Godly Love Story

A review of Jerome Stueart’s “Brazos” in The Angels of Our Better Beasts (ChiZine, 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Mythology is filled with love stories between a human being and a god. These stories are generally told from the perspective of the beloved of the god… and generally they don’t turn out well for the human being with mortals transformed into trees, driven mad, or abandoned. Jerome Stueart’s “Brazos” takes a different perspective, providing a meeting of fathers – the father of a god, and a farmer, who is the father of a young woman getting ready to go to college. This is a modern myth playing with ancient traditions, and those traditions are encoded in the way that the fathers speak to each other about the relationship between their children.

Stueart sets his story in a modern American setting, adding a new setting to an old myth and playing with the power of myth to speak to multiple audiences. His farmer is an American self-made man, not trusting anything he didn’t build himself, and this gives him an instant distrust of the easy success of a god. He recognizes the history of gods mistreating their mortal lovers and wants better for his daughter, asking why humans have to make all of the sacrifices for gods and questioning whether this will allow for a deeper relationship if the god gives nothing and the mortal gives everything.

Stueart brings attention to power dynamics in relationships, inviting a questioning of relationships and assumed sacrifices. He uses myth to bring attention to the way that traditions are mythical and need to change under new circumstances, needing to be as transformative as the gods of these myths and their mortal lovers.

To find out more about Jerome Stueart’s work, visit https://jeromestueart.com
To find out more about The Angels of Our Better Beasts and other ChiZine publications, visit http://chizinepub.com

Advertisements

RagnaROCKING Manitoba: The Road to Hel

A review of Chadwick Ginther’s Tombstone Blues (RavenStone, 2013).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Tombstone Blues courtesy of RavenStone books

Cover Photo of Tombstone Blues courtesy of RavenStone books

This second book in the Thunder Road trilogy takes a turn toward the dark. The dead have risen, and Thor, who has been sitting in Hel since Ragnarok… has become dark and twisted by years of post-mortem torture.

When Thor encounters Ted Callan, the first thing he notices is that Ted has been tattooed with Norse artifacts… including Thor’s own hammer Mjolnir…. and he wants it back. Ted has become used to the powers that were granted to him by his Norse tattoos, so, when Thor rips Mjolnir from Ted’s body, he has to adapt to the changes in his body, finding new ways to cope with the magical and mythical world that continues to surround him and finding new ways to deal with the dead who have risen guided by a dark Thor and twisted Valkyries.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the same can be said with the role to Hel, the Norse goddess of death (and the name for her hall and her realm). All of Ted’s acts of heroism, his attempts to save the world have only made it more vulnerable. The wall that Odin placed around Midgard (Earth) to keep otherworldly beings out only allows these beings to influence those who have already been touched in some way by the otherworldly. Unfortunately, that means that every one of Ted’s heroic acts has created a potential victim, marking them for transgression by mythic and magical beings. In his attempts to protect his fellow humans, Ted has unintentionally weakened the barrier around Midgard, and the supernatural is getting closer. His good intentions paved a road for Hel to Earth and as the fog and mists of Nifleheim, the hellish realm between, roll out across the Earth, nightmares are able to visit a human race no longer prepared for the otherworldly, lost in the technocracy we have created.

The Dwarven tattoos carved into his body gave Ted the ability to walk on air, super strength, near invulnerability, power over the weather… and all of this has given him a hero complex, a belief in his ability to solve problems through brute force. But, despite the whisperings of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, which should grant him wisdom, Ted is only given information rather than wisdom. Power without knowledge and thoughts about consequences is a feature of many of the heroes our society manufactures, but in Tombstone Blues, Chadwick Ginther forces Ted to face responsibility for his acts, to question and debate his belief in his own moral rightness and question what may happen if he makes the wrong choice. Ted realises that he is only part of a greater world which can be changed by his actions, and not always in the positive way that he intends. A man of action, Ted is forced to reassess those actions, to stop, pause, and speculate about what he is doing and why.

Ted’s own bodily vulnerability, brought on by Thor’s act of ripping Mjolnir from his body allows him to think of wider vulnerabilities in the world, changes and dangers that may be too large for one person’s heroism to change. Like himself, the world has become wounded, and instead of blood, it is leaking the mists of Nifleheim, a fluid that is no less deadly.

To read more about Chadwick Ginther’s work, visit his website at http://chadwickginther.com/ .

To discover more about Tombstone Blues, visit RavenStone’s website at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/spec-fic/tombstone-blues.html .

Voudoun Visions of Toronto

A Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in The Ring (Grand Central Publishing, 1998)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson blends urban fantasy and near-future science fiction together in a Toronto environment. She creates a Toronto that has been cut off from the rest of Canada, ghettoised and locked off from the rest of the country and made into a controlled space where entrances and exits from the city are carefully monitored and controlled. Yet, this space of conflicted identity, a Toronto that is searching for its new identity, searching for what it should become from a past that has been conflicted and confused. Toronto’s identity has been cut off from the wider Canadian identity through its rejection, and yet this could be an opportunity for it to find a new identity.

Despite its near-future science fictional setting, Brown Girl in the Ring is a space of fantasy, incorporating into it magic, mythic figures, Loa (gods and goddesses of Haitian Vodoun), and visions. Ti-Jeanne is a woman who is conflicted between her Torontonian identity and the rich Caribbean heritage that her grandmother has passed down to her – Caribbean foods, creole, healing herbs, and some elements of vodoun. She has had visions and magical power passed down to her that has attracted the attention of the Loa, the gods of Vodoun and her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne has pointed out that if she denies this aspect of herself, if she ignores the magic, it will over-ride her. If she lives in conflict with this aspect of herself, she will be warring with herself instead of integrating herself and accepting all aspects of her identity.

Hopkinson’s Toronto is a place where magic can occur, a place where cultures intersect and assert themselves and where people search for identity and meaning as they see their community in new lights, push for change, and come to find new definitions of home. Her Toronto is not one steeped in one history, but a place where multiple histories intersect, where the visions of diverse people come together to see a more complex, more magical, and more inclusive space.

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, you can visit her website at http://www.nalohopkinson.com/ . You can explore more about Brown Girl in the Ring at http://www.nalohopkinson.com/writing/fiction/books/brown_girl

The Timeless Power of Legends

A Review of The Monkey King & Other Stories Edited by Griffin Ondaatje (Harper Collins, 1995).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Griffin Ondaatje compiled The Monkey King & Other Stories as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of World Literacy of Canada. The stories within represent Canadian and Sri Lankan adaptations and re-tellings of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim tales, bringing the timeless wisdom of these tales to an English-reading audience. Written by a variety of authors and including such powerful voices from canonised Can Lit as P. K. Page, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and M.G. Vassanji, this volume represents a multitude of voices telling tales that have transformed and changed throughout history, illustrating the timeless quality of their narrative as well as the multiplicity of their voice and ability to transcend a single person’s narrative.

Each of the tales in this volume focuses on raising questions and imparting some form of wisdom, and although they are largely tales borrowed from religious texts, I have included them on Speculating Canada because of their speculative quality (asking timeless questions) – this is not to suggest that the religious texts contained in this volume are speculative fiction themselves, since they hold a religio-mythic realism, but their speculative quality is evoked in the re-telling of these stories to a diverse audience and the focus of the volume on rendering these religious tales into stories for consumption outside of a religious setting.

Many of the tales in this volume caution against ignorance, against the belief that there is something in this world that people don’t need to know about. They teach the importance of an open mind that is prepared for receiving new wisdom and new ideas. The thing that is most critiqued in these stories is arrogance and the limiting quality of arrogance as well as its impact on the world around it. Closely allied with this is a critique of the misuse of power and misunderstanding of the relationship between the common people and those in power.

Many of the tales in The Monkey King & Other Stories give voice to the animals surrounding humanity, allowing the largely ignored fauna of the world to gain a presence in human consciousness. These stories critique the misuse of animals by human beings and critique human power over animals (or the perception of power over them) while making the reader consider the way that humanity systematically de-voices the animal world, robbing the other creatures of the planet of agency. Buddhist tales in this volume, which contain the potential through ideas of reincarnation to make literal the humanity of animals, teach that it is essential to look at the wisdom of animals. After all, the Buddha did take the form of animals in the past, and therefore there is an essential transcendent quality of animal existence. The tale “Brighter Still” (retold by Graeme MacQueen), about the Buddha in the form of a deer teaches that animals serve a pedagogical value for humanity, imparting ideas of self-sacrifice, protection of one’s people, and the cruelty of over-hunting. “The Deer, The Tortoise, and the Kaerala Bird” (retold by J.B. Disanayaka) uses a discussion of the diversity of animal bodies and the ability of diverse animal bodies to each serve a different purpose to remind readers of the essential importance of  diversity and that our system of “normalising” certain bodies or ideas is limiting.

The narratives in this volume focus on the importance of sharing resources, both material and intellectual and looking for a fair distribution of goods and ideas. Stories like “The Monkey King” (retold by Shyam Selvadurai) teach the importance of self-sacrifice as an essential part of leadership, as well as cautioning about the power of fear to override justice. “The Chola King” (retold by Tim Wynne-Jones) reminds leaders that they are ultimately responsible to the people they represent. “Two Friends by the Villu” (retold by Ranjini Obeyesekere) reminds the reader that friendships and alliances are often strained when there is a deficit of resources, while “The Dog Who Drank From Socks” (retold by Griffin Ondaatje) teaches that occasionally shared thirst can teach compassion for others who are suffering. “Power Misused” (retold by S. Samarasinghe) warns that the power to destroy often facilitates the desire to destroy. “The Cycle of Revenge” (retold by M.G. Vassanji) warns about the ability of revenge to escalate violence and trap the participants in a permanent and self-destructive battle that damages them and those around them. “Kundalini” (retold by Chitra Fernando) teaches compassion for difference and the importance of being inclusive and creating a welcoming society for diversity. The narratives in this volume are pedagogical and illustrate the important role of telling stories to help people transcend their limited viewpoints and gain further, diverse wisdom as well as questioning taken-for-granted ideas about the way the world is or “should be”.

Griffin Ondaatje’s retelling of “The Resting Hill” teaches the importance of place in creating stories and illustrates that stories often come from the land itself and an explanation of the features of the landscape. Land embodies memory of the events that have taken place on it as well as being filled with the myths of the people who have lived on it. We live with a diverse history of myths around us as well as within us, shaping who and where we are. He reminds us that the telling of stories is essential and important to our existence. Timothy Findley, in “The Unicorn and the Grapevine” reminds readers that magic exists in the world through the ability of words from stories to transcend the teller, to survive the ages and the distance and that telling stories is itself a form of magic that pervades our world and prevents the destruction of mythical creatures like the unicorn. Telling stories keeps magic in the world

The tales in this volume are those of gods, monsters, common people, animals, and transcendent sages and each evokes a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more about the world around us. Ondaatje’s ability to collect tales that evoke questions and challenge preconceptions makes this volume accessible as well as evocative.

You can explore more about Griffin Ondaatje at http://harpercollins.co.in/author.asp?Author_Code=1296 . You can find out more about World Literacy of Canada at http://www.worldlit.ca/ .

American Expat Explores the American Myth

A review of Jerome Stueart’s One Nation Under Gods in Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories.
By Derek Newman-Stille

Jerome Stueart, an American expat and current Canadian, explores the American myth in his One Nation Under Gods. Stueart creates a United States in which American concepts of patriotism are physically manifest in American gods. Gods like Lady Liberty, Strike, and Patriot demand a heavy toll for occupancy in the United States. They demand students to memorise American history, to tell and re-tell the stories of the American gods to keep them real and powerful. When students fail to remember American history, they are made ‘useful’ by being turned into buildings and structures of society, indicating the consumption of the uneducated by a corporate structure that turns them into the tools of society. They literally become stores, missiles, and other implements of American corporate society.

As a former American, Stueart offers a critique of his former home, questioning the social underpinnings of American society and questioning the absolute adherence to an American myth about a society that is immensely important and needs to be remembered above all others.

He questions education systems in general and the subjectivity of teaching: why are certain things taught and not others? Who determines what is important for children to learn and what will make them the decision-makers of the society of tomorrow. As an educator myself, I appreciate Stueart’s critique of education and the idea of teacher-directed rather than student-directed learning. His world is one in which the definition of certain types of knowledge as valuable and others as irrelevant (ignoring the incredible gifts of the children who are de-valued such as the ability to create incredible art) has meant that society has lost other important forms of knowledge.

This is a tale of student resistance to an enforced pedagogy, a challenging of the memorization and rote-learning system of education and the introduction of the important part of education: the need to question everything. Stueart reminds the reader that the most important part of education is that edge of speculation that fuels young minds with the question: why?

To explore this and other volumes of the Tesseracts books, visit the Edge website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ . You can visit Jerome Stueart’s website at http://jeromestueart.com/ to see some of his work and find out what he is currently working on.

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.