Stigma is Sticky

Stigma is StickyA review of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos (Margaret McElderry Books, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

As she frequently does, Nalo Hopkinson uses her novel The Chaos to disrupt hegemonic ideas of normalcy, questioning what is ‘normal’ and using the supernatural and magical to point out the way that the norms we create are equally strange. The Chaos takes elements of fantasy, magical realism, and Lovecraftian weird fiction and blends them with a surreal sense of a world where anything can happen. 

When a volcano suddenly appears out of Lake Ontario, the world becomes populated with creatures of myth and magic that disrupt the categories we use to impose a sense of order on our world – the rolling calf, tar babies, fish who swim upstream through lava, Horseless Head Men, and an archaeopteryx that may also be a phoenix. Story and place intermix in a way that illustrates the way that we already impose stories on our landscape to limit it. Hopkinson illustrates that we are always in a world of stories and that we create our own stories to understand ourselves and others. 

The Chaos presents a world where the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves enter into our world, shaping us physically like they do mentally and socially. When people in Hopkinson’s world are able to see the mythic, it changes their relationships to each other, and their relationship to themselves. The Chaos is as much about identity as it is about magic. The altered space of the Toronto landscape disrupts a sense of ‘home’, allowing characters to question their notions of belonging and how they fit into their world and communities.

The name of Hopkinson’s protagonist, Sojourner, literally ‘a stranger in a strange land’ highlights the sense of powerful estrangement that shapes her tale. She is a teen who has experienced stigma all of her life, being bullied and slut-shamed as a younger teen, and being perceived as constantly other than she is – seen as too white to fit in with black peers and too black to fit in with white peers. She has created her group of outsiders that have created their own brand of belonging. Yet, her body is under change as a sticky, black tar like substance begins spreading across her skin, changing her and her relationship to her body. She is becoming different and uncertain to herself, and yet her uncertainty about herself may serve to give her further self knowledge about the stories she uses to narrate her own life.

Hopkinson illustrates the way that change is resisted by those in hegemonic power as mobs of people begin targeting people with disabilities, those who are non-white, and those who identify as queer, seeing them as part of the “chaotic changes” happening in their world. In particular, she examines the role of police causing more damage in their attempts to control the change they see happening around them. Hopkinson points out the way that ableism, homophobia, and racism show themselves more blatantly when “normalcy” is disrupted. When bodies and minds are disrupted.

In The Chaos, the boundaries of categories that seek to separate things are broken down and the world’s complexities cease to be able to be ignored as individual perceptions because they have become physical. Hopkinson’s surrealist word painting of the world, despite its strangeness, only serves to underscore the strangeness of normalcy. Reading this tale allows us all to become Sojourners as we return to our own strange world, questioning it.
To discover more about The Chaos, visit http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Chaos/Nalo-Hopkinson/9781442459267 

To find out more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/

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Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 3: An Interview with Greg Bechtel

As part of the Ontario leg of his tour for the collection Boundary Problems (Freehand Books), Edmonton author Greg Bechtel was able to swing by the Trent Radio studio to discuss his own work and some overall trends in Canadian Speculative Fiction.

In our interview we postulate that reality is a set of social conventions, a creation and that therefore speculative fiction is partaking in an overall realm of fictive subjects. We discuss the way that good realist fiction, like good SF, should complicate notions of reality and estrange us from taken for granted assumptions about “the way things are”.

Bechtel’s work blends and mixes the speculative and the realist in his collection Boundary Problems and this contributes to his overall sense that reality is a blend of experience and fiction.

Greg Bechtel brings attention to the short story as a focus of interest, not as a stepping stone to the novel. He discusses the potential of the short story as a place for experimentation since readers are more willing to take short ventures into experimental media.

Bechtel is interested in stories and letting stories tell themselves. He reminds listeners that the world and the self are both collections of stories. We discuss memories as stories –  flexible, changeable, and suspect. In our overall discussion of memory as it appears in his stories, Bechtel brings attention to the notion of trauma and the idea that trauma is a place where stories can be pulled into a black hole, a place from which nothing escapes. But, telling these stories of trauma, sharing them,  means that they are no longer black holes because the story escapes and proves that things can escape.

In our conversation, Greg Bechtel directly faces a challenge many authors who are also academics have – analyzing his own work.

Check out our radio interview by clicking on the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

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

A Face of Shifting Leaves

A review of Urban Green Man Edited by Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Have you ever looked into the woods and seen a face looking back at you made up of branches and leaves? These are the moments that can’t be caught on film but can be evoked through tales, through our own folklore.

Turning the pages of the Urban Green Man collection is like opening a window from a stagnant urban environment into a verdant treescape filled with life, reflection, and the potential for change. These are transformative tales, tales of growth that evoke fertile thoughts and development in the reader as she or he touches these pages that used to be trees themselves. These pages are trees with stories written upon them, inked with potential. Each page sings its papery roots.

Like growing things, like the forest itself, characters in these tales change and reach toward illumination, shifting with new potential. The stories in this collection explore the lighter and darker shades of green, bringing the reader both into the dark places of the forest where fear and danger evoke speculation and to the treetops where flights of fancy free him or her from their bounds. The authors explore the complexity of human interactions with the natural world and the interconnectedness of humanity and our green spaces.

Urban Green Man writes a mythic modernity, a set of tales to help us explore the world around us and our own impact on that world. It is a reminder of the hollowness of human nature without… well, nature. The Green Man’s face is so reminiscent of our own and yet so different, evoking our connection to the world and our simultaneous estrangement from it. His face is uncovered through the leaves of these pages.

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

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/clear-cut-future/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/rabbi-sherlock-holmes-and-the-case-of-the-excessive-greenery/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/tweets-in-the-woods-that-arent-from-birds/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/post-apocalyptic-green/

To find out more about the Urban Green Man collection, visit their website at http://www.urbangreenman.com/

A Brush With Mythical Madness

A review of Ursula Pflug’s The Alphabet Stones (Blue Denim Press, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Cover photo of The Alphabet Stones courtesy of Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug writes The Alphabet Stones with a mixture of rural Ontario accent and a transcendent poetic quality. Her work glitters with the cadences of rural ontario while evoking a deeply poetic quality and beauty of phrasing.

The Alphabet Stones is a voyage of self discovery and delving into the blurry lines between myth and memory, the haunting quality that the past has on the present. Jody is a girl who was raised on a commune with a mother who has been committed to an asylum. The land around the commune and her experiences with others have written themselves deeply into her memory, shaped her into who she is but her memories are suspect, questioned, and shaped by an air of myth.

Pflug does an incredible job of exploring the dream-like quality of memory – shifting, changing, and uncertain. But, the memories she explores are literally tinged by the mythic, the unbelievable, and the supernormal. Jody and her friends have had contact with the otherwordly through a mythic place where stones are written with words and images that evoke a world beyond our own, and she has been touched by an element of the fey.

Jody is a youth invested with the qualities of old age – she is wise beyond her years and is steeped in a deep nostalgia that often only permeates those later in life – she misses things from her past, feels cut off from her places of origins, and senses that things have fundamentally changed while pining the fact that things will never be the same. She is defined by an inescapable sense of loss.

Ursula Pflug wends her story with twining threads of strangeness and loss, the alienating quality of the past. It is fantasy on the cusp of madness, with characters debating the reality of their experiences and the extent to which delusion may have permeated their lives.

Her characters prefer to believe that the otherworld is just stress or delusion. It is easier and safer for them to think that the world itself is knowable rather than subject to an uncanny quality, a place infinitely more complex than they can grasp or understand. Pflug doesn’t try to create easy answers in her novel, providing for her readers the same sense of dislocation that is invested in her characters. She allows the readers to truly feel what it is like to stand on the cliff between reality and the mythic, madness and ideas of normalcy.

To discover more about Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://ursulapflug.ca/ .

Spectral Reality

A review of Sandra Kasturi’s Come Late to the Love of Birds (Tightrope Books, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In her poetry collection Come Late to the Love of Birds, Sandra Kasturi creates a spectral reality, an assemblage of words that makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. She reveals the extraordinary in the natural, taking scenes of everyday life and introducing an otherworldly quality, a nuance of language and image that breaks down the notions of what is real.

The figure of the bird provides a framework for this strange-making process, an animal that is both fundamentally natural and present, but also simultaneously distant, ethereal, coded with otherworldly flights of fancy.  She fixes the reader with the animal gaze, a gaze that is both common and completely Other, and that gaze finds humanity wanting. She helps to estrange us from our hegemonic ideas of humanity – our belief that we are superior to nature – and makes the reader question their taken-for-granted beliefs about the appropriateness of their impact on the environment.

Come Late To The Love of Birds is an interplay of the mythic and the evolutionary, revealing that neither in science nor in mythology can one find a complete picture, but it is through the interplay of the critically realist and the transcendently fantastic that we are able to see the complexity of the world around us.

She titled a section of the collection “Hieroglyphs of Wind”, and in that phrase, she reveals the key to her poetic craft – the infusion of her breath with an occult quality of words, beyond simple meaning or singular expression. Her words are imbued with complexity, multiplicity, and a deep interplay of meanings. Her poetic art is simultaneously completely natural and wholly transcendent.

To discover more about Sandra Kasturi and her work, visit her website at http://sandrakasturi.com/ .

Illustrating Speculative Fiction

An Editorial By Derek Newman-Stille

"Persephone" by Derek Newman-Stille. http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Persephone” by Derek Newman-Stille. http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

As an artist, I have always been fascinated with the art that accompanies Speculative Fiction novels. So many readers focus on the cover art when making their decision about which books to read, and often the author has little or no say about which art is attached to their book.

The art of a book is often the first thing that a reader encounters when picking up a book. They see it as they open the cover and it shapes (in sometimes subtle and sometimes significant ways) their experience of the book and what they read.

Various articles keep popping up in my Facebook feed about gender and SF, and particularly the gendering of book covers and how this influences which books for teens are considered “boy books” and which are considered “girl books”.  I gave a paper about 7 years ago on the role of cover art in sexualising books of urban ‘dark’ fiction, particularly the use of cover art that largely focuses on representations of parts of women’s bodies, and what this suggests about the bodily focus of these paranormal novels. The art of book covers can significantly shape the experience of the book, and yet, it is often something that is disconnected in many ways from the author’s experience of creating a book. There is not a back and forth conversation between visual artist and author, but rather a mediated conversation between publisher and artist that only occasionally (and in limited ways) involves the artist. Book covers often follow marketing trends and interests rather than the desires of the author or their focus.

As an artist, I often wonder what processes artists go through to create their cover illustrations. For some, I wonder if they have read the book at all (since the cover is often so dissociated from the plot and general feel of the book).

"Cosmic" by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Cosmic” by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

I was recently asked to do an illustration for a Canadian SF volume, and had to go through the process of figuring out how I would approach it. I can’t reveal details yet until the book is closer to publication. I had to consider how I would approach illustration and how I would both include my own stylistic trends (which were what attracted the publisher) while also making sure to capture the significance of the story and its general feeling. I read through the story I had been given to illustrate several times, feeling through the general experience of it, waiting for certain ideas and images to surface. I jotted down these images – writing text about dominant ideas that surfaced and sketching the various images that bubbled up through my brain as I read. I noticed that my creative mind was having a conversation with the text of the story, responding to the words I was seeing and sending back images that I then checked against the overall experience of the story.

My art work is complicated and difficult to define with a singular paradigm or easy categorisation, but I tend to approach my work through the feeling that various experiences evoke. When painting natural scenes, I try to capture the conversation that is happening between the environment I am seeing and my own feelings. I watch the land and then close my eyes and see how the land changes as I imbue it with myself, with my feelings.  Similarly, when I am trying to capture a theme or idea, I pull the images that filter through my mind out and pour them through my brush (or pencil or pen) into the canvas (or paper), letting ideas flow with feelings. I often capture images that obsess me, a particular curve of a branch or the way snow has drifted, but don’t try to confine them, rather letting them participate in the art, filter through myself as the artist. In a similar way, I approached illustrating a short story as a conversation between the story and myself as an artist, exploring the sensations that it drew up through me: Rorschach patterns, the play of light and dark, hooded figures, conflict, the image of the fist. The story was complex, and I wanted to bring that complexity through into my art, creating a representation that captured the feel of the work rather than a snippet of the action. I wanted my work to explore the complexity that the story represented, the weirdness of it.

Painting a story is a process of estrangement, entering a world created by the author and feeling yourself dissolve into it as ideas and thoughts surface. It is a meeting between artist and text, the strange terrain betwixt one person and another. It was an incredible experience and one that I would like to participate in again at some point.

"Smoke and Shadows" by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Smoke and Shadows” by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

I would love to see more conversations between various art fields – writing inspired by a painting, stories inspired by songs, drama adapted from poems, dance inspired by novels. I am fascinated by intertextual communications, when one type of artistic text speaks to another.

You will be able to see my art work in the upcoming volume of Postscripts to Darkness 4, and I will post further details closer to the release date. You can find out more about Postscripts to Darkness at http://pstdarkness.wordpress.com/

My artistic work tends to be speculative in nature, so readers of Speculating Canada might be interested in it. You can check out my artist page at http://dereknewmanstille.ca/ . Click on Artwork to see some of my paintings.

“It’s all machines now. It’s a – what do they call it? – high tech world. Fascinating to be sure, but… it estranges many people, cheapens the human experience. There’s no more room for the stories that matter, and that’s wrong, for stories are a part of the language of dream – they grow not from one writer, but from a people. They become the voice of a country, or a race. Without them, people lose touch with themselves.”

-Charles de Lint – The Conjure Man In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.

Quote – Without Stories, People Lose Touch with Themselves