You Are What You Eat

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Slow Cold Chick” in Northern Frights 5 (Mosaic Press, 1999)
By Derek Newman-Stille

We are shaped by what we eat, by what we consume and Nalo Hopkinson’s “Slow Cold Chick” is an examination of the relationship between food, identity, and selfhood. Food is transformative. When Blaise finds rotting eggs and rotting hot sauce in her fridge and throws them out, but rotting is a process of transformation itself and the interaction of rotten egg and hot sauce breathes new life into the rotting fetus. A cockatrice is formed, with blazing eyes and incredible hunger. Like the hot sauce, the cockatrice is all fire – anger, heat and desire.

The cockatrice needs to eat and whenever it consumes something, it takes on the characteristics of its food, altering and changing to incorporate elements of its food into itself. Blaise also discovers that food shapes her neighbours, that the woman next door who reminds her of prehistoric Venus figurines eats flower petals and her stony companion eats raw earth, both of them taking on qualities of their chosen food.

Food can remind us of home and it can connect us to the landscape by providing us with nourishment from the locales where we collect it. Blaise, like her neighbours and the cockatrice that makes its home with her, is shaped by the foods she eats and her connection to the landscape. Eating allows her to connect with that part of herself that she has closed off, that she has alienated herself from, and the act of eating allows her to connect to parts of herself that she has denied: her desires, heat, anger, and passion.

To discover more about Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at nalohopkinson.com

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Greek Gossip

A review of Karen Dudley’s Kraken Bake (Ravenstone, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Kraken Bake courtesy of RavenStone books

Cover photo for Kraken Bake courtesy of RavenStone books

Reputation and rumour – they are incredibly interlinked, especially in ancient Athens, and particularly for a celebrity chef whose entire reputation and business depends on being the current talk of the town. Karen Dudley’s Kraken Bake follows Pelops, first introduced as Athens’ newest mythological prince turned celebrity chef in Dudley’s first book, Food for the Gods. Pelops is now even more seasoned and his attitude is perhaps a bit more spicy than it was in the first book.

Kraken Bake explores the notion of gossip, the idea that people are created in the public arena and their identity is partially based on the way they are talked about, particularly when their business life depends on the public’s view. Pelops encounters another figure dependent on celebrity status, but one that is perhaps more attached to the role of the classical world: Perseus, a hero who has just returned from slaying the Kraken. Perseus entered the Athenian Agora (marketplace) long before he arrived in the form of rumours, tales of his exploits, and the arena of public opinion. When he arrives atop Pegasus, a winged horse, public opinion is confirmed: this is what Athens has been looking for, a genuine hero who they can wine and dine and gain status by showing connections to.

But this hero and Pelops have something in common: a connection to the god Zeus (Perseus is his son and Pelops his grandson), and both have a mixed relationship with the Kraken: Perseus’ slaying of the Kraken may not have happened quite as society has imagined… and Pelops has discovered that although he can cook anything else into a delectable treat tasty enough to make the gods weep, he can’t cook Kraken. Perseus’ conquest of the Kraken has already passed, but Pelops heroic quest has just begun, particularly when he discovers that the Athenians want to have a very public cook off, the Bronze Chef competition, and he is fairly certain that the secret ingredient will be Kraken meat.

Karen Dudley playfully blends Greek history and Greek myth together, not particularly concerned with veracity or timelines, and this adds to the sense of whimsy of her work, but also serves to undercut the notion that history itself is a story, a tale made up of rumour, myth, legend, and assumptions. Anyone who has read their Herodotus (the father of history) should know this from the gossipy and creative way he discusses Greek lives. But there is a magic in telling tales, whether they are mythic tales or general discussions of public figures and Dudley reminds us that we are all myths and legends being constantly formed through public discussions: gossip, rumour, debate, and reputation.

To find out more about Karen Dudley, visit her website at http://www.karendudley.com/ .

To find out more about Kraken Bake and other great Ravenstone books, visit their website at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/authors/Karen-Dudley.html

Post-Apocalyptic Green

A review of Alyxandra Harvey’s “Green Jack” in Urban Green Man (Edge, 2013)

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

By Derek Newman-Stille

Alyxandra Harvey reveals our uncertainty about the future of vegetation and food in her post-apocalyptic story “Green Jack”. After crops begin to fail on a regular basis and the weather becomes unstable, a city tries to survive by perpetuating the same behaviours that endangered its vegetative life in the first place. Government and industrial regulations control the vegetative world, constraining and controlling plant life to human will, harnessing it exclusively for human purposes.

Instead of allowing biodiversity to flourish, the city begins to kidnap Green Jacks, figures who are linked to the vegetative health of the world and who bring growth and fertility in their wake. Instead of allowing for the freedom of plant growth, these Green Jacks are abducted by the city, controlled and regulated, their power drained to fuel an industrial complex focused on human interests. Walls are erected around the city to tightly control the population and provide the image of security while all securities and choices are removed from the populace.

Harvey explores the atrocities that can be committed on a population’s behalf when they are starving and examines the coercive power of hunger. People willingly give up their freedoms for the perceived protection from hunger provided by a society that tightly regulates food.

When the protagonist steals a Green Jack’s mask in an attempt to gather enough food for herself (since the mask fuels growth of food) she becomes a target for the military and this mask brings with it either the potential to free her from the tight regulations of the city and allow for free growth or to become the subject of incarceration and control.

Alyxandra Harvey explores urban uses of population control and the danger that hunger poses for policing people’s actions. Much as the tight regulations of the city control vegetation and bring it under government will, so too the people are regulated, denied freedom of growth and become stagnated under imposed control.

To find out more about Alyxandra Harvey, you can visit her website at http://alyxandraharvey.com/ .

To read more stories from Urban Green Man, visit their website at http://www.urbangreenman.com/ .

Interview with Karen Dudley About Food For the Gods

An Interview with Karen Dudley
By Derek Newman-Stille

I want to thank Karen Dudley for taking the time to do this interview. As someone with a background in Classical Studies, it is always exciting to hear about an author’s insights about the ancient Greek world. Karen Dudley is the Author of Food For The Gods by RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press). I will let her introduce herself.

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

Karen Dudley: Of course! My website says I’m a writer of fine novels, preparer of fine foods and all ‘round good egg, but apart from all that I’ve got a degree in Archaeology and Classical Studies, I’ve worked in field biology and advertising, and I’ve been reading ever since my Dad punished me by making me sit in the living room all afternoon with only a copy of Mary Poppins for company. I make great food in my kitchen and scented soap in my basement, I love a good laugh, adore the research end of writing, and I’ve been a sci-fi/fantasy/folklore/mythology buff forever. My vices are books and chocolate with almonds. I listen to opera in the concert hall and sing it in the shower. I drink tea instead of coffee, and more often than not, I am covered in cat hairs of various colours.

Spec Can: What got you interested in writing about the ancient Greek world?

Karen Dudley: It wasn’t so much a ‘what’ as a ‘who’. When I was in university. I had the most amazing Greek history professor, Dr. R.J. Buck, who really brought the Classical period to life for me. The man was the master of understatement. Whenever he talked about the reasons behind a war, he always started off by saying something like, “Well, when someone steals your women and cattle, you’re liable to get a little cross about the whole thing.” He wouldn’t just give us dates and places for these armed conflicts, he’d act them out, marching up and down the classroom like a hoplite, talking the whole time about how ‘cross’ they all were with each other. He did tell us who won the Battle of Salamis and why, but he also told us about things like Alcibiades and the incident of the Theban dancing girls.  He made it real. I was hooked from then on.

Spec Can: What can the past tell us about the present?

Karen Dudley: A very great deal! There’s a marvellous quote by Carl Sagan which I’ve got hanging in my den. He says, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.”

Books really do break the shackles of time. At first glance, the past seems so distant, so far removed from our own reality, and yet when you read an old book—a book from the past—not only can you hear the author’s voice, but there is an immediate recognition of shared experiences, a realization that in many ways, the author is really not that different from yourself. It can close the distance of history, forge a connection with this ancient soul, and allow us to more deeply explore the human experience in our world.

I had a rather interesting moment with this when I was researching Food for the Gods. I had been reading a book called Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, which is basically all about the debaucheries of ancient Athens (clearly, a must-have reference book when one is working on a project of FFTG’s nature). Anyhow, I came across an account of a dinner party that had been held in Athens around 500 BC. Dinner parties—or symposions—were supposed to be dignified affairs where men would get together, eat food, discuss philosophy, and drink well-watered wine. But at this particular party, the wine had obviously not been watered quite enough and the participants were most decidedly three sheets to the wind.

They somehow got the notion that they were on a trireme (a Greek warship) and that there was a storm so they needed to eject the ballast. They started throwing all the furniture out onto the street to lighten the load—tables, couches, cushions, dishes, the lot. All the neighbours came to gawk, the officials came to see what was going on, and it was the talk of Athens for some days afterward. And from then on, that house was known as The Trireme.

Well, I read that and, remembering my own somewhat ill-spent youth, my first thought was, ‘Huh, I think I was at that party’. But more importantly, I felt an immediate connection with those ancient Greeks. It wasn’t just the wild party, it was the fact that the house was known as The Trireme afterward. It just seemed so funny, so understandable, so modern. And I realized then that people really haven’t changed much in 2500 years.

Spec Can:  What is the role of mythology in the modern world?

Karen Dudley: I think it plays a very important role in the modern world. Joseph Campbell once said that myths were “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life”. They explore how we live and die, how we are in the world. The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.

Spec Can: What is the role of humour in literature? What can humour do to change the perspective of a reader?

Karen Dudley: As I said before, I’ve always loved a good laugh mostly because I connect with humorous words and situations at a gut level. I think it’s that ability to forge connections which makes humour so important in literature. Humour is quite distinctive from culture to culture and yet, even if we’re not from that culture, we can generally recognize and appreciate its jokes. Because of this, humour gives us insights into other people’s world experience and we can relate to them because of it. I love that. I used a lot of anachronistic humour in Food for the Gods not only because it’s fun, but because it also lends a sense of immediacy to the story and therefore better connects the reader with the characters and setting—despite the historical distance. After all, the ancient Greeks did not think of themselves as ‘ancient’.

Spec Can: What is your favorite ancient Greek author/ poet/ playwright?

Karen Dudley: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a lot of fun. In the play, Lysistrata is a woman who persuades the other women of Greece to withhold sexual favours from their menfolk unless the men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. It’s bawdy and witty (the men walk around bent over as if in a wind storm), and a lot of fun. But I think my favourite poet would have to be Homer. When I was a kid, I saw a television production of The Odyssey. It was from Italy and, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the greatest adaptation, but I was completely, utterly entranced by it. My love of Greek mythology was born then and there, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for The Odyssey ever since.

Spec Can: How much does your Canadian identity influence your work?

Karen Dudley: This probably hearkens back to the question about humour, but I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.

Spec Can: In what ways can mythology speak to the modern Canadian reader?

Karen Dudley: Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.

Spec Can: What role does research play in your writing?

Karen Dudley: Oh, it’s huge! I’m a bit of a research buff; I really enjoy that aspect of writing. And I’m probably a bit anal-retentive, so I need to get my facts straight. But I’ve also found that research will often lead me to interesting and unexpected story lines, plots, or even characters. For example, I’d never heard of the dinner party-gone-bad that I mentioned earlier until I was doing research for Food for the Gods, so naturally, I had to open the book with that particular symposion (although I did throw a couple of gods into it for good measure). It worked out wonderfully! In fact, there is an author’s note at the back of Food for the Gods which talks a bit about my research process as well as which events and people in the book were real.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian mythic fiction is going from here?

Karen Dudley: I’m not sure if I can predict where it’s going; I know where I’d like it to go! I’d like to see more humour (too much mythic fiction takes itself far too seriously!), and more stories from traditions other than the Greco-Roman one that I was raised on. Obviously I love the stuff, but I think it would be really interesting to delve into some mythic fiction from a tradition that is totally foreign to me. I’ve always been intrigued by The Mahabharata…

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that realist fiction can’t?

Karen Dudley: It can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.

Spec Can: When writing your novel Food For the Godswhat were the biggest challenges as a modern reader getting into an ancient Greek mindset?

Cover Photo from Food For The Gods Courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley: In some ways, the ancient Greeks were a lot like us, but in other ways their culture and society seem quite foreign. I think the biggest challenge was how to explain differences in social mores and beliefs without slowing down the narrative (I am, after all, first and foremost, telling a story). I chose to do this in a humorous fashion with a series of interstitial chapters—everything from advertisements that look like they come from ancient Greek tabloids to excerpts from self-help scrolls. They’re goofy and funny, but they also impart some fairly crucial information for understanding the Athenian society of the Classical period.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add for our readers or anything I haven’t covered yet?

Karen Dudley: I guess the only other thing I’d like to add is to let everyone know that I do have a website, which I don’t update nearly often enough (though I’m trying to be better at this!): http://www.karendudley.com  I’m also on Facebook, which I use for professional purposes (i.e. go ahead and ‘friend’ me [https://www.facebook.com/karen.dudley.37604]!). And finally, I’d like to thank you, Derek, for ‘having me on the show’ as it were. Cheers!

I want to thank Karen Dudley for this fantastic interview and the chance to talk to another fan of the ancient Greek World and to get some of her exciting insights about the interrelationship between her sense of humour, her love of research, and her authorship. To find out more about Karen Dudley’s current projects, check out her website at http://www.karendudley.com . You can read my review of Food For the Gods posted on October 12, 2012.  

Upcoming Interview with Karen Dudley on October 26, 2012.

Chef and author with an interest in Classical Studies, Archaeology, and Biology: Karen Dudley is an exciting read.  In our upcoming interview, you will have a chance to hear about her upcoming novel Food For The Gods and get some insights into her thought processes, and the role of the past for the present world.

Here are a few highlights from the interview:

Karen Dudley: “Books really do break the shackles of time. At first glance, the past seems so distant, so far removed from our own reality, and yet when you read an old book—a book from the past—not only can you hear the author’s voice, but there is an immediate recognition of shared experiences, a realization that in many ways, the author is really not that different from yourself.”

Karen Dudley: “Mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes.”

Karen Dudley: “I’ve always loved a good laugh mostly because I connect with humorous words and situations at a gut level.”

Karen Dudley: “Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian.”

Karen Dudley: “Here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.”

Karen Dudley: “Research will often lead me to interesting and unexpected story lines, plots, or even characters.”

Karen Dudley: “it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further.”

I hope that you enjoy Karen Dudley’s tour into the Classical world, and for her insights into the realm of creating mythology. Check in with Speculating Canada on October 26, 2012 for an interview with this modern mythographer.

You can read more about Karen Dudley’s work at http://www.karendudley.com/ , and you can read my review of Dudley’s Food For The Gods (posted October 16th on Speculating Canada)

Xena Meets Iron Chef

Cover photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

A Review of Karen Dudley’s Food for the Gods (Turnstone Press, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Make sure to eat a large meal before you read Karen Dudley’s Food for the Gods. Dudley sets her novel in the ancient Greek world where mythology and Athenian life mix. Nothing prepares an ancient Greek chef for a life of cooking more than being made into a meal for the gods. Celebrity chef Pelops was sacrificed by his father Tantalus and made into a meal that was offered to the gods as Tantalus’ attempt to mock the gods. Dudley’s story takes place once Pelops has been reconstituted from this primeval stew (missing only a piece of his shoulder that was eaten accidentally by Demeter and replaced by a prosthetic shoulder of ivory) with a new, very personal understanding of the cooking craft… one could say that his blood was infused with good taste. Having turned down the love of Poseidon, Pelops was forced to find a non-watery solution for cooking in – allowing him to instead use the gifts of Athene and Dionysus (olive oil and wine) to infuse his food with new, rich tastes that set him aside from other chefs.

Having been served as food to the gods, Pelops has the ability to see the gods, and Dudley infuses her work with the divine presence. Food for the Gods combines a mystery plot with a reality-TV-like plot of a celebrity chef insider view… and a hefty dose of ancient gods and furies. Her plot plays with ancient Greek notions of moira (fate), hubris, and miasma (the contaminating quality of polluted acts), challenging her readers to think in an ancient Greek mindset and envision a world where negative deeds are seen as being able to be transferred by touch or by proximity to others. She also interjects the gods into every aspect of life from boiling water to drunken revelry – who would have known cooking could be so divine.

Dudley infuses her work with her incredible sense of humour, combining a serious plot of mystery and intrigue with humourous interludes and several posters advertising anything from advice books on preparing a dinner party to advice on how to properly interact with prostitutes. Her style of humour is clearly influenced by the ancient Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, blending body humour, social commentary, and philosophy/theology.

Although infused with humour, Dudley’s work also challenges modern notions of the stability of morality structures and introduces aspects of the ancient Greek world that would be considered taboo or outsider narratives in modernity. Dudley discusses sex workers as normative and unthreatening, and, unlike many narratives today, humanises her prostitute characters rather than casting them as social outlaws or social problems. Rather than casting her prostitute characters as drug-addled criminals with complex and problematic histories, Dudley displays prostitution as an employment option and even portrays one of the prostitutes as the love interest for her story.

Dudley’s plot exemplifies the ancient Greek comfort with queer subjectivity, and does not feel the need to narrativise queer lives or to construct reasons why her characters are queer. The homosexuality of her characters is just another part of their existence and is not complicated as something outside of the norm.

This novel encourages the reader to think outside of the temporal subjectivity (outside of the tendency of modern society to think of itself as superior and “the only way things could be”) and question whether modern methods of viewing the world are better than those of the past.

Dudley combines the playful engagement with mythology of Xena with the culinary interplay of celebrity cooking shows, and a healthy dose of mystery and crime-solving. By the end of reading this, you will find yourself reading Homer while eating a gourmet meal and pondering about the crimes in your city. I look forward to more of Dudley’s work with a fork in one hand, a spyglass in the other, and ancient Greek pottery on the table.

Warning: Do Not Read On An Empty Stomach. May Cause Hunger.

To read more about Karen Dudley’s work, visit her website at http://www.karendudley.com/ . Visit RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press) for Food of the Gods at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/