An Experiment in Gender

A review of James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour (Eos, 1998)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I was originally trained as an anthropologist (for my Bachelor’s Degree and my Master’s Degree), so I always find books that explore the notion of anthropological researchers fascinating. James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour centres on a story of a scientist and his assistant visiting a small town where all of the residents alternate gender identities (between male and female) every year until they reach their 21st birthday where they “commit” to a gender. Their gender options are male, female or “neut” (essentially intersex). Each person has a different look and different personality in each of their gender identities.

Yet, Gardner also points out the issues of the anthropological researcher since, although the researcher says he is committed to noninterference, he irrevocably changes the society he contacts, leading to murder, religious upheaval, and a fundamental change in how their society views gender.

Gardner’s narrative focuses on the perspective of a currently male member of this society who is about to commit to a gender identity. We are able to get insights from a believer in that society who views the researcher’s presence as an interference at best and a travesty at worst.

Using a researcher doing ethnographic research in a science fiction novel immediately evokes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hanish Cycle of books, and having the story about gender and a society where people alternate genders immediately evokes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, Le Guin’s parents were famous anthropologists Theodora and Alfred Louis Kroeber, which is perhaps why her explorations of culture are so powerful. Gardner’s work reads as a love letter to Le Guin, examining her ideas and giving another perspective to a gender-alternating culture.

Yet, Gardner’s exploration of gender takes a different path than Le Guin’s, and where Le Guin doesn’t explore the notion of taboos in society (something that people have critiqued The Left Hand of Darkness for because it ignores the treatment of LGBTQ2IA people as other in our own society), Gardner explores taboo and violence against sexual minorities by featuring a society that technically allows people to choose to be “neut”, but lynches them, kills them, or drives them out of their society violently. Where Le Guin takes a utopian view toward gender diversity, Gardner brings in the realities of human violence and bigotry.

Like Le Guin, Gardner’s Commitment Hour is about a gender experiment – partially his own use of Sci Fi as theory to rethink and critique gender, but also to examine what it would mean to have to choose gender.

As a nonbinary person, a person who exists outside of the binary of male/female, I found reading Commitment Hour fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the “neut” option for gender identity. This third gender option is a reminder that notions of gender are not fixed or unchanging, but, rather, subject to change. Gardner experiments with ideas of gender and the aspects of gender that are constructed as “natural” and how societies reinforce these ideas.

Commitment Hour explored aspects of the gender binary and assumptions about what characteristics are feminine and which are masculine, while also examining a fluidity between these gendered characteristics. Gardner explores the way that social norms, expectations, and taboos reinforce the idea that there are only two ways of being in the world – male and female and explores the social punishment that people receive for being outside of that binary.

Although these are ideas that are discussed much more often now and although we have new language for exploring gender identity including pronouns other than “she”, “he”, and “it”, Gardner’s Commitment Hour was written in 1998 and challenged some of the entrenched ideas of the time. It is definitely a book that deserves to be looked at anew and that still has something to say about gender.

To find out more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To discover more about Commitment Hour, go to https://openroadmedia.com/ebook/commitment-hour/9781497623491


Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

An Interview with Dr. Kelly McGuire About Pandemic and Outbreak Narratives

In light of the current COVID 19 pandemic, I wanted to interview Dr. Kelly McGuire, a professor and chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Trent University who has taught courses on epidemic and outbreak narratives and who researches medical history among her many research interests. 

Interviewer: Derek Newman-Stille

 

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kelly McGuire: I am a faculty member of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Trent, where I specialize in eighteenth-century literature with a focus on medical history, although my teaching reflects my varied interests in popular culture, social justice, and feminism. I am currently working on how the eighteenth-century practice of inoculation (and the care labour surrounding it) was imagined in the literature of the time (so I’m paying particular attention to the discussions around immunity and the development of a vaccine in relation to COVID-19).

 


Spec Can: What got you interested in reading pandemic and other viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: I am really interested in how these narratives give us access to the world of epidemiologists, virologists, and scientists affiliated with organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (Wold Health Organization). They also read on some level as detective fiction (with the scientists tasked with “solving” the mystery of the virus, which in its own way has the status of a character – usually framed as a demonic enemy even though viruses exist only to replicate themselves). The centrality of the body in these narratives also interests me, as all of those nasty things we generally avoid talking about assume centre stage.

 

Spec Can: What got you interested in researching and teaching pandemic and viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: A strange constellation of interests, beginning in an academic sense with my dissertation on suicide, which brought me into contact with the strange new world of public health as it emerged in the eighteenth century. I became very interested in how historically literature helped to imagine infection, and over time came to integrate my interest in popular fiction into this particular focus.

 

Spec Can: What are some characteristics of pandemic narratives in fiction? 

Kelly McGuire: Priscilla Wald (Contagious, 2008) does an excellent job of tracing these characteristics in contemporary fiction and film, while I see some of these tropes being established much earlier in works like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which is a fictionalized telling of the 1665 Great Plague of London. So I’m not necessarily dealing with pandemic narratives so much as works that deal with outbreaks and epidemics.

Often we see a first-person narrator in these stories who is positioned to give us a first-hand and more intimate account of the epidemic as it unfolds. These narrators are by necessity characterized by a somewhat morbid and perverse curiosity, which propels them through empty streets and gives us access to eerie scenes and unusual behaviours that arise in times of quarantine. Another character that figures in many of these narratives is the healthy carrier or super spreader who becomes the chief vector of disease and is almost invariably scapegoated as a result (I’ll talk more about ethnic scapegoating below).  The extermination of cats and dogs in urban centres is a recurring feature of these works, unfortunately, as is the flight from the city (always aligned with corruption and disease at the best of times) to the country.

In a narrative sense, the outbreak has its own kind of rhythm, generating confusion and panic as it slowly but inexorably begins to register in the consciousness of the people. We see the same kind of denial and slowness to act that has marked our experience of the pandemic, and a proliferation of rumour and quackery, as well as superstition (as epidemics to this day are read as an expression of God’s wrath).

It’s also interesting how the representations of “emptiness” that characterize depictions of urban plague scenes often give way to crowded, carnivalesque scenes of carefree behaviour. In his discussion of how the plague city represents authority’s ideal of the disciplinary society, Foucault relates how the experience of quarantine is met with both order and disorder, and this is certainly a recurring feature of outbreak narratives. But the general trend in these stories is towards fragmentation and the fraying of the social bonds that hold us together.

These can also be profoundly existential narratives, giving us access on some level to the ways in which humans confront their mortality, and contain a good many psychological insights about how we deal with trauma and the breakdown of our social order.

Spec Can: Why do you think people are interested in pandemic narratives?

Kelly McGuire: Some people (like Ernest Gilman) would argue that we are on some level haunted in a traumatic sense by a kind of shared memory of the plague, which lives on as a result in the popular imagination. This shared memory arguably informs the iconic appearance and behaviour of zombies, often thought to be inspired by early modern bubonic plague victims whose lymphatic swellings caused them to raise their arms and shuffle with their heads tilted at unusual angles).

These narratives remind us of our vulnerability, our porosity, our dependency on one another and, just like works of horror, function as a kind of release valve, confronting us with these fears in part to allow us to contain them. Ultimately, the kind of barriers and borders that the illness overcomes are redrawn at the end of these narratives, which are reassuring in their portraits of resilience (although in their rejoicing, survivors almost invariably forget the promises and vows they had made to live better lives and return to their old ways).

Spec Can: How do pandemic narratives relate to social fears and anxieties that are not necessarily about viruses?

Kelly McGuire: These narratives are always about xenophobia and the fear of the other on some level. We tend to align an idea of the self with health and associate disease with an idea of the “other” (other ethnicities, other countries). Many outbreak narratives like Albert Camus’s La Peste and Philip Roth’s Nemesis (which deals with an outbreak of polio in 1944 New Jersey), can be read on some levels as metaphors for the Holocaust or anti-Semitism more generally, and in this sense invoke ways in which Jewish peoples have been scapegoated historically (in times of plague in particular). These works often reflect anxieties around immigration, and, in more recent times, around globalization (see the film Contagion from 2011 for an example). In the 1990s, Africa was the target of a good many of these narratives, whereas Asia has been the focus since SARS.

 

Spec Can: How are viral narratives related to ideas of borders and border policing?

Kelly McGuire: My students and I always talk about how Western thought has encouraged us to see ourselves as bodies with clearly defined boundaries in keeping with the idea of the “sovereign self” and the ethos of individualism that pervades North American culture in particular. Viral narratives disrupt this idea of the “bounded body” by reminding us how we act on one another constantly and imperceptibly. What these narratives do (again, this is a central thesis of Priscilla Wald’s book), is render visible not only our movements through space but also our multiple and varied points of contact with one another.

In a geopolitical sense, these stories also expose the idea of the national border as a mere construct that viruses certainly do not respect and, on the contrary, traverse at will. In that way they reveal as illusory all of these arbitrary lines we draw to mark off territory we occupy as settlers from other areas.

Spec Can: How might the Coronavirus pandemic change the way that fictional pandemics are presented?

Kelly McGuire: That is a really good question! So far we have manifested much of the same behaviour and tendencies we see in a lot of outbreak narratives, but inevitably the role of social media in overcoming isolation and perhaps even facilitating the conditions so vital to the containment of infection will be an important addition to the kinds of stories we tell about epidemics. The language of “flattening” or “planking” the curve and the emphasis on collective responsibility is even more pronounced than that which we find in most stories of this genre, and I suspect this will become entrenched in the popular vocabulary of pandemic writing, as will the language of social or physical distancing. It is fascinating to me how quickly we have embraced these terms and have come to read historical events like the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919 through these practices. The direct experience of having lived through a pandemic and in some cases lost loved ones, or dealt with hardship and privation in varying ways, will shape how these stories are told in the future. Perhaps we’ll tell them through a more intimate lens, and one marked by mourning, (rather than by the ghastly intrigue of following a disease event that has spiralled beyond our control). Most outbreak narratives talk about the “leveling” effects of illness, but, as many people have remarked, this pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities within our society and disproportionately affects groups that are already marginalized: people with disabilities, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people, and women. One desirable outcome would be that these experiences will be highlighted more in subsequent narratives that will move significantly beyond some of the tropes and characteristics I’ve discussed above.

 

Spec Can: Many pandemic narratives (especially zombie narratives) tend to present the image of a society that becomes hyper individualistic and libertarian in focus. How might characteristics of the current Coronavirus pandemic shift this image? Or will it shift that image?

Kelly McGuire: I think in many pandemic narratives we actually see both tendencies.  Most of these works represent the individualistic drive to self-preservation that manifests itself in hoarding tendencies or the refusal to sacrifice our comfort or pleasure to safeguard the vulnerable. But these stories also commonly trace the emergence of a kind of ethos of collectivity as contagion in some ways helps foster a sense of community. At the end of these stories, the inevitable triumph (often scientific in contemporary works) over the disease in itself is also imagined as a triumph of the human spirit. I see these same patterns being reproduced as this event unfolds. But my hope is that ultimately a more collectivist mentality and concern with social equality will prevail that will in turn allow us to confront other pressing concerns (like the climate crisis) that remain to be addressed when all this is over.

 

—-

Dr. Kelly McGuire is an associate professor in the department of English Literature and the current chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Trent University. Her research interests include Eighteenth-century literature and cultural history; medical history; plague writing and public health; biothrillers and biopunk; disease and national character; women’s writing; and sermon literature.

 

A Gingerbread House Waiting For An Old Lady

A Gingerbread House Waiting For An Old Lady

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “Path Of White Stones” in Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins (Exile, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

We like to assume that we own our houses – that we select them and buy them and that they become ours… but don’t we also become theirs? Aren’t we swallowed whole by our houses and digested over the years, becoming what they make of us? 

Kate Heartfield’s “Path Of White Stones” asks how our houses shape us. Borrowing from tales of old women and their houses like Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga, Kate looks at the way that sometimes our ginger bread houses aren’t traps for others, but, rather, they trap us. 

Kate explores ageing and “adult living” communities and the way that these communities isolate ageing adults, promising them a get away from the business of everyday living… but illustrates the way that these communities facilitate a separation from the rest of the world and allow bigotries to arise. “Path Of White Stones” asks what happens when people are cut off from the rest of the community and segregated and how this shapes their ideas of selfhood and Otherness. 

Kate examines ageing femininity and questions the tropes of the “old woman”, creating a protagonist who is aware of the stereotypes and resistant to simple narratives of selfhood. She uses her tale of ageing, home, and community to invite critical questions about how we understand ways of living while ageing. 

To find out more about Kate Heartfield, visit https://heartfieldfiction.com

To discover more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to get your own copy, visit Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

Woke Beauty

Woke Beauty

A review of Nicole Lavigne’s “Fairest Find” in “Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins” (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nicole Lavigne tells a tale of a prince who measured his life by the fairy tales he was  told as children and finds himself confused when he encounters the complexities of life outside of story books. “Fairest Find” is a meta narrative commenting on traditional fairy tales and the problematic ways that they simplify the world.

Lavigne plays with the Sleeping Beauty tale, transforming the passive princess awaiting true love’s kiss into a powerful woman unwilling to let others decide her destiny for her. Lavigne invites readers to question the de-voicing of women in fairy tales, pointing to the need to tell tales that raise questions about consent and choice, tales that critique patriarchy and parental power. “Fairest Find” is about empowered women taking control of the tales that are told about them and instead telling their own tales, rich with their own complexity.

To find out more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to buy your own copy, go to Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

Planted

Planted
A review of Richard Keelan’s “The Waltzing Tree” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins” (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Richard Keelan’s “The Waltzing Tree” is a suburban fairy tale about loneliness and transformation. It is a tale about overcoming the distance that traditional modes of masculinity place between our bodies and the fear of vulnerability that is part of those notions of masculinity. “The Waltzing Tree” explores complex intimacies and the resistance people often feel to types of intimacy that aren’t considered traditional.

Keelan tells a tale about care-giving and care-receiving between a man and a transformed tree, opening up uncertainties and complexities in their interactions and understandings of each other. Both share the property that the man has moved to – he because he has bought the land and the tree because their roots were planted in that ground long before the man moved to this space. This proximity allows them to both struggle with ideas of home and what it means for them to share this space and to cope with others infringing on their privacy. 

The man, Johnathan, is only able to let his tight control of his masculinity and senses of propriety slip because the tree, David, still identifies as a tree and represents a complex gender identity. Johnathan fears what contact with David may mean, even while he is trying to rescue them. 

To discover more about Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins, visit https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com

And visit Exile Editions’ website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

Skin Deep

Skin Deep

A review of Nathan Caro Frechette’s “Skin” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (2018, Exile)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Selkies are creatures from Scottish folklore (but also noted in the Orkneys and Shetlands) who are capable of transforming from seal to human by shedding their skin. In many selkie tales, female selkies are stolen from their watery home when a man steals their seal skin and then keeps the skin hidden away, forcing his new selkie bride to do his bidding. These are generally coercive tales where women (or their children) have to escape from the control of the skin thief by finding out where the skin is hidden and stealing it back to disappear into the ocean.

Nathan Caro Frechette reshapes the selkie mythos in his story “Skin”, which plays with the idea of skin and identity, turning the tale into a Trans story of self discovery and resistance. Frechette keeps the coercive element of the tale, but instead abstracts it onto the protagonist’s mother, bringing attention to the way that parents of Trans kids frequently try to control their children’s identities and prevent them from expressing their gender identity.

Using the figure of the Selkie, Frechette examines the way that Trans people are often cut off from the history and culture of other Trans people, exploring the idea that the abundance of cis-gendered (non-Trans) culture and the lack of representation of Trans culture has an impact on Trans youth, particularly as they search for a connection to others in their community.

Frechette, himself a Trans man, examines features of Trans identity through Ron that cis-gendered writers would not have the experiential knowledge of. Frechette examines what it is like to explore the world as a Trans person and examine the oppressions (whether intentional or unintentional) a Trans person experiences through things like misgendering, dead-naming, and erasure. Frechette is able to bring his real world experience of chest binding and feelings about bodily identity into the character. But this is not just a tale of gender dysphoria – Frechette examines the gender euphoria that comes when someone genders us by using our pronouns and names and accepts us for who we are.

“Skin” is a powerful story that tells a Trans tale of transformation and examines the power of folklore and fairy tales for expressing identities that have been traditionally underrepresented. Frechette writes his story to speak to a Trans audience, which is powerful since many people write Trans stories with a cis-gendered audience in mind and he proves that tales don’t need to be written for a cis-gendered audience to speak to a wider public because this tale is a tale that can speak to anyone who has examined their identity.

To discover more about Nathan Caro Frechette, check out his page at https://nathancarofrechette.ca

To discover more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com or check out Exile publishing at https://www.exileeditions.com

Magical Autobio

Magical Autobio

A review of Ronnie Ritchie’s “Star Kid” in We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comic Anthology (Stacked Deck Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In the comic “Star Kid”, Ronnie Ritchie intertwines autobiography and ideas of magic. They use ideas of astology to understand themself, sharing their early fascination with sun and moon symbolism and the relationship between these celestial symbols and gender (since the sun and moon are gendered in many European cultures).

Ritchie explores their love of stars from an early age as a symbol that is often seen alongside the sun and moon, but also the power of the star to separate them from the gendered characteristics of the sun and moon. Despite their love of astrology and stars, they describe the challenge of growing up in an Evangelical home where astrology was considered evil, and their subversive claiming of the star symbol. They use the artistic medium of the comic to illustrate their love of illustrations, showing the way they combined sun, moon, and star symbols together in their early art.

Stars, suns, and moons became metaphors for gender for them in their exploration of their own gendered identity and they frequently drew characteristics of gender and characteristics of the sun and moon together, realizing that these descriptions were too limited to capture the complexity of their identity. Being a nonbinary person, they discovered the potential of being outside the orbit of the gendered sun and moon in a space they created – The Star. They illustrate that the symbol of the star allowed them to find a symbol of joy, happiness, and cuteness (they make sure to distinguish the marshmellowy stars in their art from the actual huge balls of nuclear fire).

Ritchie cleverly combines autobiography with hints of the speculative and the magical, pointing out that we often explore complex ideas through symbols. People have been exploring their identities through astrology for a long period of time, and Ritchie’s use of astrological symbolism in understanding their gendered identity takes the astrological into a new sphere of contemplation. They illustrate that the symbolic is still an important realm for contemplating identity, particularly since so many of our social symbols are gendered.

To find out more about We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comic Anthology, visit Stacked Deck Press at https://stackeddeckpress.com/product/were-still-here-an-all-trans-comics-anthology/

To find out more about Ronnie Ritchie, visit their website at https://www.rritchiearts.com

A Green Monster Who Isn’t Envy

A Green Monster Who Isn’t Envy

A review of Morgan Sea’s “Abominatrix” in We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comic Anthology (Stacked Deck Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Abominatrix”, Morgan Sea plays with the notion of Marvel Comics’ She Hulk and produces another gamma powered superhero. Sea’s hero is a Trans woman who adores She Hulk, and decides to take a shot of gamma infused chemicals as part of her transition. Instead of ending up looking like She Hulk – a green-skinned, powerful, beautiful woman, she ends up looking more like the Hulk villain, the Abomination. Instead of becoming a villain as Marvel comics characters tend to do when they have lived a life of oppression and don’t become beautiful superheroines, Trixie tries to live her life as she always has. She reminds herself “They’ve always treated you like a monster. They’ve always wanted you to hide”, so she decides to practice radical self love instead. While out on the streets, she continues to be subject to social violence – insulted by passers by, having drinks thrown at her. While being subjected to violence, she has to constantly reassure other people that they are safe from her instead of being concerned about her own safety. Even when she wants to use the washroom, she is told that she would need to use the men’s toilets instead of women’s toilets.

When Trixie finally decides to act back against all of the social violence she experiences, she ends up fighting another gamma powered hulk and the two of them end up crashing through spaces of oppression like a pharmacy where a doctor is refusing a Trans person their meds, a bank where a Trans person is being denied a loan for their electrolysis machine, and a classroom where a teacher is trying to force children to believe only in binary genders and that gender is unchangeable. This is a comic about smashing heteropatriarchy and Morgan Sea reminds us that we can’t accept violence and sometimes we need to act back to prevent that oppression.

Sea plays with some meta fictional elements of her comic, writing Trixie’s inner dialogue with the awareness that she is a comic character. She uses language like “Just got to take it step by step, day by day, panel by panel” and “See you are almost off this page!” to remind readers that this is a self-aware comic, a comic that is purposely raising questions and critiques about the mainstream comic industry. “Abominatrix” invites us to ask questions about the absence of Trans characters in most superhero comics (where Trans characters often only appear as villains) and asks us to question the portrayal in comics of a character who is done being subjected to violence and decides to speak back. As I mentioned above, the characters who act back against social violence in comics are generally treated as villains and the role of heroes is often to reinforce the status quo. Sea’s comic is about challenging the simple narrative of mainstream superhero comics and inviting an awareness of the absences and vilifying of characters who stand up for social justice. She asks us to think about how we create our monsters and the ideologies that go into producing those monsters.

To find out more about Morgan Sea, visit her website at https://morgansea.wordpress.com

To find out more about We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comics Anthology, go to https://stackeddeckpress.com/product/were-still-here-an-all-trans-comics-anthology/

WONDERful

Wonderful

A review of Cait Gordon’s A Night at The Rabbit Hole in Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland edited by Colleen Anderson (Exile, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Alice in Wonderland is a story that plays with identity, disrupting the power that normativity has on our society. Cait Gordon has tapped into that power that Wonderland has to resist normativity and creates a GenderQueer Alice who has just come out and taken on their new name and pronouns. It is refreshing to read a story featuring a GenderQueer character that is not about the struggles of occupying their identity. In A Night at The Rabbit Hole, Alice is instantly accepted for their gender and people don’t slip up and refer to them as anything other than “them” after one quick correction.

Gordon uses the Alice in Wonderland text for its power to disrupt power structures that erase identity possibilities and instead writes a story filled with potential and possibility.

A Night at the Rabbit Hole is a tale about a meeting in a dance club where Alice is given a pill that transforms their perspective and gives them an expanded view of the world around them, allowing them to see through human disguises to the creatures beneath. Gordon plays with the question of what could alter someone’s perspective like the “drink me” potion and mushroom that Alice takes in Carroll’s story and ultimately comes up with the connection to club drugs. After Alice took their pill (here called a “tart”), I have to admit that the Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit was running through my head as Alice’s perspectives were warped, and I think that Gordon intended to plant this trippy tune in the minds of her readers.

Cait Gordon’s characteristic playfulness comes through in this tale of altered reality and questioned norms and she invites readers to chuckle at clever witticisms at the same time as they speculate about possibilities beyond the simple world that they live in. This is a story that empowers at the same time as it entertains

To discover more about Alice Unbound, go to http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/alice-unbound-beyond-wonderland/

To find out more about Cait Gordon, visit her website at https://caitgordon.com

Valuing Care

A review of Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As a society, we undervalue care and undervalue care workers. We tend to assume that people who do care work are doing it because they like helping people and we assume that the job is compensation enough. Even in the home, we de-value family members who provide care, viewing their care work as something that doesn’t need compensation. Care work is consistently treated as though it is not real labour and isn’t valued or compensated for. 

Part of this lack of value for care work stems from patriarchal beliefs that position care work as a feminine labour and therefore de-value it the same way that patriarchy de-values anything viewed as feminine. 

Care work has been in need to reimagining for some time. It has needed a fundamental disruption of social assumptions and a re-evaluating of the meaning of this labour. Using the medium of speculative fiction, a genre devoted to asking questions, Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound brings together stories that critically interrogate the way that we imagine care and care-giving. These stories take a broad exploration of what care can mean, looking at parental care, long term care homes, social responsibilities for care, foster care, maternal care, elder care, medical care by doctors and nurses, the care relationships of pets, and even the care roles of insectile species’ (since care isn’t just a human trait). These stories examine complexities of care that are critical to this culture moment such as what is the value of care?, what difference does quality care make?, what is quality of life?, is care the role of home or the state?, what are the gendered dynamics of care-giving?, why do we de-value care-givers?, how much responsibility should parents have in the care of their children?, and what is the role of robotics in care? These are all critical questions that are in need of complex and creative answers and The Sum of Us invites readers to think critically about them. It doesn’t introduce easy answers about care-giving, but instead invites readers to explore often contrary ideas about care, asking readers to come up with their own critical questions and creative answers to the meaning of care.

These are tales of robots, aliens, insects, future wars, supervillains, nanites, other worlds, plagues, and mutants, but at their core, these are all tales about what caring means, and these are real, human questions. They may be explored through the lens of the alien, but they are fundamentally about human values and what care means to us. Sometimes the only way to get us to ask critical questions about the way that we value (or de-value) caring labour is to project our modes of care onto another, onto the future, onto another society, onto the inhuman so that we ask ourselves “if this makes us upset when we see an alien doing it, what does it mean that we are doing the same thing?”

To read some of the reviews of individual stories in this collection, see my review of:

Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/25/skating-on-the-thin-ice-of-sports-masculinity/

Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-reaper-cat/

Edward Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/08/insectile-intimacies/

Sandra Kasturi’s “The Beautiful Gears of Dying”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/06/exposing-the-caregiver-within-the-human-suit/

A.M. Dellamonica’s “Bottleneck” 

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/06/10/caregiving-at-war/

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” 

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/breakable/ 

Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/28/what-is-means-to-be-an-outsider/
To find out more about The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/