Grey Areas

A review of Tanya Huff’s ” Gate of Darkness, Cirlce of Light” (DAW, 1989)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Tanya Huff’s Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light is a rare novel in that it features a type of protagonist that is rarely displayed in literature, and particularly urban fantasy literature. Rebecca is a woman with an ID (intellectual disability, sometimes called a developmental disability). Unlike most portrayals of characters with ID, she is not a supporting character nor a throwaway character meant to garner audience sympathy, instead, she is the central character of this narrative. Like most people with ID, Rebecca regularly experiences discrimination and assumptions about her capacity from the people around her. Ableist people around her constantly express the belief that she should be institutionalized, and the belief that she is at risk and vulnerable. Rebecca resists these assumptions about her, constantly displaying that she is the hero of this narrative, a character who serves as the touchstone for the various people that she has attracted into her party of people fighting against a darkness that has infringed upon the city. 

Rebecca has the ability to see the magical all around her. She sees all of the mythical creatures that inhabit the city of Toronto that no one pays enough attention to in order to be able to see them. Her observations about this mythical world are constantly overlooked as imagination by the people around her and dismissed as the imagination of a woman with ID, but when darkness invades her world, Rebecca is able to teach a select group of people how to See the supernatural. Rebecca encourages her friend Roland, a musician, and her social worker Daru to join her battle against the darkness eventually invoking an adept of the light to battle against the darkness. This adept relies on the combined strength of these characters to prevent darkness from overtaking the city of Toronto, particularly drawing upon Rebecca’s strength.

But this battle is not just one of light versus darkness, but an internal struggle for all of the characters to learn more about themselves. Roland undergoes questions of his sexuality as he experiences his first attraction for another male in the form of the adept of the light, Evan. He becomes uncertain of himself as he experiences his first gay crush. The darkness exploits this uncertainty initially until Roland is able to face his own understanding of himself and accept himself. Along with the big issues of good versus evil, characters go through those little transformations and little struggles with the grey areas of their existence, struggling to find themselves and discovering that even the small acts in their lives have meaning and shape the world around them.

Gate of Darkness, Cirlce of Light is a novel about facing the complexity of existence and learning about oneself and one’s biases in the meantime. It is a novel that situates itself as one of binary opposition (good versus evil) but explores the complexities of life and the awareness that we always live in the grey areas in between where we need to constantly learn more about the world around us to make moral decisions. 

To discover more about Tanya Huff, visit her website at http://andpuff.livejournal.com

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Blurring the Boundaries

A review of Greg Bechtel’s Boundary Problems (Freehand Books, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

We tend to think of boundaries as stable, fixed, unchangeable, but boundaries are inherently permeable, and any boundary that is created is created because someone or something is able to slip trough it. Greg Bechtel writes on these borderlands whether they be of genre (realism, science fiction, fantasy), gender (male, female, intersexed, trans, genderqueer) temporal (past, present, future), he shows a fascination with those luminal spaces and situations, heightened periods of intensity when things are shifting, because the reality is that everything is constantly in flux and stability is a fiction. And fiction, the stories that create us, constitute us, and shape our experience of the world, can be very much real.

Boundary Problems delves into a polyphonic mix of characters speaking themselves into the world from the margins, announcing their complexity and unwillingness to be captured in a single voice. Bechtel recognizes the inherent slipperiness of stories, the sense that writing a story down attempts to, but will never succeed in, fixing a story in one voice. Every reader will inherently read a story with their own voice, their own set of expectations and symbolic understandings. His characters fluctuate throughout the story, in some cases fluidly moving between gendered, racial, and sexual identities. He recognizes the permeability of story and personhood – that each filters into the other and that we are constituted by stories, tales that shape our identities. The uncertainty of his story endings speaks to this idea that he is only capturing a snapshot of a wider story and that the character has an existence separate from and larger than the story. He speaks to the continuity of all stories and that the stories that we write are fragments building a feeling, a state of being and an aesthetic for the reader but that no story is ever complete or done, but perpetually in progress. He reminds readers that writing endings is an artificial process, and that it limits the complexity of the notion of The Story itself.

Boundary Problems provides snapshots of the human experience, moments of people trying to make sense of the world around them. Bechtel shows an interest in going voice to people who have been expelled from the hegemony of “The Normal”, inserting those pushed to the fringes into a position of centrality. He reminds readers that those stories pushed to the fringes and devoiced are often the most complex, fascinating, and thought-provoking.

Bechtel’s collection explores that permeable place between speculative fiction and realist fiction, not shying away from either, but interweaving them – because reality IS speculative, and good speculative fiction should evoke questions and speculations about reality. Bechtel deals with real world issues like violence against women, place and selfhood, the policing and control of sexuality, surveillance and losses of freedoms, and the danger of hegemonic power structures silencing the voices of dissent, the voices who speak up against systemic violence and the erasure of their stories, their histories. Boundary Problems delves equally into quantum physics, magic, and the everyday experience of a coffee shop book reading… but all of these stories evoke something of the human experience, tell us about our relationships to each other, to our perceptions of ourselves, and to the world around us.

To read some reviews of individual short stories in this collection, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/sexy-shiftings-and-stirrings/

and

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/interweaving-worlds-of-possibility/

To discover more about the work of Greg Bechtel, visit his website athttp://gregbechtel.ca/ .

To read more about Boundary Problems, visit Freehand Books athttp://www.freehand-books.com/authors/greg-bechtel

Interview with Leah Bobet

An interview with Leah Bobet by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

I was fortunate enough to meet Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. We had a brief chat about SF and inclusivity, and I got back in touch with her again after reading her novel Above, which I was excited about because it dealt with disability (the focus of my research). I was very excited when Leah Bobet agreed to do an interview here on Speculating Canada so I could share some of her insights with readers.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Leah Bobet: Hmm.  It’s always a tricky thing to decide what’s interesting about oneself.

I’m a writer and editor, and also work as a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest speculative fiction bookstore.  I run Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a quarterly webzine, and write for Shadow Unit, a project that’s best described as fanfic for a TV show that never existed, alongside Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Holly Black, and Chelsea Polk.

Before going to full-time writing, though, I worked as a non-partisan staffer at Queen’s Park, and so local politics – and local activism — are something of a passion: I’m on the board of Women in Toronto Politics, a tiny brand-new non-profit that works to help more women access City Hall and build the communities they want to live in, and I’m going to be working on Toronto’s brand new pedestrian advocacy organization.  I’m also deeply into urban agriculture and supporting local food, and spend a lot of my summer working with groups that glean downtown fruit trees or plant gardens in public spaces.

Otherwise, I do a lot of reading; I see a lot of small indie bands in smaller spaces; take wandering, exploratory walks; look for the perfect Eggs Benedict; and make bad puns about Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Spec Can: Above was a novel about discrimination. What types of discrimination were you thinking of when writing this? What social plights influenced this story’s discourse on discrimination?

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

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

Leah Bobet: I was thinking, mostly, about intersectionality: How we can be legitimately marginalized because of one aspect of who we are, and legitimately marginalizing someone else because of another facet.  Every single character in the book has that dual role, because that’s life; that’s how people are and can be.

Some of that comes out of my own background.  I grew up in a minority culture, PTSD everyone-will-genocide-you tics and all, but in such a homogenous neighbourhood that I never really felt that social difference until I was an adult with a strong sense of my own power.  It was a slightly weird way to grow up, and made cultural politics both complicated and fascinating: People I cared about acted in ways that to my mind were horrifying, racist, and amoral, but to them were self-defense, because having been victimized so badly meant whatever steps you took were justified.  And there was no communicating one side to the other.  The context gap was just too great.

So I wanted to talk about that: the damage that our damage does, and how on earth one strikes a balance between recognizing what one’s suffered and perpetuating it on someone else.

One of the other focuses was disability: both physical disability and mental illness.  And that came about partially because of my own dissatisfaction with the official line on mental illness, and because of a friend, who’s mobility-impaired, speaking about how 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.  It felt like a thing worth doing, and it turned out that it was.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in helping people to question their biases?

Leah Bobet: There is a stock reply to this question: about metaphor, and removing present concerns from their context to sneakily teach people lessons from other angles.  Rocketship angles!  With space morals!  But it’s not an answer I tend to believe in, and not one I can really give.

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.

Books have made me question my biases and move past them, or never develop certain noxious ones.  In fact, the best reviews I’ve heard for Above were the ones where people said, “This made me want to do something.”  But that doesn’t fool me into thinking speculative fiction has some sort of special magic that readers of other genres – or TV-watchers, or gamers – will never access.  That’s, ironically, a bias that speculative fiction readers have – one that feeds into our ideas of ourselves as more enlightened, better, and smarter, and misses the fact that of course speculative work will reach readers like us better than other kinds.  Because otherwise we wouldn’t be reading speculative fiction in the first place.  We’d be face-first into a detective book and never pick up SFF to start with – and we’d be having conversations about our biases in the tropes of detective fiction.

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.  Sometimes the reader’s not in a place where they’re ready to be receptive to a book’s point.  Sometimes what the book’s saying is just old news to that reader (good example: I tend to appreciate early feminist SFF, but a lot of it feels like someone trying to convince me the sky is blue.  Generational context.  Go figure.)  Sometimes book and reader just legitimately disagree.  And that’s true of all novels, all genres, and all forms of telling people a story – speculative or not.  The only thing we can really do, as readers, is read widely and with open minds.

Spec Can: Your novel Above brings critical attention to scientists and, particularly to medical practitioners (the Whitecoats in the novel). What questions were you hoping your readers would ask about medical practices and the cultural ideas underlying them?

Leah Bobet: Actually, in terms of the Whitecoats and Dr. Marybeth’s balancing role, I was hoping people would treat that question of medical practices thoughtfully – just like everything else in Above – and consider what our treatment of mental illness and disability mean in terms that aren’t black and white.

Like anyone else, the medical practitioners in Above are people: a mixture of good and bad personalities and ideas.  And like everything else, who’s good or bad depends on who’s telling the story.  The type of person who would prefer to live in a roughed-out underground cavern rather than in bad circumstances that still include heating and flush toilets just…they didn’t seem like they’d have kind things to say about the medical profession.  And so Safe has the concept of Whitecoats.  And that’s less about me getting a particular message across than trying to create those characters logically, and build a culture that was true to how they’d feel – and then explore the consequences of that culture on their children.

Spec Can: Above focusses on the narration of Matthew, the Teller for the community called “Safe”. His role is primarily to tell stories of the community. What role do you see stories having in creating a community? How can the telling of the past form a sense of shared history?

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.

There are about a trillion examples of how giving people a narrative binds them together – the most obvious one being the US, where the patriotism story is so frequently hammered home and so prominent because (I think, sometimes) it’s so big and full of people who have nothing in common, period.  That’s looking back to shared history every day: We did something together, we shared experience and values, and so we must be the same.  It’s functionally a social hack.  And it can really work to smooth out the tensions caused by present differences, until it doesn’t.

This is, in some ways, a very academic-linguistic perspective on communities, and how and why we form them (sorry; I trained as a linguist, and it’s in everything I do).  The warmer, more optimistic side of that, though: It gives us the option of making our own communities.  We can get together, with our shared experiences, and be social and understood and not be alone.  And that’s kind of a wonderful gift for those of us who don’t fit well into the places we were born, and need to make new places; who need to make Safe.

Spec Can: In Above, the characters also raise the issue of history that is edited out, stories that are deleted and not spoken of. Canada has a bad history of removing people’s stories to benefit its own image. What stories do you feel we, as a society, are ignoring?

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.  I was taking some classes that threw light onto those issues at the time: one on First Nations languages and language revitalization, and one on First Nations women’s modern literature.  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.

But I was thinking about revisionist history in general: in relationships, in families as well as in nations.  Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves.  It’s always worth asking why.

As for stories we’re currently ignoring: I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask.  I’m aware that I live with a certain amount of advantages in my life, and that all kinds of things go on – experiences, injustices, needs, fears, loves – that I don’t see because of where and how I live.  It’d be a better thing, I think, if we all talked to each other a little bit more; talked to people who are living poverty, disability, mental illness, racism, sexism, transphobia, and everything else – instead of asking the people who write about them.  We don’t and shouldn’t need spokespeople that way.  We should respect each other’s voices.

Spec Can: Trauma plays an important part in Above in the background of your characters and is important in forming their identities. Why is trauma such an essential part of this book?

Leah Bobet: Trauma’s a big player in Above mostly because of what I was interested in exploring: What we do to each other out of our own trauma, and where the limits of making room for trauma bump up against treating other people terribly.  The discourse on trauma in North American society is…well, it’s reasonably new, and so maybe a bit awful.  There’s not a lot of room between Walk it off! and treating trauma as a debilitating, central tragedy of one’s life; one that excuses everything after.  And like most binaries, there’s a lot of discussion to be had about the experiences that live in the middle.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “Realist” fiction can’t?

Leah Bobet: Nothing.  What a work of fiction can do depends on the author, the ideas, and how they use their tools.

Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian SF?

Leah Bobet: That’s, again, quite hard for me to say.  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.  Or some trait, like a genetic marker, that everyone we label as Canadian SF will have.

A few questions up, we talked about stories as community, and forming communities of choice instead of birth or geography.  I think this might be an outgrowth of that ability: My friend who really identifies with Japanese shoujo tropes can write her Japanese-influenced near-future literary fiction.  I can write my magical realist social justice and urban planning stories, with bonus! ruins and city gardening.  We live in the same city.  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.

Spec Can: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the characters and settings you create?

Leah Bobet: Well, they are Canadian.  That’s pretty much it: anything I consider a marker of Canadian literature in my own work – multicultural casts, quieter and smaller stories, that fixation with landscape as character – I’ve seen in works from other countries too, and it’s a somewhat narrow view of what Canadian fiction is and can do.

I’ve written characters and settings that were American, but I prefer to keep my stories above the border, just because this is home; it’s where my heart is.

Spec Can: What was it like to write about an intersexed character? What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?

Leah Bobet: It was on one level an intensely tricky experience – checking one’s assumptions and shorthands every step of the way, and I’m certain I still failed hir in a number of respects.  But on another level, it was like writing any other character, because sie’s…just a person: one who lives, loves, hates, chooses, and makes some intensely bad decisions for reasons that are not entirely hir own fault.  I made sure I wasn’t writing An Intersex Character™; that I was writing that person instead, at all times.

As for the inspiration: A friend of mine is a doctor, and back in her residency blogged privately about that experience, including delivering and dealing with the system around intersex children.  It stuck as something intensely painful and unfair, to the children and families both.  And so when I went to write a story about discrimination, the stories my friend told – and the issues around sex assignment within a week of birth – were at the top of my list to include.

Spec Can: What drew you to write Young Adult books? What can Speculative Fiction do for young people?

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.  I’m writing young adult deliberately now, on my current project, and it’s been a learning curve.

As for speculative fiction aimed at young adults, I don’t really feel like that concept needs to be sold to the public.  Most of what young adults read – and always have – has been speculative fiction, for the cold business reason that there have not been, until recently, genre shelves in the YA section of the bookstore.  Parents are generally content that young readers are reading, so YA books have always had a little more freedom to remix, blend, and use whatever genres they feel like.  It’s only when we reach the adult sections of the bookstore that anyone cares to get into slapfights about whose genre can beat up whose.

Spec Can: How can Speculative Fiction authors bring more diversity into their work?

Leah Bobet: It’s a funny thing, that: Just do it.

Look at the characters you have in your work and ask how diverse they are.  If the answer doesn’t satisfy you, well, think of all the ways people can be diverse in real life, and start getting that in there.  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.  When you get evidence that your informed imagining isn’t all there yet, don’t get mad and give up; revise the model to be better and clearer.  And then use that model as part of your storytelling kit.

But mostly?  Just do it.  Because a lot of hand-wringing goes on from writers who don’t feel themselves to be diverse about how on earth they will possibly write diverse fiction.  And that hand-wringing can ultimately be a way of putting off the job: of deciding it’s too hard, the same way someone can be “researching” a novel for years and never write a word.

So do it.  Commit yourself to thinking and learning.  And then do it better next time.

Spec Can: How do ideas of the mythic influence your work? What mythologies speak to you?

Leah Bobet: Subtly, I think.  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.  These days, though, there’s no separating the stories from the people; I’m a little too aware that “myth” is a word we use to describe dead cultural stories we’ve decided aren’t true, and I’m leery of it.  It’s a little too much like talking smack about someone else’s family.

I’m most interested – and probably because of that unbreakable association of mythic stories with the people whose stories those are, to whom they’re precious – in writing work that explores how people interface with those stories.  What do they mean to someone?  What’s the interaction this person has between their here-and-now concerns and the ineffable, and how can those things be made to balance, if at all?  Because they’re living stories, which means people live with them.  I’m most curious as to how.

I want to thank Leah Bobet for her incredible insights and for her discussion of the importance of narratives in the development of community. It is always great to interview an author that also works in the realm of advocacy.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet and her current projects on her website at http://leahbobet.com/ .

Between Pages of Experience

A review of Jo Walton’s Among Others
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

SF has a pedagogical value – it teaches, it shares experiences, and it opens the mind to new horizons. Outsiders and social outcasts are often drawn to SF as a means to explore a world that seems strange and alienating to them – reading the alien as a way of understanding themselves. Jo Walton’s Among Others explores how young Morwenna, a girl with a disability, and far more clever than others girls in her year, explores the world through pages of SF books, living in a conversation between reality and the fantastic. SF becomes a tool for her to navigate her life – learning about diversity, philosophy, love, utopian ideas, politics, sexuality, and gaining deeper context for human existence. Yet, SF books also have a power about them beyond learning about magic – as a girl who can do magic and can see fairies, SF becomes a tool for magic, using the pages and phrases of her books as protection from spells around her. SF books are more than themselves, deeper, and beyond the ordinary.

Morwenna has always been able to see fairies, and at a young age tried to shape them according to the precepts of Fantasy books, Tolkeinising them and limiting their reality to what she hoped would be the case. As she ages, she begins to learn about the nature of fairies for themselves, rather than trying to put her ideas upon them. They are extensions of the landscape, extensions of place and space for a girl who is having difficulty finding her place.

Morwenna’s mother seeks to use magic to rule the world, changing it to suit her, but Morwenna debates the nature of magic, questioning its use and the morality of changing the world. Magic works in subtle ways, changing the world in ways that could be debated or disregarded. Spells change the conditions of things to cause the desired things to come about – a leaf dropped in a toxic puddle can transform a wasteland of industry into a garden, but not instantly as it occurs in many fantasy novels. Magic in Walton’s world just sets the conditions whereby things can be changed, causing the closing of a factory and the abandonment of an industrial area so that nature can reclaim it. Magic suffuses Morwenna’s life, but it is subtle, changeable, and debatable.

Pain and loss have shaped Morewenna’s life – the pain of her damaged leg, the loss of her twin, and the continued ostracism of her peers. The temptation to use magic to better her life is all around her, yet her moral structure prevents her from using it. When she does a spell to find a community and is suddenly asked to join a Science Fiction book club, she worries that she has taken the will from her compatriots and made them like her. She fears taking agency away from others and becoming like her mother.

Morwenna sees more than others do, aware of the depth and context of the world. She not only sees the magical world, but notices things in her world that others ignore and disregard. She sees differently than those around her, fascinated and interested in things that others wouldn’t give attention to, and finds the topics of other people her age uninteresting and pedantic. With so many fascinating things in the world, she wonders why they would focus so much on petty gossip.

Told through a series of journal entries, Among Others is a tale of self discovery and loneliness in which SF provides not only tales to entertain, but lessons to live by and fuel for the magical world surrounding Morwenna.

To read more about Among Others, you can explore Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/amongothers/JoWalton .

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/

 

Empowering the Freak

A Review of Leah Bobet’s Above (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)

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

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

By Derek Newman-Stille

Leah Bobet’s novel Above focusses on a group of people who have taken up residence in the sewers. Chased from society above the ground and called “Freak”, “Monster”, “Sick”, and “Cursed”, they retreated beneath the city to create their own society, free of discrimination. Their most feared opponents are the true monsters of this world, the Whitecoats, medical practitioners and scientists who are focussed on controlling, managing, and normalising their bodies. They capture those who have different bodies and force them into their own ideas of what normal bodies should be like, cutting them, medicating them, breaking their bones, and locking them up until their bodies start to look more like what society considers to be the “normal” body shape.

Characters with crab arms have them cut off and prosthetic human limbs forced uncomfortably into their stumps until they regain their shape. Characters with lion feet have them broken and re-shaped into a human-like foot shape, forcing them to walk in an uncomfortable and painful manner. But, a group of people escaped from the medical facilities above and created a community called Safe that was built on the foundation that no one should ever stare, no one should humiliate others, and everyone should have a safe place to be themselves.

One of the cornerstones of their community is the shared trauma they endured and the importance of sharing community stories. A central figure in the community is the “Teller” (who narrates this novel), a person who gathers the collective history of the people who form the community, hears their stories, and observes the events of the community, saving the stories that have brought them together and continue to shape them. The Teller functions as a mixture of a historian and counsellor, creating a safe space for people to share the stories that brought them trauma. By telling stories, the people of Safe create their own community narrative, separate from the normalising narrative of Above, and the medical documents that try to write their story for them. They become masters of their own stories, taking words away from others who would use them to oppress them.

But, part of every community is the stories that are not told, the stories that are edited out, considered taboo, and Matthew, the Teller, is forced to keep certain stories hidden and secret. These stories, like anything that is repressed, begins to haunt them, resurfaces from the collective unconscious of the group and harms the community, disrupting it. A community member who was removed and edited out of the collective history returns, bringing shadows of the past that haunt the sewers, snippets of memory that attach themselves to others, forcibly reminding them of what they have tried to forget.

Characters are forced out of Safe and into Above, the city that was the site of their truama. They are forced to see the world around them again and see things from the city above with new light… and new shadows.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet at her website http://leahbobet.com/ . To explore this book and more by Arthur A. Levine Books, you can check out their website at http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/

Interview with Timothy Carter

An Interview with Timothy Carter by Derek Newman-Stille

As you have probably noticed from a lot of the reviews that I have conducted as well as the questions that I ask authors, I have a strong interest in the power of SF to ask powerful social questions and challenge prejudices. I was incredibly happy that Timothy Carter agreed to do an interview here and talk about the power of YA fiction to challenge preconceptions and present new ways of thinking about the world.

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to start this interview?

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

Timothy Carter: I am Timothy Carter – author, cat servant, and lover of a good cup of tea. And Transformers. I’m such a fanatic for those guys. And Doctor Who. Big genre fanboy, that’s me. I love it, and I create it. My main output could be called humorous young adult fantasy. I call it far-fetched fiction. I hope and plan to entertain young minds with my stories for as long as I live, and hopefully well beyond that.

Spec Can: A lot of your work features the image of the bully. What is the importance of the bully to current Canadian society and how can authors like yourself help people to think about the bullying phenomenon?

Timothy Carter: A lot of my protagonists/heroes are kids who are the victims of bullying, yes. One of the oldest bits of writing advice is to write what you know, and I know a lot about bullies. My characters overcome their tormentors the way I never could.

I don’t write about bullies or bullying, however. There isn’t a story I’ve written that I could point to and say, “That one’s about bullying.” I may do, one day, but for now I’ve simply presented bullying as something my characters put up with. As an unfortunate aspect of life. Something wrong, but normal.

And I rarely present resolution to those situations. My bully characters do not often face the consequences for their actions (the obvious exception being Barnaby from Epoch, who well and truly got what was coming to him), which for me is a truthful way of depicting bullying in general. School officials can brag about their zero-tolerance policies all they want, but that won’t change very much. You can’t just wipe something like bullying out with a hastily-concocted policy; you need to understand why it happens. Why is it so much fun to cause another person pain? And why do we secretly despise the victim? We reward strength and look down on those who are weak, an attitude that encourages (and rewards) bullying. Changing an attitude that’s been with humankind long before we called ourselves civilized… well, I can plant the idea in readers’ heads, but it will take a lot more to get society to act on it.

Spec Can: A  lot of your work features images of magic and people who use magic. Why is magic of so much interest to readers?

Timothy Carter: Why is magic of such interest? Because we don’t have any. Did you notice how that last sentence began with ‘because?’ I did that just to annoy my English teachers.

Getting back to the topic at hand, people love to read about stuff they don’t have. We love spy novels because secret agents have cool skills, nifty gadgets, and interesting lives. We read about knights because they’re all noble and heroic and they hack people up with swords. Science fiction stories have space ships and ray guns (unless they are written by Real, Serious Hard SF authors, who will insist on calling such things Starships and Level Seventeen Phase Disruptors).

And fantasy stories often have magic. And we don’t. But wouldn’t it be cool if we did?

Spec Can: Your novel Evil?  features a boy who has recently come out of the closet as gay. What is the importance of teen readers reading about a gay-oriented character?

Cover photo of Evil? courtesy of Timothy Carter

Cover photo of Evil? courtesy of Timothy Carter

Timothy Carter: When I was in my early teens, I thought the idea of someone being gay was funny and wrong: funny, because everyone would tell jokes about them; and wrong, because that’s what my church youth group leaders told me I was supposed to believe. I started to question these notions in my late teens, and concluded there was nothing strange or wrong with gay people by the time I reached adulthood. I really regret that it took me so long. It really should not have done. If I’d had a book like Evil to read back in my teen years, it might have helped me see beyond the stupidity and hate a lot sooner.

When I wrote Evil, I needed a gay character for the sake of the plot. I did not, however, consider Evil to be a ‘gay’ novel. It was important to me that Evil be a YA fantasy that happened to feature a gay character, so I could show readers that being gay was no big deal. Stuart’s sexual orientation was an aspect of his character, but it wasn’t his defining characteristic.

The more YA books there are with gay characters, the more young readers will see that being gay is just as acceptable as being straight.

Spec Can: A lot of your work features the figure of the monster, and often challenges the people good / monsters bad dichotomy. What is the importance of monsters in teen fiction and why are morally ambiguous monsters so significant?

Timothy Carter: Monsters aren’t normal, and neither am I! And by normal I mean average and everyday. I like to play around with people’s expectations, suggest one thing and present the exact opposite. People expect monsters to be evil, pure and simple. Especially demons. People also assume that angels are always good. I love writing villainous angels! And I enjoy playing with the notion of what a demon is. Fon Pyre from Evil was a fun character to write.

In teen fiction, monsters are useful as metaphors. Anyone who has seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has seen this done extremely well. It’s fairly simple to replace a brooding loner with a vampire, the football team with a pack of trolls, the cheerleaders with elves or fairies, or puberty with lycanthropy. A monster gives you the opportunity to write about Issues without being so obvious about it.

Spec Can: What are some of the most important questions that you hope your work will open up in readers’ minds?

Timothy Carter: I hope to encourage readers to question the world around them. Especially authority. People don’t get to tell you what to do ‘just cuz.’

I hope to get readers to look at the world differently. Things aren’t always what they seem, or mean what we think they mean. An angel could be your greatest enemy, the loser you pick on your bravest hero. Popular opinion doesn’t have to be your opinion, and your point of view matters just as much as anyone else’s.

I also try and point out that the world should not be taken very seriously. Have a laugh, have some fun, and try not to get all worked up about things because most of it won’t matter in a year or so.

Spec Can: How much do your own spiritual or religious beliefs influence your writing?

Timothy Carter: Completely. I don’t think there is a story I’ve written that wasn’t influenced by my spiritual side. I have a lot of strong feelings about religion, and a great interest in metaphysics. I love to use religious and spiritual concepts (like Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, the soul and karma) in my fiction. The subject matter is inspirational, and I still have a lot to say about it.

Spec Can: Your novel Evil? deals with issues of prejudice and the spread of hatred. How can writing about hate crimes help society to prevent hate crimes and become more accepting of diversity?

Timothy Carter: Writing about hate crimes will get them further into the public eye, for sure. There is a danger, however, in writing a “hate crime book.” You never want to go into the writing process thinking “I’m going to write a novel about (insert Issue here).” Young readers are savvy and know when they are being preached to. I like to have morals and lessons come about on their own, rather than saying “In chapter 12, Dylan will learn a valuable lesson about sharing!”

Of course, if you want certain subjects to come up in your story, you can increase the chances of that happening naturally by putting the right characters in there. I wanted to have a go at homophobia when I was writing Evil, so I introduced Reverend Feltless into the mix. He did exactly what it was in his nature to do, and the story dealt with homophobia without that issue interfering in a ‘lesson’ sort of way.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you plan your book to be a “Johnny Learns About Hate Crimes” story, the message will likely feel forced. If one of your characters has a penchant for prejudice, their interaction with the others should bring it out of them in a more subtle, organic way.

Spec Can: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?

Timothy Carter: After all that, you want more? Gee wizz, man. I got a home to go to! 😉 There is one thing I’d like to ask of your readers – if you like an author’s work, don’t keep it to yourself. A lot of writers are struggling, and desperate for some attention. Give it to them! Like their Facebook pages. Follow their Twitter feeds. Leave comments on their blog posts. I say this not just for my own benefit (but BTW, my website is www.timothycarterworld.com ), but for a lot of author friends I have who work so very hard to get their words out. No writer wants to get that letter that tells them their book is going out of print due to lack of sales (I have. Evil & Epoch are toast, and The Cupid War is limping). Tell your friends and family about your favourite authors. Write reviews of their work on Goodreads. And please keep asking them to do interviews! Which reminds me, thanks for this one.

 

I want to thank Timothy Carter for this fantastic interview and his many insights on the ability of SF to challenge taken-for-granted notions of the way the world “has to be”. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Timothy Carter’s website yet, you can explore it at http://timothycarterworld.com/ .

And I second Mr. Carter’s sentiment at the end of this interview. You can do a great service to authors by reviewing their books, checking out their websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Authors are an incredible resource, and it is great to show them our support.