Fitting In

Fitting In

A review of Lisi Harrison’s Monster High (Hachette Book Group, 2011)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Lisi Harrison’s Monster High is a series adapted from the doll brand by Mattel of the same name. Her novel adaptation, aimed at a teen rather than pre-teen audience as the dolls would suggest illustrates the adaptability of narratives around dolls and toys. Although Mattel is an American company, Harrison is Canadian. Harrison’s narrative takes a very different approach and storyline than Mattel’s other Monster High narratives such as the webbisodes and films of the same name. Yet, Harrison still explores some of the issues that are central to the rest of Mattel’s Monster High brand.

Rather than setting her story in a high school just for monsters as the Mattel brand does, Harrison sets her story in a high school predominantly filled with non-monster students. Monsters are a minority in this school and in the town surrounding it and have to pass as human to avoid discovery and discrimination by the much larger non-monster population. Harrison’s narrative follows Frankie Stein, the child of other Frankensteinian creations as she navigates a society with the optimism of someone who was only created 16 days before the novel begins. Frankie believes that humans are far more accepting and open than she discovers they actually are and when she attempts to go out in public without the makeup that makes her look human, she is met with discrimination for her green skin, stitches, and neck bolts.

Harrison provides a second narrator for her story, Melody, a girl whose parents reinforce certain notions of beauty through their role as plastic surgeons. In fact, Melody reluctantly had a nose job after her parents told her (falsely) that it would help her breathe better. Melody is worried that any friends she finds only like her because she now upholds the normative standards of beauty instead of looking different than the norm. She is drawn in to the world of monsters when her boyfriend turns out to be far different than what she expected.

Harrison uses the two characters, Frankie and Melody – the girl who is told to fit in because she is a monster and the girl who is worried that she only fits in because she is ‘normal’ – to explore difference in an environment that is the epitome of enforced normalcy – the high school. High schools are spaces where people are policed for any difference from norms and where most kids just want to fit in, and Harrison’s Monster High exaggerates that enforced fitting in by adding the ultimate outsiders – Monsters.

Harrison explores ideas of internalized isms by having Frankie constantly hide her heritage and bodily difference and instead to conform and try to blend in to her society. They force her to wear conservative clothing that allows her to blend into the background, to become unnoticed and become essentially invisible (though not as invisible as the school’s literal invisible boy Billy).

Despite her attempts to conform, the school and surrounding town of Salem still has an intense fear of outsiders and even has school drills for “what to do in case there is a monster sighting” with its own special alarm system.

Harrison’s Monster High is a tale of conformity, challenging expectations, and finding one’s place with friends who support diversity

To find out more about Lisi Harrison, visit https://lisiharrison.com

To discover more about Monster High, go to https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/lisi-harrison/monster-high/9780316176217/

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Story Gestation

Story Gestation

A review of “Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

It is an incredible experience to view a story at its gestation, to be able to watch as the seeds of inspiration take root in an author’s mind. I had that opportunity when my friend Dominik Parisien visited me in Peterborough and our meanderings through the city’s woods and drumlines inspired Dominik with a story about the landscape and the relationship between people and their environment.

I watched as Peterborough’s greenery inspired new ideas, led Dominik though some of the city’s history and saw resonance with ideas that were rooted in his own understanding of the world and in the stories that he needed to tell. Peterborough became fascinating through the eyes of another author, awakened from the banality that I had projected onto my home, the casual boredom that allowed me to ignore the wondrous potential of the landscape.

It is fascinating how new perspectives can arise by seeing something mundane through the eyes of another, by seeing a landscape be awakened with new stories since the old ones had become so much background noise for me.

Dominik Parisien wrote the epistolary story “Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” after our meanderings around Peterborough, and as much as it is a conversation between two women during the time of Catharine Parr Traill, this tale is also about Parisien’s own conversation with a landscape that was new to him, a reminder that we always speak with our landscapes and they always speak back. “Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” is a tale of people becoming part of the landscape, of an infection of leaves and bark and twigs where people become tress, growing roots into a landscape already rooted with history. It is a whispering of landscape to settlers and the need of a place not to be erased.

“Where Roots and Rivers Run as Veins” is a story of awakening and transformation, a tale of the power of words to open up new understandings and new ways of communing with the landscape. It is a tale of renewal and of a landscape that won’t surrender itself to human greed or ownership.

It is also a meta story that is as much about Parisien’s own conversation with the landscape of Peterborough – a sense of wonder arisen from a landscape that still needs to speak – as it is an epistolary conversation between two women who are new arrivals to the area.

To find out more about Those Who Make Us, visit http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/.

To discover more about Dominik Parisien, visit https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com

Stitching Mary Shelley’s Text Into A New Body of Literature

Check out my review of Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

We Shall Be Monsters

Stitching Mary Shelley’s Text Into A New Body of Literature

A review of Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (HarperCollins, 2011).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Since Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein has shaped the public imagination of the “mad scientist”. He is portrayed as an ambitious, driven man who is willing to do and to sacrifice anything to achieve his goals no matter what the consequences. He is willing to push the boundaries of scientific imagination… and also push the boundaries of morality. But how did his life shape who he became? What transformed him into that driven doctor who was willing to challenge even that great boundary – between life and death?

Kenneth Oppel’s “This Dark Endeavour” winds back the clock on Victor Frankenstein’s life, imagining an early life for the inventor. Oppel’s Frankenstein is an atheist who believes that all…

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Abuse and Ideas of Home

Abuse and Ideas of Home

A review of Tonya Liburd’s “Superfreak” in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders Edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Group, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Tonya Liburd’s “Superfreak” is an intensely powerful and intensely painful tale that examines ideas of safety, security, and home. I should start my review by adding a trigger warning that “Superfreak” contains discussions of sexual assault and abuse as does this review.

In a world where people develop Gifts as they age, Danielle is a character who hasn’t developed a gift. She is told that this makes her part of a vulnerable population and she is also teased by other youth about her lack of Gifts. Despite this, when Danielle is called “Superfreak” by other young people, she decides to take on the name, to use the language that was meant to disempower her to instead give her strength. The name allows her to fight back against some of the horrors that she has seen in her life.

Danielle moved from the Caribbean to Canada to escape an uncle who was sexually assaulting her, only to be sexually assaulted by the uncle she was living with in Canada as well. She is able to escape and get to a youth shelter where she is able to start developing a sense of community.

Shades Within Us is a collection of tales about migration and border crossing, and while Liburd does deal with a literal crossing of a border into Canada, her story is more about the philosophical and emotional ideas of “Home”. Liburd explores the unsettled feeling of people in situations of abuse, the total inability to find a sense of safety and security in the notion of “Home” that non-abused people feel. Danielle is a character who is seeking some sort of sense of being free of threat, and Liburd uses the character to explore the idea that a notion of “Home” always takes time for abused people. It is not something that can be secured by a certain place – by four walls. It is something that is constantly being negotiated, something that is constantly sought after and constantly disrupted by past trauma. Liburd examines the complexities of home that non-abused people ignore and highlights the conflicted nature of homes.

“Superfreak” is a story that cuts to the quick, but it also reveals a great deal about the sort of lasting pain that comes from abuse and trauma.

To discover more about Shades Within Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/shades-within-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause/

To find out more about Tonya Liburd, visit https://thespiderlilly.wordpress.com

Eco-Refugees

Eco-Refugees

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “Gilbert Tong’s Life List” in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders Edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Group, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kate Heartfield writes a tale of ecological refugees and birding in “Gilbert Tong’s Life List”. Initially these would seem to be disconnected themes, but she uses the cataloguing of birds as a way to explore notions of migration and global movements. Birds are frequently treated as symbols of freedom and perhaps that is what they represent for Gilbert’s father, who became an avid birder when he and other Kiribati moved into a refugee camp in Canada after their island was submerged in rising waters. The Kiribati people are confined in a refugee camp, keeping their spirits up with the possibility of Canadian citizenship even though the Canadian government fears the economic impact of their refugee status. They are denied health care, access to Canadian education systems, and freedom of movement outside of the camp.

Although the camp is on Canadian territory, it is treated like a foreign nation and fenced off. Refugees are treated as prisoners in the enclave and left without a sense of home or connection to their own territory and culture. They are encouraged to assimilate, but not given access to the country that they are assimilating to. Everyone is given an RFID tag to prevent them from accessing Canada. They are aware that they are living as fugitives, forever homeless.

Within this environment, where refugees (especially young ones) are aware that compliance with Canada’s rules won’t actually benefit them or protect them in any way, so they seek out other ways to cope with their imprisonment, engaging in illegal activities just to survive in their exiled and imprisoned nation. Gilbert has to deal with the disconnection he feels with home, the need to bend the rules to survive, and his father’s compliance with rules that don’t benefit anyone in the Kiribati community. He is engaged in a struggle between maintaining a sense of Kiribati culture and family identity as he has become migrational like the birds his father studies.

To discover more about Shades Within Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/shades-within-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause/

To find out more about Kate Heartfield, visit https://heartfieldfiction.com

Border Walls and Barriers

Border Walls and Barriers

A review of Rich Larson’s “Porque El Girasol se Llama El Girasol” in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migration and Fractured Borders Edited by Lucas Law and Susan Forest (Laksa Media Group, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

With “Porque El Girasol se Llama El Girasol”, Rich Larson tells a significant tale for a post-Trump world. Larson’s story is about Latinx people in a post-wall America who need to find a method of passing through a militarized border with a massive wall. Those who are caught in American territory are put to work building the wall further, often dying from unsanitary conditions, and those who are caught in the no man’s land around the wall are allowed to be butchered without remorse.

Larson tells his tale through the perspective of Girasol, a little girl who is trying to escape America with her mother. Although a small child, she is aware of the realities of being captured and killed in the process of escaping, illustrating the loss of childhood that many children have to experience when they are subject to political violence by oppressive regimes.

They are escorted through the wall by a man who functions as a coyote (a person who brings people across borders), but this coyote is quite different from others because he needs to take his passengers through a quantum level of reality in order to get them safely through the highly protected wall. He is called the Cheshire Man, evoking the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland for his ability to disappear and go where others cannot go.

“Porque El Girasol se Llama El Girasol” is a tale of loss, family sacrifice, and political violence, reminding readers of the violence that can occur in a political regime that casts certain people as unwanted and that justifies violence against them.

To discover more about Shades Within Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/shades-within-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause/

To find out more about Rich Larson, visit https://www.patreon.com/richlarson

Confusion

Confusion

A review of Karin Lowachee’s “Invasio”in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migration and Fractured Borders Edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Groups Inc., 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Telling a tale of mass migration after an apocalyptic invasion, Karin Lowachee’s “Invasio” explores the confusion associated with diaspora and the search for a new home. Although her narrator never describes details of the invasion, there are inferences of an alien invasion that has resulted in a scattered few escaping out of cities and major populated areas, relying on their survival skills to survive.

Lowachee explores the “I will do anything to survive” motif that is popular in a lot of survival stories, particularly apocalyptic ones, however, her narrator repeatedly questions whether she is the villain. Rather than telling herself she is a good person for putting her own survival first, the narrator relates her experiences and actions to the various science fiction and fantasy books she has read and realizes that she can’t justify the actions she has taken to survive and the impact that it has had on the lives around her.

This is not a straightforward tale, but rather it is stream of consciousness, illustrating the confusion of memory, current experience, and speculation that occurs when people are in situations of desperation. Her character is without a touchstone, without a connection to home or family that can keep her identity intact and instead experiences a slipperiness of identity and experience, an uncertainty that accompanies major lifestyle changes and loss of land. The narrator’s experiences are so unlike the privileged life she has led that she can only relate them to the fiction books and films she has experienced, understanding herself through speculation and imaginative works.

Lowachee creates a tale that dissociates the reader, makes the reader uncertain, uncomfortable, and evokes a need to pay attention deeper to the transformative actions the narrator is undergoing. This is a tale of profound loss and confusion. As much as it is a tale of aliens, it is also a tale of alienation.

To discover more about Shades Within Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/shades-within-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause/

To find out more about Karin Lowachee, visit http://www.karinlowachee.com