No Longer Worn Down.

No Longer Worn Down
A review of Amal El-Mohtar’s”Seasons of Glass and Iron” in The Starlit Wood (ed. Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien, Saga, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Amal El-Mohtar interweaves two tales of disempowered women, one forced to perpetually walk to save an abusive husband, and one forced to remain perpetually still to avoid being placed under the power of men. Both are trapped -one in movement and one in stillness. In most fairy tales, both are situated as women in distress and need.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale exploring the way that men attempt to control women through stories, rhetoric, and actions and the way that women can liberate themselves through collective action, and by creating their own narratives. El-Mohtar brings two disempowered fairy tale heroines together in her “Seasons of Glass and Iron” to illustrate that women are not passive objects to be moved around a man’s chess board, but rather are figures who can shift and change each other, providing support and encouragement to discard the disempowering texts surrounding them. 

Tabitha, doomed to perpetually walk in iron shoes, and Amira, doomed to a life of frozen near-death at the top of a mountain have to learn to loosen each other’s bounds, unlatching iron shoes and discarding glass mountains in order to find themselves and change the stories that have been written around them to bind them. It is a release from the spell of patriarchy – one that is presented, all too often, as unbreakable. 

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale of change and self-liberation where women come to recognize their own magic. Frequently women in fairy tales do magical things, but are not considered magical in comparison to other characters. El-Mohtar centralizes women’s magic. 

To discover more about Amal El-Mohtar, visit her website at https://amalelmohtar.com/

To find out more about The Starlit Wood, visit http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Starlit-Wood/Dominik-Parisien/9781481456128

Tales of Her Own

Tales of Her Own
A review of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (Joanna Cotler Books, 1997).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue casts a web around traditional fairy tales, drawing them together into one narrative thread by having a character from each tale introduce the next tale as her own. Characters both narrate and are narrated about. These are tales about the telling and about the power of narration itself to reveal, conceal, and create the self.

Donoghue invites her characters to ask who is allowed to tell their tales and who is constructed through the telling of tales. Characters resist the narrative ark of “tradition”, imagining new possibilities for their own deviation from the text. 

These are liberating fairy tales, opening up possibilities, and giving women voices in these tales where the traditional tales limited the options open to women. These are tales of shifts and changes, allowing women to chart new territories through the fairytale landscape, changing their circumstances. Often set at the cusp of womanhood, these tales explore the relationship between bodily and social transition. 

Donoghue evokes the power of witches, those othered and ostracised women, for changing the world around them, opening critical questions, and encouraging women to recognise their power. She resists the impulse to tie her stories up with a heterosexual “happily ever after”, and instead imagines new narrative possibilities, creating lesbian couples, women content to be without sexual relationships. 

Her tales reimagine Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, The Goose Girl, Rapunzel, The Snow Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid. Donoghue illustrates that an intensive knowledge of folklore allows one to play with the tropes of the tradition, imagining new possibilities. 

You can discover more about Emma Donoghue’s work at http://www.emmadonoghue.com 

Fairy Tales Estranged

Fairy Tales Estranged A review of Sandra Kasturi’s “The Animal Bridegroom” (Tightrope Books).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  
“The Animal Bridegroom” leaves a breadcrumb trail of poems to bring the reader through cultural myths and legends to a place of self-reflection. Sandra Kasturi uses fairy tale themes to open a pathway into the deep woods of myth, where she explores the changeable power of stories, their ability to shift and change like the seasons. 

In her poem “The Gretel Papers”, Kasturi invites the reader to look at the impact of fairy tales on the characters. Fairy tales normally don’t explore beyond the happily ever after, but Kasturi invites us to ponder what would happen to the young protagonist of Hansel and Gretel after Gretel has killed the witch and has to live with the long term effect of her actions. Here we encounter a Gretel who has experienced a lifetime of depression and post-traumatic stress.

In “Chaos Theory”, she explores the way that we live surrounded by myth, enwrapped in a w world of words and stories that shape us and that we can’t escape from. We are made up of the cultural stories we are told.

In “Verses for the Lost”, Kasturi uses the Red Riding Hood myth to remind all of us that we are lost in the forest and reminds us that there are no final destinations in life and that everything is always changeable (including grandmothers who wear their wolf suit on the inside).

In “Five Cantos from the Prayer Book of Aphrodite”, the reader is drawn into questions about love and its complexity, invited to imagine the diversity of love and the notion that some people’s horror is the adoration of others.

“Carnival Perpetuel” highlights that the Cinderella tale is a tale about time and the passage of time. It explores the way that we imagine ourselves into the future and, especially, highlights the way that women’s time is structured in a patriarchal world, exploring the demands on women’s time, the devaluing of women’s work, and the notion that women are always structured as existing in a temporal framework, always at risk of running out of time since women are told in our society that their value only exists so long as they are young. Kasturi teaches us about the dangers of wishing for a better life and that these wishes often serve to continue current oppressions of women.

“The Animal Bridegroom” reminds us of the significance of fairy tales and the power that narratives have to shape our lives. She brings attention to the changeability of the world and its tendency to shift the narratives we tell ourselves. Sandra Kasturi weaves a spell of words around the reader, performing a difficult type of magic – the magic of transforming the way we think about the world around us.

To discover more about “The Animal Bridegroom”, visit Tightrope Books at http://tightropebooks.com/the-animal-bridegroom-sandra-kasturi-w-introduction-by-neil-gaiman/

Delightfully Disturbing.

Delightfully Disturbing

A Review of “She Walks in Shadows” Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  

“She Walks in Shadows” opens up a space of question and critique of Lovecraftian fiction, subversively playing with the tales of H.P. Lovecraft to create a shadow text to his work. The women who wrote this anthology delve into Lovecraftian ideas and modes of expression to pull out the creeping horror of Lovecraft and the power of fear while critiquing Lovecraft’s colonial, racist, and sexist ideologies. They use the power of their own writing to explore those shadowy edges of Lovecraftian manuscripts, pulling the essential otherness out of his texts and playing with the things that Lovecraft would have feared most. 

“She Walks in Shadows” is a brilliant example of the power to use othered voices to add to the complexity of a mythos, inserting new perspectives into the fiction of a dead author. Editors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles collected a series of stories that perform a necromantic act, resurrecting Lovecraft while changing him, modifying him, and allowing his mythos to include voices that he wouldn’t have included. These texts capture the creeping darkness and uncertainty that Lovecraft bled into his work – the cosmic horror that causes readers to question and critique their position in relationship to a universe that is so much larger than us and in comparison to which we are insignificant. They capture the horror of looking into the cosmic void and realising that we are tiny, silent voices in a universe that is largely uninterested in us. These texts explore the horror of insignificance and uncertainty. They capture the power of the complex world to show us our own simplicity… and they show us that sometimes the most complex things about us are our fears. 

These texts capture all of Lovecraft’s countercultural potential while disassembling (perhaps even dismembering) Lovecraft’s sexism, homophobia, colonial attitude and racism by proposing a more complex world. These are tales that disturb easy narratives of hegemonic control, that delve into the inky darkness and pull out all of the voices that have been pushed there and silenced by a society that favours only certain voices. 

To find out more about She Walks in Shadows, visit Innsmouth Free Press’ website at http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/blog/books/she-walks-in-shadows/

Rejected Bodies

Rejected Bodies
A review of Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” is a tale that explores the idea of rejection, and, particularly, rejected bodies. Focused on a man named Mikkel, who carries out janitorial duties and partially survives by bringing home the discarded waste of wealthier people, “Two Year Man” examines economic hegemonies, monetary power structures that de-value the lives and existence of other people. Robson points out our own socio-economic issues by abstracting them onto a science fictional world, but the issues she represents are highly relevant for examining and critiquing our own society. This is a world of economic systems of control where survival requires the selling of one’s selfhood and self respect. 

Robson particularly highlights the complexity of issues shaping the experiences of women in poverty, exploring Mikkel’s wife Anna’s sacrifices for survival and the way that these sacrifices tie into notions of family. Anna, like many women, has to negotiate the systems of control projected at her body. In order to help her mother survive medical issues, she has to sell her ovaries. This sacrifice for her family is still critiqued by others however, because, in sacrificing her ovaries, she is then open to critiques from others based on the assumption that her primary role as a woman should be motherhood. No matter which actions she takes, she is viewed as unnatural and unnurturing.

Things are further complicated when Mikkel brings home a baby who was about to be thrown into an incinerator by the scientists in the lab that he cleans. This baby was born with talons, a beak, and challenges breathing due to her different body. She is viewed by the corporation that created her and by Mikkel’s neighbours as a tainted body and the child evokes horror by others, but adoration and love by Mikkel. When he presents the baby to Anna, expecting her to relish in the possibility of motherhood, she reacts with horror, both because of the danger of arrest for having a tainted child and because she does not want to be a mother. Robson uses this interaction to highlight the complexity of issues around motherhood, particularly for those from low income groups. She points out that there is a social assumption of a universal desire for motherhood that is projected to women and that not wanting to be a mother means being subject to assumptions that one is cold and unfeminine.

This is a tale about control – economic control and oppression of the lower classes, the conteol of women’s bodies, the way that social pressures dictate what can and cannot happen for cetain types of people. Robson brings attention to notions of the family, disability and accommodating disabled youth, the culture of rejection and eugenics, a culture of waste and highlights the complex strings that bind these ideas together and reinforce systems of control by depicting certain people as rejected.

To find out more about Kelly Robson, visit her website at http://kellyrobson.com

An Interview with A.C. Wise

By Derek Newman-Stille.

After reading A.C. Wise’s “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again”, I could see that she had some great insights that would make for a fascinating interview. I hope that your enjoy our interview and all of A.C. Wise’s brilliant points.

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

A.C. Wise: Sure! I’m a transplanted Canadian currently living in the Philadelphia area. Among the members of my household are two very adorable corgis (a chaos of corgis) whose pictures frequently grace my twitter stream. I’ve had short stories in Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, among other places. The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is my first collection. It was released by Lethe Press in October 2015, and there’s an audiobook version on the way. I also co-edit Unlikely Story, which started life as the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and has since morphed to include other unlikely themes. Our first print anthology, Clowns: The Unlikely Coulrophobia Remix came out in January 2016. I also write a monthly Women to Read: Where to Start column for SF Signal.

Spec Can: What interested you about pop sci fi for you to play with ideas from pop sci fi and sci fi of the past in your fiction? Why the sea monsters, aliens, and hand-wringing evil scientists?

A.C. Wise: I have great affection for old movies, and movies so bad they’re good. In the ideal world, there would be a movie version of Glitter Squadron with Vincent Price in all his scenery- chewing glory playing Doctor Blood. I also kind of dig the monsters from those old movies, the guys in rubber suits, the Ray Harryheusen creatures. The Glitter Squadron is a little bit camp, so they should be facing off against suitably camp villains, not slick CGI monsters or every day baddies. Nothing less than mythology and evil science will do!

Spec Can: What interested you about writing about drag culture in “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again”?

A.C. Wise: Aside from drag being fierce and fabulous and brave in its own right, one of the things I wanted to do with the Glitter Squadron is show different ways of being strong. There’s a certain model of Strong Female Character we see over and over in media. Even though they’re female, they’re ‘just one of the guys’. They’re tough. They wear dark colors. They’re angry. They punch things. If they wear make-up, it tends to be understated. Their hair is artfully messy to show they don’t care about looks. When they get hit, they might get one scratch on the side of their face, or a little bit of blood on their mouth to show they’re not afraid to get dirty. And above all, they are not – god forbid – girly. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that kind of character, but it’s not the only way to be strong. I wanted heroines who didn’t have to shed the trappings of femininity to be strong. Most of the Glitter Squadron embrace femininity in the most extreme way possible – big hair, big boots, big makeup, and glitter everywhere. Of course, there are also characters like M, CeCe, and the G-String Men, because there is a spectrum. Strength comes in all shapes and forms, and it was important to me to try to showcase that.

Spec Can: Why is it important to show empowered cis-gendered women as well as empowered trans women?

A.C. Wise: It plays into the idea of showing a spectrum of strength, and a spectrum of femininity. I hate the Lone Woman model. Black Widow is a prime example of that in the Marvel movies. Being the only woman on an all-male team, she has to stand in for every woman (something male characters are very rarely asked to do). She can’t be too strong, too weak, too anything, because when she does, she is, by default, making a statement about all women. It’s impossible for her to win in this scenario. However, if there’s a whole team full of women – and that includes women of various types, cis women, trans women, fat women, black women, Latina women – they can all be variously strong and weak at different times. They can lean on each other, and none of them are asked to speak for all of femininity and carry the entire weight of their gender alone.

Spec Can: Queer people are often portrayed as passive, suffering people in traditional fiction. You have written some very empowered and powerful queer people. What is important about portraying strong queer characters?

A.C. Wise: Well, in real life, queer people do amazing things and there are more stories to tell than just the sad ones. Unfortunately, a lot of media hasn’t caught up with that reality yet. One of the major problems with this is, there are few enough stories putting queer characters front and center, and if all of those stories are queer tragedy, queer abuse, queer death, that’s not only depressing, it’s actively damaging. Those narratives get repeated, and they become the narrative. They become internalized and normalized. Queer people and straight people alike start to expect that tragic stories are what queer stories are supposed to look like. Queer kids looking to find themselves in fiction don’t see hope, they see that they can expect the world to shit on them. At best their suffering will help inspire a straight person and uplift them, but there’s no place for them in the world. That is a truly terrible message to put out in the world. That’s why it’s important to me that the Glitter Squadron are no one’s sidekicks. They are the heroines of their own stories. They face challenges, but most of those challenges aren’t related to their queerness, and regardless of the cause, when they do suffer, they always fight back. They are self-rescuing princesses.

Spec Can: What are some important things to keep in mind when writing about queerness?

A.C. Wise: Like writing about any identity, it’s important to remember there isn’t one single way to express it. There’s no one ‘right’ way to be queer. Related to that, every reader is different, and they bring their own life experience with them when they read. Authors writing about any identity that isn’t their own need to be prepared to listen. This is especially true for traditionally marginalized identities like queer identities. If a queer (or otherwise marginalized) reader points out something you got wrong as an author, listen to them. Don’t immediately get defensive or fall back on, ‘but my queer/black/female/etc.’ friend said it was okay. Your friend’s experience may be very different from the person your work hurt or offended. As I said above, there are few enough stories that put queer folks front and center, which means each one carries extra weight and has extra potential to do damage. It’s the same problem as the Lone Female Character. The solution to these problems is more characters and more stories spreading out the weight each story has to carry, and of course more stories from traditionally marginalized authors. Obviously those stories should also be approached respectfully, and characters should be written first and foremost as human beings.

Spec Can: “The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again” highlights the importance among the queer community of finding our own family and making our families from those who are important to us. Why was family such a central focus of this narrative and why is it important to show alternative, chosen family structures?

A.C. Wise: A lot of queer kids sadly do face rejection from the families they are born into, and sometimes, as a result of that, homelessness. For some people, the family they make is the only one they have, and I wanted some of the stories in the collection to highlight the idea that there is a community out there where people can be accepted and loved and find a place they can call home. At the same time, I didn’t want all the blood-family relationships to be negative either. Starlight has a fantastic relationship with her mother. Esmeralda’s story is all about reconnecting with the family she was born into. I wanted to show a variety of families, queer families, found families, adoptive families, children being raised by their grandparents. Just like there’s no one right way to be a woman, or no one right way to be queer, there’s no one right way to be a family.

Spec Can: What are some key things that we can be doing in our queer fiction to write narratives that interest and empower queer people?

A.C. Wise: Probably the most important thing is make sure there are spaces for queer people to tell their own stories. Projects like Queers Destroy SF/F/H from Lightspeed, presses like Lethe Press, podcasts like Glittership, and publications like Scigentasy which focuses on stories exploring the gender spectrum are crucial. It’s also important that those spaces aren’t seen as niche or one-off – all publications and publishing houses should strive to showcase a wide variety of voices and make room for stories that reflect the world as it is, not just a narrow segment of it.

Spec Can: What is so fascinating about superhero narratives? Why do we keep returning to them in our cultural interest?

A.C.Wise: Superheroes are like mythology and fairy tales. They are foundational stories upon which we build our culture. They give authors and creators archetypes to play with, reinterpret, re-imagine, and subvert. Many classic super hero stories also give us regular folks a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy. Spider-Man and the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel are nerdy kids who get amazing super powers and save the world. If it can happen to them, maybe it can happen to us, too.

Spec Can: Why do you feel the secret identity motif is so important in superhero fiction?

A.C. Wise: Superhero secret identities are kind of fascinating. From an author/creator perspective, they allow for the exploration of several themes that are fundamental to the human experience. Trust – who do you let into your inner circle, who do you allow to see you without your mask on? Identity – at the core of your being, who are you, are you the hero, or the mild- mannered person going about their day? How do you protect the ones you love when you take on the responsibility of being a hero, or when you have it thrust upon you? What truths can you speak while wearing a mask that you can’t with your every day face?

Spec Can: One of your interests is in writing Lovecraftian-inspired or Weird fiction. What can Weird fiction do? What is its power as a genre?

A.C. Wise: I’ve always found the cosmic horror aspects of Lovecraftian fiction, or on a more Earth-bound scale, the natural world horror of Blackwood, appealing. Obviously, it’s not a cheerful thought, but the idea that humanity is small, and there are implacable things out there that aren’t out to destroy us because they’re evil, but may accidentally destroy us because they don’t even recognize our existence, is an attractive one in fiction. Stories where humanity meets alien life, and the human way is automatically assumed to be superior have always annoyed me. On the whole, the creeping oddness of Weird fiction is fun to read and to write about – that sense of dread, that something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it. Weird fiction has a way of slipping between the cracks, fitting itself into various genres. It’s flexible, and I like that.

Spec Can: What are some of the issues that come up in SF regarding the misogynistic portrayal of women?

A.C. Wise: One of the problems I see is that of the received narrative, or the perpetuated narrative. It’s like what you mentioned earlier about queer tragedy. There’s a danger of negative stories becoming the only stories we tell, and that negativity becoming the message we carry into the future. Raped women. Fridged women. Sidelined women. Erased women. Women who exist only to further the narrative of men, or women who aren’t there at all. This should not be the accepted norm. When we see it in our fiction, we should question it, challenge it, push back. If we don’t, people will continue to write and read these stories and think nothing of it, because that’s the way it’s always been.

Spec Can: What can SF do to promote a feminist message? How can SF empower women?

A.C. Wise: Some of the same things SF can do to empower queer stories – make sure there are spaces for women to tell their own stories. Make sure those stories aren’t separated out as ‘special interest’ or relevant only to women. Women’s stories are as universal as men’s stories. The idea that men and boys can’t/won’t/shouldn’t be asked to identify with female characters is ridiculous, and the marketers and decision makers at major publishers, movie studios, and television networks need to let it go.

Spec Can: Your fiction crosses a lot of genre boundaries. What are some of the challenges of cross-boundary writing?

A.C. Wise: I don’t specifically set out to cross boundaries. The stories I write just seem to turn out that way. One of the challenges, I suppose, can be finding an audience. I think that may be more of a problem when it comes to novels. Editors, publishers, and marketers need to know where a book will sit on the shelves in order help readers find it. Labels are useful for building an audience, but not so useful from the writing side of things. With short stories, there’s a bit more room for things that aren’t as easy to pin down to a single genre. Short fiction readers may follow an author or a publication and find new stories that way, as opposed to going to a specific shelf/category in a bookstore or online retailer.

Spec Can: What are some of the rewards of cross-boundary writing?

A.C. Wise: It’s fun! It doesn’t limit you to one particular sandbox, but lets you play in all of them.

Spec Can: What do you see as some of the social activist potentials of SF? What kinds of things can the speculative genres do to evoke new ways of thinking about the world?

A.C. Wise: Ideally art and literature of any kind can serve as a mirror to show humanity its best self. One argument people make for including rape in fiction is that it’s realistic. To that I say, so is two or more women talking about something other than their relationships with the men in their lives. So are pasts, presents, and futures that include queer people and people of color and people with disabilities. So why not tell those stories? Why not show the positive possibilities rather than perpetuating the same negative stories? That’s what SFF can and should do.

Spec Can: Are there any further ideas you would like to discuss?

A.C. Wise: Oh my. I think I’ve probably rambled on enough, but I sincerely appreciate you giving me the opportunity to do so. You asked wonderful questions, and I love Speculating Canada, so thank you for hosting me!

Spec Can: How can readers find out more about you and the work you are doing?

A.C. Wise: I maintain a sporadic blog at http://www.acwise.net, and tweet as @ac_wise. On the editorial side of things, Unlikely Story can be found at http://www.unlikely-story.com, and as @grumpsjournal on twitter.

Author photo for A.C. Wise

Author photo for A.C. Wise

 

 

I want to thank A.C. Wise for taking the time to do this interview. This has been a wonderful interview full of new and exciting insights.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 61: An Interview with Kelly Robson

In this episode of Speculating Canad on Trent Radio, I have the opportunity to interview Kelly Robson. We discuss the social power of speculative fiction to promote change, the excitement of writing James Bond fiction, writing communities, the disappearance of aboriginal women in Canada, social activist fiction, feminism, and queer fiction.

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.

To discover more about the work of Kelly Robson, visit her website at http://kellyrobson.com/