Small Town Ontario Bodies

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (Top Shelf Productions, 2009)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Jeff Lemire’s Essex County provides a fascinating look into small town Ontario life. Rather than just fixating on the lives of the young in this coming-of-age narrative, Lemire explores the multiple times in our lives that we come-of-age and expresses the idea that we are constantly coming of age as we change and our social and bodily circumstances change. 
Lemire explores ideas of escape and settlement in small town Ontario life illustrating the way that home is something that constantly shifts and changes and is something that is made up as much of relationships to others and to traditions as it is about a physical space. Lemire complicates notions of home, portraying his characters as constantly trying to fit in but also feeling a sense of longing when they leave. 
Lemire’s exploration is about the people in Essex County, but it is also about their bodies since many of the characters become disabled at different points in the narrative, shifting their understandings of their own bodies and their bodily identities. As bodies change and shift, relationships are also altered and changed, pointing out the ways that our bodies are complicit in our understanding of our world. 
The graphic novel format of Essex County brings attention to the ways that bodies occupy spaces and the absence that they leave in the spaces they cease to occupy. 
To discover more about Essex County visit Top Shelf Productions at http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/essex-county/640

To find out more about Jeff Lemire, visit his website at http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/ 

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/

Resources

Resources
A review of Kelley Armstrong’s “The Culling” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts (Laska Media Groups Inc., 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Kelley Armstrong’s near future fiction story “The Culling” examines the relationship between resources and disabilities. Her story is set in a future where there is resource scarcity and a general lack of water and food resources and this future society decides to deal with resource scarcity by killing disabled members of that society each year. Although set in the future, Armstrong’s tale brings attention to the treatment of disability as simultaneously a resource depletion, the disabled body being treated as socially non-productive, and the eugenic attitudes that are part of modern society as much as they are part of the future or past of social treatments of disability. 

This future society uses multiple methods of de-humanizing disabled people, beginning first with the rhetoric of weakness by suggesting that society would be stronger without disabled people in it. It then treats disabled bodies as drains on society resources, acting as though disabled people are not contributors to that society. The strongest rhetoric for de-humanizing disability is to put a person with mental illness on display in front of the society, strip him down, forbid him resources for cleaning himself, and post a sign above him that states that he murdered his family because people with disabilities are a threat to others. 

Armstrong illustrates the danger of rhetoric around disability, illustrating that the portrayal of disability as unproductive and as threat can lead to social actions of ostracism and violence against disabled bodies. Her near future fiction is not only “near future” because of its temporal setting, but because it is “near” and close to present realities. She uses The Culling to symbolically represent the violence against disabled bodies – the ostracism, institutionalization, and the lack of resources given to disabled people. Armstrong brings attention to the dangers of “normalcy”, creating a society whose violence against the non-normate is deadly. She also links non-normate bodies (disabled bodies) to cultural dissent by having teachers and medical doctors consider any act of resistance to be the same as a disabled body and both be subject to termination. In doing so, “The Culling” suggests that control of disabled bodies is a form of enforced normalcy and the suppression of deviation from an external norm. She illustrates that scapegoating certain people is always a form of social control, distracting people from the controls that are placed on them by letting them direct their fears and hostilities onto another group that is already considered abject, considered Other. 

Rather than concentrating on physical disability as many speculative fiction authors do, Armstrong entwines aging, physical disability, psychological disability/mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and non-normate appearance to create a sense of connection between those bodies and minds that are seen not to belong in a society that is hyper-focussed on maintaining ideas of normalcy that Other certain bodies. 

Marisol has a family history of mental illness and her parents, fearing that she will be culled like her aunt, train her from an early age how to avoid looking different in any way in public, how to pass medical tests that are geared toward rooting out dissent, and how to pass as ‘normal’. She is always aware of the presence of systems of control that exist around her throughout her life and her need to pretend to be as normal as possible, and is more aware as she ages and becomes more aware of her own psychological disability. Yet, she is aware of the work that other people with psychological disabilities have done and is aware that the rhetoric of unproductive bodies is a social lie since she has seen the beautiful artwork produced by her aunt, who was culled for her psychological disabilities. 

It is significant that Armstrong made her protagonist a teenager both because this is the time period when most psychological disabilities become apparent, but also because teenagers are often subject to a normalizing influence, encouraged to conform, and yet are viewed as being rebellious and non-conformist. Her character is at the perfect age to invite social questions even while she is trying her hardest to fit in to a society that has already rejected her.

To discover more about Kelley Armstrong, visit her website at http://www.kelleyarmstrong.com
To discover more about Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, visit http://laksamedia.com/strangers-among-us-an-anthology-with-a-cause/ 

Grey’s SUPERanatomy

Grey’s SUPERanatomy
A review of Corey Redekop’s “SUPER” in Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe edited by Claude Lalumiere and Mark Shainblum (Edge, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Corey Redekop’s “SUPER” intertwines the medical drama with the superheroic, creating a commentary on the medicalizing of bodies that differ from a socially created norm. “SUPER” presents the reader as one of a group of doctors who are being led into a facility whose purpose is to deal with medical issues that may arise from superhero bodies. The reader is led through an introduction to the facilities and some of the specific concerns that relate to super bodies. Redekop, although playing with humour and the absurd, also plays with the hyper-real by examining the potential realities of the diverse bodies presented in traditional superhero comics from the problematic digestive issues of a body made of stone, what happens when a super body heals too much and produces new bodies out of every discarded part, and what happens when an elastic body stretches too far. He also invites questions around those issues not explored in comics like what happens when a superhero acquires an STI or how superheroes cope with erectile dysfunction. 

Redekop plays with medicalised rhetoric around disability by instead applying this to superhero bodies, bringing attention to the ways that we socially construct disability as a problem. He uses medical rhetoric like calling people “supercapables” (playing with the term ‘handicapables’) to point at the way that language often is used as a distraction from deeper social discriminations against people with different bodies. He brings attention to the way that rhetoric often replaces real social change and nifty acronyms replace accessibility. Indeed, the facility itself is called SUPER (Sanatorium for the Uberhuman Palliative, Emergency, and Restorative care), playing with the way that medical bureaucracies often apply language to new situations instead of policies of change. Bringing attention to things like palliative care and terms like “restorative”, and “sanitorium”, Redekop focuses the reader on the institutionalization of people with disabilities and the aged. He invites the question of “what happens when we no longer consider different bodies to be USEFUL bodies?”, a question that has occupied disability scholars regarding the representation of disabled bodies as only valuable when perceived as productive. 

Redekop reverses the lens of looking at disability as the Other by also ensuring that the doctors are from traditionally pathologised groups, made up of people who exhibit borderline personality disorders and “near-crippling” social phobias. The doctors would likely be treated as stigmatized people because of their psychological disabilities and be subject to all of the social oppression that other people labelled “mad” would experience. By situating the doctors as people with stigmas, Redekop breaks down the barrier that is arbitrarily created between able-bodied and disabled, or, in this case, between able-bodied and superable-bodied. He portrays the psychological disabilities of these doctors as assets, aiding in their ability to think up new medical treatments. By putting the reader into the position of one of the doctors through the second person narration, Redekop further complicates the portrayal of disability by having the reader occupy a diagnostic position, making the reader the medical authority who is learning about new bodies. 

Combining social critique and questions with his characteristic humour, Corey Redekop wields his words like a scalpel, cutting to the root of complex social questions and operating in a theatre of critical wit.

To find out more about Corey Redekop’s work, visit his website at http://www.coreyredekop.ca

To discover more about Tesseracts Nineteen, visit Edge’s website at http://edgewebsite.com/books/tess19/t19-catalog.html 

Disability and Immigration

Disability and ImmigrationA review of “Crew 255” by Claire Humphrey in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction, edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Crew 255”, Claire Humphrey uses steampunk to comment on the interrelationship between immigration, disability, and ethnicity. After an explosion of an airship in Toronto, people are brought into the city from other countries to clear the rubble and begin the rebuilding process. Emiliana is brought in along with immigrating populations from an Azorean village. The villagers are all men and Emiliana feels as though she is an outsider amongst the men not only because of her gendered difference but also because she is the only one among them with a disability. Emiliana has had prosthetic arms called “graspers” for over a decade before coming to Toronto. The graspers are made of brass, and they provide extra strength for lifting, allowing her to be a strong worker, but she needs to deal with the process of being ‘Othered’ by the able-bodied, male crew. 

Like many people with disabilities, Emiliana is faced with the challenge of staring, being constantly looked at for her physical difference. Staring is more than a passive act of looking, but is, instead, an act of treating someone as an outsider and treating their body as something that can be viewed and treated as a specimen. The act of staring tries to render the disabled body as something that is passively looked at. At times, Emiliana finds herself gazing at others who use prostheses, but when they react as though they are being stared at, she shows her own prostheses to convey the idea that she is looking at them to create a sense of community rather than staring at them. 

Unlike some narratives of steampunk prostheses, “Crew 255” is not about the prosthetic creating a superhuman. Rather, Claire Humphrey illustrates the extra time and effort Emiliana has to go through to maintain her prosthetic arms – having to regularly clean the rubble out of them, polish them, prevent them from freezing by using mittens, and keeping the joints nimble. Despite their fictional nature, her graspers convey some of the complexity of prosthetic use.

By exploring the role of Emiliana as a worker who is female and disabled, Humphrey brings attention to the current issues facing people with disabilities seeking to immigrate to Canada. Many people with disabilities have historically – and continue to be – considered to be undesirable immigrants to Canada. Tied up in this un-preferential treatment of people with disabilities are assumptions that the disabled are unable to contribute meaningfully to the Canadian economy. Governmental bodies assume that the disabled represent a potential economic drain rather than economic assets and a large part of this assumption is related to the belief that people with disabilities can’t work at the same levels as the able-bodied and therefore can’t contribute to the economy of the country. “Crew 255” resists this portrayal by instead presenting a person with disabilities working hard and organizing the labour of her colleagues. Emiliana is portrayed as a person who not only contributes to her new country, but also works in the jobs that other Canadians consider undesirable. In doing so, Humphrey points out that when people immigrate to Canada (especially when they are people with disabilities), they are often underemployed and only given jobs that are un-preferred. Emiliana and the rest of Crew 255 are working to rebuild Canada and reconstruct it, re-shaping a decimated Toronto to create a space where they can live alongside other Canadians. 

To discover more about the work of Claire Humphrey, visit her website at http://www.clairehumphrey.ca
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

Working in the Industrial Revolution

Working in the Industrial RevolutionA review of Brent Nichols’ “The Harpoonist” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille


Despite the disabling effects of the Industrial Revolution and the number of limbs lost in the desire to mechanise, most steampunk doesn’t examine the relationship of disability to the technological gadgetry that is employed in the genre. Brent Nichols’ “The Harpoonist” looks at the intersection between disability, the drive to mechanise, and labour movements. 

Alice O’Reilly has been working to change the way that labour is conceptualised in Gastown. As a woman who has been dismissed from numerous jobs due to her desire to unionise, she is aware of the impact that factories have on worker bodies, observing the repeated way that the Industrial Revolution has consumed worker bodies in the capitalist desire to produce and make as much wealth as possible. O’Reilly and other workers gathered funds together to try to create a factory that would be without bosses, totally geared toward ensuring an equal distribution of wealth in addition to safe working conditions. 

When she meets Henry McClane, she assumes that he is another person who has been disabled by unsafe working conditions and a lack of protection for workers. She assumes that his hand was damaged in a workplace accident and that he was dismissed after he was no longer able to operate the machinery, and he allows her to believe this in order to keep his past a secret. 

Brent Nichols creates a group of people who have gathered together in support of a common, community good in defence of powerful, mob-run groups that seek to maintain the wealth of the community in the hands of a few people and employ gangs to take down any competition for their own wealth. O’Reilly’s factory workers are one group of defenders of the common good, seeking to build safe working conditions and illustrate that a factory for the mutual benefit of the workers can work out. The other group of community defenders are a superhero group that employs technology to accommodate their disabilities and also to fight crime. Rather than allowing themselves to be hurt and controlled by the machinery around them, both groups seek to harness technology for their own purposes, using machinery either as a means to better support workers or as an accommodation for disability that has the added benefit of augmenting the human body. Nichols brings attention to the duality of technology – it’s ability to either work toward control and support the groups in power, or its ability to imagine new ways for oppressed people to create conditions of mutual support. 

To discover more about the work of Brent Nichols, visit his website at http://steampunch.com/index.html

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

Rejected Bodies

Rejected Bodies
A review of Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” is a tale that explores the idea of rejection, and, particularly, rejected bodies. Focused on a man named Mikkel, who carries out janitorial duties and partially survives by bringing home the discarded waste of wealthier people, “Two Year Man” examines economic hegemonies, monetary power structures that de-value the lives and existence of other people. Robson points out our own socio-economic issues by abstracting them onto a science fictional world, but the issues she represents are highly relevant for examining and critiquing our own society. This is a world of economic systems of control where survival requires the selling of one’s selfhood and self respect. 

Robson particularly highlights the complexity of issues shaping the experiences of women in poverty, exploring Mikkel’s wife Anna’s sacrifices for survival and the way that these sacrifices tie into notions of family. Anna, like many women, has to negotiate the systems of control projected at her body. In order to help her mother survive medical issues, she has to sell her ovaries. This sacrifice for her family is still critiqued by others however, because, in sacrificing her ovaries, she is then open to critiques from others based on the assumption that her primary role as a woman should be motherhood. No matter which actions she takes, she is viewed as unnatural and unnurturing.

Things are further complicated when Mikkel brings home a baby who was about to be thrown into an incinerator by the scientists in the lab that he cleans. This baby was born with talons, a beak, and challenges breathing due to her different body. She is viewed by the corporation that created her and by Mikkel’s neighbours as a tainted body and the child evokes horror by others, but adoration and love by Mikkel. When he presents the baby to Anna, expecting her to relish in the possibility of motherhood, she reacts with horror, both because of the danger of arrest for having a tainted child and because she does not want to be a mother. Robson uses this interaction to highlight the complexity of issues around motherhood, particularly for those from low income groups. She points out that there is a social assumption of a universal desire for motherhood that is projected to women and that not wanting to be a mother means being subject to assumptions that one is cold and unfeminine.

This is a tale about control – economic control and oppression of the lower classes, the conteol of women’s bodies, the way that social pressures dictate what can and cannot happen for cetain types of people. Robson brings attention to notions of the family, disability and accommodating disabled youth, the culture of rejection and eugenics, a culture of waste and highlights the complex strings that bind these ideas together and reinforce systems of control by depicting certain people as rejected.

To find out more about Kelly Robson, visit her website at http://kellyrobson.com