A review of Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez’ The Street Belongs To Us (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021)
By Derek Newman-Stille
America is a thin veneer over a much more complex world, and in 1984 when Muscatel Avenue is torn up there are new possibilities and potentials in the mud. In The Street Belongs to Us, Karleen Pendleton Jimenez explores a street in Los Angeles that is torn up to put in sidewalks and that kids decide to make their own, building trenches, playing in the mud, and ultimately finding themselves beneath the ground. The grandmother of the main character, Alex, tells the reader “The land wants to be adored and you kids know best how to do it”, and that is what The Street Belongs to Us does, it exposes a fundamental love for the land and its potential. While digging, Alex and her friend Wolf find the deed to Aztlan, a creation of the Chicano Movement around land stolen from Mexicans by Americans. It is a deed to a place that can’t be owned, a place of stories and tales of belonging. Like Aztlan, Alex holds the stories of her people and her grandmother’s stories even though she has a conflicted identity as a Mexican American. She observes “I feel kind of ashamed of the stories she’s telling. Even though I’m part Mexican, I’m also quite a bit American. It’s like one part of my body was mean to the other”. She feels the pain of American oppression of the Latinx community in her own body.
Though Nana also warns Alex that digging up the dirt also means exposing all of the things that lay buried and Pendleton Jimenez examines the complexities of childhood experience living alongside family secrets, ideas of belonging, and notions of gender and growing up. When the ground is disturbed, Alex and Wolf see new possibilities, examining their relationships with their parents and their relationships to their own bodies. Alex begins to develop breasts and has to explore questions of whether she is a boy or a girl and whether breasts mean that she is forced to become a woman or whether there are other possibilities for her body. The Street Belongs to Us is an exploration of belonging, whether that be to a community or to one’s own body and who gets to decide how we belong. Like the ground in the story, The Street Belongs to Us unsettles, digs up, and shuffles foundations.
Today, I chat with CanLit scholar Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay about some trends in Canadian literature, ideas of belonging and the Canadian Nation State, and Canadian music. Thank you to Sebastian for joining us here and sharing his insights.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Absolutely, I’m currently a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. I have a broad interest in Canadian literature and cultural history, specifically how they interact with ideas of nationalism(s) and national identity.
Spec Can: A lot of people hear “Canadian Studies” and they think this means pro-nationalist. Can you tell us a little about your perceptions of nationalisms and national identity?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: That is something that I have to constantly confront within myself and my work. I think that what Canadian Studies as an interdisciplinary field of study which includes within it the possibility of a multitude of interpretations and approaches to Canada’s past and present has historically aimed to resist easy readings of nationalism. I understand why people would feel that way, however, the field was more of less created at a time in the mid-twentieth century when there was legitimate worry about the state of Canada. For many, higher education became the locus of their anxieties. We can debate in retrospect whether or not their concerns were justified, but we can’t discount that these were real concerns being expressed. The field that would eventually find its home at Trent, is now one which is actively resistant to singular readings of Canadian history. In my own work, especially some of the papers I’ve given on Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip, have demonstrated is the untenability of a unified national culture in Canada. I feel like nationalizing statements which followed The Hip around for most of their career and culminated in the CBC produced “National Celebration” is wonderful, but the sentiments tend to fall apart as soon as you begin to expose them to level of scrutiny. I think that’s a good thing, and from all the interviews and articles I’ve read with Gord Downie, he would have been the first to agree and resist that kind nationalizing message.
Spec Can: Can you tell us a bit about some of the anxieties that shaped the development of Canadian Studies?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Gladly! In my opinion, the basis of these anxieties is the question of our relationship, in the twentieth century, to Britain on the one hand, and the increasingly powerful and influential United States. I would say these tensions have underpinned Canadian history since Confederation, and arguably before, but I think they begin to take on a popularized tone in the years immediately following the Second World War with the advent of new forms of mass media. Large numbers of Canadians suddenly became acutely aware of the fact that the majority of the television and radio shows they were consuming were American and the novelists and writers, and the magazines they wrote for were as well. Add to this the fact that Canadian universities were hiring almost exclusively British or American Professors and I think it’s understandable that people became alarmed about the lack of Canadian representation in these institutions. One of the most illustrative novels from this period, in my opinion, is “The Watch that Ends the Night” by Hugh MacLennan where the main character George Stewart constantly reflects upon the generational and ideological shifts following the war and its relation to Canada’s place in the world. He’s also the host of a radio show and lives in constant fear of one day being made redundant by the growing popularity of television. These kinds of concerns would eventually lead to the Massey Report of 1951 which outlined the need for the government of Canada to intentionally promote and develop a “distinct” artistic culture. I use the word culture with hesitation as Vincent Massey was notoriously reluctant to use it in the report, due in large part to its slippery definition and my own reluctance to suggest there is any unified “culture” in Canada. We’re lucky enough here at Trent to follow in the footsteps of founding President, Professor Tom Symons, whose report “To Know Ourselves” outlined the need for Canadian content in universities. Prior to that, there was of course the more radically nationalist document “The Struggle for Canadian Universities” by Robin Matthews and James Steele. Both documents provide the rationale for Canadians teaching Canadian topics in Canada, which at the time was quite radical. It’s hard to place ourselves in that place, and I think it can be temping to under estimate just how palpable these concerns were for those involved in bringing about these changes. I just hope we never take it for granted!
Spec Can: Why, in your opinion, does Canada constantly seem to be seeking its own identity and trying to articulate what it means to be Canadian?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Ahh, the eternal question!
Spec Can: What are some of your thoughts on the subject?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: In all seriousness, this is, for me at least, the motivating question behind my work here at Trent. I think it’s based in the fact that as a nation, Canada has never really had a unified sense of self and as I said earlier, that’s absolutely a good thing! I think it’s been true at a broader constitutional level since confederation. While the original BNA Act of 1867 was a far from a perfect document, I think it achieved a certain recognition of the regional and ethnic differences of the nation, as these ideas were then recognized, again, imperfectly, and with terribly racist exclusions, but which set the stage for the next 153 years of searching for a some sort of a unified identity. I think the closest we’ve come is the Charter’s vision of a civic, constitutionally endowed right to belong to and relate to the “nation” of Canada as one chooses at an individual level. It’s imperfect, yes, but evolving and I would be out of a job if we ever settled it.
Spec Can: What got you interested in the work fo Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: You could say I was born into it, almost literally as my Mom was pregnant with me when she first saw The Tragically Hip perform. My parents are huge influences on me in many ways, but one of the biggest ways was fostering and encouraging my love of music as well as my love of reading and writing.
Spec Can: Oh wow, so it is very personal for you!
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Yes it is. The Hip’s music has always been in my life. When Gord Downie passed away in 2017, I was a year away from starting my PhD, but I remember thinking about how interesting it would be to work on a project that explored Canadian identity through their music.
Spec Can: Speaking of reading and writing, you mentioned that your research involves Canadian literature. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Yes, of course! I’ll admit that my interest in Canadian literature tends towards the conventional ‘big names’ of the post-war period through to 1960s and 70s and mainly with fiction. I spend a lot of time with Hugh MacLennan, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Adele Wiseman, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies etc. I’m also quite interested in the journalistic work of Peter Gzowski. My main interest, however, is in exploring how their work interacted with larger historical or social themes of those decades in a Canadian context. It’s also the period of time when the idea of what we might call “CanLit” today really took shape alongside the necessary publishing industry. Today, there’s a lot of criticism of CanLit both as an idea and an industry, much of which I think is absolutely warranted and important. The idea, in Alicia Elliot’s provocative words, that CanLit is a raging dumpster fire motivates me to figure out how the fire got started. In a way, my focus on these writers is an attempt to perform a crime scene analysis to find out how the fire got started, while it’s still raging, because it most certainly is!
Spec Can: What are some of the social themes that you notice keep being explored in CanLit?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think the biggest thing historically, and it’s no surprise given the overall theme of our discussion, is the pervasive questioning of identity within Canada. To add to this, however, there is a constant theme of belonging, both to a community and within the nation of Canada itself. I don’t think that these are necessarily unique to CanLit, but I do feel that the way Canada is constituted almost begs these questions rise up in literature written within it and about people living here, no matter where they were born. On a side note, I’ve always found it interesting that some of our foremost contemporary writers here in Canada came here as adults and have written so movingly about the experience and challenges of coming to live in Canada. Writers like Dionne Brand, Michael Ondaatje, and Rawi Hage spring immediately to mind when I think of this specific aspect of CanLit.
Spec Can: What ideas of belonging are explored particularly amongst marginalized Canadians? And what does this say about Canada’s portrayal of itself as a “multicultural” and “welcoming” community?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think that it’s important to separate the concept of multiculturalism from its legislative history. As legislation, it gives a name to the embodied experience of marginalized peoples in Canada without doing much to actively change the circumstances of their experience of belonging within the nation. You don’t have to dig very deep into the writing of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Canada, both presently and historically, to understand the fact that issues of belonging have been at stake within the geographic space we now call Canada since the beginning of colonization and that these voices, though historically under represented and under studied, have always provided a critique of the Canadian state as a welcoming space. I think it’s also important to recognize that the context out of which Official Multiculturalism came about was at a time of resurgent Québec nationalism which was seen as a legitimate threat to the unity of Canadian federalism. Playing minority interests off of each other is hardly the definition of being warm and welcoming, but it has certainly served its purpose of keeping the federation together, at least for now!
Spec Can: What are some other trends you are noticing in CanLit?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think the larger academic discussion over the past few years has been to rigorously question the project of CanLit. The collection “Refuse: CanLit in Ruins” has brought to popular attention the ways in which the publishing industry has worked to further marginalize BIPOC voices as well as those of women and members of the two spirit community. One of the most powerful arguments coming out of that collection is Joshua Whitehead’s commitment to remain accountable to community while the larger CanLit project continues to remain complicit in exclusionary and silencing practises. I don’t want to co-opt Whitehead’s words here or use them to make arguments about other writers and their relations, but I do think that discussions around accountability to community instead of institutions is a major trend and conversation happening right now amongst writers and academics surrounding literary work in Canada. I think it’s extremely important.
Spec Can: What things need to change to actually make CanLit responsible to the public? How can we make a socially just literature?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think a really important thing is to gain an understanding of the history of the writing in this country. Part of why I’m so interested in reading works written from the 1940s onwards is that it serves to remind us that the issues we’re discussing have a history and that they’re not new discussions in any way. I think we’re better equipped to talk about the present when we have a firm understanding of the past. When I read people like Margaret Laurence, I get the sense that she would have been at the front lines of current debates surrounding racial justice and the necessity of the recognition of Indigenous rights. She, like all of us, was writing out of her own context and circumstance and is limited by that, but I think it’s humbling to be reminded that we’re part of an ongoing conversation about the concept of justice and are hopefully always making progress while also recognizing where new forms of injustice are located and never settling the conversation, either with the past or the future.
Spec Can: To wrap up our interview, is there anything further you would like to add?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Thank you so much for the opportunity! This has been a lot of fun!
Spec Can: I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview and share your insights with us.
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay is a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. My main research interests include twentieth century Canadian literature and popular culture, specifically the interaction between political movements/ideologies and expressions of Canadian cultural nationalism(s) in texts written between 1940 and 1990. To this end, I have written and presented papers on the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie through the lens of cultural and celebrity studies. A related interest is in Canadian life-writing and biography in all its forms from across the twentieth century. I am currently working alongside Dr Whitney Lackenbauer, on the editing and publication of an Arctic Memoirs Series which will bring to light previously unpublished memoirs in accessible e-book format.
Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
Here Be MonstersA review of Michal Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Michal Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” is a posthuman tale about body modification. In this near future fiction piece, Mojcik presents a world where people are remaking themselves into monsters as a way to claim a new, non-human identity for themselves. Ranging from Centaurs to Satyrs to Merpeople to Cyclopes, these monsters are not merely evincing biological change, they are building new, resistant identities.
However, these identities surpass medical modification and the changing of the biological start to change the world, shifting the world to a new space of monsters, a new cartography and vision for the functioning of the world. Islands begin to appear in the ocean that hadn’t existed before and the world seems to be altering itself to medieval settings in a form of vast restoration. Bodies are no longer scarred through their transformations and medical modifications, but are reborn as monsters. The medical is undone and replaced by the miraculous.
Wojcik offers a transhuman tale that questions the idea of the simple boundaries of human existence, inviting the reader to imagine the role of the monster as the ultimate outsider to challenge the simple boundaries policing human definition.
Wojcik’s narrator, Melanie, originally biologically modifies herself as a way of speaking back against resistant classifications and to gain confidence. She embraces a chimera image of assembled animal and insect parts, not wanting to limit herself to existing monster imagery, but instead to construct a new identity. But her identity isn’t just a challenge for others, it is an internalized question, an invitation for her to redefine herself and her place in a world that values normalcy even when there are possibilities for transhuman bodies.
Wojcik’s “A New Bestiary” collides against normativity in our world, inviting us to reimagine our world and rankle at our restrictions. This is a story of home that asks how we define “home” and “belonging”.
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.
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.
A review of They Have to Take You In edited by Ursula Pflug (Hidden Brook Press, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Home is a complicated concept, but one that we often pretend is easy. We project “home” as a place of belonging, of comfort, of ownership, and an extended form of selfhood, and we connect ideas to home like family, security, safety…. But these concepts are always open to challenge, to question, particularly by those whose home lives don’t match the assumed standard. Ursula Pflug’s edited collection They Have to Take You In blends the speculative and realist literature that borders on auto-ethnographic in cases to explore this multiplicity of “homes” and to challenge the safe, secure image of “home” that society prefers to construct to the exclusion of other options.
As much as They Have to Take You In is about home, it is more about exile: the experience of being Othered, of not being able to find that place of comfort and security that is promised through the notion of “home”. The authors in this collection remind readers of the unsettling power of home, its ability to make people feel excluded because it focuses so strongly on the promise of belonging, and that sense of belonging only works for people in positions of privilege. The characters in these stories are Othered from a sense of home through poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, dementia, the need to escape from abusive homes, as well as a sense of wanderlust. The authors explore the possibility that sometimes you have to leave the place where you have settled in order to find home… and sometimes you can’t ever find home, can’t discover a place of belonging. The multiplicity of these narratives provides a space for exploring home as a place of security… and simultaneously suggests that, for some, ESCAPE from home is a place of safety.
Connected to home is the notion of family, an idea that has been shaped by historical circumstances (industrial systems, labour, political and religious ideologies), but that has pretended to be natural and enduring. They Have to Take You In complicates family as a natural category. In addition to showing assumptions about traditional family structures, these stories complicate these structures, invite speculation and open them up to question the ways in which “family” as a category can be exclusionary, delimiting possibilities for other interactions.
Many of the endings in these stories are open, uncertain things because the reality of home life is that nothing ever really ends and everything is always open to change and reassessment. Homes are places that are always complicated and always haunted by the potential failing of the home as a place of belonging, security, and safety. Deep down, we, as readers, know that while we feel safe in our homes, there are those who are homeless, those whose homelife is marked by domestic violence and who need to escape, those whose housing is precarious because of poverty, and so all houses are haunted places… haunted by the myths of belonging, security, and safety that are not as ubiquitous as they pretend to be.
The motivation to find home, to create a sense of belonging shapes much of our experiences. We are tied to ideas of family, place, and community. Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood is an exploration of home from the perspective of loss, need, warring desires, and conflict. Even when venturing through the dark depths of space… we still keep getting called home, returning to a place of memories and we are always searching for a selfhood that is attached to the notion of connection.
Layela and her twin sister Yoma have been on the streets since youth, surviving through theft and constant movement to avoid any legal troubles, but after Layela was assaulted by a Kilita who ripped into her thoughts to see her visions, Layela’s life has been shaped by trauma. Seeing the future in her visions, she is nonetheless constantly mentally returning to the past, to that moment of pain and horror that has shaped her. Seeking to create a future for herself that is calm, that contrasts with the horrors she sees in her visions at night, she decides to create a flower shop, to settle down amid the relaxing scent of vegetation and create a sense of belonging, a place to be home.
But the future persists and Layela is ripped again from the calm she attempts to forge around her pained heart when her sister disappears, she is arrested without warrant, and the police destroy the home she tried to create for herself. She is uprooted, pulled from the planet that she hoped to turn into her home and is once again tossed into the abyss of space and a future that is not as uncertain as it should be.
Destiny’s Blood asks whether home can be a place one has no memory of, whether a distant star can call to one’s blood and stir up a restlessness that can’t find a home no matter how much one tries to create one. Layela is being called by the star around which she was born, a star that is linked to myth… and more personally to her own origins and sense of belonging and it is a star that feeds the universe with ether, a substance that several alien races depend on and that has dwindled in recent years, leaving many of them all but extinct.
Marie Bilodeau’s space fantasy maps out ideas of destiny and the longing for home that shapes people, propels them into the void, searching for something constantly and unable to settle. She charts the way that that need to belong lets people react with extremes: willing to sacrifice the present for a past that lingers, willing to kill to create home. Longing is like pain, like the emptiness of space waiting to be filled by a sense of the familiar, a place of belonging. Her characters are motivated by a persistent sense of loss, and yet they experience it in unique and nuanced ways, illustrating the complexity of loss: urged toward a desire to escape, to forget, to hold on to anything possible, to protect, or even to hate, to delve into the seemingly endless pit of vengeance that the persistence of loss can create.
Destiny’s Blood conveys a transient aesthetic, a constant searching that would be evoked by being tossed out across a cosmic void.
We pretend that home is an easy concept, something that comes easily, but Amal El-Mohtar’s Mon pays c’est l’hiver poetically charts the challenge of home. We hold on to memories of a wintery, beautiful landscape. But our sense of place always shifts. Nostalgia is something that creates a home that we can never return to, an idealised notion of home that is forever slipping away.
Mon pays c’est l’hiver reveals that that wintery beauty of nostalgia is something created in the labyrinths of the self, in the complex passageways of the heart, made of memory and substanceless desire. Nostalgia can be something alluring, constantly calling us back to an idea of belonging that is always slipping away, always proving itself non-existent when played out in our current existence. Home is a changed place, and a place that is perpetually shifting and El-Mohtar reveals to us that we are always travellers, always venturing in and out of memories of different experiences… and that perhaps the best way for us to ‘come home’ is to create it, build it with stories and tales that abstract from memory, that create new realms of belonging.
A review of Randy McCharles, Billie Milholland, Eileen Bell, and Ryan McFadden’s The Puzzle Box (Edge, 2013)
Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing
By Derek Newman-Stille
When I first came across The Puzzle Box, the first image that came to mind was Hellraiser (1987), so I was prepared for my entire reality to be distorted and changed by opening the pages of this book. Like the puzzle box itself, opening these pages changes one, alters perceptions, and changes one’s views of the world. But, it is not a Hellraiser form of change – nothing that utterly obliterates one’s sense of comfort, rather it is a creeping kind of change, a gradual insertion of a new context to reality and a series of questions that opens the mind to new perceptions. There were no ultimate horrors within, merely mysteries, enigmas, riddles…. puzzles.
Mysteries are pedagogical and solving puzzles can sometimes be more about figuring yourself out than it is about solving the puzzle itself – it can be about unlocking your own mind. The puzzle box is a nexus for various intertwining stories in this novel, tying together disparate and unconnected lives, all linked by the need to discover something new about themselves and the freeing process of self discovery. Like our memories, the puzzle box can be unlocked, finding worlds of meaning within.
Opening the box unburies secrets, particularly those that characters create for themselves by hiding things deep within their own minds. The characters in the various stories in The Puzzle Box are outsiders, people struggling for belonging. The box helps them to discover complexities within themselves that they have ignored and hidden within them.
Danger and destiny intertwine when the puzzle box is opened and the box like life itself is a mystery with no answers but also simultaneously filled with essential truths.
A few readers have expressed some interest in my academic work researching Canadian Speculative Fiction. I have sent out versions of my abstracts for upcoming conferences to people directly, but I thought it may be worthwhile for me to post them on Speculating Canada so that people can see them.
For those of you who are not from academic backgrounds, abstracts are sort of like teasers for a paper that you are going to present at a conference. They give the reader a general idea of what the paper will be about so that they can determine if they would like to attend your conference paper or not.
The abstract below is for a paper I will be presenting at the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy on June 7th in Toronto. You can explore the conference at http://www.yorku.ca/accsff/Introduction.html and determine if you would like to attend. I highly recommend it since it is of interest to academics as well as accessible for the general public.
Speculating Diversity: Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl In The Ring and the Use of Speculative Fiction to Disrupt Singular Interpretations of Place
By Derek Newman-Stille
In Brown Girl In The Ring, Nalo Hopkinson uses speculative fiction to suggest an alternative reading of the space of Toronto. In order to assert a form of belonging in a space that traditionally denies racialised and ethnic others, Hopkinson rewrites the Toronto landscape of the future. Denied a past in Canada because of the erasure of blackness from the Canadian landscape, she instead writes diversity into the Canadian future. Hopkinson uses the speculative fiction medium to take an iconic image of the Canadian cityscape, the CN Tower, and transform it through a Caribbean-inspired vodoun ritual into the world tree and pillar of the vodoun temple. Toronto becomes temporarily a space where the Loa (vodoun spirits) walk the landscape.
She transforms the Canadian landscape by disrupting notions of the set role that artifacts and architecture are constructed to represent and by suggesting another dialogic possibility. She reconfigures aspects of the traditional Canadian landscape into a traditional Caribbean landscape, marking the space as multivalent and subject to multiple interpretive frameworks. She illustrates that meanings are not static, but constantly shifting, being reinterpreted and reconfigured by new people with new ideologies and new systems of meaning. The CN Tower in Hopkinson’s proposed future Toronto is not a static thing, but is rather transformative, changing with the populations that shift in Canada. The landscape and its meanings are constantly shifting as our social and political landscapes shift and things that are traditionally Canadian, like the CN Tower are able to shift as Canada’s traditions and ideologies shift to include a more diverse group of Canadians with more diverse readings of the features of heritage.
Hopkinson sets her Toronto in the slight future, creating a city that has been ghettoised and cordoned off by the Canadian state. It has been designated an unsafe space and becomes a place where racialised people are trapped. Hopkinson plays with ideas of invisibility of difference by having her characters literally become invisible through Caribbean magic. She seems to be suggesting in her narrative that the only place that Canadian racial geographies can be transformed is in a science fictional reality.
Literature has the ability to create diverse spaces even when it seems as though it is impossible to transform the physical landscape. Speculative fiction can propose an alternative reading to the landscape and allow a space for diversity. For New Canadians, literature and the arts can become a space where the Canadian landscape can be transformed into an inclusive space that challenges dominant narratives of belonging and suggests an alternative reading of the world and its spaces. The meaning of objects can shift in the consciousness of diasporic people as they assert their own identities and prevent their erasure from the Canadian landscape. Hopkinson uses literature as a space for the assertion of the idea of home for people in diaspora.
A Review of Julie Czerneda’s Riders of the Storm (Daw, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Displacement is a factor that is prevalent in the lives of many people who have had to leave home for whatever reason. The finding of “home” is a nebulous, complex, and constantly changeable phenomena. Julie Czerneda explores the search for home in a foreign and confusing space in Riders of the Storm. On a planet with three self-aware and hugely biologically different species (the Om’ray, Oud, and Tikitik), agreements exist to keep the balance between these three peoples from shifting. Czerneda focusses on one group, a small band of travellers from the Om’ray who defy social customs by their biological differences. They threaten the balance that the Om’ray seek to maintain by the fact that they are different, that they represent change in a society that resists change and prefers to conceive of existance only in the form of living people (ignoring notions of the past). This small group of travellers are manifesting new abilities beyond the natural abilities of the Om’ray, which include telepathy, healing, collective dreaming.
The telepathy of the Om’ray has created a notion of fundamental racism. Since they are only able to telepathically sense each other, they cast all other non-Om’ray groups as “not real”. They see themselves as the centre of the world and believe that the world only exists where they are. They have created an isolated society both from other races, but also from other periods of time. They see their society as always having been the same, that history does not exist and isn’t worth exploring because it would suggest that things were capable of changing.
Aryl Sarc has been forced to become the leader for her small band of Om’ray, leading them on a journey that they believe to be impossible because it represents the possibility of change, something her society resists, and the necessity of shifting the status quo. Aryl doesn’t seek leadership, but she is a figure who represents change by her very body – she has abilities that are far beyond other Om’ray and the uncertainty within her body makes her more willing to accept uncertainties and therefore willing to confront challenges.
In a society that focusses on static notions of culture (the idea that things don’t change) and has an interest in keeping secrets, Aryl tries to make everything open to her people. She is interested in opening questions in a society that largely accepts things unquestioningly. She and her group of exiles finds an abandoned Om’ray village, one that presents the inevitability that things do, in fact, change. It represents a place for a new start and one that embodies history, opened secrets, and the challenge and potentialities of a new future that is different from the now. The uncertainty of this village, Sona, makes it an ideal place for a changeable people.
The group of exiles have to create a new sense of home in a place that is embodied by history, a history that speaks to them (literally through dreams about the past and figuratively through their need to interpret objects that have remained). Those who have been exiled out of a fear of change, now have to live with change and the flexibility, fluidity, and the general flux that is represented by an uncertain future. They seek to create an idea of belonging in a place that is different, that has history, and that keeps reminding them that things can and do change. They are haunted by the reminder that the land they are on predates them.
Aryl becomes more comfortable with ideas of change and with notions that would have been considered threats to her society. She is able to help her society to accept and be comfortable with ideas of chance. Aryl’s comfort with change makes her an ideal person to speak to people of other races – she is willing to speak to the Oud, the Tikitik, and even a human visitor to her planet. She is not restrained to notions of the Om’ray’s singularity and superior significance. She learns to be willing to accept that those who are “not real”, may in fact just be different and that intercultural communication, although uncertain and potentially confusing, is worth approaching. When trying to approach the Oud and Tikitik, she learns from the human visitor to her world, Marcus, that she will need to take into account both cultural differences and also biological differences since what is biologically normal for the Oud would be threatening for the more vulnerable Om’ray.
As outsiders wherever they end up going, Aryl’s group of exiles create community through their willingness to accept change, to create community through difference and to cooperate with others who their society traditionally resists or views as insignificant.