Upcoming Interview with Lynda Williams on August 2, 2013

Lynda Williams and I have been corresponding for a while, each visiting the other’s website and reading about various comments about Canadian SF. I was therefore very excited when Ms. Williams agreed to do an interview here. It is always very exciting to talk with an author who is comfortable deconstructing and analysing her own work, and whose keen observations add much to the discourse of Canadian SF.

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

In our upcoming interview on August 2, 2013, Lynda Williams discusses the power of close observation for an author, religion, culture contact, imbalances of power, writing LGBTQ or queer characters and giving them personal complexity and depth, engaging with issues around homophobia, gender stereotypes, the question of medical intervention, writing about trauma, and the importance of fan participation in an author’s world.

Here are some teasers from our interview:

Lynda Williams: [Science Fiction] “makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers.”

Lynda Williams: “I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning.”

Lynda Williams: “My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.”

Lynda Williams: “If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.”

Lynda Williams: “My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes.”

Lynda Williams: “Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something.”

Lynda Williams: “Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.”

Lynda Williams: “Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others, so it invites participation naturally.”

Lynda Williams: “I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction.”

Lynda Williams: “The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.”

If you have not already had the chance, check out my review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-in-between-space/. You can find out more about Ms. Williams and the Okal Rel universe at http://okalrel.org/.

Penning the Subtle Murmur of Death and Splash of Blood

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying (Forthcoming 2013, Exile Editions)

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

By Derek Newman-Stille

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying is just one step abstracted from reality, with one foot in The Weird. Populated with monsters, magic, and folklore, her work is fundamentally about the human outsider experience, the deeper engagement with the world that comes from being on the fringe, looking in at the oddity that is “The Normal”. From this outsider position, her characters navigate a world that is simultaneously familiar and odd to them. The city in Moreno-Garcia’s work, is a place of wonder and misery. She engages with the estrangement of the urban environment and the isolating and abject quality of living in modernity.

Setting most of her stories in Mexico, and exploring Mexican legends and Mexican urban environments, Moreno-Garcia uses the power of being a person between spaces (both Mexican and Canadian) to navigate the duality of her identity, presenting Mexican themes for a primarily Canadian reading audience. Her stories revel in the creative space of between-ness.

Moreno-Garcia provides the deep and intelligent critiques of “The Normal” that can best be expressed through outsider characters and their ability to have a dual vision of society both from the fringes and from within, questioning and interrogating the norms that are constantly being imposed on them. While engaging with monsters, monstrous changes within, and the touch of magic and death on their lives, her characters explore their relationship to the environment, to mortality, critique capitalist disparity, war and violence, and explore their estrangement from others. Her stories swirl around a critique of people who are obsessed with the mundane while ignoring the violence, disparity, and death around them. The glimpses she provides into the dark don’t allow the reader to escape from the reality of horrors embedded in our world.

Penning shadows that soak and stain the page with midnight ponderings, Moreno-Garcia creates worlds of dark wonder that pull the mind of the reader into a dream-like-state of pondering. Courting death and violence as her muses, and breathing them out onto the page, whispering little deaths onto the paper, she evokes the horror that exists around us, constantly being pushed to the shadows by our own desires to ignore it.

Much like the god of the woods in her story Shade of the Ceiba Tree, her voice is joy and love, yet the reader discovers that beneath the layers of beauty in her words is the subtle murmur of death and the splash of blood on the earth. She, too, wields a double-ended blade of fear and desire.

You can explore some of my reviews of individual stories from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/coyotes-in-urban-turf-wars/ and https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/commodifying-extinction/ .

To find out more about This Strange Way of Dying and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, visit http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/This Strange Way of Dying will be available on September 1, 2013.

“You just have to pay attention. If you don’t you’ll miss them, or see something else – something you expected to see rather than what was really there. Fairy voices become just the wind, a bodach,… scurrying across the street becomes just a piece of litter caught in the backwash of a bus.”

-Charles de Lint – In The House of My Enemy In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.

Quote – Pay attention and see what is really there instead of what you expect to see

The Courtesan Prince Reading Questions

Some Book Club Discussion Questions for Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

What do you find appealing about Reetion society?

What makes you uncomfortable about it?

What do you find appealing about Gelack society?

What makes you uncomfortable about it?

In what ways was Von’s personality shaped by his experience as a courtesan?

Why do you think the Reetions and Gelacks drifted so far apart in terms of their values and social behaviours even though they both came from Earth?

What do you think of the idea of Reality Skimming as a method of space-faring? How does the fact that it causes bodily damage add to or take away from its use as a plot device?

What were some of the biggest questions you found yourself asking as you read this novel?

What were some of the things that were most notable about Ann’s personality?

What would you focus on from this novel if you were to adapt it into a play?

What do you think of the Reetion idea of Social Transparency? What are some of the benefits and dangers of this idea?

What was most notable to you about Okal Rel? Why do you think this religious system developed?

Why is secrecy such a prevalent theme in the novel? What are the different ways that the theme of secrecy appears?

How does trauma shape and change these characters?

How does the theme of racism and cultural difference play out in this novel? Why is it so significant and how does Lynda Williams tackle racism differently than other authors?

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .

Coyotes in Urban Turf Wars

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Nahaules” (in This Strange Way of Dying, Exile Editions, 2013)

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

By Derek Newman-Stille

As in many of her works, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story “Nahaules” makes the urban space strange, exploring the intrusion of the folkloric into the cityscape. Nahaules, coyote shapeshifters, old stories, have come into the city, changing the city gradually as scents of the forest battle with smog, and buildings crack like mountains.

When she begins to be stalked by the nahaules, Moreno-Garcia’s unnamed narrator has to set aside her disbelief for legend and myth and start relying on old techniques for warding off the coyotes and reclaiming the urban environment. She is hunted, made a victim in her own home and she escapes from the mythical into the urban as long as she is able to until she is met with the inevitability that myths of old can only be fought with techniques of old.

The unnamed narrator, like many women in urban environments, is met with the process of being estranged from her home, made unsafe in an environment that she identifies as her own as predators push her to feel more and more uncomfortable. Stalked, she is forced to move further and further from areas that she considers her own, driven from her home by the predatory impulse of male stalkers as they move deeper into her territory. She plays with the image of being a victim, a sacrificial goat, while simultaneously turning the predatory behaviour back on her oppressors.

Moreno-Garcia reminds us that monsters hunt in urban environments and that people are made to feel unsafe and insecure, that their homes can be made strange and uncomfortable by intrusions of predators who rule through intimidation and threat.

To find out more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, you can visit her website at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ . To read this story and others from This Strange Way of Dying, you can explore it at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/ . This collection will be available in the fall.

Interview with James Marshall

An Interview with James Marshall
By Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of James Marshall

Author photo courtesy of James Marshall

After reading Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, I was fascinated with James Marshall’s different take on the figure of the zombie and his use of the zombie medium to question the zombie-like state of uncritical thought in our society. I appreciate that he was willing to have a conversation about his zombies and about his writing overall to provide some insights into the world he has observed and reflected in a dark, distorted mirror.

James Marshall is the author of Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies and Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos (both available from ChiZine publications), and known for his darkly satirical look at society.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

James Marshall: I was born and raised in Alberta. I moved to BC after high school. Writing is my passion. I play guitar for fun.

Spec Can: Two of your novels that are out from ChiZine currently feature zombies. What is the appeal of the zombie for you?

James Marshall: I like the zombie because I feel sorry for it at the same time that I fear it.

Spec Can: Why do you think zombies are so popular right now? What is their appeal to our society?

James Marshall: I think there are a number of reasons. People are terrified of dying so the idea of living on, even in a severely diminished capacity, is fascinating. In the age of air travel, the fear of a contagion spreading rapidly seems very real. And a lot of people want to bash out some brains.

Spec Can: In Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, your zombie characters seem to offer a distorted window of our world. In what ways can literature about the zombie offer a critique of society?

James Marshall: The zombie does two things: it consumes and reproduces. It does those things unthinkingly and unfeelingly. That’s a pretty damning indictment of society. The zombie reproduces via infection rather than sex but it’s the same thing.

Spec Can: In Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies and Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, the zombies have created an education system that essentially creates the preconditions for kids to become zombies – rote learning, behaviour control, suppression of creativity. What inspired you to look at the education system from this perspective and what would you like to see change?

James Marshall: I’d like to see everything change. I think the whole system needs to be fundamentally rethought. But I don’t think it will be because we’re dealing with such huge numbers.

Spec Can: How can Weird or Dark fiction challenge the status quo and get readers to think outside the box?

James Marshall: I think that by satirizing, we can expose the absurdity of certain ways of thinking.

Spec Can: What can Weird or Dark fiction offer readers that realist fiction can’t?

James Marshall: Zombies. 🙂

Spec Can: Your character Guy Boy Man (from Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos and Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies) advocates for a religion that focuses on ending human suffering. What inspired your exploration of religion?

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

James Marshall: Reason. I hope that reason will be popularized someday.

Spec Can: What impact do you hope your novels will have on readers?

James Marshall: I’d be really happy if they just make people laugh and think a little.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to this interview?

James Marshall: To learn more about my books, please visit my website www.howtoendhumansuffering.com and to connect with me, please follow me on Twitter @james_marshall or friend me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/authorjamesmarshall

I want to thank  Mr. Marshall for taking the time to answer questions and share his insights with readers. I know many readers are fascinated with Canadian dark fiction and the figure of the zombie in particular, so I am happy that Mr. Marshall was able to provide thought-provoking responses.