Beyond the Pale (Vampire)

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

One type of vampire story tend to flood the market – the sexy male vampire who is iridescently pale, wealthy, and feeds on women in an erotic embrace. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has again and again demonstrated her love for horror, but also her desire to shift the tired old narratives, dust off the layers of racism and sexism to find new narratives. Certain Dark Things is a revitalization of the vampire narrative, allowing it to kick off the detritus of the past to tell some new stories. 

Moreno-Garcia sets her story in Mexico City in contrast to the vast number of vampire narratives set in the United States or the United Kingdom. Her vampires are not the pale, white European figures of vampire romances, or, at least not all of them are. Her narrative focuses on Atl, a Tlahuihpochtli, an indigenous vampire of the Mexico region who can trace her lineage back to the Aztecs. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires have multiple different subsets, each with different characteristics and hailing from different geographies, and often the only thing they share in common is their hunger for blood. There are European vampires in her narrative, calling themselves Necros and fitting most of the characteristics of the vampires that generally populate the pages of paranormal romance novels, but these vampires are not sexy, otherworldly beings. They control human beings through their bite, which can turn human beings into slaves, without any will. 

Moreno-Garcia explores displacement narratives in her interactions between the Tlahuihpochtli and the Necros, exploring the way that the European Necros brought diseases with them when they came to Mexico and have been trying to push the Tlahuihpochtli out of their native landscapes. She makes connection between this displacement by Europeans and historical displacements of human indigenous populations by Europeans. The Necros brought pathogens with them that made the blood of many humans intolerable to the Tlahuihpochtli, and with the rise of a new disease Croneng’s disease, the government has decided to create sanitation groups whose goals seem to be as much about harassing the homeless population and institutionalizing people with disabilities as they are about dealing with the spread of a pathogen. 

Health is a huge part of Moreno-Garcia’s narrative. Uniting the vampire with ideas of health is powerful since the vampire is often a figure of excessive health, and yet, in most vampire narratives, vampirism spreads like a pathogen. In Certain Dark Things vampirism is an ethnicity, a genetic group and cannot be passed from one person to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the health narrative Moreno-Garcia explores. She examines the role of institutionalization and its impact on populations in poverty, exploring the way that health and wealth often go hand in hand. The bite of the Necros vampires, although not able to turn someone into a vampire, does take away all of their agency, turning them into a slave through a viral contagion in their saliva that will eventually kill the human host. All vampire species are hard to kill and long-lived, but one of the other vampire species is especially known for its interaction with health – the Revenant. The Revenant subspecies is exceptionally long-lived, and can feed on both blood and the life force of others. These Revenants seem to de-age when they are infused with enough life force, appearing younger, and in creating them, Moreno-Garcia plays with the traditional narrative of the person who gains eternal youth by becoming a vampire. These vampires always look somewhat disabled no matter how young they become, still having a hunched appearance, complicating ideas of the excessive ability of the vampire and the ableism that often comes along with this portrayal of the vampire. Many of the governments in the world of Certain Dark Things perceive of vampires as a plague even though they are a racial group, and this complicated relationship between ideas of health, illness and race bring attention to the way that in our own world there is often an assumption that illnesses come from outside, which affects travel, immigration, and often means that any pathogens that arise are eventually believed to come from other regions. 

Certain Dark Things doesn’t create a romantic story of wealth, but rather explores poverty. Her central human character, Domingo, is a street teen who has made his living collecting and purposing garbage. Domingo relishes his invisibility, the way people work to ignore him and pretend that he isn’t there because it is easier to do so than to admit that there are homeless young people. Yet, in pointing out the invisibility of homeless Youth, Moreno-Garcia brings it to the reader’s attention, reminding us of how hard we work to ignore social inequalities. This is a story of drug cartels, poverty, government and police abuses of power, and the monstrousness of corruption itself, which is a far more dangerous monster than Atl or her vampire cousins. But, she does use the figure of one Necros vampire, Nick, to point out the excesses of privilege that come with wealth and whiteness, having Nick frequently prioritize himself over anyone else, having him eat in excess, and showing the ease with which he exercises his power over women around him, particularly marginalized women. 

Certain Dark Things disrupts the Eurocentrism of vampire tales, providing an under-represented tale that needed to be told. 

To discover more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, visit her website at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ 

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Valuing Care

A review of Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As a society, we undervalue care and undervalue care workers. We tend to assume that people who do care work are doing it because they like helping people and we assume that the job is compensation enough. Even in the home, we de-value family members who provide care, viewing their care work as something that doesn’t need compensation. Care work is consistently treated as though it is not real labour and isn’t valued or compensated for. 

Part of this lack of value for care work stems from patriarchal beliefs that position care work as a feminine labour and therefore de-value it the same way that patriarchy de-values anything viewed as feminine. 

Care work has been in need to reimagining for some time. It has needed a fundamental disruption of social assumptions and a re-evaluating of the meaning of this labour. Using the medium of speculative fiction, a genre devoted to asking questions, Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound brings together stories that critically interrogate the way that we imagine care and care-giving. These stories take a broad exploration of what care can mean, looking at parental care, long term care homes, social responsibilities for care, foster care, maternal care, elder care, medical care by doctors and nurses, the care relationships of pets, and even the care roles of insectile species’ (since care isn’t just a human trait). These stories examine complexities of care that are critical to this culture moment such as what is the value of care?, what difference does quality care make?, what is quality of life?, is care the role of home or the state?, what are the gendered dynamics of care-giving?, why do we de-value care-givers?, how much responsibility should parents have in the care of their children?, and what is the role of robotics in care? These are all critical questions that are in need of complex and creative answers and The Sum of Us invites readers to think critically about them. It doesn’t introduce easy answers about care-giving, but instead invites readers to explore often contrary ideas about care, asking readers to come up with their own critical questions and creative answers to the meaning of care.

These are tales of robots, aliens, insects, future wars, supervillains, nanites, other worlds, plagues, and mutants, but at their core, these are all tales about what caring means, and these are real, human questions. They may be explored through the lens of the alien, but they are fundamentally about human values and what care means to us. Sometimes the only way to get us to ask critical questions about the way that we value (or de-value) caring labour is to project our modes of care onto another, onto the future, onto another society, onto the inhuman so that we ask ourselves “if this makes us upset when we see an alien doing it, what does it mean that we are doing the same thing?”

To read some of the reviews of individual stories in this collection, see my review of:

Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/25/skating-on-the-thin-ice-of-sports-masculinity/

Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-reaper-cat/

Edward Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/08/insectile-intimacies/

Sandra Kasturi’s “The Beautiful Gears of Dying”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/06/exposing-the-caregiver-within-the-human-suit/

A.M. Dellamonica’s “Bottleneck” 

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/06/10/caregiving-at-war/

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” 

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/breakable/ 

Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/28/what-is-means-to-be-an-outsider/
To find out more about The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

Skating on the Thin Ice of Sports Masculinity

A review of Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick” in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Speculative Fiction stories about hockey are relatively rare in English Canada, although Amy Ransom has illustrated that they are a popular motif in Quebecois SF. That makes Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick” a rare treat, particularly since it deals with the complexities of hockey culture and its complex relationship to gender and disability. 

Humphrey’s story explores hockey culture from the outside, examining it from the perspective of a care-giver who is providing support to a hockey player with a disability. Reshma is the trainer for a service dog named Zuzu, whose specialization is sensing the onset of seizures. In this near-future fiction story, Zuzu’s abilities are augmented by a collar that assists her in monitoring the health of her human. 

Sports masculinity tends to be hostile to the idea of disability, viewing athletes with disabilities as less capable, and often as somewhat feminized, particularly when the require the use of care-givers. Sports masculinity is about hyper ability. Although a team sport, hockey, like many sports, relies on the idea that athleticism is a product of individualism, an independence that pretends that the star athlete has accomplished everything on their own. The idea of needing care and support can disrupt this illusion. Humphrey explores this in her story by examining the complex secrecy around hockey star Ty’s disability. The hockey association wants to keep Ty’s disability a secret, projecting him as a star that doesn’t need support, and even his team engages in the complex veil of secrecy, pretending that they don’t know about Ty’s seizures even when they have witnessed them. Secrecy is part of the cohesiveness of the team and the maintenance of the team’s sense of sports masculinity, willfully ignoring anything that doesn’t match their ideas of ability.

“Number One Draft Pick” simultaneously places women in nurturing and supporting roles and men in active sports roles while also pointing out that this dichotomy is totally artificial and that the gendered reactions around sports are social constructs, created by the team and their supports to model the idea of the independent athletic hero. Humphrey uses science fiction and disability to complicate sports masculinity, pointing out the complexities in the construction of athleticism and its relationship to the body. 

To discover more about Clare Humphrey’s work, visit http://www.clairehumphrey.ca

To find out more about The Sum of Us, visit the Laksa Media Group website at http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/

Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization 

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/