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/ 

A Love Leter to Can Con

A Love Letter to Can ConBy Derek Newman-Stille

One of the things being talked about in academic circles currently is the issue of the “all male panel”, which happens far too often. I often expect academic conferences to be ahead of a lot of public conferences, but was increadibly excited when I heard Can Con planners talking about the issue of the all male panel earlier this year and was even more excited when I arrived and saw that it was already in practice. In all of the panels I attended and presented in there were panelists who identified as male and female. This is yet another reminder of the welcoming environment that Can Con strives each year to create. 
For those of you who don’t know, Can Con is an annual speculative fiction conference held in the Ottawa region with a particular focus on literary SF. I have attended Can Con for a number of years and have seen it grow in numbers. A growth in numbers always evokes an anxious response from me because I worry that the sense of camaraderie and family will be lost as the numbers increase, but Can Con consistently excites me because even as the numbers grow, the welcoming environment grows with those numbers as more people are invited into this familial environment. There is no ubiquity that comes with the growth, but rather Can Con makes sure to invite the individual to express themselves in diverse ways. 
I think part of what makes Can Con so welcoming (especially of diversity) is the excitement by the organizers to create panels that explore the diversity of people creating Canadian Spec Fic, reading it, and being represented in its pages. Can Con organizers make sure to have exciting panels on representations of disability, neurodiversity, sexuality, gender diversity, ethnicity, and a range of identities as part of their planning and they consistently are able to attract exciting panelists who are writing these SF representations of identities, are people who identify with these identities, and people who are invested in exploring what these identities mean. But the really exciting part is the reactions of the audience to the panels on identities because these panels are consistently packed and the audience questions are insightful…. and I think this is part of that culture of diversity inspired by the Can Con organizers. It filters through into the audience and whereas at other conferences where there is the one token “here are the people who aren’t talking about the white, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, male” panel the audience is often not as geared toward excitement about the exploration of identities, because of the plethora of panels on diverse identities at Can Con and because of the welcoming and encouraging support of the organizers, Can Con tends to have more positive and excited audience responses to diversity. 
Why do I write a love letter to Can Con? Because there is a certain environment to the conference that allows me to feel refreshed, inspired, and excited after every conference. I often throw myself on as many panels as possible because I love to participate in Can Con, but I don’t feel exhausted after the conference as one would expect from all the work put into it. Instead, I feel energized, excited, and inspired to do some writing, reading, and (most importantly) fan boying about Speculative Fiction. I have been watching the various love letters to Can Con come rolling in through Facebook, Twitter, and through my email inbox and I think that I can say that this sense of camaraderie is shared by others who attend the conference and that they are experiencing the bittersweet combination of excitement and mourning that comes with having a great time and realising that we all have to wait another year for this exciting experience.

If you haven’t checked out Can Con, you can find out more about it by visiting http://www.can-con.org and I hope to see you all there.

Transitional Words

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love With Hominids (Tachyon Publications, 2015)
By Derek Newman-StilleIMG_0213

Falling in Love with Hominids illustrates Nalo Hopkinson’s playfulness with language, her characteristic exploration of the way that language shapes social interactions and develops plot. Hopkinson illustrates her fascination with ideas of sound and the power of mis-hearings, exploring stories that came from her own mis-hearings of things and the point of speculation that occurs when one tries to determine what was actually said. In stories like The Easthound which came from a mis-hearing of “The Eastbound”, Hopkinson examines what an Easthound would be and how this notion can create a figure of terror. In “The Smile on the Face”, she examines the relationship between names and identities, creating a character named Gilla who discovers a resonance to the reptilian (coming from the association with her name) and a connection to mythic stories about other reptiles.

Hopkinson plays with characters who question the way they are written, examining figures (for example) from Shakespearian plays such as Caliban from The Tempest and allowing them a place to resist the texts that have been written about them and providing a space for them to push their own meanings through the text. In Shift, she explores the way that racialised assumptions have been cast onto Caliban and his desire to escape from the narrative that has shaped his life.

Hopkinson enters into shared-world creations and disrupts the idea of a very white, Euro-centric fairy world in the Bordertown series by creating figures who challenge this focus on the European magical world by creating characters who come from non-European mythologies. In “Ours Is The Prettiest”, she asserts the multi-ethnic nature of characters, playing with previous reader assumptions about character ethnicity and examining the intersection of ethnicities and cultural identities.

Hopkinson illustrates her ability to represent the under-represented, bringing attention to those areas that are cast in the shadows of most mainstream ideas of science fiction. She brings attention to those characters who are largely left off from mainstream SF, populating her worlds with characters from an array of sexual and gender identities, challenging the white-centric worlds created by most SF authors, and inserting those presences that are Othered in so many SF narratives.

Falling in Love with Hominids is a text of transitions, examining those times when change is at its peak. She examines transitions between adulthood and youth, portraying the idea that adulthood is not always in a protective role over youth and can, in fact, be damaging to youth because of the excesses of power adults wield over the young. She plays with the transition between life and death, exploring notions of life after death and the way that we tend to be haunted by memory and guilt.

Hopkinson casts the light of speculation onto those ideas that are cast into shadow in everyday reality, those areas that can be seen best by the outsider, the oppressed, the erased. Falling in Love with Hominids represents a text of examining the human experience, an act of recovery of those aspects of humanity that are suppressed or repressed and a re-invigoration at the sense of wonder about human experience.
To read reviews of individual stories in the collection, click on the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/09/16/the-oddity-of-children-2/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/07/28/growing-up-monstrous/

To listen to an Episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio about Falling in Love with Hominids visit:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/07/26/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-45-a-discussion-of-the-work-of-nalo-hopkinson/

To read more about Falling in Love with Hominids, visit Tachyon Publications’ Website at https://tachyonpublications.com/product/falling-love-hominids/

April Aliens – Wednesdays throughout April

Throughout the month of April, Speculating Canada will be bringing you discussions of aliens every Wednesday.Alien mountie

Aliens in Canadian SF can be used to explore Canadian multiculturalism, the feeling of alienation, diaspora (being without a home), ethnicity, the clash of cultures, and the extents and limits of the human. Aliens are often created as a foil, an opposite, an other to humanity, but many Canadian SF authors (such as Julie Czerneda, and Douglas Smith) complicate this ideology and put the reader in the perspective of the alien, occasionally even alienating the reader from the experience of the ‘human’ by presenting human beings as alien in behaviour as the figure from a different planet.

Aliens call on us to question ourselves, to see ourselves from a new perspective and examine what it means to be human. They challenge us to look at ourselves in a distorted mirror. In the words of Canadian author Judith Merrill “We have met the Alien and it is us” (Afterward, Tesseracts).

Superhero Complex(ity)

A review of Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa, Tyche Books LTD, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

There has been a recent increase in the public interest in the superhero genre with increasing numbers of superhero movies, increasing numbers of people wearing superhero related merchandise and increasingly larger population groups getting excited about the figure of the superhero. Yet superheroes that are being represented often embody American ideals of the self-made man, the perfect body, and dichotomous views of good and evil. It is therefore timely that Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa released Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories.

Masked Mosaic seeks to push the boundaries of the superhero genre: to include complexities and issues that were often ignored in the Golden Age of comics and continue to be ignored in our culture’s nostalgia over comic figures of the past. The stories in this volume often play with Golden Age themes and complicate them. Rather than replicating hegemonies, the characters are diverse: aged, not ideals of bodily perfection, queer/ LGBTQ2, and culturally diverse. They represent a more inclusive reality of Canadian culture. It is a combination of pastiche and resistance to the past hegemonies that were embedded and encoded in Golden Age comics.

The binary image of superheroes with a universal idea of good and evil is disrupted in this volume, blurring the boundaries between hero and villain. The authors of these short stories recognise that heroes often support causes that are unjust and that heroism is often tied to political beliefs of the time and are not, in fact, universal concepts. Heroism is tied to ideologies of the ruling elite, enforcing power structures. Yesterday’s heroes may be considered today’s villains or vice versa. This volume is a reminder that heroes can fall.

Superheroes as mythic and iconic symbols are explored as well as exploring the complexities and problematic nature of symbols.

Featuring the work of E.L. Chen, Kristi Charish, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jonathan Olfert, Kevin Cockle, David Nickle, Derryl Murphy, D.K. Latta, Emma Faraday, Mike Rimar, Emma Vossen, Patrick T. Goddard, A.C. Wise, Rhea Rose, David Perlmutter, Lisa Poh, Marie Bilodeau, Rhonda and Jonathan Parrish, Chantal Boudreau, Michael S. Chong, Jason Sharp, Alyxandra Harvey, Michael Matheson, and Jason S. Ridler this volume contains a diversity of voices in Canadian SF – both new and established. The stories involve everything from supervillains in a relationship with heroes, superheroes made out of dreams, Mexican wrestlers, aliens, seamstresses, archaeologists playing with possession, and figures from the Canadian mythic past and from history.

In an era of obsession with origin stories, Lalumiere and Alexa collect stories that represent every part of the superhero’s life from origin to retirement.

You can find out more about the Masked Mosaic collection at Tyche Books’ website http://tychebooks.com/ . You can check out a review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Iron Justice Versus the Fiends of Evil” from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/unmasked

Unmasked

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Iron Justice Versus the Fiends of Evil” (in Masked

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

Cover photo of Masked Mosaic courtesy of Tyche Books

Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories Ed. Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa, Tyche Books LTD., 2013)

Many superhero stories in the golden age of comics tended to focus on young, white, straight, able-bodied men. Silvia Moreno-Garcia seeks to disrupt that exclusionary notion of the ‘regular’ superhero by injecting some diversity into the superhero serum. Iron Justice is a retired Mexican wrestler, who, in his youth fought vampires, mummies, and other monsters that threatened humanity. Now, he and another aged superhero, La Colorada, have to solve a crime in Vancouver as the city gradually begins believing that the criminals are a South Asian group called the Tcho Tcho,  and begins preparing to do racialised violence against people because their cultural customs differ from the Vancouverite majority. As much as they desire to solve the crime and find out which monsters are responsible, they are also working to prevent hate crimes based on a society’s need for easy answers and an outsider group to direct violence toward.

Moreno-Garcia’s “Iron Justice Versus the Fiends of Evil” explores issues of cultural commodification and appropriation as well as simultaneous abjection and hatred directed toward people who are depicted as culturally “other”.

She unmasks the racism and lack of diversity in the portrayal of superheroes by portraying her hero as one who defies comic book tropes. He is non-white, and rather than just stealing cultural characteristics from culturally diverse cultures (as many superhero figures do – stealing their powers from the tombs of people that are culturally distant from them), he is, himself, of Mexican birth and embraces the cultural history of the portrayal of Mexican wrestlers. Iron Justice is also gay in an era when few superheroic characters are portrayed as queer-oriented, and those that do inspire controversy and are often relegated to an alternative universe, a less popular super team, or are rarely depicted in same-sex relationships for fear of losing comic book fans.

Although comics generally portray heroes trapped in a consistent state of youth, afraid to explore the question of “what happens when my body is no longer what society considers the peak of bodily perfection”, Iron Justice and La Colorada are aged, suffering from bodily pains, and having to fight in different ways to keep their bodies from being damaged.

As aged characters, they face a world that has changed, modified, and inconsistent with the characteristics of the world of their youth. Villains have changed – they are no longer the monsters of the past but became instead drug-dealers, embezzlers, and white-collar criminals. Their nostalgia reminds the reader of their own nostalgia for the comic books of their youth, but filtered through the lens of diversity Moreno-Garcia has applied to the story, readers recognise that the comics they are nostalgic for were inadequate, not presenting the diversity of experience, but rather the power structures at the time. One looks backwards and notices the absences in past super stories, the underrepresented and deleted people.

To read more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia and her work, you can visit her website at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ . You can find out more about Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories on Tyche Books’ website at http://tychebooks.com/ .