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/

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Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?

Do Emperors Dream of Electronic Nightingales?
A review of Michelle West’s ‘The Nightingale’ in Once Upon a Galaxy Edited by Wil McCarthy, Martin H. Greenberg, and John Helfers (Daw, 2002).
By Derek Newman-Stille

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Michelle Sagara West (here writing as Michelle West) takes Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” from once upon a time into the (un)Happily Ever After, transforming myth into science fiction. Andersen’s tale is one of nature versus artificiality, pitting the natural songs of a living nightingale against the regularity of a clockwork nightingale. Both are able to produce music, but the variety and passion of the biological Nightingale surpasses that of the artificial.

Michelle Sagara West plays with this contrast between the natural and artificial by setting her tale In the future. West introduces the nightingale to the audience first, narrating from her perspective. She is constructed entirely as an object of the Emperor, an extension of his power and a symbol of his absolute control. She lives for the Emperor, uncertain even of her own selfhood.

West plays with the Orientalism of Andersen – his portrayal of China as autocratic, distant, wealthy, and violent – by instead situating her Emperor in a galactic setting, a setting that can comment on Andersen’s racism while also allowing her tale to play with themes of autocracy, wealth, and violence without replicating Andersen’s racism. The Emperor in West’s tale has literally distanced himself from human experience by altering his body, becoming something distant and quasi-mechanical. His obsession with music arises from the power that music has to make him feel some tinge of his humanity. This is an Emperor who desires control over all things, so the power music has to present diversity, uncertainty, and fluctuation has been regulated in the form of his android songbird who has been imbued with all of the galaxy’s latest musical trends without the chaotic uncertainty of music.

West’s songbird, just like Andersen’s nightingale, submits to the Emperor, making herself an object of his pleasure and desire and an extension of his will. She is caged just as Andersen’s nightingale is, but West’s songbird is a combination of images of escape and reminders of captivity. She is trapped in a castle on a planet where flight is forbidden and, moreover, she is given wings, but forbidden to ever use them. Creating them as a symbolic reminder of her captivity. She is forbidden contact with anyone other than the Emperor, secreting a poison that is fatal to anyone but him and is programmed to only love him.

Yet, unlike the mechanical nightingale from Andersen’s tale, West’s songbird is able to hear and experience the music of a human singer, hearing her voice and opening herself to learning from this singer and therefore experiencing the intwined nature of emotion and song, the human ability to express feeling through voice. In order to learn this interweaving of song and feeling, West’s songbird has to find something inside of herself that is fundamentally foreign to her.

West plays with ideas of permanence versus ageing and mortality. West contrasts the rigidity and stagnancy that comes with permanence against the changeability that comes with mortality, allowing her artificial songbird to be emotionally awakened by a love that is born through music. West illustrates that myth or fairy tale, like song, is an expression of human mortality and is a flexible and open to fluctuations as song, allowing The Nightingale to drift from a mid 1800s tale to a tale of futurity and speculative fiction.

You can discover more about Michelle Sagara West at http://michellesagara.com

Frozen Wooden With Steampunk Horror

Frozen Wooden with Steampunk Horror

 

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction, edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

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As much a horror tale as it is a steampunk story, Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” evokes the powerlessness of youth. Heartfield constructs a community where the late mayor had built a clock with a clockwork automaton in it who seeks out any children who are awake past 7 o’clock to turn them into wood. The mayor had viewed order and control to be central to his city, believing that the best means of exerting control was to create a persistent threat to the children of the community, punishing them for disobedience of community rules that are imposed on them. Like many communities that use fear as a means of securing power, the mayor made certain that any of the children who were turned to wood would become part of the clock, peaking through the clock’s doors when the clock struck the hour. The children held within the clock were frozen in horrified immobility, able to see the world, but controlled by the mechanisms of the clock, exhibiting the horror of absolute powerlessness.

 

As much as “Seven O’Clock Man” is a discourse on the powerlessness of childhood it is also a narrative about systems of colonial power. The mayor of the city was particularly interested in controlling aboriginal children, viewing them as a threat to the order of the city. He constructed the clock in order to force his notion of decorum onto the population of aboriginal children, symbolically representing the horrors visited upon aboriginal children in the residential school system where children were similarly taken away, locked up, and subject to threats and violence all in the attempt to force children to conform to colonial cultures. Most of the children frozen in the clock were Mohawk and the man who the mayor forced to wind the clock was also a man who came from a Mohawk family – Jacques. Jacques is forced to continue to wind the clock because his son has clockwork gears installed in him that wind down if the clock is not wound.

 

Heartfield brings attention to the depression and post-traumatic stress that comes from systemic colonial control and threats when Jacques’ wife Marie-Claire (a former slave) experiences regular depressive episodes, freezing in catatonia while her husband winds the clock. Her life of horrors shapes her ability to interact with her family and her frozen state mirrors the frozen state of the statues subject to the punishment of the figure in the clock.

 

Heartfield creates a sense of creeping horror with “The Seven O’Clock Man”, evoking the fear of being made powerlessness, subject to someone else’s will, and the emptiness that flows from being denied expression.

 

To find out more about Kate Heartfield’s work, visit her website at https://heartfieldfiction.com/

 

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

 

 

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

 

 

 

Sands of Time and Landscapes of Memory

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Cover image of Nigh Book One, Courtesy of the author

A Review of Marie Bilodeau’s Nigh Book Two (S&G Publishing, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Memory, made of time and place and story, shapes Marie Bilodeau’s Nigh Book 2, a tale about the return of the faeries and the collision of human and faerie cultures. Like the first book of Nigh, this book explores the power of the slippery landscape, changing and shifting with the will of the faeries, but the fluidity of the landscape evokes a need in her characters to hold on to their identities, to hold more tightly to family, memory and what makes their lives meaningful and resist the changes that they are plunged into.

Humanity has been displaced by the intrusion of faerie into our world, but so have the faeries who have ventures from their kingdom of centuries into the human world that had cast them out and changed over time. Nigh Book 2 mixes ideas of place and belonging with a sense of uncertainty.

The faerie world runs on a different time than our own, and this mix of two times and two landscapes allows Bilodeau to explore the relationship between memory and times, places, connections, and the stories that shape our identities. The intrusion of faeries into the human world is accompanied by their intrusion into human minds and bodies – their exertion of control over humanity through their melodic voices and powerful gaze – but the allure of faeries pulling humanity in also offers an escape from memory, from guilts of the past. This second book of Nigh offers the chance for readers to look at how memory is connected to our needs, fears, anxieties, desires, and that it too is changeable like the fairy world. Bilodeau disrupts the idea that memory can be preserved and that by holding on to our memories we can resist change because encounters with faeries are always encounters with instability and fluidity.

To discover more about Marie Bilodeau and the books of Nigh, visit http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/nigh.html

To listen to an interview I conducted with Marie Bilodeau about Nigh, visit https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/03/28/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-31-an-interview-with-marie-bilodeau-about-nigh/

To read my review of Nigh Book One, visit https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/03/08/not-tinkerbell-welcome-to-the-fairypocalypse/

Cover Images of The Books of Nigh, courtesy of Marie Bilodeau

Cover Images of The Books of Nigh, courtesy of Marie Bilodeau

Sex, Drugs, and Country and Western Horror

A review of Derek McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly (ECW Press, 2003)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Hank is a country and western star looking for an image that will bring him success and Nudie is willing to assist him with an eye toward aesthetics he picked up in the carnival. Nudie recreates Hank in an image he desires, planting evidence of infidelity to cause his wife to break up with him, putting him into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic that uses extreme forms of aversion therapy, and arranging his conception of a child. Girls want to be with him and boys want to be him, but there is a price paid for fame. He is subjected to sexual assaults by Nudie, a man with a close personal relationship with bats. So strong is Nudie’s belief in his marketing of Hank that he sews a label into his spine “Design by Nudie”, claiming ownership and control over his body and his role in Hank’s fame. In the good old traditions of the West, he is branded.

McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly is told in short spurts of action which contributes to the sense of movement and the fast pace of the book. It is fast, dark, and disturbing.

The Haunted Hillbilly is a conversation between fame and freak show.

You can explore Derek McCormack’s website at http://www.derekmccormack.com/ and can check out ECW press’ website at http://www.ecwpress.com/ .

The Vampire’s Gaze

A Review of Nancy Kilpatrick’s Berserker in Vampyric Variations(Edge, forthcoming 2012)

Photo of cover provided by Nancy Kilpatrick

Nancy Kilpatrick never makes things easy for her reader or provide them with simple answers. Her creative gift is to teach through her writing and open up questions, complicating the potential answers to remind you that answers themselves are too simple and impossible – answers are the main fantasy in her works.

In the short story Berserker, Kilpatrick uses the second person to put you in the position of Dracula himself. It transposes the familiarity of your own body as the reader with the foreignness and otherness that she inscribes on you through the narrative voice – by calling Dracula “you”. Her voice in the narrative insists that you are both human and not human, just as the vampire itself is a figure that straddles the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between familiar and strange. She evokes in her reader an intense interest and insight into Dracula’s mental and psychological state. Her narrative voice inserts his voice into your mind like a voice on the shadows of your consciousness whispering thoughts into your head.

From this othered normalcy that she creates, Nancy Kilpatrick is able to help the reader to both see and also question their own modernity, their assumptions, their beliefs. She critiques modernity for the need to “know” something by putting it into a category, controlling it. She reminds the reader that this need to control or believe in the illusion of control is born out of fear of things that don’t make sense, things that defy easy categories.

But even when critiquing control and ideas about control of the self and other, Kilpatrick doesn’t make “control” an easily definable thing. There is no real escape from control and no simple solution that suggest ‘this is it, now get yourself out of it.’ She portrays Dracula’s encounter with Victorian notions of femininity and the stern and strict controls that are placed on Victorian women. Dracula asserts his vampiric powers over the Victorian woman, seeing his own wild ‘control’ as an escape from social suppression. However, the vampiric does not release women from control, only from social convention. It is not freedom, but another set of chains. Nancy Kilpatrick complicates the very notion of control itself and asks her readers if we are ever really free.

Home is a key feature in this narrative. Playing on the idea that the vampire must sleep in his or her own home soil, Kilpatrick creates a vampire who is stranded between his heart’s home that was formative in his creation, his Transylvania, and his new home of England, a controlled place that lacks the wild beauty of his native soil. The land itself is infused with blood and bloodlines, it shapes her characters, pumping itself through their veins. We are all formed by notions of home – it creates us, shapes us, and we will always lay in our own earth, even if we bring it with us riding on our emotions and soul.

But even home is unstable and when you go to a new place and taste of their blood, it flows through you.

Kilpatrick’s Dracula is disgusted at the ecological damage being done around him by science’s assertion of its own control, and she proposes that perhaps the only thing that can speak for nature is the most unnatural of creatures. By using the vampire’s gaze, the immortal gaze, she reminds the reader that nature cannot be understood or fully grasped by short-term goals – nature is ancient and requires a longer observation. Our technological progress only sees short term, immediate goals and ignores the long-term effects, but the vampire has seen ages of change and knows about the impermanency of human life and the persistence of nature. She reminds us that “The mortals have much to learn from what they deem inferior life forms.”

You can explore more about Ms. Kilpatrick and her current work on her website http://www.sff.net/people/nancyk/ . Check out Vampyric Variations on the Edge website http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/vampyricvariations/vv-catalog.html