“She did not want to be ‘chosen’. That word itself sickening, a horrible world. All she wanted was to be herself, that’s all; she did not care about male, or female, or fish, or human, or black, or white, or anything with labels.”

-Jennifer Footman – The Mermaid (Canadian Tales of the Fantastic)

Quote – Being Self, Without Labels

All The World is a Stage

A Review of Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Come Like Shadows (Coteau Books, 1993)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As someone who has done stage acting, Welwyn Wilton Katz’ Come Like Shadows spoke to my experience of the stage, and added a little bit of magic in addition to the already potent magic of the theatre itself. Set at the Stratford Festival during a production of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows evokes the play between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, bringing home the point to the reader that ‘truth’, ‘history’, and ‘knowledge’ are all as constructed as the stage – just sets and trappings of performance.

In theatre, naming the Scottish Play, or the Thane is taboo. Macbeth is seen as a cursed play, and speaking the name “Macbeth” in a theatre outside of the production itself is believed to bring disaster on any production. When the Stratford Festival decides to stage ‘the Scottish Play’, disaster happens – a series of unfortunate events involving the death of actors, stage fires, and general tragedies both on and offstage. Actors and performance are brought into a historical assemblage, players in a curse that was created when the historical figure of Macbeth decided to interrupt a pagan ceremony by three ‘witches’ who sought to regain their youth by entering into a mirror. When Macbeth intentionally changes their spell for youth, replacing the spell’s words “Two into one. Find through this glass a future for thy past that the name of the Goddess be remembered” into “Two into one. Find through this glass a past for thy future that the name of Macbeth be remembered” and both he and the eldest of the witches, the Hag, are pulled into the mirror and projected into the future, stuck in the glass.

The Hag, now a manifestation of rage spends centuries torturing Macbeth in the mirror, locking the two into an eternal combat. When she discovers that a bard by the name of William Shakespeare is trying to honour the memory of the Thane with a play, she changes his words, making Macbeth into a villain so that rather than fame, Macbeth’s name becomes associated with infamy. She inscribes words of magic into the play to attract her sisters, the Maiden and Mother, with the hope that the other two witches might be able to free her from the mirror. From that moment onward, the play becomes a nexus of strange, magical events.

Kincardine (Kinny) O’Neill, named after a small Scottish town that her father once visited, wants to become an actress. When she finds out that she has an internship with the Stratford Festival, she jumps at the opportunity, particularly since her mother’s friend Jeneva is directing Macbeth this year… only to become horrified when Jeneva decides to use the text of Macbeth to launch her own attack on French Canadians (whose rights Kinny had been defending).  Canadian identity, Kinny’s own coming of age, and the path of history intersect in the performance, evoking the power of performance for speaking about issues of identity nationally, personally, and historically.

Kinny meets Lucas, born French Canadian but having adopted a completely American identity for himself out of embarrassment at his French heritage and due to teasing from American children who see him as a humourous Other.

When shopping for props for the performance, Kinny and Lucas find a mirror at a local antique store that draws both of their attention. The mirror shows the two of them the past and Macbeth’s encounter with the witches. It offers Kinny power and magic, and offers Lucas a glimpse of the historical figure of Macbeth that he wishes to one day play. Both become obsessed with the mirror – Kinny out of fear of what it could offer her, and Lucas out of obsession with the ‘truth’ behind Macbeth. Both are horrified at Jeneva’s appropriation of the play for her own purposes and the distortions that she brings to the performance in order to further her own ends rather than discover some fundamental truths in the act of performing. For both youths, theatre should be an act of self-discovery, but theatre is also a place of appearances, of distortions.

The Maiden and Mother involve themselves in the play, manipulating the performance itself as well as the fates of those involved, making the world a stage for their own desires. Like the mirror itself, the play becomes a reflection not of truth but of their desires and the desires of those who gaze into it, drawing them into webs of control. Past and present, truth and falseness, reality and lies all become implicated and interwoven in the play and issues of identity are challenged and complicated. Whenever characters try to change the path of their destinies, they are brought further under the control of the three weavers of fate, losing their free will during every attempt they make to express it. Like Macbeth himself, characters are trapped into pre-ordained actions and roles, deprived of agency before Fate’s power. Like a pre-written performance, everyone is assigned to their roles, acting out their lives under the influence of a director.

Katz brings the essence of Shakespeare’s play into a modern Canadian environment and a coming of age story, exploring the way that identity becomes subsumed by choices and the perception that there is a lack of choice. Like the clashing of Scottish and English interests in the play, she writes about a time when Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians battled about notions of identity and the place of French Canada within an overwhelming Anglo majority. Like Macbeth, Kinny and Lucas feel that they are trapped into hopeless fate, their identities subsumed by a fate that they see as larger than themselves. Like the Scottish Play, notions of sacrifice and suffering end up being for nothing, never allowing freedom from the restraints placed on the characters.

Katz recognises that acting can be a form of possession and that actors can lose themselves in their roles, in the performative act. It is only through the performance that Kinny and Lucas can see themselves as they perform aspects of the Other. They come of age through the act of suffering, through the act of loss and the heightened awareness that, like those of Macbeth, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the most harm.

To find out more about the work of Welwyn Wilton Katz, you can visit her website at http://www.booksbywelwyn.ca/ .

Graphic Noir

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor, Alison Kooistra, and Michael Wyatt’s The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (Annick Press, 2013, Toronto)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been finding comics unsatisfying in recent years because too many of them have been cutting down on dialogue. I tend to like a lot of dialogue and narrative movement in a graphic novel, so I was excited to see that the graphic adaptation of Drew Hayden Taylor’s novel The Night Wanderer blended text and image effectively, creating a complete story.

Alison Kooistra’s adaptation of Hayden Taylor’s novel pulls out the effective characteristics of the novel and presents a complete story. This is a story about two entwined lives – one beginning and one reaching its completion. It has been 300 years since the man calling himself Pierre L’Errant has returned home to Otter Lake. The world has changed drastically. 300 years ago, L’Errant was an Anishinaabe youth who sought adventure and left his home with the pale faced visitors to his land.  When he arrives in Otter Lake, he meets with Tiffany, a young woman who is bored of res life at the Otter Lake reserve and seeking adventure. As a vampire, L’Errant has 300 years of knowledge to share with Tiffany, wisdom from the past. Two periods of time intersect as L’Errant explores his own history and connection to the landscape he left while teaching Tiffany to appreciate the place she calls home and not to move too quickly away from her land or lose touch with the history of her place.

Tiffany has to cope with the multiple pulls on her identity, the pull on her identity from school, friends, and boyfriends. Only a vampire can bring her the history of her place to realise what has changed and what remains the same and to share with her his curiosity about the land he called home. His passion to return, to re-visit the place of his youth and humanity permeates the novel, inviting the reader into the longing for home that people in diaspora have. Being a vampire means that L’Errant is pulled in multiple directions from multiple longings – the desire to find home and to complete his life in a place where his identity was shaped… and, of course, the longing for blood, something attached to his life in Europe when he was transformed into a vampire. His return has caused him to fast, to hold back his urge for blood and focus on finding his place in his significantly changed home.

Michael Wyatt’s art work blends effectively with the message of the story. The grey scale he uses for the novel lends an air of the gothic to these pages, and makes the red of blood stand out more… and the red of the vampire’s eyes. These sharp strikes of red become more potent for the viewer. An abundance of colour would have lost the shock and power of the vampire’s reaction to blood and his fundamental difference and otherness. In the splashes of red, the viewer is invited into the attention that the blood evokes from the vampire, making it ever-present and visually alluring.

Since most of the novel takes place at night, the use of grey shades evokes the feel of night to the graphic novel, pushing the viewer into the indistinctness of dusk and the uncertainty that comes with a story full of change and surprise.

Change is a significant part of Hayden Taylor’s story and Wyatt effectively uses his artwork to invite viewers to see the multiple juxtapositions of the current era (Tiffany’s time) and the past (L’Errant’s place of origin). He uses fog across panels to invite the reader to see the presence of change, and overlays panels from modernity over the past and vice versa to show that time is layered and that the past always dwells beneath the surface of the present. This layering is effective when L’Errant is uncovering items from his time period and sharing them with Tiffany: arrowheads, rocks that were once sacred and have been the seat for multiple people’s bottoms over time as they contemplated their place in the universe. Hayden Taylor’s story and Wyatt’s artwork highlight the changeability of the landscape and remind the reader that the stones we touch and the environments we inhabit have history.

The vampire in this narrative serves as a reminder of the fact that although landscapes and situations may change, there are always things that stay the same, hauntings from the past that we need to pay attention to – reminding us that people have been experiencing the same struggles and challenges before and will again in the future.

To find out more about The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel, visit Annick Press’ website at http://www.annickpress.com/Night-Wanderer-A-Graphic-Novel-The

To read more about the work of Drew Hayden Taylor, visit his website at http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com/

To discover more about the artwork of Michael Wyatt, visit his page on the Annick Press website at http://www.annickpress.com/author/Mike-Wyatt .

“Well, it doesn’t matter, I suppose. Love is a little different for each of us, isn’t it? And a little different each time, too. Like me and you, like this, this unique togetherness.”

-Sean Moreland – The Rosy Boa” in Pavor Nocturnus: Dark Fiction Anthology (January, 2014 online at http://pavnoc.com/?p=419 )

Quote – Love is a Little Different for Each of us

Gender Swopping Characters to Reveal Stereotypes

I recently read a fascinating article by Michelle Nijhuis, who gender-swopped Bilbo in The Hobbit when reading to her little girl to try to introduce her daughter to a strong female character in a fantasy narrative. You can explore the article here http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/12/18/one-weird-old-trick/ .

When I read it, I thought about what an effective strategy gender swopping could be for teaching students about gender constructions and the way that gendered assumptions infiltrate our written work. When we take a written work (or even just a passage from a written work) and swop the gendered pronouns, we bring critical attention to the way that we create notions of gender.women in capes

Fan fiction has been gender swopping characters for a long time as a way to insert a feminine voice into narratives that exclude women or write them into stereotypical roles, so this is not a new idea, but I thought that it could occupy an interesting place in the classroom, and in personal education.

I tried this activity out yesterday in an English course on gender theory at Trent University. I thought gender swopping would be a really interesting way to get students to examine power structures implicated in writing gendered narratives and start to question some of the stereotypes and beliefs that are assembled with our constructions of gender. Students were given three different short stories and asked to pull out passages that they thought would be fascinating for gender swopping. This was only the second week of a half course, so I thought that it would highlight for students the important work that feminism still needs to do in challenging gender assumptions and that it would also help to introduce students to passage analysis (since they could examine the whole passage from a different perspective, individual lines from the passage, or even the different significance that an individual word takes in constructing ideas of gender).

Students pulled out passages that highlighted constructions of masculinity and femininity and were able to note the framing narratives that were built around gender and the dependency that these narratives had on gendered assumptions. The activity was a powerful critical moment to bring stereotypes under the umbrella of question… but they also allowed students to laugh at these constructions and disempower the gendered power structures by finding them amusing.  Students stated that they found the activity interesting as well as enlightening and that it focused their attention on passages they otherwise wouldn’t have noted.

I would recommend having a few passages to fall back on if students aren’t immediately able to pick out some passages that are of interest to them. Generally, you should only need to point out a few passages and gender swop them before students get the idea and begin finding really potent passages on their own.

I did point out that “gender swopping” is problematic because it assumes a binary gendered system and excludes third gender options, but I thought this was a potent way to examine these gender stereotypes.

Remember, education doesn’t just happen in the classroom, so for those of you who are not teachers, parents, or students, consider gender swopping a few passages from your favourite Canadian Speculative Fiction to examine the ways that gender is constructed in the books that you are reading.

Even when authors create worlds of the future or the different worlds of fantasy, a lot of our culture’s own gendered assumptions end up filtering into these works. It becomes difficult to imagine a world with different gender roles when our minds and thought processes are so embedded in gendered dichotomies and assumptions about “proper” gender roles.

If you are an author reading this post and want to look at the way you examine gender in your own work (and maybe challenge some of these assumptions and propose some innovative new gender roles), consider gender swopping your characters to see how you may have unconsciously applied current gender assumptions on your characters.gender question

Here is the activity that I proposed to my students. Feel free to use or adapt it as you wish:

Gender swopping characters can be an effective way of bringing your own critical attention to the constructions of gender and gender stereotypes in the text you are analyzing. By switching the gendered identity of characters, you can highlight the way that gender is constructed and the specific assumptions around gender that shape the author’s work.

What are some key elements of the texts we are examining that a gender swop brings attention to?

Pull a few paragraphs from the text and gender swop the characters. What does this new gender configuration suggest to you?

How has it highlighted some gendered issues and problems of representation? Make sure to chose elements of the text that are particularly gendered or do fascinating things with gender.

What are some of the things you notice about the new gender configuration?

What did you find amusing about the gender swop?

How did the character read differently as male/female?

Why did this passage particularly interest you or catch your attention?

What stereotypes about gender did you first notice?

How is femininity constructed?

How is masculinity constructed?

In what ways does power shape these assumptions?

Who in the narrative is constructed as the object of desire?

Who is constructed as the active desirer?

How are descriptions of characters different when they are male or female? What is different about the features or attributes that the author focuses on when she/he discusses male characters versus female characters? Why do you think the author is focusing on these characteristics and what does it say about gender constructions?

What notions of “active” and “passive” underlie these gender assumptions?

What did you expect to find? How has the passage differed from your expectations?