Drawing Attention to Oppression

A review of Jerome Stueart’s “You Will Draw This Life Out to Its End” in The Angels of Our Better Beasts (ChiZine, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As much as Jerome Stueart’s “You Will Draw This Life Out to Its End” is a love story between an artist and a man involved in the mining union of a distant moon, it is a commentary on the power of art to bring attention to issues of oppression. Renault relies on his celebrity status as an artist to bring issues of oppression of miners to the attention of the solar system, pointing out that they rely on people skilled in mining for their water and air, but don’t guarantee the safety of miners. 

Through painting the lives of everyday people, Renault gains an understanding of the struggles that miners are expected to go through and the lack of support they have to survive in hostile conditions. He refuses to leave their mining colony because he realizes that his celebrity status means that certain protections are provided to the colony that wouldn’t be if he weren’t there. Renault engages in a form of Artivism – art-based activism – to advocate for safer conditions for the miners by first illustrating their everyday lived experience and letting the solar system see the conditions they live under, illustrating their humanity, and by making the miners art themselves, transforming their lives into powerful stories about human ingenuity and survival. 

Stueart brings attention to the role of art in sharing under-represented stories, making marginalized people’s lives noticeable in a world that likes to pretend that oppressions don’t exist, and the transformative power of art.

To find out more about Jerome Stueart’s work, visit https://jeromestueart.com

To find out more about The Angels of Our Better Beasts and other ChiZine publications, visit http://chizinepub.com

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Resources

Resources
A review of Kelley Armstrong’s “The Culling” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts (Laska Media Groups Inc., 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Kelley Armstrong’s near future fiction story “The Culling” examines the relationship between resources and disabilities. Her story is set in a future where there is resource scarcity and a general lack of water and food resources and this future society decides to deal with resource scarcity by killing disabled members of that society each year. Although set in the future, Armstrong’s tale brings attention to the treatment of disability as simultaneously a resource depletion, the disabled body being treated as socially non-productive, and the eugenic attitudes that are part of modern society as much as they are part of the future or past of social treatments of disability. 

This future society uses multiple methods of de-humanizing disabled people, beginning first with the rhetoric of weakness by suggesting that society would be stronger without disabled people in it. It then treats disabled bodies as drains on society resources, acting as though disabled people are not contributors to that society. The strongest rhetoric for de-humanizing disability is to put a person with mental illness on display in front of the society, strip him down, forbid him resources for cleaning himself, and post a sign above him that states that he murdered his family because people with disabilities are a threat to others. 

Armstrong illustrates the danger of rhetoric around disability, illustrating that the portrayal of disability as unproductive and as threat can lead to social actions of ostracism and violence against disabled bodies. Her near future fiction is not only “near future” because of its temporal setting, but because it is “near” and close to present realities. She uses The Culling to symbolically represent the violence against disabled bodies – the ostracism, institutionalization, and the lack of resources given to disabled people. Armstrong brings attention to the dangers of “normalcy”, creating a society whose violence against the non-normate is deadly. She also links non-normate bodies (disabled bodies) to cultural dissent by having teachers and medical doctors consider any act of resistance to be the same as a disabled body and both be subject to termination. In doing so, “The Culling” suggests that control of disabled bodies is a form of enforced normalcy and the suppression of deviation from an external norm. She illustrates that scapegoating certain people is always a form of social control, distracting people from the controls that are placed on them by letting them direct their fears and hostilities onto another group that is already considered abject, considered Other. 

Rather than concentrating on physical disability as many speculative fiction authors do, Armstrong entwines aging, physical disability, psychological disability/mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and non-normate appearance to create a sense of connection between those bodies and minds that are seen not to belong in a society that is hyper-focussed on maintaining ideas of normalcy that Other certain bodies. 

Marisol has a family history of mental illness and her parents, fearing that she will be culled like her aunt, train her from an early age how to avoid looking different in any way in public, how to pass medical tests that are geared toward rooting out dissent, and how to pass as ‘normal’. She is always aware of the presence of systems of control that exist around her throughout her life and her need to pretend to be as normal as possible, and is more aware as she ages and becomes more aware of her own psychological disability. Yet, she is aware of the work that other people with psychological disabilities have done and is aware that the rhetoric of unproductive bodies is a social lie since she has seen the beautiful artwork produced by her aunt, who was culled for her psychological disabilities. 

It is significant that Armstrong made her protagonist a teenager both because this is the time period when most psychological disabilities become apparent, but also because teenagers are often subject to a normalizing influence, encouraged to conform, and yet are viewed as being rebellious and non-conformist. Her character is at the perfect age to invite social questions even while she is trying her hardest to fit in to a society that has already rejected her.

To discover more about Kelley Armstrong, visit her website at http://www.kelleyarmstrong.com
To discover more about Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, visit http://laksamedia.com/strangers-among-us-an-anthology-with-a-cause/ 

Robo-religion

A review of Derwin Mak’s “Mecha-Jesus” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with the Gods (Edge, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Religion (particularly when represented in fantasy) is generally constructed as something that is bounded, something that has clear boundaries and belongs to one specific group who all believe the same thing. Derwin Mak’s “Mecha Jesus” blends categories, blending religious systems and getting away from the idea that a religious figure can be exclusively the property of one group. Mak sets his story in a Shinto temple of the future, but one in which Jesus is one of the Kami. The Kami are the spirits and gods of Japanese Shintoism, but the Kami are considered boundless and can encompass any entity that is a force of creation and has influence on our world. It is therefore understandable that Jesus, a figure from Christian belief, could be adopted into Shintoism one of the Kami.

It is always challenging to explore real-world religions in speculative fiction, but Mak shows an ability to question the boundaries of religion and explore universal human themes like the quest for the ‘truth’ (and the eventual discovery that ‘truth’ is subjective), battling against discrimination and oppression, the realisation that the universe is infinitely more complex than we can imagine, and the magic of self-discovery. Mak recognizes a similarity in aspects of Shintoism and Christianity such as the idea that a man can also be a god or have something divine in him and the connection between the Catholic notion of a relic, an object that relates to a particular saint that still holds some of their power and the Shinto notion that an object that belonged to or contains part of a Kami can still hold its power.

“Mecha Jesus” features a Shinto temple devoted to Jesus as one of the Kami and the principle characters in this short story are a Japanese Catholic priest who understands both the Christian context of Jesus and the Japanese cultural context of Shintoism, a fundamentalist Christian who spends most of the time at the temple trying to convince Shinto practitioners that they are worshiping Jesus wrong, and, of course, mecha Jesus himself – a robot who has taken from the principles of Shintoism that any object that holds a relic can become a shrine, making mecha Jesus himself a walking, operating shrine that holds the power of Jesus inside of it. And houses his spirit.

As much as this is a story about recognising the interconnections between religions and the need to see beyond the isolating potential of religion, it is also a story about discrimination and facing social oppression. In the future that Derwin Mak creates, groups are destroying robots, considering them to be a threat to human employability and an abomination. These hate groups attack robots and those who protect them because they believe they are working for humanity. These groups, seeing robots as soulless face a critical moment when they come into contact with a robot who seems to have a soul and a group of people who are willing to defend him from persecution.

To discover more about the work of Derwin Mak, visit his website at http://www.derwinmaksf.com/

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

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 6: Canadian Queer SF

As a queer man, do you know what I want to see:

a sci fi novel in which one of the typical space bros says “yo fags, no homo” and instantly has his head bitten off by a glitter-wearing, feather boa carrying alien, who instantly spits it out and says “No hate, bro”;

or a femmbot who decides that since he has been denied the right to transition to a male robot, he is going to take matters into his own hands and solders a vibrator onto his body;

a fantasy novel in which the evil queen finally gets her princess love;

a white knight who realises that the black knight keeps kidnapping princesses to get his attention;

a horror novel in which the werewolf reveals that she is only biting women because she wants to create a female-only pack

OR a sparkly vampire… oh wait, that’s been done before… and with a straight vampire at that.

There is an under representation of queer people in genre fiction, but this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio explores Canadian queer, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG (Q – Queer and Questioning, U – Unidentified, I – Intersex, L – Lesbian, T – Transgender, Transexual, Two-Spirited, B – Bisexual, A – Asexual, G – Gay, Genderqueer) fiction.

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.

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

My Cane is Not A Costume – Convention Exclusions and Ways to Think About Oppression at Cons

An editorial by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

On a regular basis at speculative and other fan conventions, I get knocked around, shoved, pushed out of the way. People assume that because I am using a cane, I am taking up more than my fair space, after all, I have THREE whole legs on the ground (two legs and a cane). I hope this is because they assume that my cane is the equivalent to their lightsaber, a performative piece, a part of a costume… That is my hope.

However, I have seen issues of systemic ableism at cons. There have been recent discussions of the sexism that happens at cons, and I hope to add to that discussion by brining attention to other (perhaps associated) forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and ableism. Sexism still continues at cons. I just recently attended a con where a panelist referred to the only female person on a panel he was on as “little lady”, and I certainly see it in the ogling of women that happens constantly.

Some cons have started to create harassment policies, which, while a start, are still not addressing the underlying cultural issues where harassment is considered okay. Most of the people who engage in harassing behaviour don’t look at the harassment policy because they don’t think that they harass people. Harassment policies are an important first step toward creating a safe space for diversity, but we need to find further ways of creating and maintaining those safe spaces.

A lot of people who attend cons are people that, in their past, have been bullied, and I wonder if this has created a notion that “I am the person who is bullied, and therefore I can’t be bullying others”, which may lead to a lack of critical self questioning about “are my words or actions bullying or making others uncomfortable?”.  We can think about this collective act of being bullied as a way of teaching ourselves to be aware of the experience of oppression and how it plays out against individuals and groups of people and work toward creating an oppression-free space. After all, since we have been bullied, we should be able to empathize with others who have and are experiencing it now. A good step that we could take at cons would be to offer a panel that allows us to talk about bullying and the creative ways that we can work toward ending oppression. Rather than specifying types of bullying (since this often means that people who haven’t experienced that specific type of bullying won’t attend), a general discussion of bullying of fans can be discussed.

I have noticed a great deal of homophobia in the general mocking of queerness, homophobic language, and in the reaction, particularly of fans to males cosplaying as female characters – the reactions are those of disgust and censor. This year at a fan convention (I will leave off specifics here since I want this to be a general discussion, not an attack on a specific con), I attended the cosplay masquerade because I enjoy theatrical play…. But what I witnessed was a systemic “ewww” from a large number of audience members when the sexy woman in costume on stage revealed his very male face under his mask (I use “he” here because I don’t think the cosplayers were trans, I think they were just having some fun celebrating female characters). But there is an issue when the reaction to gender play is met with cries of “what the hell” by audience members… and this is tied to the sexist looking at women as objects of desire and the revelation that their object of desire is male under the mask or make up.

I have noticed ableism (discrimination against the disabled) in con staff at various cons telling people in wheelchairs that they can’t use the elevators closest to events because “it will let you cut in line”, in the number of people who move people in wheelchairs (literally pushing the chair of another person out of their way) or stand in front of them, and, personally, in the number of people who run into, push, or otherwise knock me or my cane to the ground. I noticed it at a recent con when I was told that I couldn’t sit on the ground off to the side because other people might want to stand there (despite the fact that I am sitting due to pain and the inability to stand much longer). I experienced it again when I set my coat on the edge of a table that was empty apart from a few pamphlets at the far side and empty water glasses around the cooler, so that I could adjust my cane to stop being in pain, and juggle the items I was carrying, only to have someone shove my coat to the floor. Even though I explained that I am disabled and in pain and just needed to set my coat down for a moment in the empty space at the corner of the table, I was told “I don’t care what your EXCUSE is. This is my table.”

Our society seems to have become one that believes that disability means “disability perks”, that somehow because the larger bathroom stall is marked with a disabled sign and the closest parking space has a disabled sign, that this means that disabled people are getting “perks”, “extras”, things that the able bodied don’t get. I think a lot of people forget that this is because we need more space to maneuver our slightly different bodies, we need closer spaces to keep our pain levels down or give us room to exit our vehicles by chair. Rather than paying attention to the needs of bodily difference, there is an assumption that “fair” means “the same”, without understanding that my “day’s activity” may cause me debilitating pain where an able-bodied person’s “day’s activity” won’t. I may need to sit. I may need to rest. I may need to not be pushed or shoved because these cause extra pain on a body that is already stretched to its tolerance limits so that I can enjoy the same con, share my experiences with other conventioners, and maybe even give some panels that will entertain.

I have talked a lot about my own experiences here, but I think we need to pay attention to the ways that we exclude, the ways that we accidentally make certain bodies uncomfortable, pained, or endangered… because most of these behaviours ARE ACCIDENTAL, most of them are not intended to be malicious but are rather the products of a society overall that has behaviours and attitudes that are sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic. We can start to change this by being vigilant, by paying attention to the ways that our words or actions may exclude or oppress. We need to check ourselves AND OTHERS when they objectify women, try to claim that they know a culture better than the people who belong to it, make generalizations about race or ethnicity, make a space inaccessible, or make remarks that make GBLTQ people feel uncomfortable or threatened (all of which I have seen at cons).

There are genuine acts of kindness and support from our convention community – people have often held doors for me, pulled chairs from the stacks so I can sit, helped to respond to homophobic remarks by others, and these are things to be celebrated, acts of a community of bright, interesting, creative people who are working together to access that shared creative, brilliant, excited, fantastically geeky community of different individuals.

With all of our geeky enthusiasm, brilliance, and creativity, we can figure out ways to shift a culture that excludes or oppresses certain people. We can work together to shift some of these embedded ideas that privilege certain bodies at cons.

My cane is not a costume … and there is room for all of the assistive tech, attitudes, and thoughts needed to include diverse bodies AND all of our costume paraphernalia. Let’s think about some new ways that we can make our cons places of comfort for all of our expressions, needs, and interests.

Humour and Subversion

By Derek Newman-Stille

How many people take humour seriously?

Can humour say things that we wouldn’t say in polite society?

Can humour ask us to think about things that we normally wouldn’t?

Humour has a subversive potential. Good authors of humour can wield it as a microscope on society, a lens of the absurd through which we can see how the things that we take for granted as “normal” can actually be quite ridiculous. Humour has historically been something to be wielded by subaltern groups (those people who society’s power structures disempower and devoice). Disempowered groups have often found the power of their voice in humourous critiques (being often forbidden or discourages from voicing their critiques directly).

Humour CAN be subversive, but it can also reinforce social norms and power structures. It has been historically applied both to oppress groups as well as used by those oppressed groups to give themselves as sense of liberation from oppression, to comment on the society that casts them out.

So, why don’t we take humour seriously? The great thing about humour is that it is precisely because it ISN’T taken seriously that allows it to make deeper social comments. Humour contains the potential to mock society, to raise speculative questions about what we consider normal without necessarily producing solutions. Humour and the speculative genres can often work well together, challenging and questioning the barriers of the “real”, the “normal”, the “expected”.

Historically humour has had a place in the speculative genres, those moments of comedy that heighten the emotional experience. It can allow science fiction and fantasy to poke fun at itself, mocking their own tropes to point out that they are being used intentionally and to attract the reader’s attention… but I have always felt that humour speaks best with the horror genre. There is something about fear that evokes those bubbles of laughter, the inability to contain the sustained feeling of terror without our own bodies betraying us, bubbling out awkward giggles or frightened chortles. Humour and horror can mutually support each other. The contrast between these two states of being can push one another into elevated positions – things seem more funny when they are a break from the atmosphere of fear, and things seem more horrifying when terror intrudes on a comic scene.

So can horror and comedy coexist? Can seriousness and mockery speak to each other? As far back as the Ancient Greek world, there was a recognition of the mutual dependency of the tragic and the comic. Ancient Greek tragedies were performed in groups – three tragedies followed by one satyr play. Satyr plays are not the same as satires (a word that derived from them). They were performed with a group of satyrs as the chorus -> complete with fuzzy goat legs and erect phalloi (penises)… and that chorus of satyrs interacted with similar scenes to those of tragedy, but brought in images of heightened sexuality, drunkenness, and general tomfoolery. They were brilliant intrusions into the set of tragedy, into the tragic space, adding a counterpoint to the seriousness of the tragic performance.

Seriousness and humour have been in conversation for a long time, each having something to say to the other, each forming an outlet and expressive space that bursts forth, inserting itself into the world… and yet humour and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. There is something funny about being serious… and something serious about being funny. Emotional experience can be part of a commentary, and emotions can say things that words may not be able to encompass.

SF Versus Oppression

A Review of OnSpec #92 Vol. 25, No. 1

Cover for OnSpec Spring 2013 courtesy of OnSpec

Cover for OnSpec Spring 2013 courtesy of OnSpec

By Derek Newman-Stille

Speculative fiction is a genre of possibilities, potentialities, and change. It is therefore surprising that most SF tends to replicate patterns that support hegemonies – heterosexism, sexism, ableism, ageism, racism. When one sees how much bias can be replicated in SF, it is exciting when a volume like OnSpec #92 Vol 25, no. 1 comes along. This volume features otherwise ignored, underrepresented, oppressed, or poorly represented groups. Within this volume are portrayals of aged, queer/LGBTQ, and racialised protagonists. These characters are not portrayed as essentialised figures or stereotypes, but are rather given complexity, depth, and an essential humanity that most works of SF tend to deny the oppressed.

This volume pulled together the essential power of SF to challenge social preconceptions about people who are generally Othered or marginalised. It illustrates the potential of SF to open up new modes of thought and understanding.

With spiritual quests and ventures into other worlds and other time periods, blendings of the magical and the mundane, OnSpec #92 opens doorways. It is great to see that not all adventurers into the unknown are portrayed as white, young, heterosexual, able-bodied males. With all of the othered people are Selkies, dinosaurs, creatures from the depths, and space travelling sci fi writers.

You can explore some of reviews of individual stories at:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/sci-fi-author-in-space/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/mistaken-behaviours/

To find out more about OnSpec, visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ .