Blood and Spit into this Artwork

Blood and Spit into this Artwork.  A review of Andrew Wilmot’s “Fostering Artistic Talent” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories Edited by Kaitlin Tremblay and Kelsi Morris (Exile, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

We are always told that art is sacrifice and we have embedded the idea of the suffering artist into our public imagination, but what about the suffering of the tools of our art. Andrew Wilmot’s “Fostering Artistic Talent” examines morals around artistic production and the relationship between the human and animal environment. Famous artist Samael kills cephalopods to produce art, using their writhing movements and fluid bodies to spread paint and bodily fluids around on canvases. Samael does sacrifice for his art… he just doesn’t engage in personal sacrifice.

Samael de-values animal life, seeing the cephalopods he kills as disposable art tools rather than as beings worthy of life and capable of suffering. By bringing attention to the clash between Samael and animal rights advocates, Wilmot’s tale brings attention to the complexity of artistic expression and the limits of artistic expression. This is a tale that engages in debate about animal agency, animal cruelty, animal intelligence and the ethics of art, inviting readers to engage in critical questions about aesthetics and animal life. 

Wilmot purposely choses to focus his tale around animals that are generally not treated as aesthetically pleasing on their own, cephalopods, to bring attention to the critical issues around animal rights and the focus of animal rights discourse around cute animals. By including a cephalopod named Kandinsky, named after an artist itself, Wilmot brings attention to the idea of living cephalopods as art and his artist’s need to transform this beauty into his own artistic works instead of recognizing the natural beauty of the living, unmodified animal. He brings attention to human-centrism and the human conception of art as things that are modified and manipulated by us.

To find out more about the work of Andrew Wilmot, check out his site at http://andrewwilmot.ca

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/

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Quote – Any Evil that Entered the World Contaminated the World

“No cure was worth torturing cats and mice. It was like arguing that inventing, then using, the atom bomb was justified because it ended the war and diminished suffering. Any evil that entered the world contaminated the world.”

-Scott Fotheringham – The Rest is Silence (Goose Lane Editions, 2012)

The Timeless Power of Legends

A Review of The Monkey King & Other Stories Edited by Griffin Ondaatje (Harper Collins, 1995).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Griffin Ondaatje compiled The Monkey King & Other Stories as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of World Literacy of Canada. The stories within represent Canadian and Sri Lankan adaptations and re-tellings of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim tales, bringing the timeless wisdom of these tales to an English-reading audience. Written by a variety of authors and including such powerful voices from canonised Can Lit as P. K. Page, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and M.G. Vassanji, this volume represents a multitude of voices telling tales that have transformed and changed throughout history, illustrating the timeless quality of their narrative as well as the multiplicity of their voice and ability to transcend a single person’s narrative.

Each of the tales in this volume focuses on raising questions and imparting some form of wisdom, and although they are largely tales borrowed from religious texts, I have included them on Speculating Canada because of their speculative quality (asking timeless questions) – this is not to suggest that the religious texts contained in this volume are speculative fiction themselves, since they hold a religio-mythic realism, but their speculative quality is evoked in the re-telling of these stories to a diverse audience and the focus of the volume on rendering these religious tales into stories for consumption outside of a religious setting.

Many of the tales in this volume caution against ignorance, against the belief that there is something in this world that people don’t need to know about. They teach the importance of an open mind that is prepared for receiving new wisdom and new ideas. The thing that is most critiqued in these stories is arrogance and the limiting quality of arrogance as well as its impact on the world around it. Closely allied with this is a critique of the misuse of power and misunderstanding of the relationship between the common people and those in power.

Many of the tales in The Monkey King & Other Stories give voice to the animals surrounding humanity, allowing the largely ignored fauna of the world to gain a presence in human consciousness. These stories critique the misuse of animals by human beings and critique human power over animals (or the perception of power over them) while making the reader consider the way that humanity systematically de-voices the animal world, robbing the other creatures of the planet of agency. Buddhist tales in this volume, which contain the potential through ideas of reincarnation to make literal the humanity of animals, teach that it is essential to look at the wisdom of animals. After all, the Buddha did take the form of animals in the past, and therefore there is an essential transcendent quality of animal existence. The tale “Brighter Still” (retold by Graeme MacQueen), about the Buddha in the form of a deer teaches that animals serve a pedagogical value for humanity, imparting ideas of self-sacrifice, protection of one’s people, and the cruelty of over-hunting. “The Deer, The Tortoise, and the Kaerala Bird” (retold by J.B. Disanayaka) uses a discussion of the diversity of animal bodies and the ability of diverse animal bodies to each serve a different purpose to remind readers of the essential importance of  diversity and that our system of “normalising” certain bodies or ideas is limiting.

The narratives in this volume focus on the importance of sharing resources, both material and intellectual and looking for a fair distribution of goods and ideas. Stories like “The Monkey King” (retold by Shyam Selvadurai) teach the importance of self-sacrifice as an essential part of leadership, as well as cautioning about the power of fear to override justice. “The Chola King” (retold by Tim Wynne-Jones) reminds leaders that they are ultimately responsible to the people they represent. “Two Friends by the Villu” (retold by Ranjini Obeyesekere) reminds the reader that friendships and alliances are often strained when there is a deficit of resources, while “The Dog Who Drank From Socks” (retold by Griffin Ondaatje) teaches that occasionally shared thirst can teach compassion for others who are suffering. “Power Misused” (retold by S. Samarasinghe) warns that the power to destroy often facilitates the desire to destroy. “The Cycle of Revenge” (retold by M.G. Vassanji) warns about the ability of revenge to escalate violence and trap the participants in a permanent and self-destructive battle that damages them and those around them. “Kundalini” (retold by Chitra Fernando) teaches compassion for difference and the importance of being inclusive and creating a welcoming society for diversity. The narratives in this volume are pedagogical and illustrate the important role of telling stories to help people transcend their limited viewpoints and gain further, diverse wisdom as well as questioning taken-for-granted ideas about the way the world is or “should be”.

Griffin Ondaatje’s retelling of “The Resting Hill” teaches the importance of place in creating stories and illustrates that stories often come from the land itself and an explanation of the features of the landscape. Land embodies memory of the events that have taken place on it as well as being filled with the myths of the people who have lived on it. We live with a diverse history of myths around us as well as within us, shaping who and where we are. He reminds us that the telling of stories is essential and important to our existence. Timothy Findley, in “The Unicorn and the Grapevine” reminds readers that magic exists in the world through the ability of words from stories to transcend the teller, to survive the ages and the distance and that telling stories is itself a form of magic that pervades our world and prevents the destruction of mythical creatures like the unicorn. Telling stories keeps magic in the world

The tales in this volume are those of gods, monsters, common people, animals, and transcendent sages and each evokes a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more about the world around us. Ondaatje’s ability to collect tales that evoke questions and challenge preconceptions makes this volume accessible as well as evocative.

You can explore more about Griffin Ondaatje at http://harpercollins.co.in/author.asp?Author_Code=1296 . You can find out more about World Literacy of Canada at http://www.worldlit.ca/ .

Animal Cruelty and the Animal in the Human

A review of Stephanie Snow’s “Dog Fight” (In Unearthed: The Speculative Elements Series Volume 3, Third Person Press, Cape Breton, N.S., 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo for UnEarthed Courtesy of Third Person Press

Werewolves are traditionally figures of excessive masculinity – excessively hairy, excessively aggressive, and excessively woodsy. They often embody characteristics associated with masculine stereotypes. It is therefore exciting that Stephanie Snow presents queer werewolves in her short story “Dog Fight”. Unlike a lot of authors who write about queer subject matter, she does not make the queerness the defining feature of these werewolves, but rather an aspect of their wider identity. Also, unlike many authors, she does not feel the need to feminise gay men, but rather presents them as highly masculine figures – a werewolf who engages in the sport of dog fighting and his partner who negotiates with others involved in the dog fights.

Snow uses the werewolf narrative and the context of the dog fight as a method of critically engaging with the idea of animal cruelty and the human disregard for animals. By using the figure of the werewolf, a figure in the body of an animal, but with a human viewpoint and subjectivity, she allows the reader to engage with the animal perspective as it and other animals are pushed to engage in competition for human enjoyment. Although focused on animal cruelty in dog fights, Snow encourages her readers to think about the way we submit animals to our needs and desires overall, making them incidental casualties to human greed and the oppression of nature. She illustrates that animalistic figures are not the monsters of our society, but are rather oppressed victims of human control.

Like many werewolf narratives, Snow uses the werewolf to explore notions of human civility and the thin veneer of human civilisation that allows us to ignore all of the monstrous subcurrents of human nature. She illustrates that it is not the animalistic, instinctual part of human nature that should be feared, but the repression of that nature, the systems of chains and controls that we place on our perceived animalistic side that actually only provide a mechanism for justifying our cruelties.

To read more about the Speculative Elements Series, visit Third Person Press at http://www.thirdpersonpress.com/