Signing the Electric
A review of Terri Favro’s “Let Slip the Sluicegates of War, Hydro-Girl” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In “Let Slip the Sluicegates of War, Hydro-Girl”, Terri Favro creates a technologically advanced steampunk Canada in the midst of the war of 1812, using the hydro-electric dam at Niagara Falls as a barrier to American invasion. Favro’s tale follows the life of Laura Secord-inspired character as she navigates the complexities of life on the margins. Setting her narrative on the edge of the Canadian border with the United States, Favro’s tale is edgy for more than its geographical setting. Favro brings attention to populations that are generally pushed to the fringes of our own society. Laura is reinvented as a sex worker whose live has been devoted to providing pleasure to the men who work on the Hydroelectric dam. Laura is chosen for her role as a sex worker because of the geography of her birth, growing up in a racialised neighbourhood with people from groups that are considered disposable.
Laura is able to distinguish herself by her use of fingerspelling, which allows her to communicate with the workers on the dam, many of whom have become deaf due to the loud sound experienced at the turbines and when drilling. Because of the huge amount of the population that are employed in working in the dam in Favro’s reimagined Niagara, a large amount of the population is deaf and have developed fingerspelling to communicate with each other. Despite the fact that they do not use formal sign language, this community has adapted fingerspelling into a form of text speak, using abbreviations for common phrases. This idea of a sign language developing from a large deaf population mirrors the origins of ASL (American Sign Language), which partially developed from the large population of deaf people on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where a sign language developed to allow for the communication between members of the deaf population and was used by the hearing population.
Like sign language, the fingerspelling of the workmen is largely ignored by the hearing community and is dismissed by the officer Laura reports to as “a language for girls and idiots” (214). Also similar to the treatment of the deaf population by the hearing population, sign language is only adopted by the hearing community when it is seen as having a use for them. Laura’s fingerspelling is observed by a military officer who sees the potential use of her signing for military applications, using the fingerspelling created by this community as a means for covert message transmission. Favro explores the complexity of language as both a facilitator of communication (and thus something that has the capacity to bring understanding) and as a tool of exploitation (only acknowledged as significance when it has value for the dominant population). Laura’s sign language gives her the ability to escape from the exploitative sex work she was forced to experience (which involved physical abuse and non-consensual sex) and was able to find new possible roles for herself.
Favro’s narrative explores the links between bodies, communication, exploitation, and geography, examining the complex networks of identity that shape existence. In addition to her exploration of underrepresented racial and linguistic populations, Favro examines a diversity of sexual identities, exploring lesbian and trans identities in a genre that tends to erase queerness. This is a boundary tale, and one that is able to draw in the complexities that thrive in those borderlands where everything is in flux and where explorations begin.
You can discover more about Terri Favro’s work at http://terrifavro.ca/ .
To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html
And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology