All The World is a Stage

A Review of Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Come Like Shadows (Coteau Books, 1993)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As someone who has done stage acting, Welwyn Wilton Katz’ Come Like Shadows spoke to my experience of the stage, and added a little bit of magic in addition to the already potent magic of the theatre itself. Set at the Stratford Festival during a production of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows evokes the play between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, bringing home the point to the reader that ‘truth’, ‘history’, and ‘knowledge’ are all as constructed as the stage – just sets and trappings of performance.

In theatre, naming the Scottish Play, or the Thane is taboo. Macbeth is seen as a cursed play, and speaking the name “Macbeth” in a theatre outside of the production itself is believed to bring disaster on any production. When the Stratford Festival decides to stage ‘the Scottish Play’, disaster happens – a series of unfortunate events involving the death of actors, stage fires, and general tragedies both on and offstage. Actors and performance are brought into a historical assemblage, players in a curse that was created when the historical figure of Macbeth decided to interrupt a pagan ceremony by three ‘witches’ who sought to regain their youth by entering into a mirror. When Macbeth intentionally changes their spell for youth, replacing the spell’s words “Two into one. Find through this glass a future for thy past that the name of the Goddess be remembered” into “Two into one. Find through this glass a past for thy future that the name of Macbeth be remembered” and both he and the eldest of the witches, the Hag, are pulled into the mirror and projected into the future, stuck in the glass.

The Hag, now a manifestation of rage spends centuries torturing Macbeth in the mirror, locking the two into an eternal combat. When she discovers that a bard by the name of William Shakespeare is trying to honour the memory of the Thane with a play, she changes his words, making Macbeth into a villain so that rather than fame, Macbeth’s name becomes associated with infamy. She inscribes words of magic into the play to attract her sisters, the Maiden and Mother, with the hope that the other two witches might be able to free her from the mirror. From that moment onward, the play becomes a nexus of strange, magical events.

Kincardine (Kinny) O’Neill, named after a small Scottish town that her father once visited, wants to become an actress. When she finds out that she has an internship with the Stratford Festival, she jumps at the opportunity, particularly since her mother’s friend Jeneva is directing Macbeth this year… only to become horrified when Jeneva decides to use the text of Macbeth to launch her own attack on French Canadians (whose rights Kinny had been defending).  Canadian identity, Kinny’s own coming of age, and the path of history intersect in the performance, evoking the power of performance for speaking about issues of identity nationally, personally, and historically.

Kinny meets Lucas, born French Canadian but having adopted a completely American identity for himself out of embarrassment at his French heritage and due to teasing from American children who see him as a humourous Other.

When shopping for props for the performance, Kinny and Lucas find a mirror at a local antique store that draws both of their attention. The mirror shows the two of them the past and Macbeth’s encounter with the witches. It offers Kinny power and magic, and offers Lucas a glimpse of the historical figure of Macbeth that he wishes to one day play. Both become obsessed with the mirror – Kinny out of fear of what it could offer her, and Lucas out of obsession with the ‘truth’ behind Macbeth. Both are horrified at Jeneva’s appropriation of the play for her own purposes and the distortions that she brings to the performance in order to further her own ends rather than discover some fundamental truths in the act of performing. For both youths, theatre should be an act of self-discovery, but theatre is also a place of appearances, of distortions.

The Maiden and Mother involve themselves in the play, manipulating the performance itself as well as the fates of those involved, making the world a stage for their own desires. Like the mirror itself, the play becomes a reflection not of truth but of their desires and the desires of those who gaze into it, drawing them into webs of control. Past and present, truth and falseness, reality and lies all become implicated and interwoven in the play and issues of identity are challenged and complicated. Whenever characters try to change the path of their destinies, they are brought further under the control of the three weavers of fate, losing their free will during every attempt they make to express it. Like Macbeth himself, characters are trapped into pre-ordained actions and roles, deprived of agency before Fate’s power. Like a pre-written performance, everyone is assigned to their roles, acting out their lives under the influence of a director.

Katz brings the essence of Shakespeare’s play into a modern Canadian environment and a coming of age story, exploring the way that identity becomes subsumed by choices and the perception that there is a lack of choice. Like the clashing of Scottish and English interests in the play, she writes about a time when Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians battled about notions of identity and the place of French Canada within an overwhelming Anglo majority. Like Macbeth, Kinny and Lucas feel that they are trapped into hopeless fate, their identities subsumed by a fate that they see as larger than themselves. Like the Scottish Play, notions of sacrifice and suffering end up being for nothing, never allowing freedom from the restraints placed on the characters.

Katz recognises that acting can be a form of possession and that actors can lose themselves in their roles, in the performative act. It is only through the performance that Kinny and Lucas can see themselves as they perform aspects of the Other. They come of age through the act of suffering, through the act of loss and the heightened awareness that, like those of Macbeth, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the most harm.

To find out more about the work of Welwyn Wilton Katz, you can visit her website at http://www.booksbywelwyn.ca/ .

Graphic Noir

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor, Alison Kooistra, and Michael Wyatt’s The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (Annick Press, 2013, Toronto)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been finding comics unsatisfying in recent years because too many of them have been cutting down on dialogue. I tend to like a lot of dialogue and narrative movement in a graphic novel, so I was excited to see that the graphic adaptation of Drew Hayden Taylor’s novel The Night Wanderer blended text and image effectively, creating a complete story.

Alison Kooistra’s adaptation of Hayden Taylor’s novel pulls out the effective characteristics of the novel and presents a complete story. This is a story about two entwined lives – one beginning and one reaching its completion. It has been 300 years since the man calling himself Pierre L’Errant has returned home to Otter Lake. The world has changed drastically. 300 years ago, L’Errant was an Anishinaabe youth who sought adventure and left his home with the pale faced visitors to his land.  When he arrives in Otter Lake, he meets with Tiffany, a young woman who is bored of res life at the Otter Lake reserve and seeking adventure. As a vampire, L’Errant has 300 years of knowledge to share with Tiffany, wisdom from the past. Two periods of time intersect as L’Errant explores his own history and connection to the landscape he left while teaching Tiffany to appreciate the place she calls home and not to move too quickly away from her land or lose touch with the history of her place.

Tiffany has to cope with the multiple pulls on her identity, the pull on her identity from school, friends, and boyfriends. Only a vampire can bring her the history of her place to realise what has changed and what remains the same and to share with her his curiosity about the land he called home. His passion to return, to re-visit the place of his youth and humanity permeates the novel, inviting the reader into the longing for home that people in diaspora have. Being a vampire means that L’Errant is pulled in multiple directions from multiple longings – the desire to find home and to complete his life in a place where his identity was shaped… and, of course, the longing for blood, something attached to his life in Europe when he was transformed into a vampire. His return has caused him to fast, to hold back his urge for blood and focus on finding his place in his significantly changed home.

Michael Wyatt’s art work blends effectively with the message of the story. The grey scale he uses for the novel lends an air of the gothic to these pages, and makes the red of blood stand out more… and the red of the vampire’s eyes. These sharp strikes of red become more potent for the viewer. An abundance of colour would have lost the shock and power of the vampire’s reaction to blood and his fundamental difference and otherness. In the splashes of red, the viewer is invited into the attention that the blood evokes from the vampire, making it ever-present and visually alluring.

Since most of the novel takes place at night, the use of grey shades evokes the feel of night to the graphic novel, pushing the viewer into the indistinctness of dusk and the uncertainty that comes with a story full of change and surprise.

Change is a significant part of Hayden Taylor’s story and Wyatt effectively uses his artwork to invite viewers to see the multiple juxtapositions of the current era (Tiffany’s time) and the past (L’Errant’s place of origin). He uses fog across panels to invite the reader to see the presence of change, and overlays panels from modernity over the past and vice versa to show that time is layered and that the past always dwells beneath the surface of the present. This layering is effective when L’Errant is uncovering items from his time period and sharing them with Tiffany: arrowheads, rocks that were once sacred and have been the seat for multiple people’s bottoms over time as they contemplated their place in the universe. Hayden Taylor’s story and Wyatt’s artwork highlight the changeability of the landscape and remind the reader that the stones we touch and the environments we inhabit have history.

The vampire in this narrative serves as a reminder of the fact that although landscapes and situations may change, there are always things that stay the same, hauntings from the past that we need to pay attention to – reminding us that people have been experiencing the same struggles and challenges before and will again in the future.

To find out more about The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel, visit Annick Press’ website at http://www.annickpress.com/Night-Wanderer-A-Graphic-Novel-The

To read more about the work of Drew Hayden Taylor, visit his website at http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com/

To discover more about the artwork of Michael Wyatt, visit his page on the Annick Press website at http://www.annickpress.com/author/Mike-Wyatt .

Behind the Wallpaper of the World

A review of Michelle Barker’s The Beggar King (Thistledown Press, 2013)

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author


By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Beggar King, Michelle Barker explores the potential of the fantasy medium for creating a deep coming-of-age story. Jordan is a boy on the cusp of adulthood and in his society youths his age normally receive a talent, a gift that will help them to determine their career – either they are good at firing arrows, have an aptitude for prophesy, or some other gift that will allow them to chose a career path. But, Jordon’s gift hasn’t appeared yet. He has an ability to leap from building to building, and a skill at stealing from the marketplace, but what he really wants is a clear talent and an uncomplicated path to the future. But things keep getting more complicated for him.

Jordan encounters the dark figure from his culture’s mythology, the Beggar King, a being who uses undermagic, a forbidden type of magic that has been locked away because it could only be used for evil purposes and tended to turn on those who used it. Shortly after he first sees this dark figure, his community is invaded by the Brinnians, people who not only don’t respect his people’s traditions, but actively engage in activities that would be considered sacrilegious – hanging dead bodies from their sacred tree, killing sacred deer, and burning their sacred book.

When these invaders threaten to kill his mother, Jordan is told by friends and the Beggar King that he should consider opening the door to the undermagic that has been locked away in order to use its power to free his people.  Jordan is caught between a feeling that it is his cultural and religious duty to rid his community of invaders who engage in sacrilege and his knowledge that if he opens the door to the undermagic, he may be engaging in a sacrilege greater than any that these invaders could bring. Jordan discovers that he is one of the few who has the power to open the door to the undermagic – he has been given the gift to retreat outside of the world and disappear, he is the only one who can cross the Bridge of No Return that only the Beggar King can cross, and he has already opened the door to the undermagic a tiny crack…. he is uniquely positioned to either be the saviour of his people or bring about their downfall, and both friends and the Beggar King are playing on his desire to be exceptional, to prove himself, and to have a place in society by encouraging him to make a name for himself by opening the door to the undermagic. He discovers that some doors open for us, and some doors open within us.

This is a book about the in-between, that place that teens occupy as they search for identity as adults while rejecting their childhood identity. The in-between nature of this book stretches out into the position of Jordan as a person who is between the living and the dead when he crosses behind “the wallpaper of the world” to disappear as well as being the person who can open the doorway to the undermagic. He walks in those in-between places, hopping from rooftop to rooftop as he travels, and when he gains the power to become invisible, in the world between the places of our world and the underworld. But, the Holy City of Cir is itself a place betwixt and between – it is an island that can only be reached by bridges, and each bridge can only be crossed at certain times, with certain thoughts and behaviours – each bridge requires the individual to be in a certain mindset before it allows him or her to cross, whether that mindset is mischievous, meditative, or another frame of mind. When it becomes invaded, the Holy City of Cir becomes further liminal, being a place both of the Cirrans and the competing cultural influence of the invading Brinnians. It has become a city in the midst of a clash between traditional religion and the new capitalist imperialism brought by the Brinnians. Jordan is also in a morally liminal place, pulled in different moral directions and stuck with uncertainty about magic and undermagic because of the presence of these moral and cultural Others.

The Beggar King reinforces this ambiguity, being both a figure that is in inside and outside of the world, appearing on its fringes, but unable to appear to everyone (only to those suited to open the gateway to the undermagic). Even the term Beggar King is liminal, positioning him between poverty and wealth. Before attaining the power of undermagic, the Beggar King was a sin eater, a scapegoat for his culture who had to eat food that was filled with the sins of the households he begged from.

Using these liminal characteristics, Barker suffuses her world with the inherent contradictions that come with youth and the transition to adulthood – the uneasiness and questions that come with transformation and change. Although early in the narrative, prophets see Jordan as a ‘little boy wearing too-big shoes’, his encounters with other aspects of the fringes, other betwixt and between spaces, helps him to grow into those shoes and face an uneasy destiny rather than the one of ease and fame which he would have chosen. He discovers that one never knows the full picture and that when one acts unilaterally, even when he thinks it is the best thing for his community, he brings greater trouble to them. Only by accepting his role as a member of a greater community and recognising the diversity of skills and strengths within the people around him can he gain a complete understanding of the situation that faces him and take actions that are in support of others rather than in service to his own desire to be famous. By observing the emperor who has conquered his territory as well as his own choices, he comes to understand that arrogance is one of the greatest forms of ignorance.

To discover more about Michelle Barker’s work, visit her website at http://michellebarker.ca/ . To pick up a copy of The Beggar King, visit  Thistledown Press at http://www.thistledownpress.com/index.cfm .

Clear Cut Future

A review of Susan J. MacGregor’s Evergreen (in Urban Greenman. Edited by Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine. Edge, 2013).

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

By Derek Newman-Stille

The quest for self-discovery can be painful and difficult and often people who seek to discover themselves encounter questions that they don’t want answered, murky areas that they fear to look too deeply into. When Cat’s grandmother does a card reading for her, she shies away from the tough parts of the future that are revealed. She doesn’t want to reveal that she is conflicted about her future, and she is unwilling to peer too deeply into what her future can hold – should she go to law school or get a government job until she figures herself out? She is still sorting through her values and fears the transformative potential of making a decision too soon….

But, decisions sometimes occur when we least expect them to, when events coalesce around us and push us into an avenue we least considered. As Cat’s grandmother predicts, she is pushed by circumstance into a meeting with a man who will change her life and cause her to question her relationship to the world around her. She is asked to explore her roots… literally, and is transformed into a tree by her new companion, able to question her relationship to the world around her and explore her values. He seeks to transform her into a tree in order to paint her suffering, to explore the human intersection with the environment and evoke human compassion for our natural world… but the lack of compassion that already exists means that workers try to clearcut the forest that Cat has been entreed in.

In order to save herself, she must question the logic that she has applied to her life, her relationship to the natural world, the ideas she has taken for granted, and eventually determine her future’s course (if she survives to have a future).

Sometimes we need to transform literally to transform our way of thought, and Cat discovers that she needs to become something else to discover what she wants to become.

To read more about Susan J. MacGregor, visit her website at http://suzenyms.blogspot.ca/ .

Upcoming interview with Leah Bobet on Wednesday March 20th

I met Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. After chatting with her about her work, I wanted to share some of her insights with readers. You will have a chance to hear from her about her involvement in politics, studies of intersectionality, advocacy, supporting local food initiatives, disability, and the need for self-narrativisation on Wednesday, March 20 . It is great to see an author who is also involved in advocacy work, and her SF writing has a role in advocating for further diversity.

Cover photo of Above courtesy of http://www.leahbobet.com/fiction.html

Cover photo of Above courtesy of http://www.leahbobet.com/fiction.html

In our interview, Leah Bobet discusses narratives of community, the dialogue between reader and writer and how this is influenced by their own experiences, trauma, writing people and not making characters into representatives of groups,

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Leah Bobet: “Stories about kids in wheelchairs always had them sidelined as assistants to the nice, smiling, able heroes.  So one of the goals I had for Above was to write a story where disabled people were the heroes and the able people got to die tragically for their cause.”

Leah Bobet: “I think the role of speculative fiction in confronting bias depends very strongly on the reader, the book, and whether they’re ready for each other on the day they meet.”

Leah Bobet: “Books have made me question my biases and move past them.”

Leah Bobet: “Reading, to me, is a dialogue.  It’s a conversation between the ideas in the book and the ideas in the reader’s head, and then you see how well they meet in the middle.”

Leah Bobet: “I think stories basically are the defining factor of a community.  Identity’s a funny thing: We tell stories about ourselves (and others, and that’s where we get stereotyping), and when we compare those stories and they come up the same, we decide we’re the same.  Community is shared stories.  Community splinters when our worldviews – the stories we tell about the world – get too far apart.”

Leah Bobet: “The stories I was thinking of when I wrote Above were First Nations stories; the loss of language, poverty, colonial barriers, high suicide rates, and general slow genocide going on in our cozy little first-world country….The Idle No More movement has brought a lot more attention to those stories in the last few months, and I’m really hoping it doesn’t die in the next news cycle.  It’s too wrong, and it needs too much discussion, action, and righting.”

Leah Bobet: “Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves.  It’s always worth asking why.”

Leah Bobet: “Each individual author’s such a unique mix of their own influences, interests, and passions that I don’t know if the idea of national literatures can stay as it traditionally has: some notion of a geographical “character” that influences the stories we tell.”

Leah Bobet: “We’ve just gravitated to the stories that resonate with who we are, instead of telling stories and using tropes that are bounded by the place we were born.”

Leah Bobet: “Me writing young adult books actually happened entirely by accident!  When I wrote Above, it was in my mind an adult novel.  It was only in having my agent point out that there was a coming-of-age arc, as well as a young protagonist, in Above that I even entertained the notion that it could be published as YA.”

Leah Bobet: “Read fiction and non-fiction stories from and about diverse people: people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, people whose religion is different from yours.  Think critically about them, and do some informed imagining of what the world’s like from their perspective.”

Leah Bobet: “I was a little nuts for the mythic when I was a kid – mostly Greek, Roman, and Inuit stories – because my childhood culture didn’t have a great sense of magic, and I wanted magic very badly.”

If you have not had a chance to read Leah Bobet’s work, you can check out my review of her novel “Above” at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/empowering-the-freak/ and can explore her website at http://leahbobet.com/

 

Bewitched, Beloved, and Between Worlds

A review of Noah Chinn’s Bleeding Heart Yard: A Damned Love Story (Mundania Press, 2011)
By Derek Newman-StilleBleeding_Heart_Yard

Werewolves and witchcraft meet alternative worlds in Noah Chinn’s Bleeding Heart Yard: A Damned Love Story. Chinn explores the pervasive power of myths and myth-building, looking at how places come to be associated with mythical explanations, the way children will create urban myths to explain spooky occurrences, and how games and stories can engage in mythologising.

The dichotomy between real and fiction is challenged, puncturing the boundary between the physical and the mythic and putting the reader in a space between the urban world and the fantastic.

For the first time in his life, Peter is able to hit a home run, right through the local witch’s window. Curse and blessing play together as Peter finds a lifetime friendship with the witch’s son despite acquiring a lifetime curse from the witch herself. The key to true cursing pain is to mix blessing and curse, which is why Peter is cursed to be able to find his true love but to only be able to speak to her in swear words. The mixture of curse and blessing define this world – everything is a mixed blessing for the characters – want to believe in the magical world? Excellent, meet a werewolf that wants to kill you.

A werewolf finds a passage through into this world, a virtual buffet of unprepared populace – a world without magic and without defenses. But, this world is not as it seems, there is a strange figure in the sky, a white circle that disrupts his ability to maintain the shape of his prey and forces him back into his natural shape. Now, all he wants is to get home.

Noah Chinn plays with boundaries: the boundaries between worlds, between curse and blessing, between myth and reality. Bleeding Heart Yard: A Damned Love Story forms a liminal place, an ambiguous and shadowy place where characters are forced to face aspects of themselves they would like to keep hidden and come to terms with ideas of home and family that don’t always meet their expectations.

You can explore Noah Chinn’s website to see what projects he is currently working on at http://www.noahjdchinnbooks.com/. To explore more about Bleeding Heart Yard: A Damned Love Story, visit the Mundania Press website at http://www.mundania.com/book.php?title=Bleeding+Heart+Yard

Sometimes Research Bites…

A review of Kelley Armstrong’s The List in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications, 2012) and Evolve Two (Edge, 2011).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

In The List Kelley Armstrong re-introduces Toronto vampire Zoe Takano (from Broken, “Zen & the Art of Vampirism,” and “Learning Curve”) with her characteristic wit and sarcasm. Zoe finds herself (fortunately) absent from a researcher’s list of ‘vampires’ in the Toronto area. When Zoe discovers that the anthropologist who wrote the paper (a combination of anthropological studies on vampirism and a study of the disease porphyria) is giving a lecture in Toronto, she decides to take her friend and former attempted murderer/vampire slayer  Brittany (yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is certainly lurking in this character’s formation) to the lecture to help to stir her interest in higher education.

Armstrong explores what happens when real vampires meet ‘wannabes’, youth who have taken on the identity of the vampire to form their notions of selfhood and create themselves from creative fiction. This particular story focuses on the idea of identity formation and its importance for youth both with Zoe trying to help Brittany find a path for the future, and with the general desire of the attendees to the lecture (mostly young adults) to find their identity in the fiction of the vampire.

With Ms. Armstrong’s classic Joss-Whedonesque humour, she intertextually mocks Twilight when one of the characters asks Zoe “Can you sparkle?… I hear that’s what real vampires do these days.” This itself is a commentary on youth culture and the role of fiction in identity formation, interacting with the main plot of the story around Brittany’s quest for identity and a future. Unlike those around her, Brittany is not interested (any longer, since she used to want to be a Vampire Slayer) in constructing her identity based on fictional archetypes like Buffy, but is rather interested in finding her own role in the world and exploring the truth of the fantastical world around her.

The role of identity in this tale is not limited to Brittany’s experience. Zoe also engages in a dialogue of identity when she discusses the role of heritage in the lecture. She mentions that this lecture on the vampire (her people) reminds her of hearing samurai stories in her youth as her grandfather explained her heritage:  “Vampire folklore is the same – thrilling, vaguely accurate accounts of my race’s history”. Armstrong illustrates that notions of identity from heritage are significant, but are always going to be partially idealised and laced with fiction.

The context of the story around an academic lecture is significant itself as university has become, in many senses, Canadian society’s ‘coming of age ceremony’ and the quest for self-discovery that youth engage in to become considered adults. But this story also explores another role of academics: the role of academics in shaping and creating notions of heritage through their research into history (and in this case folklore). She reminds academics of the role that they play in identity formation and notions of selfhood, but she makes that risk a real threat on the body of the professor by having him encounter a student who is violent in their assertion of a vampiric identity. Armstrong reminds us that identity is a big issue for youth and that our discussions of identity questions can have harmful effects.

This story reminded me of an encounter after a lecture I gave on the topic of the werewolf, where, following the lecture I was asked by a biology student “So, how do you conduct your research… Do you set up a blind and go into the field like a biologist would.” I replied “Well, since werewolves are fictional, I suppose I do a lot of fieldwork in books. They sort of serve as a blind because the characters can’t actually see me…” I realised after this encounter that it was basically a plot starter for a horror film – where the researcher says “I don’t believe in monsters” and almost inevitably the monster proves their existence.” From that moment on, I started introducing my lectures with “I don’t believe in monsters, but if there are any monsters in the audience, please accept my apologies for this statement and understand that I am willing to re-assess my opinion without needing to be bitten”.

Note to other researchers: beware of putting yourselves into plot lines for horror movies by accident.