by the mechanics of the superhero universe, his primary focus is on character and his characters are complex, often coming into conflict with what they think they should or shouldn’t be. Gardner has always been a strong writer of character-centred narratives, and the superhero narrative provides him with a space to examine characters because of the comic narrative of the secret and dual identity. Superheroes already have complicated engagements with identities and made the perfect space to explore the multiplicity of identities people express throughout the day. Jools, a character with self confidence issues, is able to further highlight character complexity as she searches for the real her, the TRUE identity. In They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded Jools not only takes on her role as the superhero 99, but also takes on another superhero identity, joining a second superhero group temporarily in order to ponder who she is. Not only does Jools’ identity change with her costumes, she also sees others who exemplify who she could be, watching heroes who are entirely hijacked by their superhero identity and losing themselves in them, and watching a mad scientist at work, exemplifying Jools’ greatest fear about her abilities. Indeed, one character tells her that being a Spark, a superhero, is like an infection and that it changes who one is and overrides their personality in order for them to fit the narrative.

Gardner tells a story of the struggle for identity amidst a changing world, examining the way that people shift and change for different needs. But on an authorial level, he also explores the struggle between character-driven narratives and world-building-focussed narratives. Not only is Gardner telling a powerful story, he is highlighting the nuances of story itself.

To discover more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To find out more about They Promised Me The Ray Gun Wasn’t Loaded, go to https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765398789

Fever Dream

Fever Dream

A review of Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu is a fever dream on paper, vivid and fantastical, and full of nightmares, which is perfect for a pandemic narrative. It is a surreal story, but it comments on issues of relevance to the real world. Set in a world where a pandemic has affected men more than women, Lai’s narrative explores the power struggles of a population that fears its own erasure, but is also willing to take others along with them as their population dwindles. The Tiger Flu has been brought into the world because of cloning technology which allows extinct animals to be revitalized, primarily for consumptive purposes. It has spread quickly and decimated large parts of the population, leaving people in desperation for resources, for a sense of belonging, for a belief in something that will allow them to last and make an impact on the world. 

The Tiger Flu is a necessary critique on capitalism’s consumptive force and its rendering of everything into resources to be exploited. Even the religion of the people in Lai’s book is based around capitalism, with the population literally worshipping an industrialist and the two constructed satallites that orbit the planet – Chang and Eng (named after the famous conjoined twins from the Freak Shows of the early 1800s). The two satellites represent opposing corporate forces, but also become spaces for downloading the consciousness of individuals from the population. Despite representing opposing companies, the name of the two satellites suggests a conjoined nature, pointing out that underlying these two opposing forces is still one system – in this case capitalist exploitation. 

Even people become resources to be exploited in this world and a small group of people who have created a community living off of the land are seen as consumable resources to be captured and used by the factories they once escaped from. Lai illustrates the dangerous over-consumptive quality of capitalist systems and that every resource, including people in that capitalist system become grist for the mill. In fact, she literally names this community of people living off the land Grist Sisters.

Fearing destruction, people try to hold onto power by creating factions and borders, arming themselves out of fear of others. Lai illustrates the way that people who are accustomed to power fear its loss and make war with each other as a means of externalizing their fear. Her corporate communities arm themselves, ignoring the needs of citizens (like access to food and safety) in their own private war to hold onto a past power structure that can no longer sustain itself. 

Yet Lai also opens up other questions of production beyond capitalism, exploring notions of alternative reproduction. Lai explores queer potentials in a world whose men are dying faster than women. She queers reproduction by having women in the Grist tribes give birth through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization by sperm). The Grist sisters give birth by “doubling”, creating duplicates of themselves and birthing groups of identical sisters.

As much as it is an apocalyptic viral narrative, The Tiger Flu is also a narrative captured in the middle. It isn’t an outbreak narrative as many apocalyptic virus stories tend to be, and, as much as it is concerned with the future, it is also about characters uncovering their own past, seeking out the stories about how things came to be the way they are and about the character’s’ own histories. It is a book ultimately about complicating narrative and history because while the two primary characters Kirilow and Kora seek their own pasts, they also encounter other narratives about the past, intersecting and often complicating their own. Characters use memory scales that they plug directly into their brains to gain access to knowledge and constantly find snippets of their world’s history, but these histories conflict with the stories that they have formed their lives around. While corporate characters are trying to hold onto a power they fear losing and their own role in history, characters like Kirilow and Kora are dismantling that history for themselves, seeing different truths that reveal the pettiness of the corporate leaders they have worshipped.

To discover more about The Tiger Flu, go to https://arsenalpulp.com/Books/T/The-Tiger-Flu

To find out more about Larissa Lai, visit https://www.larissalai.com

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A review of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kai Cheng Thom decided to include the word “Memoir” in the title of her book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, yet she also cleverly weaves fantasy elements into her text, telling stories about the death of the last of the mermaids, the mythic First Femme, ghosts, and a magical Trans woman who casts spells on her sisters. She weaves fairy tales into her “memoir”, revealing the problems of Cinderella narratives for Trans women, discussing doctors who are so unlike fairy godmothers (always wanting something in return for their transformations), telling tales of goddesses, escapees from towers that trap them, and the magic of the everyday.

Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir is meant to complicate the idea of memoir itself, and especially the tropes of the “Trans Girl Memoir”, which is so often about a person discovering that they are Trans, leaving her home and ending up suffering on the street, becoming the victim of abuse. Thom’s Trans memoir is one filled with magic, but it is also about fighting back – about never being a victim and about coming together as a community to protect each other. Her tale evokes the magic of connections with other Femmes.

She tells her tale through prose and poetry, through letters and dramatic scripts, and through sharing the histories of other Trans women on the street (often narrated by someone else). Her narrator is someone who hungers for their stories like we do as the reader, but she also filters those stories through her own knowledge, her own craving for a place to belong and a people to belong with. Yet, despite her craving for belonging, we are told that the narrator is an escape artist, and, perhaps she even escapes from the text in a way, leaping from the simple veracity of the mundane world and into a space where fantasy is a more powerful truth than Truth.

This is not a Trans woman’s memoir. This is a story about stories… about our need for stories. Its a story about the fact that there are stories behind the stories that are told. It is a collection of myths from the street, urban myths. It is a collection of truths. Kai Cheng Thom complicates the idea of Truth in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, teaching us that some fictions speak greater truths than works that claim to be collections of truth. She teaches us that in the act of storytelling, we transform ourselves, and in the act of hearing, we create community. She shares her love of storytelling with us as readers, reminding us that the veracity of a story doesn’t matter so long as it shares and tells us truths about ourselves through the act of reading.

Kai Cheng Thom uses the word “Memoir” in her title to complicate memoirs – to illustrate to us that there are no simple truths and that truths are always shifting, changing, and transforming. She illustrates that life is a fantasy made up of our collective stories interweaving with each other and creating magic.

Thom’s narrator tells us “Someday, I’m going to gather up all of the stories in my head. All the things that happened to me and all the things I wish had happened. I’m going to write them all down one after the other, and I’ll publish a famous best-selling book and let history decide what’s real and what’s not.” This is a tale that invites the reader into the process of truth-making, using the term “memoir” to invite questions about what is true and to whom.

To discover more about Kai Cheng Thom, visit her website at https://kaichengthom.wordpress.com

To discover more about Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, visit https://metonymypress.com/product/fierce-femmes-notorious-liars-dangerous-trans-girls-confabulous-memoir/

The Teaching Rocks

The Teaching Rocks

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Petropaths” in Take Us To Your Chief (Douglas &McIntyre, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Petropaths” is a tale of the ongoing nature of colonial violence, centred on the exploration of the way that this continued assault has created a generation of indigenous youth who are, as he suggests “stuck between the past and the future”. He points out a need for youth to connect to their past and to create a future, something that colonialism has sought to deny indigenous peoples by erasing the past and presenting imagery of a white future. It is significant that Hayden Taylor uses science fiction as a genre of critique when exploring the issue of most science fictional texts presenting a very white future that portrays an absence of indigenous people. Hayden Taylor uses science fiction and a time-travel narrative to explore the idea of temporal uncertainty, but also calls attention to the problematic way that indigenous people are portrayed in most time travel narratives.

Hayden Taylor centralizes elders in “Petropaths”, pointing out their role in providing educational opportunities for youth that ground them in the ongoing practice of engaging with teachings. The narrator, an elder, explains to his grandson along with the other elders that “he need to know who he was, where he came from and what his path was”. Elders in this tale are situated not only as guardians of the past (as they are in many narratives that feature ageing), but also as guides to the future, having a role that subtends time.

“Petropaths” is a tale about petroglyphs, sacred carvings in rock, and Hayden Taylor situates these rocks as a text that extends through time, connecting the person exploring the texts to the past when they were created, to their presence now, and to the future they will survive into. Hayden Taylor is from Curve Lake First Nation whose territory extends to the petroglyphs frequently called the “Peterborough Petroglyphs”, and often acknowledged as “The Teaching Rocks” by Anishnaabe people. Teaching is central to this tale and the relationship between Hayden Taylor himself and “the teaching rocks” underscores the role of the petroglyphs in his story as storytellers and teachers themselves.

Hayden Taylor illustrates the role of conversation that the petrogyphs represent in his tale when he says “It took me a while to understand these were musings and dreams of our ancestors, the thoughts and history of our people carved into Mother Earth for us to see.” These are not static background images in his tale, but, rather, are centred and engaged in a conversation with the characters. He describes these stones as teaching “a lot more than one of those degrees at university”. These stones are not static, rather they “tell their own story their own way… like a whisper in the wind…. Like it was the Earth telling us a story… or, more accurately… like it was a song waiting to be sung”. The stones are not static background figures, but, rather they are storytellers and teachers, engaged in a process of conversation.

The imagery of stone is not isolated to the petrogyphs, but is also evident in the imagery that Duane’s grandfather ascribes to his dissociation from his emotions. He discusses “the wall he had spent years building, emotional brick by emotional brick”, paralleling and yet also contrasting the petroglyphs, which the story situates as a wall. Yet, although both are walls, the petroglyphs are a living, changing text that speaks and shifts for Duane, and may have the power to disrupt the static wall he has constructed for himself.

“Petropaths” is a story that acknowledges the importance of learning and, especially learning through storytelling. This learning is not individualistic, but, rather, it exists in conversation with petroglyphs, the land, animals, and community elders. It’s a story about taking the time to listen to others, but also to listen to oneself. This community of teachers engaging in storytelling is part of the process of beginning to heal Duane from the colonial violence that he has experienced. Storytelling is not just something that Duane hears, but, rather, Hayden Taylor has him engage in storytelling, adding his stories to others while also becoming part of the story. The past is not something fixed or static in Hayden Taylor’s tale, rather it is something that shifts and changes while bringing new voices into it. Duane’s time travel is part of this conversation with storytelling and his role in becoming part of the story. He is an active participation in the past and Hayden Taylor uses this active participation to illustrate that history is not passive, but, rather, that we are always in conversation with the past and the stories told about the past. As Duane says “History isn’t in books anymore. We can walk through it.”

To discover more about Take Us to Your Chief, visit http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com/books/take-us-to-your-chief/

To find out more about Drew Hayden Taylor, visit http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com

Intertextual

Intertextual

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer: Age of Doom Part 1 (Dark Horse, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Throughout the Black Hammer series, Jeff Lemire has been experimenting with intertextuality, playing with his knowledge of Golden Age comics while adding modern comic sensibilities and skepticism about the genre. In Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Lemire’s superheroes, who have been thrust into a world without superheroes, begin to see the patterns around them slipping. They begin to see through the idyllic world that has been their home since their battle with Anti-God. Their world starts being full of plot holes that, as much as they try to ignore, become far too apparent for them.

Lemire plays with the idea of story itself in Black Hammer: Age of Doom, examining authorial intent and the role of characters in shaping their own narratives. He examines the idea of suspended disbelief, so essential for the superhero genre, but twists it so that his characters themselves are the skeptical readers, reading their own narratives and noticing what is missing. In a powerful meta-narrative that is evocative of the comic Fables, Lemire even has a character enter a world with personifications of types of narratives, having young Black Hammer meet Mystery, Romance, The Editor, Grammar, and The Pagecounter. These are elements of writing made physical and they guide Black Hammer on her narrative. Lemire even plays with his own writing history by having Black Hammer open a doorway into one of his other graphic worlds – that of his book Sweet Tooth.

Lemire points out his love of story in Black Hammer: Age of Doom Part 1, having Mystery tell Black Hammer “It’s all real because stories are real”. In this statement, Lemire blurs the lines between reality and fiction, pointing out that stories have substance, meaning, and that they are important.

To find out more about Black Hammer: Age of Doom Part 1, visit Dark Horse’s website at https://www.darkhorse.com/Comics/3002-552/Black-Hammer-Age-of-Doom-1

To find out more about Jeff Lemire, visit http://jefflemire.blogspot.com

Disrupting Some Tropes and Reinforcing Other Tropes

Disrupting Some Tropes and Reinforcing Other Tropes

A review of Jeff Lemire’s The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds (Marvel Comics, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Superhero narratives tend to have clear boundaries between heroes and villains. They tend to play with the duality between civilian identity and hero identity, but tend to privilege the hero identity. Like most of his comics, in The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds, Jeff Lemire disrupts these easy binaries, creating a super powered person who lives in moral greyness while trying to push himself to live in a world of good and bad, to conform to the ideas of the superhero. Sentry has given up his superhero identity because every time he becomes a hero, The Void (a dark entity within him) becomes active and conducts evil deeds that far outweigh Sentry’s good ones. Instead of being a superhero primarily and wearing his civilian identity, “Bob” is a civilian who has to enter into a world inside of himself to become Sentry to fight The Void in order for that internal evil not to spill out into the world. He is trapped in his civilian identity with the constant desire to become his superhero self and relives his golden days only in a world in his own mind. Lemire calls into question the tropes of the superhero narrative, inviting his audience to ask critical questions about the way their superheroes are generally presented while also giving readers a powerful narrative of internal struggle and suffering.

Bob works at a greasy spoon restaurant with his former sidekick Billy, who also no longer has powers. The two of them share old stories constantly, pining after the life they lived as superheroes. Yet, Misty Knight and Tony Stark view Bob as an embodiment of danger, as a threat contained within a human body and Bob feels the prison walls around him even though he is technically free. He has to go into his inner world to fight The Void at specific times, not given time to live his life and the constant threat of permanent incarceration surrounds him even though Bob and those around him think of him as a superhero. His danger outweighs the benefit he can bring to society, so he is contained. There is no simple morality in Lemire’s tale of Sentry and heroism doesn’t always mean social acceptance or freedom. Bob has to challenge the simple morality of his Sentry persona in order to find a way to exist in the world completely and without constant suppression of parts of himself.

Although Lemire challenges tropes around superhero narratives and opens up those narratives, he unfortunately (like many authors) perpetuates problematic tropes of disability. Like many authors, Lemire presents a disabled character (Billy, who had his arm ripped off by The Void) as a threat and a villain. This is a common portrayal of disability, often predicated on the belief that disabled people are “self loathing cripples” and hate the world because we are disabled. It is a far too common portrayal that has unfortunately meant that disabled people like myself have frustratingly again and again seen ourselves only conceived of as self hating and villainous. Of course there are real-world implications of this such as the general public seeing disability as a problem and therefore disabled people as a problem.

Lemire further brings in an additional trope of disability – the disabled person who is “powerless” and therefore craves power. This trope tends to be related to the first one as these “powerless” disabled people frequently become villains in stories because they seek out the power they are believed not to have as disabled people. Billy in Lemire’s story craves superhero powers since he views himself as broken and powerless as a disabled man. The real world issue with this trope, of course, is that it portrays disabled people as powerless and this imagery often gets internalized by people in the disabled community and shapes our perceptions of ourselves.

An additional, and perhaps more damaging trope that Lemire incorporates into his narrative is the trope of disabled men using their disability to manipulate care-giving women. This trope dangerously suggests that disabled people abuse their care-givers and use their disability as a way of getting “sympathy” that manipulates others. The problem with this, of course, is that because this narrative is so prevalent, society picks up on it and it is common for people to view relationships with disabled people as being one-sided, only benefitting the disabled person and not the care-giver. Like most of these tropes, I have witnessed this in my own life where people frequently ask my partner how much work he has to do to care for me while looking sympathetically at him, or tell him that he is too kind for looking after a disabled person. In addition to this problem in the trope, this trope also portrays disability as inherently manipulative, which has repercussions around the way that people view disability and assume disabled people are constantly out to gather sympathy (rather than the fact that we generally find sympathy frustrating and wish people would treat us like anybody else while also respecting our accommodation needs). Lemire presents this trope in The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds when he has Billy date a girl only to steal from her, saying to another villain “turns out said grandniece is a real bleeding heart for wounded young men. especially blue-eyed blonds with one arm”.

Lemire also repeats the “better dead than disabled trope” that is so frequently seen in disabled narratives. I have spoken about this narrative repeatedly before and the danger that it poses for disabled people – including society not viewing disabled lives as worth the lives of others or thinking that euthanasia and dangerous surgeries that can kill patients are better than letting us live while disabled. Lemire not only kills off the disabled character as so many people do, but also has him internalize this idea of being better off dead. Billy is told that the serum that is made for him could kill him or give him power and billy responds “it could. But living another day like this is death anyway”. These statements are dangerous, especially since many disabled people are repeatedly told that our lives have no worth. It presents the idea that we are better off risking death than living while disabled.

It’s important to note that, like most people in our society, Jeff Lemire isn’t intentionally seeking out to harm disabled people. Instead, he is replicating the images of disability that he (and the rest of us) have seen repeatedly in popular culture – which is why they are tropes. He is not portraying his character in this way to do harm to disabled people, but, unfortunately, these tropes and these portrayals DO harm disabled people. I would encourage him and others to get to know people in the disabled people who look critically at popular culture and the impact that it has on social perception of disability and political decisions around disabled people. I hope that in the future, Lemire brings his critical, creative perspective to disability and pushes the boundaries of the way disability is portrayed beyond simplistic, problematic tropes