Here Be Monsters

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”. 

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit https://thosewhomakeus.wordpress.com

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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/

UNsettling Homelife

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. 

To discover more about They Have to Take You In, visit Hidden Brook Press at http://www.HiddenBrookPress.com

To discover more about the work of Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://ursulapflug.ca 

Sharing Darkness

A review of Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood (Dragon Moon Press, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover for Marie Bilodeau's Destiny's Blood courtesy of http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/destinys-blood.html

Cover for Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood courtesy of http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/destinys-blood.html

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.

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

To discover more about Destiny’s Blood and other books in the destiny series, visit http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/destinys-blood.html .

If you want to hear Marie Bilodeau do a short reading from the Destiny series, visit her author reading at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-9-a-mythic-night-an-author-reading-by-marie-bilodeau-and-karen-dudley/

Marie Bilodeau and Derek Newman-Stille at Sadleir House for the author reading A Mythic Night

Marie Bilodeau and Derek Newman-Stille at Sadleir House for the author reading A Mythic Night

 

Home is a Place Created in Tales

A review of Amal El-Mohtar’s Mon pays c’est l’hiver (Lackington’s issue one, Winter, 2014 http://lackingtons.com/2014/02/13/mon-pays-cest-lhiver/ )
By Derek Newman-Stille

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.

To read Mon pays c’est l’hiver, visit Lackington’s website at http://lackingtons.com/2014/02/13/mon-pays-cest-lhiver/

To discover more about Amal El-Mohtar’s work, visit her website at http://amalelmohtar.com/

Artwork for 'Mon pays c’est l’hiver' in Lackinton's issue 1 illustrated by Paula Arwen Friedlander

Artwork for ‘Mon pays c’est l’hiver’ in Lackinton’s issue 1 illustrated by Paula Arwen Friedlander

Opening the Mysterious

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

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.

To find out more about The Puzzle Box, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/puzzlebox/pzbox-catalog.html .

You can explore reviews of the individual stories that made up The Puzzle Box at:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/ch-ch-ch-changes/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/immortal-complacency

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/i-dream-of-djinn

Abstract – Speculating Diversity: Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl In The Ring and the Use of Speculative Fiction to Disrupt Singular Interpretations of Place

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.