A Theory of The Self

A review of Dionne Brand’s Theory (Knopf, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Dionne Brand’s Theory is theory given life, a speculation about the nature of beauty, thought, and social interaction. Focussing on a graduate student nearing the end of their dissertation, Theory takes us into the conflicted world of emotion and intellect, exploring the way that passion and dispassionate investigation collide.

Brand’s unnamed narrator, only referred to as Teoria (Theory) by one of her girlfriends, finds herself at odds with the social world, always observing it from a distance and finding herself flabbergasted at the complexities of human interaction. It is through her relationships rather than her analyses of texts that she engages in social consciousness and stretches herself beyond the conventional world she was born into. The narrator positions herself in conflict with conventions and norms, but constantly finds herself drawn into them, facing her own ordinariness no matter how much she tries to push away from it. She is a haunted character, constantly dragging along the baggage of having no baggage and wishing she had a more complex life.

Brand’s narrator is chimerical, constantly changing to reflect her environment and her partners. Yet this changeable, uncertain quality allows the reader to reflect on the fluidity of our experiences and the permeability of identity. We are creatures of change and perhaps it is our changeability that defines us more than any presumed identity or selfhood.

Although the narrator fancies herself a creature of the mind and intellect and reason, someone who eschews the occult, she is haunted by the spectre of her last partner, Odalys, who is an occult priestess. Odalys defies the start realism of the narrator, never appearing by accident even when she appears in dreams. She offers insights that the narrator isn’t ready for and that she rejects primarily because they offer too much insight, too much knowledge. Part of Odalys’ ritual practice involves the presence of Nkisi, dolls made to include nails and blades, and this figure takes on a revelatory light for the narrator, making her face her own erasure of Odalys’ world even while the narrator writes her dissertation that focussed on social erasures, absences, and voices repressed. Odalys and her Nkisi take on the function of everything that the narrator is repressing, knowledges that she rejects even as she writes about the need to include silenced perspectives of marginalized people.

Brand’s Theory is an exploration of absences, of communities lost, and of a narrator who seeks insights into the world even as she ignores insights into herself that are offered by the women she dates. Though obsessed with figuring herself out, she rejects knowledges and perspectives that confront her own.

To find out more about Dionne Brand, visit https://www.uoguelph.ca/arts/sets/people/dionne-brand

To discover more about Theory, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/564847/theory-by-dionne-brand/9780735274259

Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Godly Love Story

A review of Jerome Stueart’s “Brazos” in The Angels of Our Better Beasts (ChiZine, 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Mythology is filled with love stories between a human being and a god. These stories are generally told from the perspective of the beloved of the god… and generally they don’t turn out well for the human being with mortals transformed into trees, driven mad, or abandoned. Jerome Stueart’s “Brazos” takes a different perspective, providing a meeting of fathers – the father of a god, and a farmer, who is the father of a young woman getting ready to go to college. This is a modern myth playing with ancient traditions, and those traditions are encoded in the way that the fathers speak to each other about the relationship between their children.

Stueart sets his story in a modern American setting, adding a new setting to an old myth and playing with the power of myth to speak to multiple audiences. His farmer is an American self-made man, not trusting anything he didn’t build himself, and this gives him an instant distrust of the easy success of a god. He recognizes the history of gods mistreating their mortal lovers and wants better for his daughter, asking why humans have to make all of the sacrifices for gods and questioning whether this will allow for a deeper relationship if the god gives nothing and the mortal gives everything.

Stueart brings attention to power dynamics in relationships, inviting a questioning of relationships and assumed sacrifices. He uses myth to bring attention to the way that traditions are mythical and need to change under new circumstances, needing to be as transformative as the gods of these myths and their mortal lovers.

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

Edgy Relationships

A review of Suzanne Church’s Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (Edge, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Suzanne Church's "Elements" courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

Cover photo of Suzanne Church’s “Elements” courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

In her short story collection Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction Suzanne Church treks across stars, across time, beyond the human experience, into the magical, the mystical, the dark, infusing pages with otherworldly imagination that invite us to be fellow travellers into the unknown. She crosses genre boundaries, infusing each with new life brought trough experiences submerging in the others. Her work touches the barriers between horror, science fiction, and fantasy, playing with reader expectations and expanding the scope of the reader’s imagination.

Elements IS fundamentally elemental, not just because some of her characters play with weather (the elements) and with the elements of fire and water, or even because some of her androids are named after elements from the Periodic Table, but because there is something both incredibly large and incredibly intimate about her work because whether it be about aliens, androids, sentient coffee cups, future warriors, or magic users, her work fundamentally explores RELATIONSHIPS, those strange, impossible, and yet oh so familiar things – and relationships are things that we share, whether they be romantic, familial, friendly, or interspecies. Suzanne builds bridges across species, planets, dimensions, and states of being in order to capture that moment when Others touch, when a sharing of experience occurs, and a fuzziness develops between the Self and the Other.

Not all of the relationships in Elements is positive, because relationships hurt, relationships can damage us. This is, by far, not a romantic collection, but is rather about the interactions between people, the ways in which we understand and relate to each other… and not all of the ways we relate to each other is positive. Her stories deal with issues like domestic violence, sexual abuse, war, imbalances of power, abandonment, and situations where the only safe relationship can be created after an escape from home… but they also forge improbable connections, friendships between unlikely allies, allegiances between seeming enemies, a push beyond fear to allow for connections between people who fundamentally see each other as opposites.

Relationships are part of how we understand the world, how we interpret it, creating understanding and interpretation through dialogue, through the experience of sharing ideas with each other, but they are also painful, sharpened by feelings of abandonment, differences in viewpoints, codependency, contexts of pain, confusion, misinterpretations, and an Us against Them mentality. Suzanne Church explores all of these, pushing the extents of human relationships to the edge, and perhaps even peaking beyond the human, displacing our centrality in our view of the world.

To explore reviews of some of the individual stories in this collection, visit:




and for a discussion of this collection with Suzanne Church, visit our interview at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-14-an-interview-with-suzanne-church/

To find out more about Elements and other Edge books, visit their website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ .

To discover more about Suzanne Church, visit her website at http://suzannechurch.com/wordpress/ .

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 14: An Interview with Suzanne Church

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, Waterloo author Suzanne Church swings by the studio as part of her book tour for her new collection Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (Edge, 2014). Suzanne Church’s work stretches across genre boundaries between Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. She has published in several of the Tesseracts anthologies, in collections like When the Hero Comes Home 2, Urban Green Man, and Dance Macabre. She has also published in speculative magazines like Clarksworld, OnSpec, and Doorways Magazine. Suzanne is an Aurora Award winning author and her short story “Living Bargains” is currently up for this year’s Aurora Award.

Suzanne Church and I talk about fiction’s role in bringing attention to domestic violence, pushing genre boundaries, the stretches of human relationships, ideas of displacement and home, and the power of short fiction as a medium. Prepare to hear about aliens, fuzzy green monsters, sentient coffee cups, androids, ghosts… and so many other otherworldly beings that tell us more about what it is to be human. Take a listen and I hope you enjoy our chat.

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.


Predator and Prey Relationships

A review of Suzanne Church’s “Mod Me Down” in Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (Edge, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Suzanne Church's "Elements" courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

Cover photo of Suzanne Church’s “Elements” courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

Suzanne Church’s “Mod me Down” takes readers to the limit of the human experience, exploring that critical moment when culture bleeds into instinct. In a future where an attempt to prevent global warming has initiated an ice age, the American government has become totalitarian and given people a choice: be shot or take a shot of animal DNA to become something semi-human-semi-animal.

The modifications to the human body have been forced on the populace… or at least the less wealthy members of society. The richest of the American population are able to stay human and travel further south to be saved from the coming Ice Age, but everyone else is required to undergo genetic shots to transform them into human-animal hybrids. This transformation is also tiered, with the wealthy able to become predators, while the poor have to become prey animals, primarily vermin like rats and bugs. Suzanne Church highlights the issues with wealth stratification in “Mod Me Down”, literally turning the rich into predators who prey on and consume the poor much as the current economic system treats the poor as vermin and food for the wealth-generating machine.

Yet, her story also has a very personal quality. Lucas and Mary have been lovers for some time, yet haven’t been married, not seeing the point of it. But, when they receive their genetic modification assignments, Mary is told she will be a cockroach while Lucas is told he will be a rat. They are to be separated into different colonies since rats prey on cockroaches. Church tests the limits of the human when lovers meet the predator-prey relationship and love is tested against hunger.

To find out more about Elements and other Edge books, visit their website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ .

To discover more about Suzanne Church, visit her website at http://suzannechurch.com/wordpress/ .


Blurring the Boundaries

A review of Greg Bechtel’s Boundary Problems (Freehand Books, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

Cover photo from Boundary Problems from http://gregbechtel.ca/

We tend to think of boundaries as stable, fixed, unchangeable, but boundaries are inherently permeable, and any boundary that is created is created because someone or something is able to slip trough it. Greg Bechtel writes on these borderlands whether they be of genre (realism, science fiction, fantasy), gender (male, female, intersexed, trans, genderqueer) temporal (past, present, future), he shows a fascination with those luminal spaces and situations, heightened periods of intensity when things are shifting, because the reality is that everything is constantly in flux and stability is a fiction. And fiction, the stories that create us, constitute us, and shape our experience of the world, can be very much real.

Boundary Problems delves into a polyphonic mix of characters speaking themselves into the world from the margins, announcing their complexity and unwillingness to be captured in a single voice. Bechtel recognizes the inherent slipperiness of stories, the sense that writing a story down attempts to, but will never succeed in, fixing a story in one voice. Every reader will inherently read a story with their own voice, their own set of expectations and symbolic understandings. His characters fluctuate throughout the story, in some cases fluidly moving between gendered, racial, and sexual identities. He recognizes the permeability of story and personhood – that each filters into the other and that we are constituted by stories, tales that shape our identities. The uncertainty of his story endings speaks to this idea that he is only capturing a snapshot of a wider story and that the character has an existence separate from and larger than the story. He speaks to the continuity of all stories and that the stories that we write are fragments building a feeling, a state of being and an aesthetic for the reader but that no story is ever complete or done, but perpetually in progress. He reminds readers that writing endings is an artificial process, and that it limits the complexity of the notion of The Story itself.

Boundary Problems provides snapshots of the human experience, moments of people trying to make sense of the world around them. Bechtel shows an interest in going voice to people who have been expelled from the hegemony of “The Normal”, inserting those pushed to the fringes into a position of centrality. He reminds readers that those stories pushed to the fringes and devoiced are often the most complex, fascinating, and thought-provoking.

Bechtel’s collection explores that permeable place between speculative fiction and realist fiction, not shying away from either, but interweaving them – because reality IS speculative, and good speculative fiction should evoke questions and speculations about reality. Bechtel deals with real world issues like violence against women, place and selfhood, the policing and control of sexuality, surveillance and losses of freedoms, and the danger of hegemonic power structures silencing the voices of dissent, the voices who speak up against systemic violence and the erasure of their stories, their histories. Boundary Problems delves equally into quantum physics, magic, and the everyday experience of a coffee shop book reading… but all of these stories evoke something of the human experience, tell us about our relationships to each other, to our perceptions of ourselves, and to the world around us.

To read some reviews of individual short stories in this collection, see:




To discover more about the work of Greg Bechtel, visit his website athttp://gregbechtel.ca/ .

To read more about Boundary Problems, visit Freehand Books athttp://www.freehand-books.com/authors/greg-bechtel

Immortal Complacency

A review of Billie Milholland’s “Autumn Unbound” in The Puzzle Box (Edge, 2013)

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

By Derek Newman-Stille

The stories in The Puzzle Box tackle the subject of a box that holds secrets and produces changes in the world. It therefore makes sense that Billie Milholland explores the mythical figure most connected to a box in her “Autumn Unbound”. Pandora, tied to Epimetheus by Zeus’ command, seeks to find her own life, wanting to separate herself from the bounds of her life. In seeking to become Pandora Unbound, she is cast into the mortal realm, reborn with a new identity, but still bound with the same chains of fate and relationship.

In her immortal life, she lived only a half life, chained to another, and only in her mortal life does she see the opportunity to live a full life, appreciating the small things in her world. Denied aging and choice, it is only as a mortal with a short span of years can she challenge and question things.

The immortal life creates a web of complacency with the way things are and a desire not the change or question the status quo. But, when Pandora submerges herself in mortality, the short span of years invests her with a desire to challenge things, to alter her own worldly context and stand up for her own needs and wishes.

To find out more about The Puzzle Box, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/puzzlebox/pzbox-catalog.html

Interview with Leah Bobet

An interview with Leah Bobet by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

Author photo courtesy of Leah Bobet

I was fortunate enough to meet Leah Bobet at CAN CON: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature in Ottawa this past year. We had a brief chat about SF and inclusivity, and I got back in touch with her again after reading her novel Above, which I was excited about because it dealt with disability (the focus of my research). I was very excited when Leah Bobet agreed to do an interview here on Speculating Canada so I could share some of her insights with readers.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Leah Bobet: Hmm.  It’s always a tricky thing to decide what’s interesting about oneself.

I’m a writer and editor, and also work as a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest speculative fiction bookstore.  I run Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a quarterly webzine, and write for Shadow Unit, a project that’s best described as fanfic for a TV show that never existed, alongside Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Holly Black, and Chelsea Polk.

Before going to full-time writing, though, I worked as a non-partisan staffer at Queen’s Park, and so local politics – and local activism — are something of a passion: I’m on the board of Women in Toronto Politics, a tiny brand-new non-profit that works to help more women access City Hall and build the communities they want to live in, and I’m going to be working on Toronto’s brand new pedestrian advocacy organization.  I’m also deeply into urban agriculture and supporting local food, and spend a lot of my summer working with groups that glean downtown fruit trees or plant gardens in public spaces.

Otherwise, I do a lot of reading; I see a lot of small indie bands in smaller spaces; take wandering, exploratory walks; look for the perfect Eggs Benedict; and make bad puns about Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Spec Can: Above was a novel about discrimination. What types of discrimination were you thinking of when writing this? What social plights influenced this story’s discourse on discrimination?

Cover photo of Above courtesy of http://www.leahbobet.com/fiction.html

Cover photo of Above courtesy of http://www.leahbobet.com/fiction.html

Leah Bobet: I was thinking, mostly, about intersectionality: How we can be legitimately marginalized because of one aspect of who we are, and legitimately marginalizing someone else because of another facet.  Every single character in the book has that dual role, because that’s life; that’s how people are and can be.

Some of that comes out of my own background.  I grew up in a minority culture, PTSD everyone-will-genocide-you tics and all, but in such a homogenous neighbourhood that I never really felt that social difference until I was an adult with a strong sense of my own power.  It was a slightly weird way to grow up, and made cultural politics both complicated and fascinating: People I cared about acted in ways that to my mind were horrifying, racist, and amoral, but to them were self-defense, because having been victimized so badly meant whatever steps you took were justified.  And there was no communicating one side to the other.  The context gap was just too great.

So I wanted to talk about that: the damage that our damage does, and how on earth one strikes a balance between recognizing what one’s suffered and perpetuating it on someone else.

One of the other focuses was disability: both physical disability and mental illness.  And that came about partially because of my own dissatisfaction with the official line on mental illness, and because of a friend, who’s mobility-impaired, speaking about how stories about kids in wheelchairs always had them sidelined as assistants to the nice, smiling, able heroes.  So one of the goals I had for Above was to write a story where disabled people were the heroes and the able people got to die tragically for their cause.  It felt like a thing worth doing, and it turned out that it was.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in helping people to question their biases?

Leah Bobet: There is a stock reply to this question: about metaphor, and removing present concerns from their context to sneakily teach people lessons from other angles.  Rocketship angles!  With space morals!  But it’s not an answer I tend to believe in, and not one I can really give.

I think the role of speculative fiction in confronting bias depends very strongly on the reader, the book, and whether they’re ready for each other on the day they meet.

Books have made me question my biases and move past them, or never develop certain noxious ones.  In fact, the best reviews I’ve heard for Above were the ones where people said, “This made me want to do something.”  But that doesn’t fool me into thinking speculative fiction has some sort of special magic that readers of other genres – or TV-watchers, or gamers – will never access.  That’s, ironically, a bias that speculative fiction readers have – one that feeds into our ideas of ourselves as more enlightened, better, and smarter, and misses the fact that of course speculative work will reach readers like us better than other kinds.  Because otherwise we wouldn’t be reading speculative fiction in the first place.  We’d be face-first into a detective book and never pick up SFF to start with – and we’d be having conversations about our biases in the tropes of detective fiction.

Reading, to me, is a dialogue.  It’s a conversation between the ideas in the book and the ideas in the reader’s head, and then you see how well they meet in the middle.  Sometimes the reader’s not in a place where they’re ready to be receptive to a book’s point.  Sometimes what the book’s saying is just old news to that reader (good example: I tend to appreciate early feminist SFF, but a lot of it feels like someone trying to convince me the sky is blue.  Generational context.  Go figure.)  Sometimes book and reader just legitimately disagree.  And that’s true of all novels, all genres, and all forms of telling people a story – speculative or not.  The only thing we can really do, as readers, is read widely and with open minds.

Spec Can: Your novel Above brings critical attention to scientists and, particularly to medical practitioners (the Whitecoats in the novel). What questions were you hoping your readers would ask about medical practices and the cultural ideas underlying them?

Leah Bobet: Actually, in terms of the Whitecoats and Dr. Marybeth’s balancing role, I was hoping people would treat that question of medical practices thoughtfully – just like everything else in Above – and consider what our treatment of mental illness and disability mean in terms that aren’t black and white.

Like anyone else, the medical practitioners in Above are people: a mixture of good and bad personalities and ideas.  And like everything else, who’s good or bad depends on who’s telling the story.  The type of person who would prefer to live in a roughed-out underground cavern rather than in bad circumstances that still include heating and flush toilets just…they didn’t seem like they’d have kind things to say about the medical profession.  And so Safe has the concept of Whitecoats.  And that’s less about me getting a particular message across than trying to create those characters logically, and build a culture that was true to how they’d feel – and then explore the consequences of that culture on their children.

Spec Can: Above focusses on the narration of Matthew, the Teller for the community called “Safe”. His role is primarily to tell stories of the community. What role do you see stories having in creating a community? How can the telling of the past form a sense of shared history?

Leah Bobet: I think stories basically are the defining factor of a community.  Identity’s a funny thing: We tell stories about ourselves (and others, and that’s where we get stereotyping), and when we compare those stories and they come up the same, we decide we’re the same.  Community is shared stories.  Community splinters when our worldviews – the stories we tell about the world – get too far apart.

There are about a trillion examples of how giving people a narrative binds them together – the most obvious one being the US, where the patriotism story is so frequently hammered home and so prominent because (I think, sometimes) it’s so big and full of people who have nothing in common, period.  That’s looking back to shared history every day: We did something together, we shared experience and values, and so we must be the same.  It’s functionally a social hack.  And it can really work to smooth out the tensions caused by present differences, until it doesn’t.

This is, in some ways, a very academic-linguistic perspective on communities, and how and why we form them (sorry; I trained as a linguist, and it’s in everything I do).  The warmer, more optimistic side of that, though: It gives us the option of making our own communities.  We can get together, with our shared experiences, and be social and understood and not be alone.  And that’s kind of a wonderful gift for those of us who don’t fit well into the places we were born, and need to make new places; who need to make Safe.

Spec Can: In Above, the characters also raise the issue of history that is edited out, stories that are deleted and not spoken of. Canada has a bad history of removing people’s stories to benefit its own image. What stories do you feel we, as a society, are ignoring?

Leah Bobet: The stories I was thinking of when I wrote Above were First Nations stories; the loss of language, poverty, colonial barriers, high suicide rates, and general slow genocide going on in our cozy little first-world country.  I was taking some classes that threw light onto those issues at the time: one on First Nations languages and language revitalization, and one on First Nations women’s modern literature.  The Idle No More movement has brought a lot more attention to those stories in the last few months, and I’m really hoping it doesn’t die in the next news cycle.  It’s too wrong, and it needs too much discussion, action, and righting.

But I was thinking about revisionist history in general: in relationships, in families as well as in nations.  Many people have stories they just don’t tell, even to themselves.  It’s always worth asking why.

As for stories we’re currently ignoring: I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask.  I’m aware that I live with a certain amount of advantages in my life, and that all kinds of things go on – experiences, injustices, needs, fears, loves – that I don’t see because of where and how I live.  It’d be a better thing, I think, if we all talked to each other a little bit more; talked to people who are living poverty, disability, mental illness, racism, sexism, transphobia, and everything else – instead of asking the people who write about them.  We don’t and shouldn’t need spokespeople that way.  We should respect each other’s voices.

Spec Can: Trauma plays an important part in Above in the background of your characters and is important in forming their identities. Why is trauma such an essential part of this book?

Leah Bobet: Trauma’s a big player in Above mostly because of what I was interested in exploring: What we do to each other out of our own trauma, and where the limits of making room for trauma bump up against treating other people terribly.  The discourse on trauma in North American society is…well, it’s reasonably new, and so maybe a bit awful.  There’s not a lot of room between Walk it off! and treating trauma as a debilitating, central tragedy of one’s life; one that excuses everything after.  And like most binaries, there’s a lot of discussion to be had about the experiences that live in the middle.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “Realist” fiction can’t?

Leah Bobet: Nothing.  What a work of fiction can do depends on the author, the ideas, and how they use their tools.

Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian SF?

Leah Bobet: That’s, again, quite hard for me to say.  Each individual author’s such a unique mix of their own influences, interests, and passions that I don’t know if the idea of national literatures can stay as it traditionally has: some notion of a geographical “character” that influences the stories we tell.  Or some trait, like a genetic marker, that everyone we label as Canadian SF will have.

A few questions up, we talked about stories as community, and forming communities of choice instead of birth or geography.  I think this might be an outgrowth of that ability: My friend who really identifies with Japanese shoujo tropes can write her Japanese-influenced near-future literary fiction.  I can write my magical realist social justice and urban planning stories, with bonus! ruins and city gardening.  We live in the same city.  We’ve just gravitated to the stories that resonate with who we are, instead of telling stories and using tropes that are bounded by the place we were born.

Spec Can: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about the characters and settings you create?

Leah Bobet: Well, they are Canadian.  That’s pretty much it: anything I consider a marker of Canadian literature in my own work – multicultural casts, quieter and smaller stories, that fixation with landscape as character – I’ve seen in works from other countries too, and it’s a somewhat narrow view of what Canadian fiction is and can do.

I’ve written characters and settings that were American, but I prefer to keep my stories above the border, just because this is home; it’s where my heart is.

Spec Can: What was it like to write about an intersexed character? What inspired you to write about an intersexed person?

Leah Bobet: It was on one level an intensely tricky experience – checking one’s assumptions and shorthands every step of the way, and I’m certain I still failed hir in a number of respects.  But on another level, it was like writing any other character, because sie’s…just a person: one who lives, loves, hates, chooses, and makes some intensely bad decisions for reasons that are not entirely hir own fault.  I made sure I wasn’t writing An Intersex Character™; that I was writing that person instead, at all times.

As for the inspiration: A friend of mine is a doctor, and back in her residency blogged privately about that experience, including delivering and dealing with the system around intersex children.  It stuck as something intensely painful and unfair, to the children and families both.  And so when I went to write a story about discrimination, the stories my friend told – and the issues around sex assignment within a week of birth – were at the top of my list to include.

Spec Can: What drew you to write Young Adult books? What can Speculative Fiction do for young people?

Leah Bobet: Me writing young adult books actually happened entirely by accident!  When I wrote Above, it was in my mind an adult novel.  It was only in having my agent point out that there was a coming-of-age arc, as well as a young protagonist, in Above that I even entertained the notion that it could be published as YA.  I’m writing young adult deliberately now, on my current project, and it’s been a learning curve.

As for speculative fiction aimed at young adults, I don’t really feel like that concept needs to be sold to the public.  Most of what young adults read – and always have – has been speculative fiction, for the cold business reason that there have not been, until recently, genre shelves in the YA section of the bookstore.  Parents are generally content that young readers are reading, so YA books have always had a little more freedom to remix, blend, and use whatever genres they feel like.  It’s only when we reach the adult sections of the bookstore that anyone cares to get into slapfights about whose genre can beat up whose.

Spec Can: How can Speculative Fiction authors bring more diversity into their work?

Leah Bobet: It’s a funny thing, that: Just do it.

Look at the characters you have in your work and ask how diverse they are.  If the answer doesn’t satisfy you, well, think of all the ways people can be diverse in real life, and start getting that in there.  Read fiction and non-fiction stories from and about diverse people: people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, people whose religion is different from yours.  Think critically about them, and do some informed imagining of what the world’s like from their perspective.  When you get evidence that your informed imagining isn’t all there yet, don’t get mad and give up; revise the model to be better and clearer.  And then use that model as part of your storytelling kit.

But mostly?  Just do it.  Because a lot of hand-wringing goes on from writers who don’t feel themselves to be diverse about how on earth they will possibly write diverse fiction.  And that hand-wringing can ultimately be a way of putting off the job: of deciding it’s too hard, the same way someone can be “researching” a novel for years and never write a word.

So do it.  Commit yourself to thinking and learning.  And then do it better next time.

Spec Can: How do ideas of the mythic influence your work? What mythologies speak to you?

Leah Bobet: Subtly, I think.  I was a little nuts for the mythic when I was a kid – mostly Greek, Roman, and Inuit stories – because my childhood culture didn’t have a great sense of magic, and I wanted magic very badly.  These days, though, there’s no separating the stories from the people; I’m a little too aware that “myth” is a word we use to describe dead cultural stories we’ve decided aren’t true, and I’m leery of it.  It’s a little too much like talking smack about someone else’s family.

I’m most interested – and probably because of that unbreakable association of mythic stories with the people whose stories those are, to whom they’re precious – in writing work that explores how people interface with those stories.  What do they mean to someone?  What’s the interaction this person has between their here-and-now concerns and the ineffable, and how can those things be made to balance, if at all?  Because they’re living stories, which means people live with them.  I’m most curious as to how.

I want to thank Leah Bobet for her incredible insights and for her discussion of the importance of narratives in the development of community. It is always great to interview an author that also works in the realm of advocacy.

You can find out more about Leah Bobet and her current projects on her website at http://leahbobet.com/ .

Interview with Noah Chinn

An Interview with Noah Chinn by Derek Newman-Stille

Noah Chinn is the author of Bleeding Heart Yard (about werewolves, witches, and

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

romantic curses) and Trooper # 4 (a post-apocalyptic adventure). Noah Chinn tends to play with ideas of comedy and humour while dealing with issues of disaster and destruction… and he brings some of that humour to this interview. I hope you enjoy laughing in the apocalypse with Noah Chinn as much as I did. If you have not already read my review of Bleeding Heart Yard, you can check it out at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/bewitched-beloved-and-between-worlds/ 

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Noah Chinn: Hmmm… I could just give you a boring standard mini bio, or I could give you some interesting highlights that make me sound like a rock star. What to do, what to do?  Yeah, let’s go with the latter.

I’ve bicycled across Canada and eight other countries (including Japan, England, France and Germany). I’ve hiked a few mountains, including Fuji and Snowden, as well as a few in B.C.  I lived in Japan for three years teaching English, and England for five years running a bookstore. I proposed to my wife on the stage of the Lord of the Rings musical (with an Elvish ring no less). I had a long running comic strip online and in print, and now have two novels published with a third on the way.  I got caught up in the middle of a riot once.  Sometimes I babysit a ferret.

Spec Can: Your story Trooper # 4 is a post-apocalyptic narrative. What got you interested in writing about apocalyptic themes?

Noah Chinn: I wonder if the appeal of post-apocalypse is an urban-centric phenomenon.  How many people raised on prairie farms are fans of Mad Max?  Some of us daydream about how we could survive in such a world, while others just like being taken out of their comfort zone.  It’s not just the threat of death, after all. It’s all the things you take for granted being taken away.

They also say that there are only three types of stories: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus himself.  Facing a post apocalypse usually means dealing with all three.

But really my attraction to those stories is the personal challenge.  The idea that if you keep your wits about you and learn the rules, you can adapt and survive any imagined hell.  The real question is, do you keep your humanity in the process?

Spec Can: People often suggest that those who read apocalyptic narratives are negative in some way. What do you think are some of the characteristics of those who read and write apocalyptic narratives?

Noah Chinn: I’m not sure people who read apocalyptic narratives are necessarily negative. Granted there are a lot of stories where the prospect is bleak once the story ends.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – holy hell.  Great book, but you don’t exactly expect the human race to survive long afterwards. We’re pretty much doomed.

But sometimes the stories are about overcoming, surviving, and the possibility of rebuilding.  And sometimes it’s about the world changing. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, is a good example.  Homo Sapiens might be at an end, but we’ve also become something else.

And then there’s World War Z by Max Brooks, probably my favorite of the Zombie genre.  In that case it’s not only about the end of the world, but fighting to take the world back, and dealing with the new reality in a rational way.  In that sense it’s quite positive.

Spec Can: What is the apocalyptic theme that fascinates you most and what is so interesting and exciting about it?

Noah Chinn: I think some people (especially in film) mistake fatalism and hopelessness with being exciting. To me it sucks the tension away.

Where’s the fun in being thrown into a hell you CAN’T possibly survive or fight back against?  Where the enemy is unstoppable and invincible?  That was always my problem with the War of the Worlds movies and films like Independence Day – they always had the aliens utterly invincible (baring a convenient fluke that allows us to learn more about them) until the germs get to them (or in Independence Day, a virus, heh).  If the story was aboutescaping, that could work, but it’s not.

What made HG Wells’ novel superior, in my opinion, was that the Martians were vastly superior to us, but NOT invincible.  The scene where the HMS Thunder Child destroys two Tripods makes you realize the Martians aren’t invulnerable, but we are still so vastly outmatched that the end result is still the same.

That tiny bit of hope adds to the hopelessness of the situation, which has far more tension than constant failure.  And it keeps the reader thinking about “but what if they try this” instead of just giving up and waiting for the characters to keep running away.  I think the movie Aliens succeeds in a similar way.  Sure, you can shoot them, but they can be anywhere, they’re smart, and there’s always more of them.

So to me what fascinates me most is trying to find the solution to the problem – whether it’s the survival of the species or just the main character.  If it’s just about counting down the minutes till you kiss your ass goodbye and praying for a deus ex machina type miracle, then it’s just not as interesting to me.

Spec Can: How can apocalyptic themed novels raise social awareness about current social issues? What can readers learn by reading apocalyptic narratives?

Noah Chinn: It depends on who is handling it and what kind of story they’re trying to tell.   Some stories are big into metaphors and symbolism, and sometimes have the fall of civilization tied in with various social elements.  Sometimes a story has the survivors represent different facets of humanity, and the story is a microcosm of society.

To bring up some of the books mentioned earlier, World War Z does a very good job of dealing with a lot of contemporary social, cultural, political, medical and even military ideas to explain not only how the end comes about, but how different countries cope with what’s next.  But it’s not doing it through symbolism.

I Am Legend essentially shows how the last man on earth ends up becoming the boogeyman of the next civilization.  In many ways the story reflects the nature of revolutions in the real world, and how the old regimes are vilified.

My own take on it in Trooper #4 is of a far more personal and internalized nature.  I’d rather not say more than that.  Spoilers, y’know.

Spec Can: What role does curiosity play in creating a better future?

Noah Chinn: Curiosity is one of the reasons we are who we are.  We ask ourselves questions and we try to find answers.  Sometimes we make things better, sometimes we make things worse – but even when we make things worse that same curiosity gives us the capacity to try and fix it.

The other reason we are who we are, I believe, is storytelling because we’re the only species that can imagine a different reality than what we’re in, and not only communicate it, but get others interested in it as well.  And at some point someone might try to make it happen. Nobody would have bothered going to the moon if nobody was curious about it, or told stories about how to get there or what we might find.

Spec Can: Trooper # 4 features a woman who has lost her memory. Why is memory loss such a popular topic in fiction at the moment? What fascinates us so much about losing one’s memory?

Noah Chinn: Is it?  I must have forgotten that….

On the one hand it’s an easy gimmick.  Few writers if any have their characters fleshed out before they start writing them.  The process of writing is in part the process of finding out who your characters are.  And if they have no memory then everything’s as much a surprise to them as it is to you.  It also conveniently locks away information that the character might otherwise have that you don’t want them to know until a later time.  But that’s me being half heartedly cynical about the writer’s stake in the game.

From the reader’s angle there is genuine curiosity about solving a puzzle.  Memory loss on its own isn’t that interesting except from a scientific standpoint.  But in a story the memory loss is almost always somehow connected to the story.  Why they lost their memory might be central to the plot, or what they forgot is key to unlocking a mystery or saving the day.  It also makes anyone and everyone involved in the story unreliable – especially the person who lost their memory.

Spec Can: Your novel Bleeding Heart Yard is partially about a man who discovers his “true love” but is cursed to be unable to communicate with her apart from swearing. Why are supernatural narratives such great places to explore ideas of love and relationships?

Noah Chinn: Probably because it gives the characters something unusual to overcome, and can be metaphors for something else entirely. Twilight is supposed to be about abstinence, for example.  And I think most people can relate to the idea of putting your foot in your mouth when trying to talk to a boy/girl you like, so a curse like this lets you ramp up that effect in every possible way.

Spec Can: Why is the theme of the curse popular? How does it speak to modern readers?

Cover photo of Bleeding Heart Yard, courtesy of the author

Cover photo of Bleeding Heart Yard, courtesy of the author

Noah Chinn: A curse is something imposed on you, something out of your control.  You can point a finger at who did it, but you can’t really do anything about it.  I think we all feel cursed now and then – bad stuff happens and we think “What did I do to deserve this?” as if we actually DID do something, instead of just the random nature of the universe.  It taps into our paranoia of someone or something that has it in for us. But it also gives us a target for our attention, rather than a vague sense of bad things happening, you have something specific and defined.  In an odd way, it brings order to that chaos, which means there’s a chance to do something about it, instead of just swinging at shadows.

Spec Can: What myths of the monstrous and magical do you draw on when you write?

Noah Chinn: Whatever is handy.  Whether you’re using something that’s existed for millennia or inventing something new, the truly important thing is consistency.  Monsters , magic, and myth all have to follow rules. They can be broad rules, but they need to be there so you know what the limits are and work within them (or, if you break them, come up with a reason explaining how and why).

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian stories of the supernatural from those of other nations?

Noah Chinn: I honestly can’t say. We apologize more?

Spec Can: What werewolf myths do you create and how are they different from the werewolves of other authors?

Noah Chinn: In Bleeding Heart Yard I wanted to have a creature that wasn’t exactly a werewolf, but something that werewolves could have been based on – as well as a number of other mythical creatures.  The species in the book has a couple of key powers and vulnerabilities that make it broadly applicable to everything from werewolves and vampires to rakshasa and wendigos. But in actuality they are simians that simply evolved along different lines from humans in a parallel world where magic is strong.

Cute little coincidence: the year after Bleeding Heart Yard came out Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter published The Long Earth, which has a similar idea (tying the creatures to elves and trolls instead) as well as the notion of parallel worlds one can jump to one at a time (which is also in BHY). In my case the ideas are simply touched upon, whereas in The Long Earth they are the full focus of the story.    

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realistic” fiction can’t?

Noah Chinn: Depends who you ask, but the most obvious answer is you’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.

Spec Can: Are there any other ideas or thoughts that you would be interested in sharing with your readers?

Noah Chinn: Eat your Wheaties and drink your Ovaltine.  Don’t do drugs.

I want to thank Noah Chinn for this insightful and humourous interview. There is nothing quite like a talk about apocalyptic themes where you spend most of the time chuckling. 

Upcoming Interview with Noah Chinn On Wednesday, December 26th

Since Speculating Canada is currently doing an apocalyptic theme, I thought it would be interesting to interview an author who writes post-apocalyptic fiction. The fact that he also writes about werewolves and witches means that this interview was even more fun for me.

In this upcoming interview on Wednesday, December 26th, Noah Chinn explores whether apocalyptic themes are fundamentally urban, the role of the apocalyptic in feelings of loss, and the danger of losing one’s humanity when facing the idea of the end.  Noah Chinn takes a close look at how the theme of memory loss is used in literature, the role of curiosity to change the world, concepts of love and awkward relationships, curses and ideas of control, and the role of monsters and myth. Noah infuses his insights with humour and wit.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Noah Chinn: “Some of us daydream about how we could survive in such a world, while others just like being taken out of their comfort zone.  It’s not just the threat of death, after all. It’s all the things you take for granted being taken away.”

Noah Chinn: “The real question is, do you keep your humanity in the process [of encountering the apocalypse]?”

Noah Chinn: “Sometimes the stories are about overcoming, surviving, and the possibility of rebuilding.  And sometimes it’s about the world changing.”

Noah Chinn: “I think some people (especially in film) mistake fatalism and hopelessness with being exciting. To me it sucks the tension away.”

Noah Chinn: “That tiny bit of hope adds to the hopelessness of the situation, which has far more tension than constant failure.  And it keeps the reader thinking about “but what if they try this” instead of just giving up and waiting for the characters to keep running away.”

Noah Chinn: “Curiosity is one of the reasons we are who we are.  We ask ourselves questions and we try to find answers.  Sometimes we make things better, sometimes we make things worse – but even when we make things worse that same curiosity gives us the capacity to try and fix it.”

Noah Chinn: “A curse is something imposed on you, something out of your control.  You can point a finger at who did it, but you can’t really do anything about it.  I think we all feel cursed now and then – bad stuff happens and we think “What did I do to deserve this?” as if we actually DID do something, instead of just the random nature of the universe.  It taps into our paranoia of someone or something that has it in for us. But it also gives us a target for our attention, rather than a vague sense of bad things happening, you have something specific and defined.  In an odd way, it brings order to that chaos, which means there’s a chance to do something about it, instead of just swinging at shadows.”

So, check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday, December 26th to read the interview and hopefully gain some insights about the apocalypse… before it is too late… or at least be able to laugh about it…