Fever Dream

Fever Dream

A review of Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu is a fever dream on paper, vivid and fantastical, and full of nightmares, which is perfect for a pandemic narrative. It is a surreal story, but it comments on issues of relevance to the real world. Set in a world where a pandemic has affected men more than women, Lai’s narrative explores the power struggles of a population that fears its own erasure, but is also willing to take others along with them as their population dwindles. The Tiger Flu has been brought into the world because of cloning technology which allows extinct animals to be revitalized, primarily for consumptive purposes. It has spread quickly and decimated large parts of the population, leaving people in desperation for resources, for a sense of belonging, for a belief in something that will allow them to last and make an impact on the world. 

The Tiger Flu is a necessary critique on capitalism’s consumptive force and its rendering of everything into resources to be exploited. Even the religion of the people in Lai’s book is based around capitalism, with the population literally worshipping an industrialist and the two constructed satallites that orbit the planet – Chang and Eng (named after the famous conjoined twins from the Freak Shows of the early 1800s). The two satellites represent opposing corporate forces, but also become spaces for downloading the consciousness of individuals from the population. Despite representing opposing companies, the name of the two satellites suggests a conjoined nature, pointing out that underlying these two opposing forces is still one system – in this case capitalist exploitation. 

Even people become resources to be exploited in this world and a small group of people who have created a community living off of the land are seen as consumable resources to be captured and used by the factories they once escaped from. Lai illustrates the dangerous over-consumptive quality of capitalist systems and that every resource, including people in that capitalist system become grist for the mill. In fact, she literally names this community of people living off the land Grist Sisters.

Fearing destruction, people try to hold onto power by creating factions and borders, arming themselves out of fear of others. Lai illustrates the way that people who are accustomed to power fear its loss and make war with each other as a means of externalizing their fear. Her corporate communities arm themselves, ignoring the needs of citizens (like access to food and safety) in their own private war to hold onto a past power structure that can no longer sustain itself. 

Yet Lai also opens up other questions of production beyond capitalism, exploring notions of alternative reproduction. Lai explores queer potentials in a world whose men are dying faster than women. She queers reproduction by having women in the Grist tribes give birth through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization by sperm). The Grist sisters give birth by “doubling”, creating duplicates of themselves and birthing groups of identical sisters.

As much as it is an apocalyptic viral narrative, The Tiger Flu is also a narrative captured in the middle. It isn’t an outbreak narrative as many apocalyptic virus stories tend to be, and, as much as it is concerned with the future, it is also about characters uncovering their own past, seeking out the stories about how things came to be the way they are and about the character’s’ own histories. It is a book ultimately about complicating narrative and history because while the two primary characters Kirilow and Kora seek their own pasts, they also encounter other narratives about the past, intersecting and often complicating their own. Characters use memory scales that they plug directly into their brains to gain access to knowledge and constantly find snippets of their world’s history, but these histories conflict with the stories that they have formed their lives around. While corporate characters are trying to hold onto a power they fear losing and their own role in history, characters like Kirilow and Kora are dismantling that history for themselves, seeing different truths that reveal the pettiness of the corporate leaders they have worshipped.

To discover more about The Tiger Flu, go to https://arsenalpulp.com/Books/T/The-Tiger-Flu

To find out more about Larissa Lai, visit https://www.larissalai.com

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In The Shadows of Giants

In The Shadows Of Giants

A review of Liz Westbrook-Trenholm’s “White Rose, Red Thorns” in Over The Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From The Margins (Exile, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm intertwines multiple fairy tales in her story “White Rose, Red Thorns” while giving complexity to the characters involved. She tells a tale of a giant’s tiny human caretaker and a young thief named Jack who looks far too much like her former lover, Snow, though with male features instead of female. 

The giant’s caretaker finds herself trapped between the cruel world of giants in the clouds and the cruel world of humanity below, at home in neither space and always having to hide who she is. Westbrook-Trenholm reminds readers that older women often have to hide their power in order to not be considered threatening for having it, and the giant’s caretaker has to use cunning to make herself seem weaker and more insignificant than she is. 

Westbrook-Trenholm tells a tale of loss, mourning, and hiding, but also reveals the hope that can come from letting go of secrets and embracing who you are. “White Rose, Red Thorns” is a beautiful mix of fairy tales, combined in a way that exposes the magical thread that runs through them. 

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/

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/

No Longer Isolated

No Longer Isolated

A review of Robert Dawson’s “Iron Jenny and the Princess” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile Editions, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy tales have a propensity toward a “happily ever after” that results in a heterosexual marriage… yet that excludes a lot of people and suggests that only straight identities can be happy identities. Robert Dawson’s “Iron Jenny and the Princess” presents readers with a princess, Topaz, who has never had a desire to marry and whose mother tells her that she will either wed or be put in jail. Dawson explores the collision of duty and personal desire, of family and freedom examining the systems of controls placed on princesses.

Topaz is a princess who has always been different, always looked at as rough and gruff, yet when she is on her own, she is able to sing and be herself and to express more of herself than she can to others. It is in seeking isolation in her kingdom’s labyrinth that Topaz finally meets someone she can relate to: Iron Jenny, a woman made of iron.

As occurs in many fairy tales, Topaz has to prove herself to be worthy of marrying a prince by completing multiple tasks… and all of these tasks are related to her perceived eventual domestic role. Yet, Dawson writes a character who challenges assumptions about women’s work and about a princess’ role, offering a tale that disrupts heterosexual patriarchal ideas and presents characters with more nuance, complicating the idea of the “happily ever after” and a woman’s role in that traditional fairy tale ending.

To find out more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, visit http://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and check out Exile Editions’ website at https://www.exileeditions.com

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

Queerly Ever After

Queerly Ever After

A review of Ricky Lima’s Happily Ever Aftr (Lime Press, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

She grew up in a kingdom filled with toxic masculinity… perhaps that’s why she thought she could make a princess love her by kidnapping her.

Happily Ever Aftr explores the traditional fairy tale motif of a princess locked in a tower… but adds a twist. The princess is imprisoned by another princess. Princess Gretchen grew up in Castle Grimhold as part of a family line of kings who have kidnapped princesses to be their brides. So, what else was there for her to do but carry on the family tradition and kidnap a princess to be her bride. Once Gretchen reveals that her intention is to marry Princess Emily, her family takes issue not with the kidnapping, but with Gretchen’s desire to have a bride instead of a groom. Gretchen begins to learn ideas of consent from Emily and explores her own identity and its relationship to her role as the princess of Grimhold.

Ricky Lima uses the image of cell phone dating apps and texting to shape his tale of princesses in love (or captured by love), exploring ideas of princes who believe that they are entitled to women’s bodies and perceive princesses as objects and damsels in distress. With this use of dating apps as text, Lima makes a parallel between antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity and how these are played out on dating apps. Happily Ever Aftr uses a magical, fantasy setting to point out realities of how men objectify women on dating apps and the toxicity of “bro culture”.

Although Princess Emily keeps asking for suitors to rescue her, she is more than able to save herself through her own quick wit and tough attitude, but first goes through numerous suitors who are beheaded trying to rescue her. It is only when she encounters a prince who needs her to rescue him that she is able to finally express her own power.

Happily Ever Aftr calls into question the many “happily ever after”s offered by many traditional fairy tales that portray a passive princess being rescued by a prince and marrying in perpetual heterosexuality. Instead, the comic plays with assumptions about gender, assumptions about power, and assumptions about sexuality.

To discover more about Happily Ever Aftr, visit https://www.limepressonline.com/product/happily-ever-aftr

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