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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What Happens When the Magical Girl Grows Up?

A review of Nicole Chartrand’s Shattered Starlight # 1 
By Derek Newman-Stille

We’ve probably all heard of “Magical Girl” stories – figures like Sailor Moon. “Magical Girl” stories generally feature teens who are suddenly called upon to fight forces of evil, given superpowers and magical items, and through their fights learn about responsibility, friendship, and the power of community. But.. what happens when the “Magical Girl” grows up? 
Nicole Chartrand’s Shattered Starlight comic explores a woman who used to be a Magical Girl and has grown up. She still has her powers and her mystical hockey stick, but she also has all of the issues of an adult – having to deal with problematic bosses, watching friendships change and fade as people get older and find out new things about themselves, and dealing with moral grey areas. 

Arcturus, Guardian of Heaven contrasts with many of the magical girl tropes. Her magical handler is an alcoholic who no longer provides much in the way of guidance. Her teammates have mostly gone their separate ways, challenging the Magical Girl trope of community and friendship. Now everything is about to change for her. Her role as a Magical Girl turned woman is shifting and she is told by her boss that she should think of the change in her role as being like a new job.

Chartrand wrote and illustrated the comic, illustrating her proficiency at both. The characters, drawn with huge eyes and expressive faces as well as incredible costumes evoke the golden age of Magical Girl stories, and also show how hard it is for Arcturus to fit in with her contrastingly simple outfit. At times she is overwhelmed by walls of previous magical girls in typical costumes, dwarfing her and portraying her as a small part of a larger tradition. Chartrand illustrates the complicated fit of Arcturus in this world of magical girls. 

To discover more about Shattered Starlight and Nicole Chartrand, visit http://www.shatteredstarlight.com/about/

Although this is a review of the physical first issue of the comic, you can read the webcomic at http://www.shatteredstarlight.com

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.