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/

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Multiple Faces of Identity

A Review of Kate Story’s “Show and Tell” In Playground of Lost Toys (Exile Editions, 2015)by Derek Newman-Stille

School can be a horror story. It is a space where identity is controlled and regulated and where normalcy and conformity rein. Anyone who doesn’t belong is firmly aware that they are the school’s monster and those who enforce that normalcy treat those who don’t belong monstrously. In “Show and Tell”, Kate Story’s narrator was punished constantly as a child for daydreaming and was treated regularly as a social outsider. She was subjected to gendered expectations for women about “attractiveness”, having her facial features policed and told that certain facial features were unattractive and therefore inappropriate. 

When Story’s narrator has to return to her school as an adult before the building is demolished, she collides with her own identity and the multiplicity of options her life could have taken. She finds her old school cubby hole still intact with her old Saucy Doll shoved away at the back of the cubby. The doll has the capacity to shift through different expressions as her arm is pumped and as the narrator takes the doll through the different facial features, she sees a world of different possibilities, underlying the different masks that people wear at different times of their lives. The Saucy Doll underscores the idea of roads not taken, possibilities missed, and opportunities taken differently by the narrator – the different worlds that she could have inhabited if she had made different choices. 

Story’s use of the multi-faced Saucy doll underscores the social perception of childhood as a time of multiple potentials, a world open to possibilities and choices and the idea of adulthood as an experience of choices already taken and options limited. “Show and Tell” is a narrative about memory and the discovery of different aspects of selfhood. In the multiple faces of the doll, we can see the multiple masks that we, ourselves, wear throughout our lives, shifting expressions to express different aspects of ourselves. 

Story plays with the notion of the uncanny valley, the idea that as something approaches looking human it looks cute until it gets too close to human appearance and then it causes discomfort. In this case, the Saucy Doll embodies ideas of attractiveness and prescriptive femininity, attempting to shape the way that women are allowed to BE in this world. The Saucy Doll and its presence in the school embodies ideas of memory, trauma, and the passage of time. The narrator finds herself mimicking the expressions of her doll, shaped by her doll, illustrating the way that dolls shape the identities of young girls and the expectations about how they are able to present themselves in the world. Dolls are normally things that mirror us as we project on them, instead she is mirroring her doll and being projected upon by the doll. 

To find out more about the work of Kate Story, visit her website at http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Playground of Lost Toys visit Exile’s website at http://www.theexilewriters.com 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 46: A Discussion of Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel SuperMutant Magic Academy, a novel that plays with the theme of “You are different, so you should go away to a special school for people like you and everything will work out”. I discuss Tamaki’s clever play on Hogwarts (Harry Potter) and Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (X-Men), and her play with the notion of youth in a special school that embraces difference. I interrogate Tamaki’s portrayal of youth and the ability of youth to disrupt expectations.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

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.

The Outsider School for Outsider Youth

A review of Jillian Tamaki’s Supermutuant Magic Academy (Drawn and Quarterly, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Supermutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki takes on the recent cultural trend of portraying children just finiding the right school for their outsider status and then finally fitting in with all of the other students – a theme that has been played out in cultural phenomena like Harry Potter, which Tamaki heavily spoofs. Tamaki blends ideas from the Harry Potter universe with ideas from the X-Men universe (Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). These ‘outsider schools for outsider kids’ phenomena that continue to be popular unwittingly project the idea that the best method for inclusion of diverse youngsters is to create a school environment where they are not diverse, where everyone shares some trait with them, whether it be mutation or magical ability. This unintentionally suggests that what works best for kids is to keep the current system intact with all of its ideas of forced normalcy and associated exclusions, but to create special schools for those who don’t fit into norms so that they can finally find a place to be normal. This cultural trend favours maintaining the status quo of the school system, but imagining other schools with other norms to push on children – whether it be control of their magical abilities or their mutant powers. The message is still one of conformity.

This is what makes Tamaki’s Supermutant Magic Academy so clever. It challenges the idea that we can just create special schools for each person’s diverse qualities without changing the school system itself. Her characters, although learning about magic and their abilities are still teens. They are still just as disaffected as other teens about the school environment and the superstructure of controlled learning. No matter what they are learning about, the system still fails them in diverse ways and they still challenge and push the boundaries of that system. This is the particular power of Tamaki’s work, her ability and desire to push boundaries, to challenge the status quo and intentionally subvert it from the inside – by creating a story that is nominally about a school for diversity of magical and mutant abilities and then playing with the attitudes of the teens that attend the school and ensuring that they still engage with the school in their own ennui-shaped framework.

Tamaki illustrates that even when a school suggests that its curriculum is inclusive (in this case, of mutants and magicians), it still fails students when it fails to make changes to the ideas that underly that curriculum. 

Tamaki’s fun, brilliant, savvy critique of supernatural school lit is filled with students who don’t use their powers to fight epic battles and fight for all of the rules of normalcy of society… instead they continue being teens and use their powers in ways that real teens would – to get rid of acne, deal with the tribulations of attraction and sexual identity, deal with people misunderstanding them, and cope with school until they can get out at the end of the day and do something that isn’t state sanctioned. Like most teens, they recognise that the things that are the most fun are the ones that aren’t part of a state prescribed curriculum. 

To read more about Supermutant Magic Academy and see a few online images from this graphic novel, visit http://mutantmagic.com 

You can also visit the Drawn and Quarterly website to find out more at https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/supermutant-magic-academy