Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 64: An Interview with Cindy Gervais

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, Cindy Gervais from Sir Sandford Fleming College who had a unique activity for her students. Cindy had her students imagine a trip to Mars and envision what they would need to bring with them on their voyage in order to explore cultural significance.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

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This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

 

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Why Do Schools Keep Making Zombies Out of People?

A review of James Marshall’s Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies (ChiZine Publications, 2012)ninja_2
By Derek Newman-Stille

In his Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies, James Marshall tells us something that every one of us who attended public school and high school already know – schools are Hell trying to make zombies of us all! Unfortunately, the only one who sees this is Guy Boy Man, a young adult who killed his parents after he discovered that they were zombies and were planning on eating him once he failed the ZAT (the Zombie Acceptance Test). They were certain he wouldn’t pass the ZAT – he was too much of an outsider, a rebel, someone who just didn’t fit in and abide by the “normal” rules of zombie society. Zombies are close-minded, worried about how things “seem” to others, and strongly interested in maintaining the status quo of ‘normalcy’. The zombie teachers are literally muzzled (to keep them from snacking on students before they write the ZAT) and chained to their classrooms with chains. After all, schools hunger for brains.

Guy Boy Man is able to see things that others aren’t. He can see that the world is populated by the supernatural, that the world is well into the zombie apocalypse and most people are zombies… and if they aren’t, they are food. He sees more than everyone else, but he is an unforgiveable jerk – treating women as disposable, engaging in homophobic, ableist, and racist comments, comfortable destroying art… but, the reader can take incredible pleasure in Guy Boy Man’s offensiveness because he is consistently blunt about the underlying offensiveness of our culture and of schools in particular. Rather than covering up the way that disabled bodies are treated as disposable, he brings attention to it. Rather than trying to politely ignore the racism and homophobia in schools, he make it blatant, often in his attempts to NOT be homophobic and racist. He treats women as objects because women are consistently objectified by our school. He is offensive because he is part of an offensive world and his casual destruction embodies the hopeless nihilism of a world that believes it can’t change anything – a zombie world that believes that nothing will really change and will continue in undead monotony.

Guy Boy Man is the openly offensive jerk that our society tries to mask itself from being through polite avoidance of the issues of society. Marshall uses Guy Boy Man to take the “subtle” fatphobia, ableism, sexism, racism, and homophobia of our school system and over-perform it, taking it into a place of self-mocking auto-parody.

Marshall’s zombies are stiff because their lives are rigid. Zombies have absolute control over our society and in order to maintain their control, they eat anyone who is rebellious. Marshall uses the figure of the zombie to bring critical attention to the way that our society maintains the status quo, unquestioningly repeating the same patterns of the past. He reminds us that much of our education system is focused on the memorization and regurgitation of information rather than on asking critical changes and thinking outside the box.

You can find out more about James Marshall’s work at http://www.howtoendhumansuffering.com/ .

To explore this and other ChiZine Publications books, visit their website at http://chizinepub.com/ .

 

 

Gender Swopping Characters to Reveal Stereotypes

I recently read a fascinating article by Michelle Nijhuis, who gender-swopped Bilbo in The Hobbit when reading to her little girl to try to introduce her daughter to a strong female character in a fantasy narrative. You can explore the article here http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/12/18/one-weird-old-trick/ .

When I read it, I thought about what an effective strategy gender swopping could be for teaching students about gender constructions and the way that gendered assumptions infiltrate our written work. When we take a written work (or even just a passage from a written work) and swop the gendered pronouns, we bring critical attention to the way that we create notions of gender.women in capes

Fan fiction has been gender swopping characters for a long time as a way to insert a feminine voice into narratives that exclude women or write them into stereotypical roles, so this is not a new idea, but I thought that it could occupy an interesting place in the classroom, and in personal education.

I tried this activity out yesterday in an English course on gender theory at Trent University. I thought gender swopping would be a really interesting way to get students to examine power structures implicated in writing gendered narratives and start to question some of the stereotypes and beliefs that are assembled with our constructions of gender. Students were given three different short stories and asked to pull out passages that they thought would be fascinating for gender swopping. This was only the second week of a half course, so I thought that it would highlight for students the important work that feminism still needs to do in challenging gender assumptions and that it would also help to introduce students to passage analysis (since they could examine the whole passage from a different perspective, individual lines from the passage, or even the different significance that an individual word takes in constructing ideas of gender).

Students pulled out passages that highlighted constructions of masculinity and femininity and were able to note the framing narratives that were built around gender and the dependency that these narratives had on gendered assumptions. The activity was a powerful critical moment to bring stereotypes under the umbrella of question… but they also allowed students to laugh at these constructions and disempower the gendered power structures by finding them amusing.  Students stated that they found the activity interesting as well as enlightening and that it focused their attention on passages they otherwise wouldn’t have noted.

I would recommend having a few passages to fall back on if students aren’t immediately able to pick out some passages that are of interest to them. Generally, you should only need to point out a few passages and gender swop them before students get the idea and begin finding really potent passages on their own.

I did point out that “gender swopping” is problematic because it assumes a binary gendered system and excludes third gender options, but I thought this was a potent way to examine these gender stereotypes.

Remember, education doesn’t just happen in the classroom, so for those of you who are not teachers, parents, or students, consider gender swopping a few passages from your favourite Canadian Speculative Fiction to examine the ways that gender is constructed in the books that you are reading.

Even when authors create worlds of the future or the different worlds of fantasy, a lot of our culture’s own gendered assumptions end up filtering into these works. It becomes difficult to imagine a world with different gender roles when our minds and thought processes are so embedded in gendered dichotomies and assumptions about “proper” gender roles.

If you are an author reading this post and want to look at the way you examine gender in your own work (and maybe challenge some of these assumptions and propose some innovative new gender roles), consider gender swopping your characters to see how you may have unconsciously applied current gender assumptions on your characters.gender question

Here is the activity that I proposed to my students. Feel free to use or adapt it as you wish:

Gender swopping characters can be an effective way of bringing your own critical attention to the constructions of gender and gender stereotypes in the text you are analyzing. By switching the gendered identity of characters, you can highlight the way that gender is constructed and the specific assumptions around gender that shape the author’s work.

What are some key elements of the texts we are examining that a gender swop brings attention to?

Pull a few paragraphs from the text and gender swop the characters. What does this new gender configuration suggest to you?

How has it highlighted some gendered issues and problems of representation? Make sure to chose elements of the text that are particularly gendered or do fascinating things with gender.

What are some of the things you notice about the new gender configuration?

What did you find amusing about the gender swop?

How did the character read differently as male/female?

Why did this passage particularly interest you or catch your attention?

What stereotypes about gender did you first notice?

How is femininity constructed?

How is masculinity constructed?

In what ways does power shape these assumptions?

Who in the narrative is constructed as the object of desire?

Who is constructed as the active desirer?

How are descriptions of characters different when they are male or female? What is different about the features or attributes that the author focuses on when she/he discusses male characters versus female characters? Why do you think the author is focusing on these characteristics and what does it say about gender constructions?

What notions of “active” and “passive” underlie these gender assumptions?

What did you expect to find? How has the passage differed from your expectations?

Upcoming interview with Lydia Peever on Friday August 23

I had a great opportunity to talk to Lydia Peever after an author reading in Ottawa recently and knew I wanted to hear more about her insights, so I was pleased that she agreed to do an interview here. I was particularly excited that Ms. Peever brought attention to issues that are generally ignored or hidden in our society due to stigma like drug addiction and mental health issues. By bringing attention to things that people ignore, we can make positive changes. Lydia Peever reminds us that horror can shine a light on the areas of stigma that our society casts into the dark.

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Check out our interview on Friday, August 23, where we discuss writing-group communities versus cliques, gender and horror writing, writing about addiction, bringing attention to mental health issues, the teaching power of horror, the need to express, the ability of horror to be empowering to women, the need to read and watch horror critically, the relationship between writing and other artistic expressions, the insights that come from talking to fans, the power of horror as a social activist text,

Lydia Peever: “The world is really very weird, if you pay attention.”

Lydia Peever: “If you write about the things happening around you that really shake you to your foundations – the stuff that gives you real nightmares that aren’t fuelled by the last movie you watched – people will tune into that. If you have a history with a social issue be it addiction, debt, domestic crisis, sexual conflict, mental health; write about it. Never be afraid to write about what shakes you up, breaks your heart, or makes you scream.”

Lydia Peever: “At one point I would be best described as an artsy yet anti-social high-school dropout that messed up at college too. My focus has been split between writing and photography since I was at least ten years old, so art always seemed more important than school.”

Lydia Peever: “Drugs are mentioned here and there in my stories as a colour to paint a character with. Usually a dark colour as drug abuse is basically a dark thing. In Crocodile Rot, where the sun shines bright on intravenous drug use, I talk about it like it’s happening on our front porch, because it probably is regardless of where you live.”

Lydia Peever: “I can’t turn a blind eye to the dark alleys around me since I’ve walked down them. People I knew since childhood have walked down them. I’ve lost people down dark alleys.”

Lydia Peever: “Stigma and fear surrounding drug abuse and its affects are far more damaging than communication, education and true understanding. I write just as often about mental health issues, which I know just as well and can at times be related.”

Lydia Peever: “You may not have experience with the specific terror or the ‘other’ found in the story, but it explains itself neatly and from a safe distance. You can inspect so many otherwise inaccessible worlds this way.”

Lydia Peever: “A trip to the dentist can be as fraught with weird as the trip to that carnival trailer after dark. I like living in a world like that, so I pay attention to the weird.”

Lydia Peever:  “Infuse what moves you into a story. Let a story sprout from blood spilled in real life. Let those you know or who have passed transmogrify into beast or angels.”

Check out our interview on Friday August 23, and let Lydia Peever remind you: “Don’t keep that precious dark ink bottled up.”

Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos Reading Questions

Some Book Club Discussion Questions for James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

How did James Marhsall’s zombies differ from other zombies that you have read about or seen in movies?

What did the idea of a depressed zombie add to the plot of this novel?

How did Buck’s depression allow him to challenge the world around him? Why did depression make him interested in challenging the status quo?

What interested you about the contrast between the zombies and the fairies? Why do you think Marshall put the two of them in the same novel?

How are Marshall’s zombies similar to the world that we live in?

What do you think Marshall might be saying by making his zombies corporate figures?

What does Zombies Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos have to say about the education system? In what ways is that similar to the education system in our world and in what ways does it differ?

What interested you about the religion “Awesomism”, and how does it differ from other world religions? How is it similar to other world religions?

In what ways does Zombies Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos encourage readers to challenge different social ideas and traditions? What are the benefits of these challenges and social questions?

What character did you most identify with in this novel? What fascinated you about him/her?

Dead Depressed

A Review of James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos (ChiZine Publications, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover photo courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Zombies are normally pretty content – they groan, they chase, they eat, they shuffle… but what happens when a zombie becomes depressed? In James Marshall’s Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, depressed zombies get promoted. No matter how much they tell their bosses they hate their jobs, plan to demotivate workers, and decrease productivity, a diagnosis of depression is a one way ticket to the top… in fact, Buck Burger’s description of how he plans to destroy the company is exactly the skill-set and thought pattern that zombie corporate life thrives on. After all, when you are a people that are totally steeped in decay and the destructive lifestyle, what is more appealing than destruction. But, Buck starts to feel stuck, realises the monotony of his existence… and unlike most zombies, he dislikes this monotony… he wants to do forbidden, stigmatised things like change.

When Buck meets Fairy_26, a green-haired beauty infused with life, he sees in her everything that is lacking in his own unlife. The fairy, and the supernatural races have something that he has been desiring, something that challenges the monotony of existence and promotes growth. She is the opposite of everything every zombie wants (which is probably why the zombies and the supernatural races have been at war for so long), but because she is so different and because he hates his unlife due to his depression, she represents an opportunity for change, a challenge to the status quo of boring zombie existence. Instead of mindless destruction, she is steeped in mindful life.

Buck wishes he could become what he eats… a living human being. He pines for his lost life and envies the living. Fortunately, as depression often does, his depressed state serves as a hunger suppressant, which is ideal for someone who wants to give up gnawing upon people.

Buck has to question commitments, obligations, social restraints upon him that hold him in his current unlifestyle in order to make a new unlife for himself. He has to challenge his marriage obligations to his wife, his job requirements, and commit social faux pas that would horrify any moral zombie in order to free himself from the chains of dull, colourless zombie existence and open himself to the vibrancy of fairyland and fairy life.

Marshall reveals a social critique of the monotony of human existence through the figure of the zombie. In our corporate greed and unquestioning repetition of outmoded patterns, we become like zombies – unwilling to change things, unwilling to question, unwilling to extend our creative impulses. His zombie society represents a flesh and blood covered mirror of corporate life and the eerie creep of suburban society. Zombies in his world impose their values on the young through an unquestioning education system designed to make them into automatons and prepare them for transition into zombie society or the zombie digestive system.

Marshall notes the allure of the zombie lifestyle and why it is so desirable for so many people “I know how they feel. Angry. Mindless. They’re doing things because they’re supposed to do things. They don’t want to. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know anything. For a while, they tried to learn but they didn’t so they stopped. They became zombies. It’s easier than trying to stay human when everyone else isn’t” (195). Like zombies, we get trapped into simple desires in an attempt to fill a void in our life of what we really want with meaningless trinkets that the marketing world tells us will fill that void. We mindlessly replicate things, follow the status quo, don’t seek to learn the meaning behind things. This is pretty alluring. It seems, on the surface, to be an easy lifestyle… but our society have become like zombies, not questioning, not changing, following outdated patterns, and mindlessly destroying – after all, look what we are doing to our environment. After reading this, any trip to the mall or witnessing of road rage lets the reader see the zombie apocalypse already in full swing.

To find out more about Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, check out ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/books/zombie-versus-fairy.php

To read more about what James Marshall is up to, visit his website at http://www.howtoendhumansuffering.com/ .

Hard Knocks School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

A review of Lesley Livingston’s Trippingly Off The Tongue (in Misspelled Ed. Julie Czerneda, Daw 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Competition at magic school can be killer… and I mean killer… Michaela faces her final exam with a lab partner who vastly outpowers her and has a playful sense of what is appropriate when handling dangerous spells. Vinx has a devlish side… being, of course, a demon.

In the school Livingston creates, spelling bees are deadly and involve actual spells, but Vinx treats them as something no more dangerous than baking cookies. He knows the nature of spell-casting and it isn’t something he needs to focus on or worry about as Michaela does.

Lesley Livingston’s short story Trippingly Off The Tongue explores the over-competitive nature of schools and the roots of competition in the educational system. She magnifies these by having a curriculum in which one of the goals is to rid yourself of your lab partner.  Although Michaela is unconfident with her spell-casting and has been known for her occasional errors, and Vinx is supposed to be something evil and ugly, the two develop an intercultural friendship, working cooperatively in opposition to the school-enforced competitive framework. They face stereotypes about each other, playing and teasing each other for their difference and for the assumptions society has imposed on them. This attitude of play overrides the deadly competition of the educational system, pushing them into attitudes of antagonism that they struggle to resist.

To find out more about Lesley Livingston’s work, visit her website at http://www.lesleylivingston.com/ . To find out more about Misspelled, visit http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781440633508,00.html