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/

Reconnecting

Reconnecting
A review of Ursula Pflug’s “Washing Lady’s Hair” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Groups Inc., 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Ursula Pflug’s “Washing Lady’s Hair” explores a new drug or medication in a future market called Green. Taking the drug is referred to as diving and this is because it generally evokes images of sea life, drawing on the magic of the natural world and sea life. The drug inspires art in some people, but also provides an opportunity to access parts of the subconscious to find new ways to cope with post-traumatic stress. These alternative pharmaceuticals can be a way of healing, but they also contain the danger of potentially creating chronic users who use Green as an escape from reality rather than a method of seeing reality from askance to gain new perspectives on the world.

Green is connected to the exploration of ideas of the natural world, allowing users a space to see the sacred in the world around them and to explore ideas of the environment and environmentalism and Pflug creates a complex interaction between her characters and their drug use. Her characters explore ideas of the romanticism of a pre-industrial society while also levelling critiques about the capitalist control of choices in modernity and the damaging effects of industrialism both on the environment and on human agency. 

On a personal level, her character Karen is able to undergo self-healing from the sexual assaults that she experienced at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend and the damage and distance that these assaults created between Karen and her mother. Karen’s use of Green and her artistic expressions allow her to explore the complexity of feelings she has about her mother and the numinous power of Green (its ability to allow for a spiritual connection to nature) allows her to find the protective mother figure she was searching for in the form of a mother goddess. 

Like much of Pflug’s writing, “Washing Lady’s Hair” doesn’t provide any simple answers (the issues Pflug explores are far too complex for simple answers), but, rather, evokes questions for readers, asking them to interrogate their own feelings about the relationship between art and therapy, environmentalism and healing. Pflug provides a space for characters to critically question themselves and their choices and to imagine new possibilities. “Washing Lady’s Hair” is a tale of uncertainty and potential and the healing that can come with asking critical questions about the status quo.

To find out more about Strangers Among Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/strangers-among-us-an-anthology-with-a-cause/

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

Tales of Her Own

Tales of Her Own
A review of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (Joanna Cotler Books, 1997).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue casts a web around traditional fairy tales, drawing them together into one narrative thread by having a character from each tale introduce the next tale as her own. Characters both narrate and are narrated about. These are tales about the telling and about the power of narration itself to reveal, conceal, and create the self.

Donoghue invites her characters to ask who is allowed to tell their tales and who is constructed through the telling of tales. Characters resist the narrative ark of “tradition”, imagining new possibilities for their own deviation from the text. 

These are liberating fairy tales, opening up possibilities, and giving women voices in these tales where the traditional tales limited the options open to women. These are tales of shifts and changes, allowing women to chart new territories through the fairytale landscape, changing their circumstances. Often set at the cusp of womanhood, these tales explore the relationship between bodily and social transition. 

Donoghue evokes the power of witches, those othered and ostracised women, for changing the world around them, opening critical questions, and encouraging women to recognise their power. She resists the impulse to tie her stories up with a heterosexual “happily ever after”, and instead imagines new narrative possibilities, creating lesbian couples, women content to be without sexual relationships. 

Her tales reimagine Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, The Goose Girl, Rapunzel, The Snow Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid. Donoghue illustrates that an intensive knowledge of folklore allows one to play with the tropes of the tradition, imagining new possibilities. 

You can discover more about Emma Donoghue’s work at http://www.emmadonoghue.com 

Fairy Tales Estranged

Fairy Tales Estranged A review of Sandra Kasturi’s “The Animal Bridegroom” (Tightrope Books).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  
“The Animal Bridegroom” leaves a breadcrumb trail of poems to bring the reader through cultural myths and legends to a place of self-reflection. Sandra Kasturi uses fairy tale themes to open a pathway into the deep woods of myth, where she explores the changeable power of stories, their ability to shift and change like the seasons. 

In her poem “The Gretel Papers”, Kasturi invites the reader to look at the impact of fairy tales on the characters. Fairy tales normally don’t explore beyond the happily ever after, but Kasturi invites us to ponder what would happen to the young protagonist of Hansel and Gretel after Gretel has killed the witch and has to live with the long term effect of her actions. Here we encounter a Gretel who has experienced a lifetime of depression and post-traumatic stress.

In “Chaos Theory”, she explores the way that we live surrounded by myth, enwrapped in a w world of words and stories that shape us and that we can’t escape from. We are made up of the cultural stories we are told.

In “Verses for the Lost”, Kasturi uses the Red Riding Hood myth to remind all of us that we are lost in the forest and reminds us that there are no final destinations in life and that everything is always changeable (including grandmothers who wear their wolf suit on the inside).

In “Five Cantos from the Prayer Book of Aphrodite”, the reader is drawn into questions about love and its complexity, invited to imagine the diversity of love and the notion that some people’s horror is the adoration of others.

“Carnival Perpetuel” highlights that the Cinderella tale is a tale about time and the passage of time. It explores the way that we imagine ourselves into the future and, especially, highlights the way that women’s time is structured in a patriarchal world, exploring the demands on women’s time, the devaluing of women’s work, and the notion that women are always structured as existing in a temporal framework, always at risk of running out of time since women are told in our society that their value only exists so long as they are young. Kasturi teaches us about the dangers of wishing for a better life and that these wishes often serve to continue current oppressions of women.

“The Animal Bridegroom” reminds us of the significance of fairy tales and the power that narratives have to shape our lives. She brings attention to the changeability of the world and its tendency to shift the narratives we tell ourselves. Sandra Kasturi weaves a spell of words around the reader, performing a difficult type of magic – the magic of transforming the way we think about the world around us.

To discover more about “The Animal Bridegroom”, visit Tightrope Books at http://tightropebooks.com/the-animal-bridegroom-sandra-kasturi-w-introduction-by-neil-gaiman/

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

What Makes Fairy Tales So Brilliant?

By Derek Newman-Stille

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Fairy tales always exist in multiplicity, in versions. There is never one TRUE version, but rather a fluid polyphonic group with multiple voices sharing different takes on the same tale. Fairy tales possess the magic of changeability. Born in oral narratives, they have the power to shift and change with each telling, adapting to new tellers and new audiences. They resist the idea that there can be only one truth and illustrate that there are always multiple truths, each with different messages that speak to different people.

 

Fairy tales are delightfully slippery and whenever people seek to pin them down, they adapt, change, and modify themselves to speak to a new generation and a new group of people.

 

We create our fairy tales to tell us about ourselves, to learn from our own imaginative words and explore our boundaries. Fairy tales let us walk out into the darkening woods of our own subconscious and see more of ourselves, the selves that we tell into existence when we sit around a camp fire.

 

In our fairy tales, we encounter strange beings – beasts and otherworldly entities and animals that act far too much like we do – but these encounters are always with ourselves, always about us colliding with murky mirror images of ourselves, and those mirror selves always have something to share, something to teach to us.

 

Our fairy tales shift from generation to generation to capture our new ideas, interests, perspectives, and our anxieties. But what fairy tales do we need for this age? What should we be telling ourselves to learn and change?

 

Now when we venture into the woods, it is not the wolves that Red Riding Hood should fear, but they should fear us because of the damage we have done to our animal neighbours. Tales of commoners who become princesses have reinforced the oppression of women and made sure that we don’t critique wealth because so many people believe they can go from commoner to royalty, so how do we change that tale? We have told tales of desiring youth and fearing old age, so how do we switch it so that we can desire our own aging? How do we tell tales of enchanted apples when they are sprayed with chemicals and waxed?

 

We are storied animals, composed by the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and, most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves to get us through each day.

It Doesn’t Have to be ‘The Way it is’

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One of the phrases that frustrates me most is “it is what it is”. As a speculative fiction scholar and fan, when I hear these words, I hear the closing down of opportunities and the reifying of the status quo. “It is what it is” tells me that people are frustrated with the existing state of things, but are unwilling or feel unable to make changes. SF is the literature of change, a literature of new potentials and possibilities. That is not to say that it reguarly challenges the way things are because most SF doesn’t imagine new possibilities but only further entrenches existing ideas and the current structures of power, BUT it has the POTENTIAL to imagine changes, to think of new ways of understanding the world and new possibilities that challenge the world as it is. 

Today I listened to a talk by Alyx Dellamonica about environmentalism and SF in which she reminded listeners that one of the most dangerous things we can do is say “there’s nothing we can do”. She pointed out that people will often close down possibilities for imagining new ways of being in the world because we convince ourselves that substantive change is impossible and then we close down our own faculties for thinking of new ideas and new solutions to existing structures. 

I think this illustrates some of the issues I have long had about phrases like “it is what it is”. These phrases serve to support the way things currently are, serve to further entrench them. We tell ourselves that it is impossible to imagine new ideas and to think of fresh ways of understanding the world and so we support the status quo, we don’t challenge the existing authority structures that are unwelcome, unhealthy, and unsafe for so many people. 

I have the same reaction to “what can you do?”, which, despite starting with “what”, a question, has never been about asking a question, but rather providing a nihilistic rhetoric, a closing down of questioning and imagining new possibilities. I would ask us to take that question seriously, to reimagine it as an actual question. When asked “what can you do?” that we operate in the realm of the imaginative, the realm of potentials and we work on thinking about new ways of existing with and within our world. SF has this potential, but that doesn’t mean that this is exclusively the perview of SF authors. As a public, we too can SPECULATE. We can interrogate existing systems and ask what they exist for, whether new and better ideas can rise out of them, how we can substantively change, what posibilities exist, and what we can imagine our way out of and, perahps more importantly, what we can imagine ourselves into.

I am not saying that we should all walk around with utopic visions in our minds, particularly since, for many of us from disempowered groups, we so often have our utopic visions shattered, but that we keep pushing at the fringes of our society to advocate for positive changes. There is still a place for the apocalyptic in our imagination since it often allows us to articulate the way we see our worlds shaped for something other than us, a world that is fundamentally hostile to us (particularly if we are from disenfranchised groups), but it is important to remember that every apocalypse is about change, about a world in flux, and THAT has imaginative potential. Apocalypses are about recognizing that the world is no longer able to support an existing way of being and they call on us to imagine a new possibility, a new method of understanding a changing and changeable world. 
SF can be a way of critiquing the world as well as a way of imagining a new world, new possibilities, and a change to look at our own world from askance to see the things that we ignore, push aside, choose not to contemplate so that we can exist in a world of “it is what it is”. How do we use SF to imagine a world that ISN’T “what it is”? 

Titanic Clashes

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Clash  

A review of Chadwick Ginther’s Too Far Gone (Ravenstone, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Too Far Gone, the final book in the Thunder Road Trilogy by Chadwick Ginther brings together the threads of transformation that have been woven throughout the trilogy. Ted Callan, body tattooed by Dwarves and inheriting the powers of several Norse gods, has straddled the border between myth and superhero throughout the series, playing with the border between ancient myth and modern. Ted begins to embody another aspect of the superhero tradition – a conflict between his superhero identity and his civilian identity. Ted returns home to Alberta and has to cope with the clash of his past and present, his civilian and superhero selves coming into conflict as Ted temporarily buries his power under the performance of human normativity. Even Ted’s tattoos are transformed from Norse symbols to generic tattoos, allowing his appearance to change while his identity does. This may not be a superhero unmasking, but rather is a superhero unmaking, a suppression of difference under the guise of normalcy and mundanity.

Too Far Gone is a text of change involving the clash of past and present and disparate identities. It is a transformative text and this transformative background is not only illustrated through Ted’s changes but through the changes he evokes in others as he realises that his behaviours have consequences for everyone around him. The topic of change is played out through Ted’s engagement with his identities, but it is further complicated by the presence of Loki in the text and Loki’s trickster quality. Loki is fluid, changeable, able to fluctuate through identities and interested in playing multiple parts. Loki can fluctuate in gender, appearance, and personality over time. S/he is mostly identified through his/her smile, a feature that instantly identifies the Trickster quality of the god/dess. Loki also represents the conflict of time periods, both an ancient Norse god from the time before Ragnarok and a potential future for a new way of looking at the world. Loki becomes an embodiment of the uncertain, the changeable, and the chaotic, simultaneously Ted’s greatest ally and greatest threat, and this uncertainty and vulnerability only increases the stakes Ted invests in his friend.

Ted is pulled between nostalgia and the desire for change, with past and present conflicting. Being back in Alberta, where he first encountered the monstrous Surtur who was responsible for his introduction into the world of Norse magic, Ted is forced to explore ideas of closure while also facing consistent reminders that he has changed so much that the things that were familiar, comfortable, and normal for him can no longer exist. He recognizes that the familiar, easy idea of home that serves as a comfort to others only reminds him of all that he has lost and how much he has changed from the type of person who could have a home or normal life. This return to Surtur and final conflict is one with the power to change the face of the world and nothing is certain any longer in this world of collisions between past, present, and future. Myth and real life collide to remake ideas of what is normal, comfortable, and taken-for-granted. 

To discover more about Too Far Gone, visit Ravenstone’s website at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/spec-fic/too-far-gone.html

To find out more about Chadwick Ginther, visit his website at http://chadwickginther.com