Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and shadow. Demchuk tells tales that connect the mythic to industry, proving that the mechanical can’t fully succeed in chasing the creatures of the human imagination back into the dark, and may, in fact, give them a space to thrive. The Bone Mother brings together Rusalka, ghosts, golem, mirror monsters, Baba Yaga figures, and other manifestations of Slavic myth and makes these figures into family secrets, hidden differences that dwell in the blood rather than the imagination. He ties these fairy tale figures in with circus freaks and those who defy social and biological norms, bringing out the diversity of the human form. The most dangerous quality of this mythical world is normalcy, which tries to turn everyone into simple, uncomplicated forms, denying diversity. All of these figures who could be called monsters only serve to show a mirror to humanity, illustrating that we are the monsters for trying to enforce conformity. 

To find out more about The Bone Mother, visit ChiZine Publications at http://chizinepub.com/the-bone-mother/
To discover more about David Demchuk, visit http://daviddemchuk.com/ .

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Stigma is Sticky

Stigma is StickyA review of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos (Margaret McElderry Books, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

As she frequently does, Nalo Hopkinson uses her novel The Chaos to disrupt hegemonic ideas of normalcy, questioning what is ‘normal’ and using the supernatural and magical to point out the way that the norms we create are equally strange. The Chaos takes elements of fantasy, magical realism, and Lovecraftian weird fiction and blends them with a surreal sense of a world where anything can happen. 

When a volcano suddenly appears out of Lake Ontario, the world becomes populated with creatures of myth and magic that disrupt the categories we use to impose a sense of order on our world – the rolling calf, tar babies, fish who swim upstream through lava, Horseless Head Men, and an archaeopteryx that may also be a phoenix. Story and place intermix in a way that illustrates the way that we already impose stories on our landscape to limit it. Hopkinson illustrates that we are always in a world of stories and that we create our own stories to understand ourselves and others. 

The Chaos presents a world where the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves enter into our world, shaping us physically like they do mentally and socially. When people in Hopkinson’s world are able to see the mythic, it changes their relationships to each other, and their relationship to themselves. The Chaos is as much about identity as it is about magic. The altered space of the Toronto landscape disrupts a sense of ‘home’, allowing characters to question their notions of belonging and how they fit into their world and communities.

The name of Hopkinson’s protagonist, Sojourner, literally ‘a stranger in a strange land’ highlights the sense of powerful estrangement that shapes her tale. She is a teen who has experienced stigma all of her life, being bullied and slut-shamed as a younger teen, and being perceived as constantly other than she is – seen as too white to fit in with black peers and too black to fit in with white peers. She has created her group of outsiders that have created their own brand of belonging. Yet, her body is under change as a sticky, black tar like substance begins spreading across her skin, changing her and her relationship to her body. She is becoming different and uncertain to herself, and yet her uncertainty about herself may serve to give her further self knowledge about the stories she uses to narrate her own life.

Hopkinson illustrates the way that change is resisted by those in hegemonic power as mobs of people begin targeting people with disabilities, those who are non-white, and those who identify as queer, seeing them as part of the “chaotic changes” happening in their world. In particular, she examines the role of police causing more damage in their attempts to control the change they see happening around them. Hopkinson points out the way that ableism, homophobia, and racism show themselves more blatantly when “normalcy” is disrupted. When bodies and minds are disrupted.

In The Chaos, the boundaries of categories that seek to separate things are broken down and the world’s complexities cease to be able to be ignored as individual perceptions because they have become physical. Hopkinson’s surrealist word painting of the world, despite its strangeness, only serves to underscore the strangeness of normalcy. Reading this tale allows us all to become Sojourners as we return to our own strange world, questioning it.
To discover more about The Chaos, visit http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Chaos/Nalo-Hopkinson/9781442459267 

To find out more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/

Home is Where the Chicken Legs Are

Home is Where the Chicken Legs Are
A review of Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant (Candlewick Press, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille


Masha’s tale begins with stories from her grandmother about the witch Baba Yaga. Her grandmother was once kidnapped by Baba Yaga and had to outwit the witch in order to gain her freedom. Masha, delighted by these tales sees her grandmother’s life as one of adventure and wonders why she would have ever left Baba Yaga.
Masha’s father has recently been re-married and she discovers that although he never seemed to have time for her outside of work, he has time for his new wife and daughter. She feels out of place in her own home and when she runs away, she discovers a new home, but one that is unsettling and unsettled both by its strangeness and its propensity for walking around on chicken legs. Baba Yaga tests Masha to see if she is clever enough to get into her house before she is willing to take the girl on as an assistant. 
In order to cope in the fairy tale setting of Baba Yaga’s world, Masha must call upon all of her folklore and fairy tale knowledge to outsmart beasts, magic, and impossible tasks. Her life is one that has become enmeshed in the reality of fairy tales, shaped by their premises that have a logic all their own. 
Emily Carroll’s artwork weaves the mythical with the modern, blending the strange with the modern. She uses comic frames and backgrounds that meld and mesh the magic of a grimoire with the magic of needlepoint (an appropriate mixing because Masha tells us that her own grandmother acquired a needle and thread from Baba Yaga’s hut in her youth). For Masha’s remembering of fairy tales, Carroll switches to strong, simple colours with silhouette-like qualities to paint the tales with a sense of otherness and a sense of reverie. 

As much as this is a tale of wandering, it is also a tale of locating oneself, of finding oneself through tales and adventures. McCoola and Carroll’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant is a tale that reveals the power that fairy tales have to make us look at ourselves and our lives anew. It is a tale of self-discovery and a reminder that fairy tales can unlock doors of self discovery as easily as Masha opens the doorway to Baba Yaga’s hut. 
To discover more about Baba Yaga’s Assistant, visit Candlewick Press at http://www.candlewick.com/essentials.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=076366961X&bkview=p&pix=y