The Flow of Disability

The Flow of Disability

A review of Elliott Dunstan’s “Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny” from Nothing Without Us (Renaissance, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

For folks like me, who are disabled, we develop a certain intimacy with our accessibility devices. They are both part of us… and not at the same time. They are extensions of our personhood, ways of challenging the idea of a singular, biological body and we engage with them in unique ways that often shift. One could say that we are in a conversation with our accessibility devices. For Elliot Dunstan’s character, Olivier Gutierrez, that conversation is literal. 

Gutierrez, who uses “xe/xem” pronouns, first discovered xe was in conversation with xyr accessibility devices when xe was given xyr first pair of hearing aids at 4 years old. Xe quickly discovered that xyr hearing aids would talk to xyr. 

Gutierrez feels that xyr life has been a series of steps away from the idea of normalcy and Xe asks at the beginning of the story “how many things could one person have wrong with them”. Xyr story has been one of being treated as abnormal, as Other. Xe experienced a life of labels, some avoiding words like “crazy” by calling xyr “imaginative” or “creative” or “odd”, but these words didn’t mask the intended meaning. Xe describes xyr self as “deaf. And crazy. And queer”, illustrating an intersection of different oppressed identities.

Gutierrez has an opportunity that few of us do, to enter into direct conversation with our accessibility devices and xe is able to learn how to negotiate xyr own identity through this conversation, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

In Oliver Gutierrez and the Walking Stick of Destiny”, Dunstan examines the multiple intersections of disabled identity, exploring the complex milieux of overlapping experiences and knowledges while also illustrating to the reader the complex oppressions and internalized ableisms that occur at that intersection.

To discover more about Elliot Dunstan, go to https://www.patreon.com/elliottdunstan

To find out more about Nothing Without Us, go to https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sa=false&sbp=false&q=false&category_id=2

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms

Cosmic Horror and Challenging Ableisms 

A review of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside (Angry Robot, 2019).

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

There aren’t enough narratives about autism by autistic people. This, and their powerful style of writing and brilliant science fiction, is why I keep coming back to the works of Ada Hoffmann with adoration. Hoffmann’sThe Outside, with its autistic, queer narrator, is precisely the narrative we need to challenge images of futurity that tend to be straight and neurotypical. Hoffmann challenges the traditional erasures of diversity in the future and populates their narrative with multiplicity, revealing that the future is dynamic and unlimited. 

 

Hoffmann’s narrative, like their narrators, is difficult to define along simple categories. The Outsideblends science fiction with Lovecraftian weird fiction, and mixes it all together into a philosophical discourse. I’m making it sound way less interesting than it is, but Hoffmann is able to bring theory and critical social questions to life in The Outside, while also creating an exciting, compelling narrative.

 

Hoffmann creates a world in which AI have become gods for a galaxy-spanning civilisation who those AI gods have decided is too erratic to have access to advanced technology. The gods make humanity rely on them for interplanetary travel and communication technology, but also require that humanity avoid heretical thoughts. People are downloaded upon death into the AI god that they most resonate with, but those who don’t fit the morals of society, those who are heretical end up being downloaded into a goddess of torture – Nemesis. The gods rely on this consumption of souls and the threat of Nemesis for those who don’t abide. 

 

In this tightly controlled AI controlled universe, one of the most dangerous things is The Outside, a phenomenon that can be summoned ritually or evoked through certain technology. Exposure to the outside is contaminating and causes a change in perception as well as changes to the physical world, distorting reality. It also allows for monstrous entities to enter into the protagonist’s world. Hoffmann evokes a Lovecraftian notion of cosmic horror and the fear of the ultimate other. Reality itself is disrupted by this exposure to the other and the laws of nature are no longer stable, but up to interpretation. 

 

However Hoffmann’s narrative doesn’t incorporate any of Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, or ableism. Instead, it directly challenges this notion, while still presenting the idea of a cosmic horror, something beyond human conception. The one possible critique of Hoffmann’s tale that connects with Lovecraftian and other forms of horror is that contact with The Other, with the cosmic horror, causes a distortion of reality. Frequently in Lovecraftian narratives, the writer relies on the idea that the greatest horror of all is madness, and a simple reading of The Outsidemay lead a reader to believe that this is what Hoffmann is doing in their narrative. However, Hoffmann critiques the idea of madness itself in their tale, stating “’Madness’ isn’t a thing. It wasn’t even really a thing in the twentieth century. It’s not a real diagnostic category and it’s not a useful descriptor”. Hoffmann levels a critique of madness as a category, questioning the notion of madness as the ultimate horror and encouraging readers to re-assess their fear of mental illness.

 

Beyond this, Hoffmann critiques the idea of pathology by connecting it with religious notions of heresy, pointing out that simple diagnostic criteria form a type of religion that presents itself as truth and therefore not subject to debate. By doing so, Hoffmann invites critical questions about the ableism underlying our categories of normalcy and abnormalcy. Indeed, they present case files by a child psychologist who is also writing a religious treatise, evoking the history of medical practitioners being viewed as experts on every part of a society. The treatise involves lines about a child being analyzed with words like “Basic foundations of perceptual cognition, such as occlusion, perspective, scale, even causality are ignored. It is as though she sees everything at once, all the time. She likely does not yet even realize that such perceptions set her in opposition to the Gods, placing her on an inevitable path to the most perilous and destructive heresies. If treatment is unsuccessful, perhaps she never will.” Religious doctrine and psychological study are intertwined here, revealing the dangers of a psychological system that others certain neurologies. Indeed, the psychologist suggests that this child, Evianna, needs to be beaten to get rid of her heresy and make her more normative minded. Moreover, Hoffmann highlights the history and continuing practices of psychological abuse.

 

Despite this narrative taking place in the future, Hoffmann does not erase the ableism of this society, but highlights its continuance and the way that ableism shifts in order to present itself in new ways. They bring attention to the way that ableism already does this in contemporary society, shifting its characteristics, but always relying on the oppression of disabled people and the exultation of abled people. In this world, types of ableism vary from planet to planet with some being far more overt (such as the notedly ableist planet Anetaia) than others. 

 

In The Outside, Hoffmann recognises the power of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for its ability to estrange the reader, opening the reader to new possibilities and unlike Lovecraft and many others that followed in his mythos, Hoffmann uses the estrangement of cosmic horror to direct their readers to question taken for granted ideas in their society, opening notions constructed as “truth” to critical questions by providing a perspective from outside their normative beliefs.

To discover more about The Outside, go to https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/606753/the-outside-by-ada-hoffmann/9780857668134

To find out more about Ada Hoffmann, go to http://www.ada-hoffmann.com

 

Fever Dream

Fever Dream

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

By Derek Newman-Stille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/

In The Shadows of Giants

In The Shadows Of Giants

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

By Derek Newman-Stille

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

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

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

To discover more about Over The Rainbow, go to https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and to get your own copy, visit Exile’s website at https://www.exileeditions.com/shop/over-the-rainbow-folk-and-fairy-tales-from-the-margins/

No Longer Isolated

No Longer Isolated

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

By Derek Newman-Stille

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

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

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

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

A Green Monster Who Isn’t Envy

A Green Monster Who Isn’t Envy

A review of Morgan Sea’s “Abominatrix” in We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comic Anthology (Stacked Deck Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Abominatrix”, Morgan Sea plays with the notion of Marvel Comics’ She Hulk and produces another gamma powered superhero. Sea’s hero is a Trans woman who adores She Hulk, and decides to take a shot of gamma infused chemicals as part of her transition. Instead of ending up looking like She Hulk – a green-skinned, powerful, beautiful woman, she ends up looking more like the Hulk villain, the Abomination. Instead of becoming a villain as Marvel comics characters tend to do when they have lived a life of oppression and don’t become beautiful superheroines, Trixie tries to live her life as she always has. She reminds herself “They’ve always treated you like a monster. They’ve always wanted you to hide”, so she decides to practice radical self love instead. While out on the streets, she continues to be subject to social violence – insulted by passers by, having drinks thrown at her. While being subjected to violence, she has to constantly reassure other people that they are safe from her instead of being concerned about her own safety. Even when she wants to use the washroom, she is told that she would need to use the men’s toilets instead of women’s toilets.

When Trixie finally decides to act back against all of the social violence she experiences, she ends up fighting another gamma powered hulk and the two of them end up crashing through spaces of oppression like a pharmacy where a doctor is refusing a Trans person their meds, a bank where a Trans person is being denied a loan for their electrolysis machine, and a classroom where a teacher is trying to force children to believe only in binary genders and that gender is unchangeable. This is a comic about smashing heteropatriarchy and Morgan Sea reminds us that we can’t accept violence and sometimes we need to act back to prevent that oppression.

Sea plays with some meta fictional elements of her comic, writing Trixie’s inner dialogue with the awareness that she is a comic character. She uses language like “Just got to take it step by step, day by day, panel by panel” and “See you are almost off this page!” to remind readers that this is a self-aware comic, a comic that is purposely raising questions and critiques about the mainstream comic industry. “Abominatrix” invites us to ask questions about the absence of Trans characters in most superhero comics (where Trans characters often only appear as villains) and asks us to question the portrayal in comics of a character who is done being subjected to violence and decides to speak back. As I mentioned above, the characters who act back against social violence in comics are generally treated as villains and the role of heroes is often to reinforce the status quo. Sea’s comic is about challenging the simple narrative of mainstream superhero comics and inviting an awareness of the absences and vilifying of characters who stand up for social justice. She asks us to think about how we create our monsters and the ideologies that go into producing those monsters.

To find out more about Morgan Sea, visit her website at https://morgansea.wordpress.com

To find out more about We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comics Anthology, go to https://stackeddeckpress.com/product/were-still-here-an-all-trans-comics-anthology/