Stigma is Sticky

Stigma is StickyA review of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos (Margaret McElderry Books, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

As she frequently does, Nalo Hopkinson uses her novel The Chaos to disrupt hegemonic ideas of normalcy, questioning what is ‘normal’ and using the supernatural and magical to point out the way that the norms we create are equally strange. The Chaos takes elements of fantasy, magical realism, and Lovecraftian weird fiction and blends them with a surreal sense of a world where anything can happen. 

When a volcano suddenly appears out of Lake Ontario, the world becomes populated with creatures of myth and magic that disrupt the categories we use to impose a sense of order on our world – the rolling calf, tar babies, fish who swim upstream through lava, Horseless Head Men, and an archaeopteryx that may also be a phoenix. Story and place intermix in a way that illustrates the way that we already impose stories on our landscape to limit it. Hopkinson illustrates that we are always in a world of stories and that we create our own stories to understand ourselves and others. 

The Chaos presents a world where the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves enter into our world, shaping us physically like they do mentally and socially. When people in Hopkinson’s world are able to see the mythic, it changes their relationships to each other, and their relationship to themselves. The Chaos is as much about identity as it is about magic. The altered space of the Toronto landscape disrupts a sense of ‘home’, allowing characters to question their notions of belonging and how they fit into their world and communities.

The name of Hopkinson’s protagonist, Sojourner, literally ‘a stranger in a strange land’ highlights the sense of powerful estrangement that shapes her tale. She is a teen who has experienced stigma all of her life, being bullied and slut-shamed as a younger teen, and being perceived as constantly other than she is – seen as too white to fit in with black peers and too black to fit in with white peers. She has created her group of outsiders that have created their own brand of belonging. Yet, her body is under change as a sticky, black tar like substance begins spreading across her skin, changing her and her relationship to her body. She is becoming different and uncertain to herself, and yet her uncertainty about herself may serve to give her further self knowledge about the stories she uses to narrate her own life.

Hopkinson illustrates the way that change is resisted by those in hegemonic power as mobs of people begin targeting people with disabilities, those who are non-white, and those who identify as queer, seeing them as part of the “chaotic changes” happening in their world. In particular, she examines the role of police causing more damage in their attempts to control the change they see happening around them. Hopkinson points out the way that ableism, homophobia, and racism show themselves more blatantly when “normalcy” is disrupted. When bodies and minds are disrupted.

In The Chaos, the boundaries of categories that seek to separate things are broken down and the world’s complexities cease to be able to be ignored as individual perceptions because they have become physical. Hopkinson’s surrealist word painting of the world, despite its strangeness, only serves to underscore the strangeness of normalcy. Reading this tale allows us all to become Sojourners as we return to our own strange world, questioning it.
To discover more about The Chaos, visit http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Chaos/Nalo-Hopkinson/9781442459267 

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

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 60: An Interview with Caitlin Sweet

This year at SF Contario I had the opportunity to meet with Caitlin Sweet. She was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to be interviewed for Speculating Canada. In this episode, Caitlin Sweet and I discuss the Aegean Bronze Age (particularly talking about the Minoan people), mytho-historic fiction, magic, YA fiction, and mythology.

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

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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 discover more about the work of Caitlin Sweet, visit her website at http://caitlinsweet.com/ .

Bronze Age Magic

Bronze Age MagicA review of Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain (ChiZine Publications, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain is a mytho-archaeological story of wonder, blending the mythology of the Ancient Greek world with archaeological settings from the even earlier society of Minoan Crete and populating this world with deep, complex characters. Sweet follows authors like Mary Renault who in works like The King Must Die and Bull From The Sea play with the meeting of myth and archaeology and use this blend to evoke characters whose lives are similarly stretched between the fantastic (through the elements of magic) and the realistic (through their engagement with the very real issues of family, the struggle for a place of belonging, and misinterpretation, which fuels so many conflicts). 

My masters’ research was in Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, examining the civilizations Caitlin Sweet explores in her novel, and I was moved by the way she brought these artifacts that I had spent so many years examining to life, mingling them with complex characters who brought a sense of mythic nearness to this ancient world. Sweet was able to animate these artifacts, let them shape the characters she populated her novel with, and express the sort of magic these artifacts inspire in our minds by giving them associations with magical powers. Using fantasy, Sweet was able to get at different truths than archaeology would be able to find, an imaginative truth that these artificers can inspire. 

Archaeology is speculative, imagining the lives of people long dead from the refuse they left behind and the places they eventually abandoned, and perhaps it is this speculative quality that led Sweet to imagine a speculative fictional world around these artifacts, to put them into a framework of magic and fantasy and allow them to evoke wonder. 

As much as The Door in the Mountain is a tale of wonders, it is also a tale of human experience, focussing at its root on family conflicts. This is a tale of the toxicity of envy in a family, of rejection and the desire for belonging, of power and the loss of control. It is, at its roots, a tale of those everyday conflicts that shape the lives of people and turn them into who they will become. The power of transformation in this novel is not just one of characters who can turn into Bulls or birds (although, of course, they do) of even of characters growing into their magical powers as they discover how they are god-marked, but is also about the way that simple actions, misunderstandings, interpretations, and ideas can change a character, shaping them from childhood to adulthood and determining who they will be and what will continue to motivate, hurt, inspire, and influence them.  

To discover more about The Door in the Mountain, visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/door-in-the-mountain

To find out more about Caitlin Sweet, visit her website at http://www.caitlinsweet.com/

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 37: Fairy Tales in Canada

Canada is often viewed as too young of a country to have fairy tales, but in this episode, we explore the Newfoundland Fairy Tale tradition as well as some recent re-writings of fairy tale narratives to explore new themes and ideas. These narratives are explored for their ability to shift and change over time to explore new ideas, new geographies, and new types of characters.

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.

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science Fictional Religions

A review of Jerome Stueart and Liana Kerzner’s Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I have to admit to a little bit of hesitancy when picking up Tesseracts Eighteen. While I have loved the Tesseracts series since I first discovered it and feel that Canadian Spec Fic owes a lot to this long-standing staple of Canadian SF, I was a bit hesitant about the theme. I had heard early on that Tesseracts Eighteen was going to be about the topic of religion, and my first concern was that authors may use it as a soapbox to push a conversion narrative on readers. I also worried that people might tokenize non-Christian religious systems because of the prevalence of Christian beliefs in Western society and the lack of understanding of other religions that this often creates. Fantasy, as a genre, is particularly prone to this sort of unintentional religious discrimination since it often portrays “bad cultures” and “villains” as having Islamic-like faiths, and I worried about the potential of this collection to become an assortment of cultural stereotypes.

BUT when the title of the collection was released “Wrestling with Gods”, some of my hesitancy dissipated. There was a potential here for looking at the wonder that happens as people try to understand their place in the world and their beliefs. So, I picked up a copy and began reading. Within the pages of this collection, I discovered not people trying to speak their believed TRUTHS, but rather people speaking about their QUESTIONS. This was a speculative volume after all, filled with a sense of wonder and a desire to push the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. This collection was more about humans and their obsessions, fears, desires, and discoveries than it was about the gods. These stories presented multiple paths for human exploration, each filled with signposts that were question marks inviting us as readers to reflect on our own position in the world and our thoughts about where we come from and where we are going.

Wrestling with the Gods is a collection that challenges rather than conforms. It asks readers whether at times the opposite of the expected norm may be the best path and invites readers to question what they are told is Truth. It illustrates that the idea of Truth itself is subjective, open to question and interrogation, and ultimately that there will always be a multiplicity of truths rather than a singular Truth. Through the power of stories, with all of their potential to embody multiple truths and interpretation, Tesseracts Eighteen invites us to recognize that the concept of Truth is infinitely more complicated than we can imagine and it is always multiple and contradictory, but that we should keep imagining and through imagination we might discover our own collection of truths.

Stueart and Kerzner collected stories that question hegemonic power and taken-for-granted assumptions, inviting readers to constantly ask questions and discover new ideas and perspectives. Within this collection are vampires questioning their faith (and fear of the cross), priests establishing shrines on Mars, manifestations of the natural world that challenge the idea of human ownership, questions about the connection between religion and mental health, explorations of the relationship between technology and belief systems, speculations about the connection between humanity and the animal world, and the exploration of the way that reading sacred or forbidden books can change us in fundamental ways. Tesseracts Eighteen is a collection about boundaries, and is interested in pushing those boundaries because within stories we discover a multiplicity of adventures, ideas, new philosophies, and new ways of viewing and understanding the world.

To discover more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit EDGE’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

To read reviews of some of the stories in this collection, check out the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/04/21/robo-religion/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/08/cuttlefishy-myths/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/10/beauty-myths-and-legends/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/04/an-unnecessary-proving-ground/

Cuttlefishy Myths

A review of James Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Human arrogance assumes that only humanity has the ability to develop beliefs in deities, and it is exciting to see that James Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” is included in a collection on religious beliefs because unlike most of the stories in the collection, he focusses on the beliefs of Cuttlefish. Bambury’s cuttlefish tell a mythic history to each other about their rise from the dark of the deep sea (a place filled with predators and absent of light) into the light of the sun. His cuttlefish celebrate their mythic ancestor who absorbed the light of the sun and brought that light into her own body, bringing communication to her people (since cuttlefish communicate with changing patterns of light and colour). Bambury explores this potential within the cuttlefish body for a mythical exploration, connecting the cuttlefish’s ability to change colour to communication and suggesting an ur myth where the cuttlefish first began to communicate by sharing patterns of light with each other. He creates a unique mythological system that comes from environmental and bodily change, a uniquely cuttlefishy desire to understand themselves and their place within their oceanic world. He indicates to readers that religious ideas would express themselves through the body of the practitioner and be shaped by their bodily engagement.

Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” invites the reader to divorce themselves from their human-centric perspective of the world and asks us to look at the potential wonders of the deep sea since it is an area, like space, that represents a final frontier that humanity has only explored in part.

To find out more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

To read more about James Bambury, visit his website at http://jamesbambury.blogspot.ca

Not Tinkerbell… Welcome to the Fairypocalypse

A review of Marie Bilodeau’s Nigh (S&G Publishing, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Nigh courtesy of Marie Bilodeau

Cover photo for Nigh courtesy of Marie Bilodeau

There has been an incredible interest in apocalyptic scenarios. We are fascinated with the notion of “the end”. Whether zombies, environmental catastrophe, meteors, alien invasion, nuclear war… we are fascinated with the idea of an end of the story of human experience. Marie Bilodeau’s Nigh evokes creatures from humanity’s past, creatures who have been pacified in our recent cultural representations, but who nevertheless embody all of that otherworldliness of ancient myths and stories, creature who when encountered in ancient stories spelled doom … the fairies… and they have returned, angry at their long separation from our world and what humanity has done with it.
Marie Bikodeau’s title, “Nigh”, speaks to now-ness, a sense of the impending, but also, being a word that is rarely used in common parlance, evokes an old-timely quality, speaking to the past. It is a title that suggests a clashing of ideas about time, and Nigh, dealing with fairies, creatures who in myth alter time causing people to age hundreds of years in a night, evokes an idea of time clashing and past and present uncomfortably overlapping. The central image of this work is a watch, an object that promises a regulation and easy understanding of time. But this watch is different from what one would expect from a watch. As a family heirloom passed down through the generations and an object that has been the centre of family storytelling, this watch embodies memory, history, and myths – family legends told for generations. It’s position as a link between past and present may make it a key to understanding what is happening with the world as the fairies enter back into our world.
Marie Bilodeau explores the power of fairies to disrupt expectations, as figures who challenge the fixed, scientific, unchanging, rules-oriented way that we view reality. Fairies are figures that invert our expectations, play with our belief in ‘normalcy’ and illustrate to us that our world IS fundamentally topsy turvy, no matter how much we try to think of it as a place governed by understandable rules. The fairies of Nigh, like those of our myths invert the expectations of reality, assumptions about the assuredness of solid ground, materiality. Bilodeau takes away the sense of stability about our world, taking away our sense of the firmness of our world as the landscape becomes porous, allowing in  something different, something both familiar and strange.
This is a tale of uncertainty that challenges our comforts about a world that is ours and instead reveals to us that this world has always been something that contains an Other.
To find out more about Marie Bilodeau, visit her website at http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/
To discover more about Nigh, visit http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/nigh.html