No Longer Worn Down.

No Longer Worn Down
A review of Amal El-Mohtar’s”Seasons of Glass and Iron” in The Starlit Wood (ed. Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien, Saga, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Amal El-Mohtar interweaves two tales of disempowered women, one forced to perpetually walk to save an abusive husband, and one forced to remain perpetually still to avoid being placed under the power of men. Both are trapped -one in movement and one in stillness. In most fairy tales, both are situated as women in distress and need.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale exploring the way that men attempt to control women through stories, rhetoric, and actions and the way that women can liberate themselves through collective action, and by creating their own narratives. El-Mohtar brings two disempowered fairy tale heroines together in her “Seasons of Glass and Iron” to illustrate that women are not passive objects to be moved around a man’s chess board, but rather are figures who can shift and change each other, providing support and encouragement to discard the disempowering texts surrounding them. 

Tabitha, doomed to perpetually walk in iron shoes, and Amira, doomed to a life of frozen near-death at the top of a mountain have to learn to loosen each other’s bounds, unlatching iron shoes and discarding glass mountains in order to find themselves and change the stories that have been written around them to bind them. It is a release from the spell of patriarchy – one that is presented, all too often, as unbreakable. 

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale of change and self-liberation where women come to recognize their own magic. Frequently women in fairy tales do magical things, but are not considered magical in comparison to other characters. El-Mohtar centralizes women’s magic. 

To discover more about Amal El-Mohtar, visit her website at https://amalelmohtar.com/

To find out more about The Starlit Wood, visit http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Starlit-Wood/Dominik-Parisien/9781481456128

Stigma is Sticky

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

By Derek Newman-Stille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Constraints

A review of Rebecca Diem’s “The Stowaway Debutante” (Woolf Like Me Publishing, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

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Rebecca Diem’s “The Stowaway Debutante” is a steampunk story of disruption, shaking up the class divides of the Victorian Era. Diem writes a tale of escape from the boundaries, barriers, and confinements placed on gender and class. This is a tale of change and one of questions.

Clara is a woman from upper class society, confined by assumptions about her gender and by the roles placed on her behaviour by her family. She desires adventure, wants to change, and she is able to stow away on an airship to escape into the sky and away from everything holding her down. When she is discovered by pirates who offer her an opportunity for a new life, she leaves behind her debutante clothes and jumps into new adventures. She believes in the freedom of the sky, yet even in the sky she is underestimated, treated as a delicate flower in need of protection. She has to not only change herself, but also change the perceptions of those around her.

But she is not the only one to change. The pirate captain was formerly a Duke, giving up his role and status to share wealth with the poor. He is a steampunk Robin Hood, and like that other rogue, he has created a family of misfits. Clara is able to find her own family amongst these rogues and they provide the ability for her to choose her own path.

In order to free herself from the constraints placed upon her, Clara must play roles, clothe herself in identity. Rebecca Diem recognizes that clothing provides restraints on identity, shaping the way that we are read by people around us. Clothing wraps us up in assumptions, becoming a costume where others read us.

To find out more about Rebecca Diem, visit http://www.rebeccadiem.com

A Revolution Against Normalizing

A Revolution Against Normalizing
A review of Tyler Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Group, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Tyler Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness” is a tale of resistance to conformity, a revolution against the dangers of enforced normalcy. Keevil explores the perspective of a gardener who is uncomfortable in social situations. He operates primarily from his house and sells products for gardeners through the internet. However, he soon notices that people around them are changing as their lawns are changing. After all, suburban bliss is just a lawn covered in turf away. As people’s lawns are being forced into conformity, with their flowers cut down and replaces by lawns of the same green grass and their hedges trimmed into the same ubiquitous shapes, people begin to lose what makes them unique, showing the same sets of blank stares and expressionless smiles. Every time the white vans go by, another person and lawn are converted into conformity.

Keevil’s “The Weeds and the Wildness” is a call out to ABnormalcy, to wild, uncontrolled spaces that allow nature to flourish and resist the controlling hand of civilization. Keevil raises questions about the power of “normalcy” to keep people acting and performing life in the same way, removing their uniqueness and “The Weeds and the Wildness” invites questions about how to maintain one’s difference in a civilization that prefers sameness.

To discover more about Strangers Among Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/strangers-among-us-an-anthology-with-a-cause/

To find out more about Tyler Keevil, visit http://www.tylerkeevil.com

Reconnecting

Reconnecting
A review of Ursula Pflug’s “Washing Lady’s Hair” in Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Groups Inc., 2016).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Ursula Pflug’s “Washing Lady’s Hair” explores a new drug or medication in a future market called Green. Taking the drug is referred to as diving and this is because it generally evokes images of sea life, drawing on the magic of the natural world and sea life. The drug inspires art in some people, but also provides an opportunity to access parts of the subconscious to find new ways to cope with post-traumatic stress. These alternative pharmaceuticals can be a way of healing, but they also contain the danger of potentially creating chronic users who use Green as an escape from reality rather than a method of seeing reality from askance to gain new perspectives on the world.

Green is connected to the exploration of ideas of the natural world, allowing users a space to see the sacred in the world around them and to explore ideas of the environment and environmentalism and Pflug creates a complex interaction between her characters and their drug use. Her characters explore ideas of the romanticism of a pre-industrial society while also levelling critiques about the capitalist control of choices in modernity and the damaging effects of industrialism both on the environment and on human agency. 

On a personal level, her character Karen is able to undergo self-healing from the sexual assaults that she experienced at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend and the damage and distance that these assaults created between Karen and her mother. Karen’s use of Green and her artistic expressions allow her to explore the complexity of feelings she has about her mother and the numinous power of Green (its ability to allow for a spiritual connection to nature) allows her to find the protective mother figure she was searching for in the form of a mother goddess. 

Like much of Pflug’s writing, “Washing Lady’s Hair” doesn’t provide any simple answers (the issues Pflug explores are far too complex for simple answers), but, rather, evokes questions for readers, asking them to interrogate their own feelings about the relationship between art and therapy, environmentalism and healing. Pflug provides a space for characters to critically question themselves and their choices and to imagine new possibilities. “Washing Lady’s Hair” is a tale of uncertainty and potential and the healing that can come with asking critical questions about the status quo.

To find out more about Strangers Among Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/strangers-among-us-an-anthology-with-a-cause/

To discover more about Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://www.ursulapflug.ca

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aw Nuts!!

Aw Nuts!
A review of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: Squirrel Power (Marvel Comics, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Rather than creating an origin story for Squirrel Girl in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson create a story of Squirrel Girl seeking to create a civilian identity for herself, something challenging to do when you have a tail and squirrel teeth… and even more difficult when your squirrel friends insist on talking to you while you are attempting to have a normal, civilian life at college. 

North and Henderson play with comic book expectations not only by having a reverse origin story, but by having Squirrel Girl create her own theme song (a slight modification of the Spider Man song), having her talk to villains to convince them of better opportunities for them, and this desire to play with genre expectations is highlighted by the small text at the bottom of each page of panels where there is a critique of the panels and choices in them and by the ending of each comic with a series of tweets between Squirrel Girl and her enemies and other heroes. 

Squirrel Girl, despite being preoccupied by the small acts of heroism that enhance people’s lives, keeps getting wrapped up in bigger problems, having to battle villains like Galactus when she really wants to keep other college kids safe from muggers, protect squirrels from animal violence, and deal with bullying. Oh, and of course these battles get in the way of the things she really wants to be doing like going to classes, choosing clubs to belong to, getting to know her roommate, eating nuts, and hanging out with her squirrel sidekick/overlord Tippy.

Squirrel Girl is fun, able to critique the superhero genre while participating in creating it, and is a superhero that people can relate to. With her battle cry of “Let’s get nuts!” and her playful approach to superheroism, Squirrel Girl is a character who can climb into our hearts faster than a squirrel can climb into a bird feeder. 

To find out more about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, visit Marvel Comics at http://marvel.com/comics/series/19750/the_unbeatable_squirrel_girl_2015_-_present