Multiple Faces of Identity

A Review of Kate Story’s “Show and Tell” In Playground of Lost Toys (Exile Editions, 2015)by Derek Newman-Stille

School can be a horror story. It is a space where identity is controlled and regulated and where normalcy and conformity rein. Anyone who doesn’t belong is firmly aware that they are the school’s monster and those who enforce that normalcy treat those who don’t belong monstrously. In “Show and Tell”, Kate Story’s narrator was punished constantly as a child for daydreaming and was treated regularly as a social outsider. She was subjected to gendered expectations for women about “attractiveness”, having her facial features policed and told that certain facial features were unattractive and therefore inappropriate. 

When Story’s narrator has to return to her school as an adult before the building is demolished, she collides with her own identity and the multiplicity of options her life could have taken. She finds her old school cubby hole still intact with her old Saucy Doll shoved away at the back of the cubby. The doll has the capacity to shift through different expressions as her arm is pumped and as the narrator takes the doll through the different facial features, she sees a world of different possibilities, underlying the different masks that people wear at different times of their lives. The Saucy Doll underscores the idea of roads not taken, possibilities missed, and opportunities taken differently by the narrator – the different worlds that she could have inhabited if she had made different choices. 

Story’s use of the multi-faced Saucy doll underscores the social perception of childhood as a time of multiple potentials, a world open to possibilities and choices and the idea of adulthood as an experience of choices already taken and options limited. “Show and Tell” is a narrative about memory and the discovery of different aspects of selfhood. In the multiple faces of the doll, we can see the multiple masks that we, ourselves, wear throughout our lives, shifting expressions to express different aspects of ourselves. 

Story plays with the notion of the uncanny valley, the idea that as something approaches looking human it looks cute until it gets too close to human appearance and then it causes discomfort. In this case, the Saucy Doll embodies ideas of attractiveness and prescriptive femininity, attempting to shape the way that women are allowed to BE in this world. The Saucy Doll and its presence in the school embodies ideas of memory, trauma, and the passage of time. The narrator finds herself mimicking the expressions of her doll, shaped by her doll, illustrating the way that dolls shape the identities of young girls and the expectations about how they are able to present themselves in the world. Dolls are normally things that mirror us as we project on them, instead she is mirroring her doll and being projected upon by the doll. 

To find out more about the work of Kate Story, visit her website at http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Playground of Lost Toys visit Exile’s website at http://www.theexilewriters.com 

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A Spectacle of Beauty and Estrangement

A Spectacle of Beauty and EstrangementA review of Marie Bilodeau’s Nigh Book 3 (S &G Publishing, 2015)

The third book of Nigh by Marie Bilodeau brings the reader into the realm of fairy itself, a land hostile to human life but simultaneously an object of desire. Bilodeau’s fairy realm is a land that is changeable between one moment to the next from a space of growth to a landscape of decay. It is a realm of uncertainty and this poses a problem for Al, a mechanic who always wants to know how things work and wants to take things apart and figure out the mechanisms for them to run. The fairy realm resists the very notion of being understood. It resists logic and the more Al probes into the world, the more she is met with confusion and disorientation.

Bilodeau, always an author who plays with the complexity and power of stories to shape human lives, explains the history of telling fairy tales as a way for human beings to prepare later generations for the experience of entering into the fairy realm. She plays with the notion of speculation as a way of understanding another reality and suggests that story-telling has historically been a survival mechanism for human contact with other realms. In this way, Marie Bilodeau invites us to question the way story-telling tells us about our own world, about ourselves, and about the way we understand our relationship to the world. Nigh Book 3 plays with the landscape in a unique way, experimenting with a question that Northrop Frye suggests much of Canadian literature deals with: “Where is here?” The fairy realm represents a space entirely defined by uncertainty. The uncertainty of the fairy landscape is not divorced from human responsibility. We are partially responsible for that shifted, changed, hostile landscape where the fairies have dwelled. We are told by the fairies that human actions have fragmented the fairy world and that damage and changes to our environment have meant that the fairy worlds (parallel to our own) have been torn apart, families ripped asunder. The altering of our world has similarly altered and changed the realm that has become harmful to us. 

In this third book of Nigh, Bilodeau gives context to the fairies, greying their morality instead of presenting them as entirely ‘evil’. The fairypocalypse is made more complex by adding the complexities of fairy voices to the experience, giving them the opportunity to explain their position and challenge that view of them as entirely other to human experienc eand hostile to human existence. 

The human presence in the fairy landscape is marked by loss, by a change so hostile to humanity that the human beings themselves begin to slip away, losing elements of their identity. While in the fairy world, characters experience the infiltration into their bodies of difference, strangeness, and, in some cases, the loss of memory and selfhood. Bilodeau’s characters are need to question their identity, their memories, and the things that make them who they are as they submerge into a strange, foriegn, and hostile land. In Nigh book 3 Marie Bilodeau examines our complex relationship to our landscapes and the way that our environment changes and alters us.

To find out more about Marie Bilodeau’s work, visit her website at http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.com

Learning How Not To Be A Hero

Learning How Not to Be A HeroA review of Edward Willett’s “Falcon’s Egg” (Bundoran Press, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Lorn had always wanted to be a hero, always looked up to those revolutionary leaders he saw pushing boundaries and changing society, but when Lorn sees his “changed” government behaving in the same way as the previous regime, he is forced to question the ideals of change. Lorn tries to uncover secrets that the government is keeping from the populace and he has to take leave from his job in government policing in order to figure out what the government has become and what they are now capable of. 

As Lorn has aged, his heroes have become more humanized and he begins to see the weaknesses in the social construction of heroism. He is forced to face the reality that the idealisms of youth have become the cynicisms of age. 

In “Falcon’s Egg” Edward Willett takes on the notion of heroism itself, exploring the casualties of war and the results of battle on the psychology of the protagonist who has endured the traumas of war. “Falcon’s Egg” is a text of revolution, a war narrative with a bit of frontier ideologies since it is set on an alien world that is in conflict with the more technologically developed centrist planets. However, unlike most exploration, war, revolution, and adventure narratives who uncritically cast the hero as a figure who is above trauma, Willett’s narrative explores the toll that heroism takes on the mind of the hero as well as the toll that it takes on human lives and society. Lorn, through his trauma, is forced to re-assess what it means to be a hero and acknowledge the harm that he and others who saw themselves as heroes have done in enforcing their ideals. At the beginning of “Falcon’s Egg”, Lorn, like many soldiers, begins his story trying to convince himself that he had to do every horrible thing he had done to make the world a better place, and, when told by a psychiatrist that he had PTSD, ignored what he was told and saw PTSD as a “disease of lesser people”. But, when he experiences increasing flashbacks and scenes of horror, he realizes that he needs to shift his perception of himself and his role in society. The toll of human lives becomes too much for him and his own horror at how casually he can now commit murder opens a doorway to a room full of unanswered and unsettling questions for him. Lorn realizes that his dream of running away to space, away from home and his family has always, fundamentally, been a desire to run away from himself.

Willett creates a coming of age narrative that is not limited to a youth. He portrays Lorn as a man, like most others, who is perpetually going through coming of ages, understanding himself in new ways as his viewpoints change with experience. Lorn experiences an awakening to his own ignorance and self denial that lets him finally come to find himself and find meaning in his life beyond the fairy tale narratives of the hero that are portrayed by his society. Willett creates a character who is learning how not to be a hero, but, rather, learning to be a human being. 

You can find out more about Edward Willett’s work at http://www.edwardwillett.com 

You can discover more about Falcoln’s Egg and other Bundoran Press books at bundoranpress.com

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 48: A Discussion of the Work of Max Turner

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interrogate the work of Max Turner, an author who explores the notion of the psychiatric institution through the perspective of a vampire. Turner sets his vampiric character in a former psychiatric institution in Peterborough Ontario called the Nicholls’ Ward. In this discussion of Max Turner’s work, I explore ideas of aging, coming-of-age narratives, expectations of young adult fiction, vampirism, assumptions about psychiatric institutions, and general ideas of home and belonging.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

You can explore Max Turner’s work at http://maxturner.ca/

Transitional Words

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love With Hominids (Tachyon Publications, 2015)
By Derek Newman-StilleIMG_0213

Falling in Love with Hominids illustrates Nalo Hopkinson’s playfulness with language, her characteristic exploration of the way that language shapes social interactions and develops plot. Hopkinson illustrates her fascination with ideas of sound and the power of mis-hearings, exploring stories that came from her own mis-hearings of things and the point of speculation that occurs when one tries to determine what was actually said. In stories like The Easthound which came from a mis-hearing of “The Eastbound”, Hopkinson examines what an Easthound would be and how this notion can create a figure of terror. In “The Smile on the Face”, she examines the relationship between names and identities, creating a character named Gilla who discovers a resonance to the reptilian (coming from the association with her name) and a connection to mythic stories about other reptiles.

Hopkinson plays with characters who question the way they are written, examining figures (for example) from Shakespearian plays such as Caliban from The Tempest and allowing them a place to resist the texts that have been written about them and providing a space for them to push their own meanings through the text. In Shift, she explores the way that racialised assumptions have been cast onto Caliban and his desire to escape from the narrative that has shaped his life.

Hopkinson enters into shared-world creations and disrupts the idea of a very white, Euro-centric fairy world in the Bordertown series by creating figures who challenge this focus on the European magical world by creating characters who come from non-European mythologies. In “Ours Is The Prettiest”, she asserts the multi-ethnic nature of characters, playing with previous reader assumptions about character ethnicity and examining the intersection of ethnicities and cultural identities.

Hopkinson illustrates her ability to represent the under-represented, bringing attention to those areas that are cast in the shadows of most mainstream ideas of science fiction. She brings attention to those characters who are largely left off from mainstream SF, populating her worlds with characters from an array of sexual and gender identities, challenging the white-centric worlds created by most SF authors, and inserting those presences that are Othered in so many SF narratives.

Falling in Love with Hominids is a text of transitions, examining those times when change is at its peak. She examines transitions between adulthood and youth, portraying the idea that adulthood is not always in a protective role over youth and can, in fact, be damaging to youth because of the excesses of power adults wield over the young. She plays with the transition between life and death, exploring notions of life after death and the way that we tend to be haunted by memory and guilt.

Hopkinson casts the light of speculation onto those ideas that are cast into shadow in everyday reality, those areas that can be seen best by the outsider, the oppressed, the erased. Falling in Love with Hominids represents a text of examining the human experience, an act of recovery of those aspects of humanity that are suppressed or repressed and a re-invigoration at the sense of wonder about human experience.
To read reviews of individual stories in the collection, click on the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/09/16/the-oddity-of-children-2/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/07/28/growing-up-monstrous/

To listen to an Episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio about Falling in Love with Hominids visit:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/07/26/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-45-a-discussion-of-the-work-of-nalo-hopkinson/

To read more about Falling in Love with Hominids, visit Tachyon Publications’ Website at https://tachyonpublications.com/product/falling-love-hominids/

Psychiatric Vampirism

A review of Max Turner’s Night Runner (Harper Trophy Canada, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I am excited to be able to talk about a book that deals with Peterborough, the town that I have come to call home. Max Turner’s Night Runner takes place in the Nicholls’ Ward in Peterborough, the city’s former psychiatric facility. The Nicholls’ Ward closed in 2010 due to issues of cost for repairs and updating of equipment and spaces and it was moved over into the main Peterborough Regional Health Centre building. Throughout the building’s history, it was at various times used as offices for the hospital, archives, a nursing residence, a meeting space, and a library. It was only in its final years that the building was switched to primarily a psychiatric facility. 

Max Turner’s Night Runner takes a novel approach to the teen vampire story by setting the vampire initially in a psychiatric facility. Zach Thomson grew up in the Nicholls Ward after his parents died when he was young. Night Runner takes place when Zach is 15 years old. His experience of youth hasn’t been the same as that of other kids – which is not surprising because children rarely grow up in psychiatric facilities. But his experience is different from that of other children for a variety of health related reasons outside of his mental health. He has an allergy to sunlight, he has a limited diet and is allergic to most foods, and he has bouts of anger and silences that can last for days. Zach has been recognized by his nurses as being in need of specilized medical care. Growing up in a psychiatric ward, Zach has never considered himself normal and he isn’t even certain what ‘normal’ for a teen should be. 

Max Turner creates a novel that questions ideas of normalcy and appropriateness by disrupting ideas of what can be considered normal. He challenges the behaviour of society in ostracizing certain people because of their difference. By situating Zach in a psychiatric institution, Turner questions ideas of family and the type of people that can make up family, extending the idea of belonging to a wider group of very different individuals. 

Night Runner, like many Young Adult tales, is a story about self discovery and the idea of developing a purpose. Zach believes that his life so far has been one of uncertainty and a lack of purpose because he has been in a psychiatric facility all of his life uncertain about what is “wrong” with him and waiting for a cure for his various allergies. 

Turner explores vampirisim as a blood-based pathogen, an infection, but one that radically changes the body, and one that can be spread through the bite. It is also an infection that generally comes with an end date – as every vampire eventually experiences Endpoint Psychosis, a psychiatric illness as they reach the end of their lives and therefore radically change. It is appropriate that a story that deals with the idea of Endpoint Psychosis begins in a psychiatric institution where the same issues of determining “capacity”, self control, and selfhood are diagnostic features both for the psychiatric nurses and for the vampire council who kills vampires they see as being dangerously out of control due to Endpoint Psychosis. In both areas it is up to others in positions of power to determine mental health and ability.

Night Runner, like vampirism itself, is about radical change, coping with different social and emotional pressures and the process of discovery. 

To discover more about the work of Max Turner, visit his website at http://maxturner.ca

To discover more about Night Runner, visit  http://us.macmillan.com/nightrunner/maxturner

 

Growing Up Monstrous

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” in Falling in Love With Hominids (Tachyon Publications, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” takes the reader onto the streets with a group of street children who have been displaced from their homes. There is a long history of street kids creating their own myths and legends about survival as a means to be able to deal with life on the streets, which, in the case of most of these kids, was safer than life in their original homes with abusive parents. But in “The Easthound” the monsters of those street tales is true. There is something lurking in the dark and it is something that often threatens children on the streets – adults and adulthood.

Hopkinson explores the spectre that haunts most kids on the streets – the violence of their parents and other adults in their lives. But, instead of these adults being regular abusers, they become actual monsters, transformed at the age of adulthood into werewolf-like beasts that prey on anyone who remains human. The street kids in “The Easthound” have gathered together in small groups to keep themselves safe from the spread of the monstrous virus that sets in at puberty and they try to resist adulthood, starving themselves to prevent their bodies from maturing. Many of the children were already abused by adults who were turned into beasts by the spreading virus, some losing limbs. 

Although Hopkinson deals with the spectre of violence as an actual viral spread of monstrosity, she points to the overall issue of violence against youths and the fact that many young people have to take to the streets to escape the violence of adults in their lives and then live in fear on the streets as well. 

Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” mirrors the classic Star Trek episode “Miri” (Season 1, Episode 8) where a virus has spread on an Earth-like planet that turns people monstrously violent when they hit puberty. But, she takes thing further. Whereas the writers of “Miri” try to resolve these issues with a cure (followed by sending educators to the planet), “The Easthound” expresses the idea that there generally aren’t simple solutions to the violence that street children experience and adults are generally part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Hopkinson explores the complexity of street life and the complex ways that “growing up” has a different set of meanings for kids on the street. 

To discover more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at http://nalohopkinson.com

To find out more about Falling in Love with Hominids and other books by Tachyon Press, visit their website at https://tachyonpublications.com/product/falling-love-hominids/