More Than A Statistic

More Than A Statistic

A review of Tonya Liburd’s “Sometimes You…” in Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

People with mental illness or those who identify themselves as part of the Mad Community are statistically more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of violence. I think this is something that needs repeating, especially since so much media attention is focussed on making mentally ill people seem as though they are dangerous, threatening, and in need of police action. So, let me repeat – they are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Before getting to my review, I want to also nod toward the work of activists in the Mad Community, who have created a space for the reclamation of terms like “mad” and have worked to critique oppressive psychiatric and medical systems that have done damage to the Mad population. In acknowledgement of their work, I will be using “Mad” throughout this review.

I bring up the violence against the Mad population because Tonya Liburd brings attention to this violence in her story “Sometimes You…”. Whereas many people don’t seem to retain the statistic that the Mad population is more likely to be victims of violence, Liburd provides a powerful story about that violence, exploring both the pain of violent abuse against a person in the Mad Community as well as the internalized damage that comes from abuse. Not only does Liburd give a recounting of a violent encounter, but she positions the reader as the person in the Mad Community who is being attacked, using the second person throughout the story.

Liburd illustrates the predatory nature of people who prey on the Mad Community, giving details about how they target people and how they make people in the Mad Community feel unsafe in public spaces. Liburd illustrates the lasting damage of these encounters and the fear and pain and feeling of not belonging that gravitates like a miasma around people after violent encounters like this. She points out that even spaces that are constructed as “safe” frequently still have gaps and can still allow damage and violence to happen.

Liburd examines the precarity that exists particularly for homeless Mad people and the systemic violence that they experience from a system that doesn’t provide them with resources they need. Yet, Liburd points to other communities that can be found and developed to create a support network.

“Sometimes You…” is a powerful story that speaks to the need for community and the need for safe spaces for people in the Mad Community. It is a story that invites the reader into the mind and experiences of a member of the Mad Community, allowing them to experience the real world violence that people in that community are subject to and the repercussions of that continued violence. Liburd uses her gift of storytelling to paint a picture that goes beyond simple statistics about the Mad Community and instead gives a realness and three dimensionality to the population and their experiences.

To discover more about Tonya Liburd’s work, go to https://www.patreon.com/TonyaLiburd

To find out more about Nothing Without Us, go to Renaissance Press’ website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sa=false&sbp=false&q=false&category_id=2

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms 

A review of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside (Angry Robot, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

There aren’t enough narratives about autism by autistic people. This, and their powerful style of writing and brilliant science fiction, is why I keep coming back to the works of Ada Hoffmann with adoration. Hoffmann’sThe Outside, with its autistic, queer narrator, is precisely the narrative we need to challenge images of futurity that tend to be straight and neurotypical. Hoffmann challenges the traditional erasures of diversity in the future and populates their narrative with multiplicity, revealing that the future is dynamic and unlimited. 

 

Hoffmann’s narrative, like their narrators, is difficult to define along simple categories. The Outsideblends science fiction with Lovecraftian weird fiction, and mixes it all together into a philosophical discourse. I’m making it sound way less interesting than it is, but Hoffmann is able to bring theory and critical social questions to life in The Outside, while also creating an exciting, compelling narrative.

 

Hoffmann creates a world in which AI have become gods for a galaxy-spanning civilisation who those AI gods have decided is too erratic to have access to advanced technology. The gods make humanity rely on them for interplanetary travel and communication technology, but also require that humanity avoid heretical thoughts. People are downloaded upon death into the AI god that they most resonate with, but those who don’t fit the morals of society, those who are heretical end up being downloaded into a goddess of torture – Nemesis. The gods rely on this consumption of souls and the threat of Nemesis for those who don’t abide. 

 

In this tightly controlled AI controlled universe, one of the most dangerous things is The Outside, a phenomenon that can be summoned ritually or evoked through certain technology. Exposure to the outside is contaminating and causes a change in perception as well as changes to the physical world, distorting reality. It also allows for monstrous entities to enter into the protagonist’s world. Hoffmann evokes a Lovecraftian notion of cosmic horror and the fear of the ultimate other. Reality itself is disrupted by this exposure to the other and the laws of nature are no longer stable, but up to interpretation. 

 

However Hoffmann’s narrative doesn’t incorporate any of Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, or ableism. Instead, it directly challenges this notion, while still presenting the idea of a cosmic horror, something beyond human conception. The one possible critique of Hoffmann’s tale that connects with Lovecraftian and other forms of horror is that contact with The Other, with the cosmic horror, causes a distortion of reality. Frequently in Lovecraftian narratives, the writer relies on the idea that the greatest horror of all is madness, and a simple reading of The Outsidemay lead a reader to believe that this is what Hoffmann is doing in their narrative. However, Hoffmann critiques the idea of madness itself in their tale, stating “’Madness’ isn’t a thing. It wasn’t even really a thing in the twentieth century. It’s not a real diagnostic category and it’s not a useful descriptor”. Hoffmann levels a critique of madness as a category, questioning the notion of madness as the ultimate horror and encouraging readers to re-assess their fear of mental illness.

 

Beyond this, Hoffmann critiques the idea of pathology by connecting it with religious notions of heresy, pointing out that simple diagnostic criteria form a type of religion that presents itself as truth and therefore not subject to debate. By doing so, Hoffmann invites critical questions about the ableism underlying our categories of normalcy and abnormalcy. Indeed, they present case files by a child psychologist who is also writing a religious treatise, evoking the history of medical practitioners being viewed as experts on every part of a society. The treatise involves lines about a child being analyzed with words like “Basic foundations of perceptual cognition, such as occlusion, perspective, scale, even causality are ignored. It is as though she sees everything at once, all the time. She likely does not yet even realize that such perceptions set her in opposition to the Gods, placing her on an inevitable path to the most perilous and destructive heresies. If treatment is unsuccessful, perhaps she never will.” Religious doctrine and psychological study are intertwined here, revealing the dangers of a psychological system that others certain neurologies. Indeed, the psychologist suggests that this child, Evianna, needs to be beaten to get rid of her heresy and make her more normative minded. Moreover, Hoffmann highlights the history and continuing practices of psychological abuse.

 

Despite this narrative taking place in the future, Hoffmann does not erase the ableism of this society, but highlights its continuance and the way that ableism shifts in order to present itself in new ways. They bring attention to the way that ableism already does this in contemporary society, shifting its characteristics, but always relying on the oppression of disabled people and the exultation of abled people. In this world, types of ableism vary from planet to planet with some being far more overt (such as the notedly ableist planet Anetaia) than others. 

 

In The Outside, Hoffmann recognises the power of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for its ability to estrange the reader, opening the reader to new possibilities and unlike Lovecraft and many others that followed in his mythos, Hoffmann uses the estrangement of cosmic horror to direct their readers to question taken for granted ideas in their society, opening notions constructed as “truth” to critical questions by providing a perspective from outside their normative beliefs.

To discover more about The Outside, go to https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/606753/the-outside-by-ada-hoffmann/9780857668134

To find out more about Ada Hoffmann, go to http://www.ada-hoffmann.com

 

No More Magical Cures

No More Magical Cures

A Review of Jamieson Wolf’s “The Descent” in Nothing Without Us edited by Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson (Renaissance Press, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Jamieson Wolf’s “The Descent” explores a trope of disability that is often apparent in fantasy literature – the Magical Cure. Frequently, this trope is used because abled authors can’t imagine the possibility of someone being disabled and still being able to live a happy life, so the author writes away the disability in one pen stroke. The Magical Cure trope isn’t limited to actual magic. It is also used for the instant scientific inventions or the writer has the character conquer their disability with willpower (both incredibly offensive tropes). Wolf takes on this constant representation of the Magical Cure trope by having his narrator  Jefferson deal with magic and his own magical abilities.

Jefferson learns magic to try to gain the ability to get rid of his disability. Instead, he separates his disability into a separate individual, and personifies it under the name Max Shadow. When Jefferson has to descent down a flight of stairs (Jefferson’s real arch nemesis) to an oracle that is supposed to be able to give him the tools to erase his disability, Jefferson ends up not fighting Max Shadow, but instead fights his own internalized ableism that has resulted in his desire for a Magical Cure.

“The Descent” is a powerful story that involves the intersection of disability and queer identity and Wolf is able to weave his story with a bodily experience that is shaped from his own queer, disabled identity. His story is about ideas of desire and desiring, an idea that frequently arises in queer literature, but rarely in Disabled literature, and Wolf is able to examine the critical question of what it means to desire disability – to not just reject it or seek to erase it, but instead to embrace disability.

To find out more about the Magical Cure Trope, check out my Disability Tropes 101 post on Dis(Abled) Embodiment https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2019/10/22/disability-tropes-101-the-magical-cure/

To find out more about Jamieson Wolf, go to https://jamiesonwolf.com

To discover more about Nothing Without Us, visit https://nothingwithoutusanthology.wordpress.com and to buy your own copy, go to Renaissance Press’ website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sbp=false

What About The Ageing Vampire?

What About The Ageing Vampire?

A review of Carolyn Charron’s “Knit One, Purl Two” in Nothing Without Us edited by Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson (Renaissance, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

There’s nothing that says ageing like a vampire, yet vampires are often a personification of eternal youth, so they present a conflicted image of age… and simultaneous youth. For some reason, most vampires in our fiction tend to be involved in relationships with young people. This suggests the idea that the physicality of age and the appearance of age are more important in our society than the experiential knowledge of age. Vampires are rarely in relationships with older adults in the stories told about them, yet they should have more in common with an older adult, having collected many years of experience and knowledge.

In “Knit One, Purl Two” Carolyn Charron writes a tale of an older woman who is in a relationship with a vampire, shifting the trope of the vampire story to one that makes more sense – a relationship based on the common experience of age. Along with adorable scenes of Edmund flinching away from the narrator’s wooden knitting needles, Charron writes a tale of a sexually empowered older woman. Older adults, and older women in particular tend to be de-sexualised as they age. Their sexuality is viewed as transgressive. Disabled ageing women are particularly de-sexualised in our culture. Yet, women tend to hit their sexual peak at around age 40, which, although not very aged, is far later than most popular culture represents. Charron’s protagonist is a grandmother, and is sexually active and sexually empowered in her relationship.

Charron brings attention to the way that disabled sex is often different than able bodied sex, requiring a lot more conversation about what works, what doesn’t, what hurts, and what feels right. She needs position her hip in just the right way to make sure that she enjoys sex and that she doesn’t do damage to her body. Charron tells the reader “He always seemed to know when her pain needed quiet and when to end the silence with a dirty joke, making her groan even while she laughed.” Edmund is portrayed as someone who navigates his lover’s body, checking in with her to ensure that he is pleasing.

Charron challenges dominant images of sexuality that associate it with youth and uses the figure of the vampire to critically question the relationship between ageing and sexuality. Vampires are symbols associated with eternal youth, yet Charron’s vampire is grey haired. He reveals that if he doesn’t bite two or three people per month, he ages. Indeed, her protagonist notes “bent and frail-appearing, she’d thought he was a decade older, but now she had no idea. Vampires were supposed to be young, powerful” and by doing so, she brings attention to the way that her narrative challenges dominant notions of age and youth in the vampire narrative, making room for new possibilities that embrace the sexually charged image of the vampire along with its age.

To find out more about Carolyn Charron, visit http://carolyncharron.blogspot.com

To discover more about Nothing Without Us, visit https://nothingwithoutusanthology.wordpress.com and to buy your own copy, go to Renaissance Press’ website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sbp=false

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. 

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