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?

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Funding Canadian SF – Insights from author Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I have been thinking a lot recently about crowd-funding projects and about the funding that goes to Canadian SF in general, and after a great conversation with my friend Silvia Moreno-Garcia, she agreed to write something for Speculating Canada about funding writing projects, and share some of her personal insights. 

I am extremely excited about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new book Young Blood and hope that people can spare some resources to support her project and help to crowd fund it into existence and, in the process, help to support our creative community and the production of quality Speculative Fiction.

Here are a few words about funding, the crowd-funding process, albino squid, Canada Arts Grants, vampires, moose, and MRIs by Ms. Moreno-Garcia:

Author photo of Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Author photo of Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia:

It started with the MRI. That’s how this whole fund-your-own-novel project began. [http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/young-blood–2/x/166963]

Okay, no, that’s not true. It started before that, but the MRI was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Flashback!

A few months ago I decided to apply for a Canada Arts Grant for $3,000. In case you are wondering what that is:

“The Creative Writing Grants component gives Canadian authors (emerging, mid-career and established) time to write new literary works, including novels, short stories, poetry, children’s and young adults’ literature, graphic novels, exploratory writing and literary non-fiction.”

I had been working on a novel called Young Blood, about Mexican vampires and drug-dealers and a teenage garbage collector. I just couldn’t find the time to finish it because time is money. So I thought, this is the perfect solution. They give me money, it buys me time, I finish the book.

I have published a bunch of things in a bunch of magazines and anthologies. In fact, the short story that inspired the novel appeared in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. I also have my first short story collection, This Strange Way of Dying, out this summer from Canadian lit press Exile Editions.

I thought my extensive bibliography and this kind of stuff might be sufficient to sway the grant people, but alas, they said no. Later on, a friend told me I should have added some moose to the grant application. But moose in Mexico City? How the hell was I going to insert that into el DF? I think I could have forced the protagonist to eat a KD dinner, but I can’t remember if I ever had that in Mexico, though I admit that shit is addictive.

Anyway, having lost my grant due to a lack of moose, I started thinking of wild funding ideas. Scratch and win. Bank loan. Fundraising raised its head. After all, I organized a successful campaign for Sword and Mythos. We got $5,000 for that one. But it’s different to command the attention of a bunch of Cthulhuheads, a bubbling sub-genre, than to convince people to give $5,000 to me and a bunch of vampires.

I let go of the idea and went back to picking the lint from my belly button.

And then I got the call that they needed to schedule an MRI.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m at death’s door. I just have a weird bump on the back of my neck. I never knew what the Black Eyed Peas song about the lady hump meant, but now I do. It probably means someone like me.

Anyway, we’ve been trying to figure out what the hump/lump is for a little while and then I got a call that I should get an MRI and the word oncologist was dropped.

That’s when I began to freak out and picture myself like that lady in Prometheus when she slices her belly and takes out an albino squid. Not that albino squid aren’t cool, but I began to consider the possibility one might be burrowing inside my brain. Not cool.

When the thoughts of squid-bursting begin to permeate one’s head, something funny happens. You realize you are mortal and suddenly you begin to consider all the shit you said you would do tomorrow and never get to. Like clean the closet. Visit Prague. Or finish the damn novel.

So I decided to finish and publish the novel. With the help of Indiegogo, just like I had done for Sword and Mythos (we made the front page of Indiegogo with that one). This means a lot of blogging and Tweeting. I realize I’m not someone famous. I’m afraid of making a fool of myself and raising a grand total of squat. Of course, there’s that other possibility that I might actually get the money.

I can’t say fundraising through Indiegogo or Kickstarter will work for everyone. But it offers a way to raise money that was not available to most writers until now. You don’t have to do the Canada grant dance or pray for an advance. You can try to do it yourself.

If you’re interested in learning more about Young Blood head here:  [http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/young-blood–2/x/166963]

I want to thank Silvia Moreno-Garcia for writing this insight into funding and Canadian SF and I also want to direct your attention to her crowd fund project. If you get a chance, check out Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s site so you can read her first chapter and see how absolutely fantastic her novel is shaping up to be!

Interview with Ian Rogers

An Interview with Ian Rogers

by Derek Newman-Stille

I recently had a great opportunity to meet a speculative fiction author living and writing in my own town. Somehow, despite the fact that Ian Rogers and I both live in Peterborough and both have a passion for Speculative Fiction, we hadn’t met until recently. I was very lucky to have a chance to interview him and want to thank him for taking the time to meet with me and talk about Speculative Fiction with myself and with the Speculating Canada readers.

Spec Can: First, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ian Rogers: Well, I was born in Toronto, where my Felix Renn stories are set, but I currently live in Peterborough with my wife. I’ll probably set a novel here, too, eventually.

I’ve had about thirty short stories published, most of which are being collected in my first book, Every House Is Haunted, which is coming out this fall from ChiZine Publications.

These days I’m working on a series of stories (novels, novellas, short stories) called The Black Lands, about a world where the supernatural exists as a matter of course.

Spec Can: How would you characterise your work or name the genre you work within?

Ian Rogers: I call myself a horror writer. Some authors don’t like the “horror” label, for one reason or another, but I don’t get hung up on such things. Personally I don’t care what people call me or my work as long as they’re reading it.

As a kind of joke, I came up with the term “supernoirtural” to describe my Felix Renn/Black Lands stories, simply because I thought it was a clever way of saying they were a combination of supernatural and noir. I ended up liking it and use it now as a kind of brand for the series.

Spec Can: So often the word “horror” is treated as the “h” word, almost a curse and the Canadian market often steers authors away from it. Can you tell us a bit about reclaiming Canadian horror and the virtue of exploring horror elements in a story?

Ian Rogers: I like to think that Canadian authors are reclaiming the “horror” word in much the same way David Cronenberg reclaimed it for Canadian film.

It’s hard to fight against the tide of stigma, because certain preconceived notions are so ingrained in some people. It doesn’t help when some authors are still pumping out the kind of lurid crap that has given “horror” such a bad name in the first place. And I’m not talking about gore or what is referred to these days as “torture porn.” There are ways to write about certain, shall we say, touchy subjects and do so in such a way that you don’t turn off the reader. Clive Barker, who has written his share of gore-laden fiction, manages to do so in such a way that it doesn’t seem gratuitous.

I think there’s more to horror fiction that a monster or a supernatural element. Lots of things that may not seem horrific on the surface can be turned into a horror story. That’s one of the great things about horror. It’s insidious in the way it can sneak into a story — a story that might not be neatly slotted in the Horror section at the local bookstore.

Spec Can: Where do you see Canadian horror or dark fantasy going from here?

Ian Rogers: I’m not that good at predicting the future, but I hope that Canadian horror/dark fantasy fiction continues to get more exposure. I think when you see the success of a small Canadian press like ChiZine Publications, it’s clear that there is an audience out there for our unique brand of dark fiction.

I hope we see more Canadian horror authors getting their work out there, and more Canadian presses publishing that work. And of course it goes without saying that I hope to still be a part of it.

Spec Can: Your work straddles the line between horror, science fiction, and mystery. What is it like to walk between these genres? How does your work bring in elements of all three?

Ian Rogers: It’s hard to describe crossing or combining genres, mostly because I’m not usually aware that I’m doing so. Not consciously. I mean, I knew that I wanted to mix horror and detective fiction with the Felix Renn series, but it wasn’t so much about creating a gimmick as it was a natural choice dictated by the types of stories I wanted to write.

I thought the best way to explore the world of the Black Lands was through a private investigator character. I didn’t want to use a police officer or a government agent. I wanted someone outside the system but who still had access to it, who could move in and out of it. I didn’t want to write police procedurals or even straight-up detective stories. I like to think there’s a depth to the Felix Renn character that you don’t usually see in other series featuring a private investigator.

Spec Can: Can you tell us a bit about the genre of “Supernoirturals”?

Ian Rogers: “Supernoirtural” is just my way of describing a story that combines elements of supernatural fiction and detective fiction. I sometimes call them “horror boiled.” It’s just a turn of phrase that I thought was clever at one time and it’s stuck with me ever since as a good way to describe the Felix Renn stories.

Spec Can: What is it like being an author in Peterborough? What is the community like for authors?

Ian Rogers: Peterborough is very supportive of the arts, but I have to admit I haven’t met any local authors. I suspect this is because the vast majority of them are of the CanLit variety, and they probably don’t want to have anything to do with a horror author.

I say that jokingly, but I suspect it might also be true. Authors tend to run with their own ilk, by and large, if only because they have shared interests. Most of the authors I associate with are from the Greater Toronto Area, which, fortunately, is close enough to Peterborough that I can get together with them on a semi-regular basis.

Having said that, I kind of like being the only horror author (that I know of) in Peterborough. I’m sure there must be others, but I haven’t found them yet.

Spec Can: Is there a sense of community among Canadian Speculative Fiction authors? What is that community like?

Ian Rogers: There’s definitely a sense of community among the Canadian spec fic authors I’ve met. Not coincidentally, I first met the vast majority of these people at author gatherings in Toronto, usually bars or restaurants. The city seems to serve as a focal point for the authors in the area.

The community is extremely friendly and welcoming. I feel really lucky to have met these people and get together with them several times at year, at book launches and readings, parties, barbecues, etc.

Spec Can: What got you into writing in the first place? What inspired you to be a writer?

Ian Rogers: I started out interested in film. I thought I was going to be Canada’s David Lynch. But that was not to be. Around this time some friends were putting together a horror zine and asked if I was interested in submitting a short story. I fired off a Lovecraftian pastiche called “Black Iron Shadows,” not really thinking much about it. It was published, and while there was definitely something cool about seeing my name in print, it wasn’t until the zine was reviewed and my story singled out as one of the good ones that I really started getting seriously interested in writing.

I guess it was the cause and effect of seeing my story published and then read and reviewed — and enjoyed — by someone who wasn’t my parents. It made me feel like there might actually be an audience for my ideas.

Spec Can: Why do you write speculative fiction? What drew you to it?

Ian Rogers: Probably my upbringing. My mother was big into horror. There were always Stephen King books lying around our house, and she loved horror movies. She let my sister and I watch them on the condition that if they ever gave us nightmares, we weren’t allowed to watch them anymore. That might have been my Dad’s rule. He never had much use for horror, but he loved science fiction, and one of the first — if not the first — movie I ever saw, on VHS, was Alien. That was a very formative moment in my life, as well.

Spec Can: What are the current projects you are working on?

Ian Rogers: I’m currently in a lull between projects. I’ve just put the finishing touches on a collection of dark fiction, Every House Is Haunted, due from ChiZine Publications this October, and I’m about to begin writing the first novel in the Felix Renn series.

Spec Can: What is your favorite world that you have created?

Ian Rogers: That would be the Black Lands. The sheer number of stories I’ve set there is proof of that. I haven’t got tired of the place yet, and I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Spec Can: What draws people to read Speculative Fiction?

Ian Rogers: I’m not sure. I can only speak for myself, and even then it’s hard for me to articulate exactly why I read spec fic. I think most people have an inherent attraction to the fantastical.

Ironically, the spec fic stories I like best are the ones that are rooted in some semblance of reality. The ones that seem like they could actually happen. In terms of horror fiction, I find that sense of realism adds to the feeling of terror and dread.

Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian fiction and about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Ian Rogers: It’s hard to say. I’m sure there all kinds of distinctions on the surface, if only in terms of geography, where the stories are set, but is there something that makes our stories inherently Canadian? Possibly, but it would probably take someone who isn’t from here to determine that.

They say you should write what you know. I agree with that, but I would add a corollary: you should also write where you know. I know Canada, specifically Toronto and the GTA, so that’s where I typically set my stories.

Spec Can: How do you blend the supernatural with reality in your fiction? What does the supernatural element reveal about reality?

Ian Rogers: I am, by most accounts, a fairly logical person. Logic dictates my life more than, say, religion or politics or whatever. So when I write a story I’m trying to come up with something that, while entertaining, also makes some sort of sense. It doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts or monsters, but it’s important that my characters do. Part of building a world where these things exist is to cement them in the world I know.

So, for example, when I think of a government agency that investigates the supernatural, with far-reaching powers of authority, I can look at another, real agency, like say Homeland Security, and use them as a kind of guide for the way my fictional agency operates.

I’ve always felt that it’s the little things, and the little “real” things, that truly make a story. Sometimes it’s realistic dialogue, sometimes it’s a strange habit of one of the characters. Whatever it is, it’s usually a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making the reader feel more at home in the story, and consequently more accepting of the fantasy you’re trying to give them.

Spec Can: You are working on your first large novel at the moment. Can you tell us a bit about what it is like to shift from writing short stories and novellas to writing a large novel?

Ian Rogers: The novel I’m working on right now is my first Felix Renn novel, but I actually wrote another novel before that. It was a comedy science fiction that I was never able to sell, and quite frankly I’m not sure if it’ll ever see the light of day. Maybe I’ll self-publish it. Who knows.

Anyway, even though I was never able to sell that book, I learned a lot of things while writing it. Mostly I learned that I could write a novel in the first place. Up until that point there had been plenty of false starts, stories that bottomed out at ten or twenty thousand words before I got too freaked out and walked away. But that was the problem, I kept psyching myself out, telling myself that I wasn’t just writing a novel, but a Novel.

The way I finished that first novel was to adjust my perception of it. Instead of looking at it as a 120,000-word novel, I looked at as a series of interconnected stories. Each chapter was like a short story, and each section was like a novella composed of those stories. It sounds kind of silly, but it worked.

Having said that, I don’t anticipate those kind of troubles while working on the first Felix Renn novel (knock on wood). The Felix novel is much more straightforward, and I do feel as if I’ve learned a lot since that first novel-writing experience.

Spec Can: What do you see as the most important role Canadian Dark Fantasy has to play? What can Dark Fantasy do for the reader?

Ian Rogers: I personally don’t look at fiction very far beyond it being entertainment. That might sound like a horribly facile answer, but the truth is I find myself reluctant to place too much important on my work or that of others. Because these stories mean different things to different people, if they mean anything at all.

I’ve always said that if people are only interested in my work purely as entertainment, then I’m cool with that. I think every story needs to keep the reader amused as the first goal. If your story is full of theme and depth, but it’s boring as all hell, then who cares how deep your work is, or how much inner meaning there is, because no one’s going to bother to read it anyway! And quite frankly, if you are consciously trying to pound a message or meaning into your story, I assure you it’s going to come across that way to the reader and they will be turned off. Guaranteed. The best stories with meaning or theme or depth are the ones that allow the readers to come to those conclusions naturally and on their own terms.

Spec Can: What inspires you to create certain characters? Do you base the personalities of characters on people that you meet?

Ian Rogers: I don’t think I’ve ever based a character on a real person. That’s probably a good way to get sued. Especially if the character ends up meeting a bad end.

It’s funny but I’ve never actually thought about where my characters come from. I think of them as actors of a sort, auditioning on a stage in my mind, and I have to decide if they’re worth putting in a story.

I think of a character like Jerry Baldwin, a friend of Felix Renn in the Black Lands series. Jerry is a short, balding, womanizing real estate agent who only represents haunted properties. On the one hand, I thought Jerry would be an interesting character because I wanted to show how ordinary people existed in a world where the supernatural exists. On the other hand, I thought he would provide some much needed comic relief in what is a very dark series of stories.

I came up with Jerry a few years ago — in fact, I originally planned for him to appear in a separate series of stories — but it wasn’t until I wondered what would happen if Jerry happened to meet Felix Renn, that I finally decided to put him into a story.

Spec Can: Can you tell us a bit about your Felix Renn series, and where it is going at the moment?

Ian Rogers: I guess you would call the Felix Renn/Black Lands stories urban fantasy, although, like I said before, I don’t have much use for labels. I’m not against them, but they are so subjective, and to some people they don’t mean anything at all, so I don’t really see the point. I came up with “supernoirturals” as a lark, even though it does adequately describe those stories.

In short, Felix Renn is a Toronto-based private investigator in a world where the supernatural exists. Back in the 1940s, the U.S. government discovered the existence of another dimension lying next door to our own. They called it the Black Lands because there is no sun over there. It’s a land cloaked in perpetual night, and it’s filled with all manner of supernatural creatures. These entities occasionally find their way to our world via portals that are popping up all over the planet at an alarming rate. No one knows how to close them or stop more of them from appearing. It’s kind of a problem.

Spec Can: Where did you get the idea for the Black Lands?

Ian Rogers: Basically I took everything I love about horror fiction and horror film and threw it into an alternate reality so I would have pretty much anything I wanted to choose from for stories.

I knew I need a focal point for these stories, so I decided on a private investigator. Since I was set these stories in Toronto, I decided to name my character in homage to one from a David Cronenberg film, Videodrome. In addition to being one of my favourite horror films, Videodrome was filmed and takes place in Toronto. The protagonist, played by James Woods, is named Max Renn. I chose the name Felix for my character from John Steakley’s excellent novels Vampire$ and Armor, both of which feature a Felix. I guess he was as much of a fan of the name as I am.

Spec Can: What mythologies of the monstrous do you use to shape your monstrous figures?

Ian Rogers: I tend to stick most to superstitions and fairly well-known monsters. At least I did at first. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves. In later stories, I started coming up with my own monsters, and for those I just picked stuff that I personally find scary. Like spooky kids with black eyes, and living trees. I suppose the Evil Dead films might have had some inspiration on the latter.

The very few glimpse we’ve seen of the Black Lands reveal only dark woods and endless fields of silver grass. I suppose this is my attempt to maintain the mystery of the place, but I also find something inherently frightening about nature. It’s not a coincidence that the killer trees of the Black Lands are called Blackwoods. Through his fiction, Algernon Blackwood explore the idea of the supernatural coming from the natural, from nature essentially. That, and seeing The Blair Witch Project way too many times, has given me a healthy fear of the woods, in much the same way Jaws turned a lot of people off swimming in the ocean.

Spec Can: You have created a lot of new monstrous figures. Can you tell me what goes into creating a monster? What shapes your ideas about it?

Ian Rogers: I think of the things that scare me, because I think a lot of scares are universal, so if it scares me, then odds are it’s going to scare others.

For example, when it came to creating the Blackwood trees, I thought of the typical image of a child lying awake in bed, with the frightening silhouette of a tree blasted onto his wall with every strike of lightning, the sound of branches tapping against the window. Then I thought, what if the tree was actually doing this stuff on purpose. The parents always tell the kid, oh it’s just a storm, oh it’s just the wind. But what if the tree actually want to break in and eat that kid? Like the one in Poltergeist. Or the trees in The Evil Dead.

The funny thing is, I really love trees. I love the outdoors. But at night, I can’t think of any place scarier. Trees are great in the daytime, but I don’t trust them at all once the sun goes down.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to mention to our readers?

Ian Rogers: I guess I’d just like to thank everyone who has supported my work over the years. Everyone who bought a Felix Renn chapbook or wrote a review on Goodreads or  just posted a nice comment on Facebook. It means a lot.

I hope people will check out my collection, Every House Is Haunted, when it comes out this October. There’s also some exciting Felix Renn news, and I hope to be able to announcement it in the next week or two.

All in all, this is a very big year for me, and I’m just trying to make sure I slow down long enough to enjoy the ride.

I want to thank Mr. Rogers for this incredible opportunity and for his insights. It was great to meet an author in the Peterborough area who I can have a cup of coffee with instead of drinking coffee while I send Facebook messages. Thank you for finding me, Ian, and I look forward to reading more of your work and picking up a copy of Every House is Haunted as soon as it is released. I can see my Halloween plans already formulating: A week of reading horror and once my head is full of the supernoirtural, a Halloween party with tonnes of suspicious looks into the darker corners of the room.

If you are interested in reading more about Ian Rogers’ Blacklands, check out his Blacklands website at http://theblacklands.com/ and you can check out Mr. Rogers’ author page at http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . Check out my review of Mr. Rogers’ book Temporary Monsters by clicking on the “Ian Rogers” Tag on the left.