Languages Across Generations

Languages Across GenerationsA review of Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms (NeWest Press, 1994)

By Derek Newman-Stille


Chorus of Mushrooms is a beautifully written, poetic book that revels in the wonder and majesty of language while being fundamentally about silences. Hiromi Goto examines the multiplicity of silencings that occur in our world – the racialised, ageist, sexist structures that are created in our society to de-voice certain people. Goto examines the way that language shapes and creates us and the way that it can also be used to contain and control us. 
Chorus of Mushrooms is about an elderly woman who keeps talking while no one listens. She tries to assert her voice into a household that has forgotten how to speak Japanese, trying to teach while being fundamentally ignored. In order to conform, her daughter and son in law began speaking English in the home as much as possible, eventually losing those linguistic roots that tied the family together. When they also have a daughter, she wants to connect to her linguistic heritage but ends up discovering that while she didn’t officially learn Japanese, she and her grandmother speak an unspoken, inter-generational language that allows both to feel connected in a family environment that seems to isolate them. 
Goto expresses the importance of language as a vehicle for story-telling as well as a vehicle for announcing one’s presence. Despite the attempts to ignore the voices of the aged and the culturally marginalised, Obachan, the elderly woman, speaks back, announcing herself to the silence imposed around her. She reminds others of her presence even when they choose not to listen. She creates a world from words.
To discover more about Hiromi Goto, visit her website at http://www.hiromigoto.com 

Transitional Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 45: A Discussion of the Work of Nalo Hopkinson

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore the work of Caribbean Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson. I explore themes of dual vision, cultural interactions, aging, connections with family, independence, boundary-crossings, and language. I explore Hopkinson’s works Brown Girl in the Ring, Sister Mine, and her short fiction collection Falling in Love with Hominids.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

To find out more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 44: A Discussion of the Work of Matthew Johnson

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, the work of Matthew Johnson is explored. This episode examines Matthew Johnson’s collection Irregular Verbs and Other Stories (ChiZine Publications, 2014), looking at Johnson’s exploration of cultural interactions, language, aging, and other ideas of change.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

To find out more about Matthew Johnson’s Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, visit ChiZine Publications’ page at http://chizine.com/books/irregular-verbs

 

 

 

Dangerous Diplomacies

A Review of J.A. McLachlan’s “The Occasional Diamond Thief” (Edge, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

The Occasional Diamond Thief is a tale of things lost and things returned, all within the complex political world of interplanetary trade and cultural conflicts. Kia’s father has been haunted by a past that he has been rapidly forgetting in his dementia. So strongly is his dementia linked to his past that even words spoken in the Malemese language, a language used by a world he visited long ago, can trigger health issues. As his dementia progresses, he lapses into Malemese, unable to speak his own language and only Kia, with her incredible linguistic gifts, is able to speak to him. She does so, at the risk of losing him completely instead of losing him to the slow progression of his disease. Referring to her by a Malemese name she hasn’t heard of before, her father gives her a Malemese diamond, believing he is returning this to its owner and ridding himself of something that has plagued his soul, allowing him to move on. Because she seeks communication with him and speaks Malemese, Kia is rejected from her family, losing all connection to her roots and the system of support she had in place. 

Yet, despite the fact that language is connected to the loss of her father, Kia still sees the potential of language as a place of connection, an opportunity to build bridges between people and develop complex forms of understanding. The only problem is that the language school is expensive, and Kia, believing she is connecting with her father’s secret, criminal profession, a secret suppressed by her family, begins her career as a diamond thief.  

Her career as a diamond thief gets her in trouble with the interplanetary religious authorities, the OUB, who force her to visit the planet that she saw as the catalyst of her father’s destruction and eventual death, Malem.

J.A. McLachlan explores the power of suppression and recovery on an interplanetary scale, a community scale, and on a personal scale for Kia and the people around her. Kia’s linguistic gift is related to the issues of communication that shape the interactions between people in McLachlan’s world, the separations and miscommunications that have meant that planets and people have viewed each other with suspicion and distrust. In Kia’s desire to understand language and its cultural connections, she becomes a figure who collapses distances and allows people to communicate. 

Unlike many intergalactic, interplanetary tales, McLachlan’s story is a highly personal one, shaped fundamentally by character and the character’s exploration of selfhood and interaction on a microcosmic level which has implications for the macrocosmic level. Sometimes even small interactions between people are enough to shape and change universe-spanning political issues. 

Communication means that secrets lose their powers, things lost are returned, and healing happens through the barred gateways opened by the desire to talk and share.

To discover more about The Occasional Diamond Thief, visit Edge’s website at http://edgewebsite.com/books/occasionaldiamonthief/occasionaldiamonthief-catalog.html

To discover more about the work of J.A. McLachlan, visit her website at http://www.janeannmclachlan.com

Meme Zombies

A Review of Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool (Maple Pictures, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As many of you know, I tend to focus Speculating Canada primarily on literature. This is not meant to ignore other types of texts and media, but has been an area that fascinates me.  I have recently been drawn to the film Pontypool through my love of representations of the monstrous. Since it is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, I thought it was worth exploring further.

I am not normally a huge fan of the zombie genre. I tend to find a lot of recent explorations of the zombie to be repetitive – involving the idea of viral contamination, chase scenes, and general body horror. This is not to say that there isn’t value in these zombie depictions, but it has been overdone a bit for my taste. I tend to like innovative new treatments of the zombie, and I think that is what drew me to Pontypool. The zombies in this film aren’t created by biting, scratching, an airborn virus… they are created by language.

Set in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, the movie features a small town radio station who gradually receives filtered news of a huge event. People have seemingly gone mad and are destroying the downtown, attacking one another, and mumbling gibberish the entire time. There is no official word on what is happening, and the radio station is only getting reports from random citizens as official channels stay silent on the issue.

Things hit close to home when people in the radio station itself begin to repeat phrases, alliterate, and get stuck in cycles of rhyming. This is the first stage of the virus – since the virus is contained in language, the body’s immune system kicks in to try to expel the virus by playing with language. When this immune response fails, the infected host seeks out others, homing in on them by the sound of their voice, fixating on the vocalisation of the English language to find new victims and spread to them.

Pontypool explores the idea that there could be something living in language, in consciousness that replicates itself when the brain of the new host recognises and understands words. This is a personification of the idea of the viral meme, made literal. It spreads through cultural expressions, replicating itself and moving from one area to another, expanding, spreading. Although most zombie movies involve a great deal of physical movement, one of the striking parts of this movie is that all of the movement occurs intellectually. There is little physical movement since the entire plot of the movie takes place in a radio station (and largely in the sound booth). The movement that occurs is through conversations, through hearing of events conveyed through voice and through leaps of awareness. All of the action of this movie is carried in words, through hearing action, which makes it a particularly apt medium for a movie about a virus that spreads through words. As one watches the movie, one becomes very sensitive to sound, noting differences in sound and becoming hypersensitive to the spoken word. Words feel weightier, more significant, louder, and awkward. The viewer becomes alienated from language itself.

Pontypool plays with ideas of fear and the spread of fear, focusing on the idea of voice as a medium for both understanding, but also for the spread of fear. The shock radio jockey star of this movie, Grant Massey (Stephen McHattie), begins his radio broadcast of the morning by trying to shock his listeners when he describes the threat of drug culture and drug dealers coming into small towns to create grow-ops. When his producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) tells him not to scare the small town populace, he informs her that fear is what sells news, and getting people angry means bigger ratings. Here, Burgess and McDonald provide a subtle warning about the nature of media and the use of fear as a marketing tool, as well as the conflict that happens in small town Ontario where people often are both attracted to the idea of hearing about threats, but also don’t really want to hear too much about the potential horrors of the world.

The idea of fear in the media is played on further when people come into the radio station in Arabic-face (i.e. white Canadians painted to appear Arabic) in order to play music about the Middle East. Calling themselves Laurence and the Arabians, one of the members of the group is compared to Osama bin Laden and he ends his song on the radio by firing a toy machine gun in the air. This musical interlude occurs as the first inklings of a crisis begin to filter into the radio through reports, and comments well on the state of today’s society where often the Middle East, and images of terror far away, is used as a mechanism for distracting people from threats and issues close to home.

The image of terrorism resurfaces again when Massey talks to a reporter from the BBC who is calling to get clarification about reports he has received that an act of terrorism has occurred. When Massey tells him that they don’t have any details and that information is scarce, the BBC correspondant begins discussing Canada’s history of French separatism and ends his broadcast by concluding that the issue in Pontypool Ontario is actually a terrorist attack by French separatists. The media once again focuses on the notion of easy scapegoats and figures that inspire fear rather than further investigating and interrogating the notion that threats can occur locally. It is easier to search for a pre-established and culturally accepted threat than to look for new threats.

The character Grant Massey brings critical attention to the issue of the military and fear culture when he says to the military personelle who are monitoring his broadcast as they begin bombing the small community to stop the threat: “You are just killing scared people.” He later notes, when talking about how people who have the zombie virus stop making sense: “We were never making sense”, bringing critical attention to the notion of the spoken word and its ability to disseminate confusion. Pontypool evokes in the viewer a sense that more is being said through the figure of the zombie and its location in a centre of media – one finds oneself contemplating the notion that terrorism makes zombies of us all, that fear of terrorism and radical responses to beliefs in the threat of terrorism make us willing to blindly follow the voices that guide us. As a society, we are more willing to follow voices (like the zombies in this movie do when seeking new hosts for the virus) than to think for ourselves and look deeply at underlying issues.

You can check out a trailer for Pontypool at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1386283545/