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/

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Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 43: WolfCop

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I am joined in the studio by horror movie scholar Amy Jane Vosper and we discuss the Canadian film WolfCop (written and directed by Lowell Dean).

We explore the relationship between werewolf films and gender, looking in particular at the over masculinity of the film and the use of this hypermasculinity to parody werewolf films, we examine WolfCop’s exploration of police masculinity, and we look at ideas of masks and the performative elements of gendered identity.

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.

Definitely Not A Chameleon.

A Review of Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human-Lizard Issue 1 (May, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Few superheroes call themselves “pitiful”. Most tend to hypermasculinize themselves to try to make themselves seem beyond the human, more powerful, further beyond moral critique, but Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human-Lizard plays with the superhero genre and opens it to critique, question, and, yes, pity.

Jason Loo brings a distinctly Canadian aesthetic to the superhero genre and challenges the notion of moral ease for heroic work. His superhero The Pitiful Human-Lizard has few powers at the start – glue that allows him to stick to walls, but no super strength, no laser vision, no power ring… and he keeps failing his Brazilian Jujitsu classes. Also… he has to hold on to a regular day job… and, with transit time on the subway, that doesn’t give him much time to engage in the superhero business. In order to make ends meet and pay for the repairs to his costume, he even has to undergo drug trials.

Loo creatively takes on the hypermasculinity and intense gender divisions of the superhero genre by creating a superhero who is nominally pitiful, and minimally powerful. He is incredibly outclassed by Toronto’s female superhero Mother Wonder, who has all of the powers (super strength, invulnerability, laser vision) of Superman AND is also a mother with children. The Pitiful Human Lizard just wants to have a chance to collaborate with the big leagues, which is a nice change from the majority of the comic industry which generally leaves the superheroine in the support role. The Pitiful Human-Lizard dwells mostly in the shadows around greater heroes, often serving as a distraction for villains rather than a key threat.

Most superheroes are created by a fundamental loneliness, which is constructed as the necessary setting for creating a figure dependent on no one but themselves to emphasize the superhero’s personification of the American dream of ultimate independence and self reliance. But, he is not a self made man. The Pitiful Human-Lizard relies on his (very much living) parents, piecing together various networks of support in order to conduct his acts of superheroism.

Jason Loo is comfortable expressing the fallibility of superheroes, disrupting their certainty, and in so doing, pointing out the arrogance of the “regular” superhero and our need as a society to have a superhero who is uncertain.

Loo has created a Toronto superhero, putting him in battles at Toronto scenes like the Royal Ontario Museum to counter the habit of Hollywood for trying to create Toronto as the Everycity, filming in Toronto but then calling it New York, Seattle, or whatever city they need for the plot of their film. He has created a superhero who talks about the issues of Toronto life as he travels from place to place on the TTC (subway) and, at the end of this first comic, encounters a supervillain who bears a striking resemblance to Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford.

This is a lizard who is not a chameleon… he is fundamentally at odds with his place, uncertain, and questioning. He expresses the diasporic feeling of many people in large cities, lost to obscurity but wondrously awkward.

To find out more about The Pitiful Human-Lizard, visit the facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PitifulHumanLizard or the kickstarter page at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/761064731/torontos-new-superhero-the-pitiful-human-lizard-is

“”These days, I can quantify my remaining decades. I can measure them out in life-events. I can gauge my value as a man by who I’ve loved, who has loved me, and by the ones I didn’t love nearly enough.”

-Michael Rowe, “Ghosts” (Postscripts to Darkness, http://pstdarkness.com/2014/08/08/ghosts-by-michael-rowe/ )

 

Quote – Measuring Value by Who Has Been Loved

Gender Swopping Characters to Reveal Stereotypes

I recently read a fascinating article by Michelle Nijhuis, who gender-swopped Bilbo in The Hobbit when reading to her little girl to try to introduce her daughter to a strong female character in a fantasy narrative. You can explore the article here http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/12/18/one-weird-old-trick/ .

When I read it, I thought about what an effective strategy gender swopping could be for teaching students about gender constructions and the way that gendered assumptions infiltrate our written work. When we take a written work (or even just a passage from a written work) and swop the gendered pronouns, we bring critical attention to the way that we create notions of gender.women in capes

Fan fiction has been gender swopping characters for a long time as a way to insert a feminine voice into narratives that exclude women or write them into stereotypical roles, so this is not a new idea, but I thought that it could occupy an interesting place in the classroom, and in personal education.

I tried this activity out yesterday in an English course on gender theory at Trent University. I thought gender swopping would be a really interesting way to get students to examine power structures implicated in writing gendered narratives and start to question some of the stereotypes and beliefs that are assembled with our constructions of gender. Students were given three different short stories and asked to pull out passages that they thought would be fascinating for gender swopping. This was only the second week of a half course, so I thought that it would highlight for students the important work that feminism still needs to do in challenging gender assumptions and that it would also help to introduce students to passage analysis (since they could examine the whole passage from a different perspective, individual lines from the passage, or even the different significance that an individual word takes in constructing ideas of gender).

Students pulled out passages that highlighted constructions of masculinity and femininity and were able to note the framing narratives that were built around gender and the dependency that these narratives had on gendered assumptions. The activity was a powerful critical moment to bring stereotypes under the umbrella of question… but they also allowed students to laugh at these constructions and disempower the gendered power structures by finding them amusing.  Students stated that they found the activity interesting as well as enlightening and that it focused their attention on passages they otherwise wouldn’t have noted.

I would recommend having a few passages to fall back on if students aren’t immediately able to pick out some passages that are of interest to them. Generally, you should only need to point out a few passages and gender swop them before students get the idea and begin finding really potent passages on their own.

I did point out that “gender swopping” is problematic because it assumes a binary gendered system and excludes third gender options, but I thought this was a potent way to examine these gender stereotypes.

Remember, education doesn’t just happen in the classroom, so for those of you who are not teachers, parents, or students, consider gender swopping a few passages from your favourite Canadian Speculative Fiction to examine the ways that gender is constructed in the books that you are reading.

Even when authors create worlds of the future or the different worlds of fantasy, a lot of our culture’s own gendered assumptions end up filtering into these works. It becomes difficult to imagine a world with different gender roles when our minds and thought processes are so embedded in gendered dichotomies and assumptions about “proper” gender roles.

If you are an author reading this post and want to look at the way you examine gender in your own work (and maybe challenge some of these assumptions and propose some innovative new gender roles), consider gender swopping your characters to see how you may have unconsciously applied current gender assumptions on your characters.gender question

Here is the activity that I proposed to my students. Feel free to use or adapt it as you wish:

Gender swopping characters can be an effective way of bringing your own critical attention to the constructions of gender and gender stereotypes in the text you are analyzing. By switching the gendered identity of characters, you can highlight the way that gender is constructed and the specific assumptions around gender that shape the author’s work.

What are some key elements of the texts we are examining that a gender swop brings attention to?

Pull a few paragraphs from the text and gender swop the characters. What does this new gender configuration suggest to you?

How has it highlighted some gendered issues and problems of representation? Make sure to chose elements of the text that are particularly gendered or do fascinating things with gender.

What are some of the things you notice about the new gender configuration?

What did you find amusing about the gender swop?

How did the character read differently as male/female?

Why did this passage particularly interest you or catch your attention?

What stereotypes about gender did you first notice?

How is femininity constructed?

How is masculinity constructed?

In what ways does power shape these assumptions?

Who in the narrative is constructed as the object of desire?

Who is constructed as the active desirer?

How are descriptions of characters different when they are male or female? What is different about the features or attributes that the author focuses on when she/he discusses male characters versus female characters? Why do you think the author is focusing on these characteristics and what does it say about gender constructions?

What notions of “active” and “passive” underlie these gender assumptions?

What did you expect to find? How has the passage differed from your expectations?

Dissolving Selfhood

A Review of Brett Savory’s In and Down (Brindle & Glass, 2007)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for In and Down, courtesy of the author

Cover photo for In and Down, courtesy of the author

Brett Savory’s In and Down is a truly horrifying novel, not necessarily because of the haunting images of bodies, clowns, and flies, but because it reminds the reader about the fluidity of identity – that we are not fixed, unchanging things, but are rather constantly changing, malleable, and the core of our being is not unique or sacrosanct. In a world that focusses on the uniqueness of individuals and the rights of personal freedom, Savory questions the idea that there is even a “personal” let alone freedom.

Savory’s novel focusses on the life of Michael, a boy who feels unloved or at least not loved in a way that feels right. He is alone in a male-centred world where masculine performance is valued more than the actual personality of an individual. He characterises male school behaviour as a mixture of bragging, threats, and awkward silences. Home life is characterised by a father who says nothing of consequence and sounds only like the motor of a truck, less focussed on words and more on displays of power and authority. Masculine culture seeks to make him into a figure who is detached, and stuck in a state of suppressed emotions.

Michael is a boy who is full of questions living in a world where males are taught to question and enquire about nothing, a world where acceptance of norms prevails and nothing should shake that foundation. He is in danger of uncovering dangerous secrets.

Michael knows he has been filled up with other people’s views, ideas, thoughts, opinions, biases, hates, wants, needs… he has been hollowed out by others who want to replicate themselves through him, making him into a mirror for themselves. He tries to dig out the little shards of everyone else’s identity that have buried themselves in his inner being, finding himself under the detritus of human cultural expectations. His fundamental self has been whittled down by others, leaving him to debate what is of him and whether there even can be a “him” left. He is cast into a surreal dream world, where barriers between reality and dream blend, mix, and distort one another and he is surrounded with imagery that reminds him of the dissolution of identity: masks, crumbling plaster forms that reveal a different self beneath, carved wooden people, rotting bodies that reveal new features and faces beneath the desiccated shell. Nothing in his world is stable, and even he, himself, dissolves into a place of questions, consumed by his need to find himself.

Brett Savory takes readers to a place where reality and dreams meet, touch, and dance together in a carnivalesque display of the Weird. Readers are invited on a surreal voyage into the imagination of a disturbed child and a disrupted and sick world and are reminded of the hollows within them that are waiting to be filled with the identity questions of others.

You can find out more about Brett Savory at his website http://brettsavory.com/ . To check out In and Down, you can visit the Brindle & Glass website at http://www.brindleandglass.com/author_details.php?contributor_id_1=1940

What is Barbarism?

A review of: Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings (OnSpec #88, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings recreates a Norse worlds where Seidr, magic, meets Viking might and ideas of strength. Wolfrom challenges ideas of masculinity in this short story, using a group of people, the Norse, who are often associated with the extremes of masculinity and male violence, to complicate notions of heroism and the masculine.

Wolfrom creates two protagonists: Sveinn, a young Norse man at the height of his strength, and his uncle Thialfarr, a Seidrman, magician, whose body becomes weak with the more seidr he performs. His strength, his power of magic is antagonistically linked to his physical strength and health. His social purposes are collective, sacrificing himself for the greater good of his people. Sveinn, much like our modern conception of the Norse, is heavily individualistic, assertive, aggressive, and fundamentally threatened by idea that don’t fit into his world view. He sees Thialfarr as fundamentally feminine and threatening, but possessing a power that he desires to claim for himself. Sveinn fears that cooking and other ideas associated with the feminine will bring shame upon him, while Thialfarr tries to teach him to shift his ideas to a broader understanding of collective power and the need to protect his people and care for them.

Christian and pagan are set side by side in this Norse world where magic and masculinity are put in opposition to one another to open questions about what the idea of ‘power’ means.

Wolfrom also questions ideas of the monstrous and situates the Skraelings, an enemy of Norse people as not monstrous, but, rather, a different group of human beings with similar life challenges and experiences. Re-situating the Skraelings questions the idea of ‘otherness’ and suggests the need to explore cooperative practices and understandings rather than violent opposition. Worlfrom privileges the notion of understanding other people over constructing others as monsters. Wolfrom reminds us that words and thoughts really do hurt, and, in the world of magic, can literally change the surrounding environment and patterns of fate.

This story is well researched and insightful, posing a different conception of the Norse while challenging ideas of individualist, violent masculinity.

The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings was published in the most recent volume of OnSpec, a magazine of the Canadian fantastic, and you can explore OnSpec at http://www.onspec.ca/