A Theory of The Self

A review of Dionne Brand’s Theory (Knopf, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Dionne Brand’s Theory is theory given life, a speculation about the nature of beauty, thought, and social interaction. Focussing on a graduate student nearing the end of their dissertation, Theory takes us into the conflicted world of emotion and intellect, exploring the way that passion and dispassionate investigation collide.

Brand’s unnamed narrator, only referred to as Teoria (Theory) by one of her girlfriends, finds herself at odds with the social world, always observing it from a distance and finding herself flabbergasted at the complexities of human interaction. It is through her relationships rather than her analyses of texts that she engages in social consciousness and stretches herself beyond the conventional world she was born into. The narrator positions herself in conflict with conventions and norms, but constantly finds herself drawn into them, facing her own ordinariness no matter how much she tries to push away from it. She is a haunted character, constantly dragging along the baggage of having no baggage and wishing she had a more complex life.

Brand’s narrator is chimerical, constantly changing to reflect her environment and her partners. Yet this changeable, uncertain quality allows the reader to reflect on the fluidity of our experiences and the permeability of identity. We are creatures of change and perhaps it is our changeability that defines us more than any presumed identity or selfhood.

Although the narrator fancies herself a creature of the mind and intellect and reason, someone who eschews the occult, she is haunted by the spectre of her last partner, Odalys, who is an occult priestess. Odalys defies the start realism of the narrator, never appearing by accident even when she appears in dreams. She offers insights that the narrator isn’t ready for and that she rejects primarily because they offer too much insight, too much knowledge. Part of Odalys’ ritual practice involves the presence of Nkisi, dolls made to include nails and blades, and this figure takes on a revelatory light for the narrator, making her face her own erasure of Odalys’ world even while the narrator writes her dissertation that focussed on social erasures, absences, and voices repressed. Odalys and her Nkisi take on the function of everything that the narrator is repressing, knowledges that she rejects even as she writes about the need to include silenced perspectives of marginalized people.

Brand’s Theory is an exploration of absences, of communities lost, and of a narrator who seeks insights into the world even as she ignores insights into herself that are offered by the women she dates. Though obsessed with figuring herself out, she rejects knowledges and perspectives that confront her own.

To find out more about Dionne Brand, visit https://www.uoguelph.ca/arts/sets/people/dionne-brand

To discover more about Theory, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/564847/theory-by-dionne-brand/9780735274259


Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

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 Fantasy Trans Memoir

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A review of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kai Cheng Thom decided to include the word “Memoir” in the title of her book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, yet she also cleverly weaves fantasy elements into her text, telling stories about the death of the last of the mermaids, the mythic First Femme, ghosts, and a magical Trans woman who casts spells on her sisters. She weaves fairy tales into her “memoir”, revealing the problems of Cinderella narratives for Trans women, discussing doctors who are so unlike fairy godmothers (always wanting something in return for their transformations), telling tales of goddesses, escapees from towers that trap them, and the magic of the everyday.

Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir is meant to complicate the idea of memoir itself, and especially the tropes of the “Trans Girl Memoir”, which is so often about a person discovering that they are Trans, leaving her home and ending up suffering on the street, becoming the victim of abuse. Thom’s Trans memoir is one filled with magic, but it is also about fighting back – about never being a victim and about coming together as a community to protect each other. Her tale evokes the magic of connections with other Femmes.

She tells her tale through prose and poetry, through letters and dramatic scripts, and through sharing the histories of other Trans women on the street (often narrated by someone else). Her narrator is someone who hungers for their stories like we do as the reader, but she also filters those stories through her own knowledge, her own craving for a place to belong and a people to belong with. Yet, despite her craving for belonging, we are told that the narrator is an escape artist, and, perhaps she even escapes from the text in a way, leaping from the simple veracity of the mundane world and into a space where fantasy is a more powerful truth than Truth.

This is not a Trans woman’s memoir. This is a story about stories… about our need for stories. Its a story about the fact that there are stories behind the stories that are told. It is a collection of myths from the street, urban myths. It is a collection of truths. Kai Cheng Thom complicates the idea of Truth in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, teaching us that some fictions speak greater truths than works that claim to be collections of truth. She teaches us that in the act of storytelling, we transform ourselves, and in the act of hearing, we create community. She shares her love of storytelling with us as readers, reminding us that the veracity of a story doesn’t matter so long as it shares and tells us truths about ourselves through the act of reading.

Kai Cheng Thom uses the word “Memoir” in her title to complicate memoirs – to illustrate to us that there are no simple truths and that truths are always shifting, changing, and transforming. She illustrates that life is a fantasy made up of our collective stories interweaving with each other and creating magic.

Thom’s narrator tells us “Someday, I’m going to gather up all of the stories in my head. All the things that happened to me and all the things I wish had happened. I’m going to write them all down one after the other, and I’ll publish a famous best-selling book and let history decide what’s real and what’s not.” This is a tale that invites the reader into the process of truth-making, using the term “memoir” to invite questions about what is true and to whom.

To discover more about Kai Cheng Thom, visit her website at https://kaichengthom.wordpress.com

To discover more about Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, visit https://metonymypress.com/product/fierce-femmes-notorious-liars-dangerous-trans-girls-confabulous-memoir/

Radical Acts of Beauty

A review of Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2” (Edited by Hope Nicholson, Alternative History Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is a comic about resilience and transformation, highlighting the desire of a two-spirit boy to change the world around him through acts of beauty. Despite homophobia, environmental degradation, and all forms of hate against each other, Strange Boy seeks to heal others by bringing beauty into the world. Like many people who seek to bring healing and beauty into the world, especially if they are marginalized, Strange Boy experiences violence. He discovers that a lot of the violence from the people around him is an externalized form of self loathing, their hatred of themselves projected outward toward anything beautiful, anything that represents a reminder of joy that they can’t imagine themselves having.

“The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is an act of beauty in a harsh and close-minded world, it is Daniel Heath Justice’s act of transformative magic, sharing a story of transformation with a world that needs beauty. It is a tale that reminds us that no matter how much violence the world inflicts on us, we can speak back by bringing beauty into the world. Our acts of art can be transformative, remaking the world and opening up others to express their beauty. 

Beautifully illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is filled with images of movement and light. It is a comic that can show the interiors of bodies and make even our bleeding, organic insides things that can be filled with a certain magnificence and wonder. Alvitre is able to capture the etherial quality of hummingbirds, their darting magnificence.

The intwined arts of Daniel Heath Justice and Weshoyot Alvitre add to the message of the story, emphasising the focus of the story on collaborative arts and the ability of one form of art, one story, to resonate in another.

To discover more about Daniel Heath Justice, visit http://imagineotherwise.ca

To discover more about Weshoyot Alvitre, visit https://www.facebook.com/Weshoyot/

To find out more about Moonshot Vol 2, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1350078939/moonshot-the-indigenous-comics-collection-volume-2

Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization