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

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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/

Pins and Needles

A review of Jerome Stueart’s “How Magnificent is the Universal Donor” in The Angels of Our Better Beasts (ChiZine Publications, 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Ever since the AIDS crisis, we queer people have had a complex relationship to blood, so we are put in an interesting relationship with the fictional figure of the vampire, a figure who can alter what it penetrates, and who both feeds off of blood and often changes those whose blood it comes in contact with. Jerome Stueart’s How Magnificent is the Universal Donor explores the complexities of Queer relationships with blood without making his narrative an AIDS narrative directly. Instead, he creates a new blood-based pathogen called BBD, which spread through 40% of the population and needs to be treated through blood transfusions. 

Stueart explores the idea of medical control around a blood-based pathogen, illustrating that medical professionals and the World Health Organization are able to exert total control over the lives of those it views as medically threatening. But, disease is frequently a method of Othering certain people, casting them as infectious invaders into a normate body. Frequently diseases are traced back to other countries, particularly those with less political power on the global stage, and, in the case of AIDS, there is a narrative that pushes the disease onto the Queer population, and gay men in particular, casting gay men as an infectious population. At the time I am writing this, Canadian Blood Services still won’t allow gay men or anyone who has had sex with a gay man to donate blood (unless they have been celibate for at least 3 years). This targets a specific population and portrays them as inherently infectious. Although Stueart portrays the disease BBD as not connected to any specific population, his use of two gay male narrators brings the reader’s attention to this parallel, inviting us to question why these two men, in particular, are targeted by a medical system that has absolute control over them. Their own narratives are erased in this society in favour of the narratives put over them by doctors. 

“How Magnificent is the Universal Donor” invites critical questions about power and the relationship between medical power and those who are oppressed. Stueart asks us to question who is benefitting from medical practices and medical power and getting us to look at the way that medical practitioners frequently forget how much social and political power they have… and that their practice still shares the same biases as the rest of society. “How Magnificent is the Universal Donor” is a narrative about reclaiming our stories and using these stories to empower us.

To discover more about Angels of Our Better Beasts, visit http://chizinepub.com/the-angels-of-our-better-beasts/

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

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