La Befana

Here is a holiday story for you this December. Renaissance Press is creating a tour of different websites where authors can showcase their fiction and they invited me to participate and share a short story with readers.

 

This post is part of the Renaissance Holiday Blog Roll. Find out what it’s all about here and check out some other great stories!!

 

I hope that you enjoy this story and others!

 

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La Befana

By Derek Newman-Stille

My Dearest Daughter,

We witches have a long tradition and it is a tradition of magic, but also a tradition of misunderstanding. Words are our magic – they shape the world around us, change it, sing it into something new… but words have also been used to trap us, contain us, erase us.

Words of condemnation provoked the burning times. Words spoken out of fear have constantly hounded us, plagued us, and hunted us.

So it is with a heavy heart that I write these words to you, my sweet Sofia, my first and only daughter, because they are words that lay a heavy burden. And the first burden will be the loss of the name that I gave you, pronounced you into existence with.

Now, as I was for many years, you will be called La Befana.

You know what the name means. Some say it is borrowed from the Feast of the Epiphany, but it has a longer line than that. It is the name of the Yule witch, the witch who guides the depths of winter.

You know of La Befana from the ornaments on our tree, the little ones that you used to make out of felt, pounded into the shape of the Christmas witch, old and wandering like the winter itself. But, your job will be more than filling shoes with candy or lumps of coal. Your job will be one of sweeping. That is why you carry your broom. Your job will be to sweep away the cobwebs and dust of rage that settle in homes, that collect in the corners and under the beds… the bits of emotional detritus that fall off of human beings and cling to them if they are not careful.

It is a thankless job.

You will only be remembered for bringing the sweets placed in shoes, which, as you know, a mother does for her children. You may be left a small glass of wine or a plate of food as an offering, but these are only tokens and generally eaten and drunk by parents. They are empty gestures now.

Your thanks will be knowing that all of the darkness of winter is cleared away for joy – to bring something new into the houses you visit and give people a chance, even just a small one, to escape from the shadows of their past. You will be bringing chances of renewal.

Our myths have changed over time. They have shifted to fit new myths and new stories, but our traditions go back over the ages. Now they tell a story that La Befana was found by the three wise men, the magi on their way to search for Jesus. They say that the Magi asked her for directions since they had seen his star in the sky but couldn’t see it any longer. She provided them with shelter from the night, a clean place to rest because she, with her broom, was the best housekeeper in the village. They say that she would have gone with them to see the new child, but she initially told them that she had too much housekeeping to do, locked into her matronly duties as she was, but later in the night she changed her mind, overcome with a desire to see this new child and sought out to find him, but wasn’t able to. So now, she is doomed to wander the world searching for this new baby, this perceived bringer of light, and so she leaves treats for the good children that she comes across in her search. She would come to act as a caretaker for all of the good children of the world the same as she desired to do for the new infant.

Of course, that is only one of the stories about us, and one that imagines us to be immortal rather than believing that we are a sisterhood passing our traditions down from one generation to the next. We date back to before the stories of Jesus and other legends with roots in Ancient Rome, where we were given our duties by Stenia, the goddess of the new year and purification. We were her priestesses, charged with cleaning out ritual impurities and cleansing spaces to make way for new changes and create a place of magic. We would collect twigs from her sacred grove to cleanse with, forming them into a broom and sweep the floors of the temple, not just removing the dirt from the temples, but removing something more complicated, a miasma.

You will find a broom. You probably remember seeing it around our home when you were a girl. It is the dusty old one that looks like twigs held together to a branch. You will need this. It isn’t just a broom, it is a collection of trees – of new growth. It is a manifestation of bringing new growth into the home. You will eventually add your own twigs of new growth to it, contributing to the broom of the new with the broom of the old. The original twigs came from the goddess’ grove and who knows if they still remain. Twigs fall out and new twigs are added. Of course, you will not be able to bring them from the grove. You will have to add them from the trees and bushes that speak to you on your travels… and they will call out to you. You won’t be able to mistake them.

You will start to look like I did… a hag. It is part of the act of cleaning out so much of the past. You become the past that you sweep. Your wrinkles and crevices become a map of all of the histories you sweep out. You will have the permanent look of soot on your face and body that I did. Some of what you sweep away will stick to you, bringing you half into the shade.

No one tells bringers of light that they will have to walk through the shadows and that the shadows sometimes cling to us. But you will still be able to be a creature of cheer. You are the Christmas Witch.

Dear Befana,

I wish you so much luck and joy in your quest because there is so much joy to be had and you need to revel in that joy. Drink the wine that remains as offerings that parents don’t gobble away first. Take time to see the happy smiles on children’s faces as they wake to sweets left in their shoes because it isn’t the treats that matter – it is what you have done, that sweeping away of collected miasma. And remember me. We are all La Befana. When you crawl across rooftops and down chimneys to sweep houses of detritus, we are all sweeping them with you. But don’t let words define you. Don’t let even my words define you. I feel as though I have pronounced a doom upon you, and perhaps I have. We have been at risk so many times before for what we are. People see the shades that cling to us. They see the soot before they see that we are cleaning for them… and everyone seems to fear an older women. They fear that knowledge we have acquired over the course of our lives. They fear that we know something that they don’t… and, of course we do. You will know more than all of us, just as your daughter will eventually know more than you. We add our wisdom generation after generation. But there is always something lost as well. I hope that you understand why I am allowing that loss and the important role you have.

Your mother, always and forever,

La Befana

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Deadly Musings

Deadly Musings

A review of Mary E. Choo’s “That Brightness” in Expiration Date, Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick (Edge, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille
  

Having a gift for artistic expression is a challenging thing. It tends to come with a heavy dose of “imposter syndrome” and the feeling that one is never doing enough or that one’s work is not good enough. When Jess sees a woman in white tie red balloons around the necks of various artists, killing them and trapping part of them in the balloon, she begins to think that her psychological disability has changed to include delusions, but the experiences are seen by other artists, propelling them to produce more work and express their artistic gift.

Mary E. Choo’s “That Brightness” explores the complexity of artistic experience and the societal pressures surrounding the artist to create new works of art. This is work on the palette knife’s edge between life and death with a muse who inspires through threats to offset the incredible amounts of doubt that surround any artistic pursuit in a society that de-values art and presents the artist herself as a cultural consumable object. 

To discover more about Expiration Date, visit Edge’s website at http://edgewebsite.com/books/expirationdate/expirationdate-catalog.html

Feeding the Homeless

A review of Trevor Shikaze’s “The Harbour Bears” in Lackington’s issue 4 ( http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/the-harbour-bears-by-trevor-shikaze/ )
By Derek Newman-Stille
Homeless people are treated as human refuse, ignored when possible, and when not possible, treated as a social problem that requires police intervention and forced removal. Homeless people evoke a sense of horror partially because they remind society that the price for our own economic success is the exploitation of others. Trevor Shikaze’s “The Harbour Bears” magnifies this exploration of the dislike of the homeless and the disconnect that exists between seeing the homeless as a problem TO society rather than a problem CREATED BY society.
The narrator refers to individual homeless people as “a homeless”, making their identity solely about their living situation and de-humanizing them, almost using “homeless” as a species indicator. When homeless people turn up ripped to pieces, no one is moved or upset by this and the narrator’s first concern is about whether this will jeopardize tourism, placing the economic before the human.
The narrator, Luke, lives in a comfortable economic situation without a job that he is aware of and ignorant of where his pay check comes from. He is disconnected from the economy and unaware of how it relates to the homeless population and makes these populations vulnerable and under threat. He is the epitome of the modern capitalist subject, able to be totally unaware of the impact of his actions as long as he is perpetually entertained. In fact, when he starts to ponder where his money comes from, he quickly tells himself that “it is better not to ask”, mirroring the wider issue in our society of the dissociation from the labour process and our population not wanting to really look into how money does harm in the process of coming to us. He is fundamentally disconnected from suffering, able to distance himself by viewing the homeless as almost a different order of being.
But, things become complicated when Luke stops medicating himself at night and realizes that the homeless population may be literal prey for a government that wants to get rid of them in the most expedient way possible. Luke is forced to see the direct impact of the system on the population it feeds on.
To read this story online, visit Lackington’s at http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/the-harbour-bears-by-trevor-shikaze/

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 25: A Discussion of Helen Marshall’s Work

In this episode, I focus on the work of author Helen Marshall. Helen wasn’t able to make it in to the studio for an interview, but I enjoy her work so much that I felt it needed a show of its own. Helen Marshall is the author of “Hair Side, Flesh Side”, “The Sex Lives of Monsters”, and “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”. She is a brilliant short fiction author whose work always evokes a sense of wonder in me and leaves me thinking about her stories for hours afterward.

As listeners who have been following my show know well, I often talk about the under-representation of short fiction in reviews, so I bring attention to some of the ideas, thoughts, and speculations from Helen Marshall’s short fiction in this discussion.

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.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 16: A Discussion About the Author Readings of Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi with Leif Einarson

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, Dr. Leif Einarson and I discuss the works of Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi. We play audio files of author readings by Ian Rogers and Sandra Kasturi and then follow up with a discussion of these works.

Dr. Einarson researches medieval literature, Norse literature, and Canadian literature.

Ian Rogers is the award-winning Peterborough author of Every House is Haunted and SuperNOIRtural Tales. His work “The House on Ashley Avenue” has recently been optioned for television.

Sandra Kasturi is the award-winning poet, writer, editor, and co-publisher of ChiZine Publications. Her poetry collections The Animal Bridegroom and Come Late to the Love of Birds combine the poetic with the speculative.

Listen to these wonderful author readings and hear the nuances of the authors’ voices and then enjoy discussions of their work and insights into some of the ideas evoked by their work.

 

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.

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.

 

Interview with Diane Walton

An interview with Diane Walton
by Derek Newman-Stille

I had an opportunity to have a chat with Diane Walton, the managing editor of one of my favourite magazines, On Spec, a Canadian magazine of the fantastic. Diane has been with On Spec since its beginning. In addition to her editing duties, Diane Walton has published in the Northern Frights volumes, in On Spec’s own pages, and in the anthology Divine Realms. Feminist, speculative author, and fan of the fantastic, she is a fascinating character with some interesting perspectives on the Canadian fantastic.

Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to begin this interview?

Diane Walton: Always the tough question. I’ll give you a bunch of true facts and you can pick and choose.

  • Born in Montreal, descended from one of les filles du roi, (I have the family genealogy, courtesy of my mother). I am also told there are UEL ancestors on her side.
  • I’ve lived in 4 provinces, following my dad’s employment in the early years: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and now Alberta
  • I had dreams of being an actor, so I studied Theatre in university, but eventually went into teaching. That lasted one year, and then I joined the public service. One job led to another and then the government entered the computer age, eventually giving me some pretty marketable skills as a trainer and a technical writer and software tester. These days I do contract IT work.
  • I read my first SF book at the age of 13. The Stars Are Ours! By Andre Norton. I quickly cleaned out the SF section of the public library.
  • On Spec was not my first magazine. In the mid 70s I was a volunteer with Branching Out, Canada’s first feminist magazine.

Spec Can: You have been with OnSpec since its beginning and are currently Managing Editor. Can you provide readers with a bit of background about OnSpec?

Diane Walton: We started On Spec out of frustration, when no American magazines seemed interested in the type of spec fiction we Canadians were writing. To be fair, I’m pretty sure that has certainly changed over the years, but we still provide a pretty good entry point for Canadian writers to get noticed. It’s a labour of love, and heavily dependent on government arts funding (at this point I must give thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts and to the Alberta Culture Multi-Media Fund for their support).

Spec Can: OnSpec is reaching its 25th anniversary. What were some of the things that motivated the origin of this brilliant magazine?

Diane Walton: As I mentioned above– frustration was a prime motivator. Also, there was a synergy here in Edmonton. We had editorial talent and leadership with Marianne Nielsen, artistic talent with Tim Hammell, our first cover artist and Art Director, and most important, the amazing desktop publishing skills of Jena Snyder, who could turn a bunch of words and pictures into an actual magazine. We also had connections with the then-small handful of SF writers in Canada, so when we put out a call for stories, they responded.

Spec Can: A lot of literary magazines in Canada tend to feature “realist” literature. What inspired the formation of a literary magazine that focuses on the fantastic?

Diane Walton: We are probably guilty of some snobbery here, since we originally wanted to differentiate ourselves from the rather predictable style of SF short fiction that seemed to be prevalent in the American magazines. In other words, we weren’t afraid of publishing obscure stories with “downer” or ambiguous endings from time to time. We looked for quirky works and diverse characters that pushed the envelope a bit, and took risks.

The “literary” aspect was, in part, because we had to put On Spec in a particular bucket to be able to get the funding we needed to publish, and literary was the way to get the dollars. Even now, when you look at the so-called “peer juries” for some grants we apply for, you see a lot of English Lit professors who edit poetry journals published under the banner of their particular academic institution. And those are the folks we have to convince each year that On Spec is worthy of funding.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult for us to actually BE literary. We wanted well-written literature and good storytelling that wasn’t too pretentious or self-indulgent. But it’s all subjective, isn’t it? We have still been accused by some grant juries of not being literary enough. You can’t please everyone.

Spec Can: What are some of the ideas that have shaped OnSpec over the years?

Diane Walton: What shapes the magazine is the amazing blend of people who have worked on it over the years, I think. For the most part, we do leave our egos at the door, and even when we argue over a story, we respect each editor’s opinion, and the magazine is all the better for that. So I’m not sure if this answers your question. We all just love good storytelling and the craft of writing.

Spec Can: What are some of the works that you have chosen for OnSpec that have really influenced you and changed your perspective?

Diane Walton: Now that is a very tough question. I can’t say that anything has managed to change my perspective, but some stories have moved me, and stick with me, even after many years.

My all-time personal favourite has to be Jim Gardiner’s “Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large”. http://www.litmir.net/br/?b=123223&p=1

The story immediately struck me as the perfect On Spec story, and I remember having to convince the other editors at the time, that we should select it from the slush. I mean who doesn’t want a story about the end of the world? Several years ago, Jim told me that re-prints of that story have continued to make money for him. I still love to read it out loud to people.

Another story I love is Robert Weston’s “Mourning Sickness”, a work of magic realism where your grief over the death of a friend or relative is visible in the form of an avatar that increases in size according to the depth of your true feelings for the deceased.

Spec Can: OnSpec has done a great job in recent years of featuring stories about people who are under-represented in other Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror literature. What are some of the things that have inspired the editors to make sure that the magazine is more inclusive?

Diane Walton: It may be simply that we go for stories where the protagonist is facing more interesting and honest challenges than your average young healthy white male protagonist might face. We are all very sensitive to the “isms”—racism, sexism, age-ism, able-ism and the like. We definitely look for honesty in the works we buy, but at the same time, I don’t believe any of us is pushing any sort of agenda. (We have been accused of single-handedly preventing the advancement of the entire genre because we’re all prudes, but that’s another story.)

For us, it is all about the storytelling, and the multi-faceted characters who drive the stories. Diversity is sometimes just a bonus that comes with a well-crafted story of the fantastic that doesn’t necessarily rely on the tried and true tropes of the genre.

For example, when we started reading stories for the Apocalypse themed issue, we were all at a retreat together. And so we all got to see each editor’s immediate reaction to reading Camille Alexa’s “All Them Pretty Babies” , a story that examines the nature of what is beautiful. It was one of those moments when we all just knew we had a winner.

Spec Can: Short stories are often viewed as lesser media in our current publishing climate. People seem to look at short stories as stepping stones to the “real” literature of the novel. What are some of the great things that short stories can do differently than novels?

Diane Walton: I know that some writers depend on their published short fiction to open doors and get them on the radar of the book publishers like Edge and Tor, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One author even told me that was why they sent stories to On Spec—because our writers got noticed, and it opened doors when the novel manuscript was ready to submit.

Flattering, and yet kind of sad in some ways, because a talented short fiction writer will often concentrate on novels because that’s where they get noticed, and make some money. But the short story is such an elegant and challenging art form. A powerful short story can stay etched in your memory for decades after reading it. Harlan Ellison’s “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, for example. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a story that still can make me shiver. A short story needs to hit the ground running, and grab the reader’s attention without the “warm up act” that the first chapter of a novel can provide. A short story of any genre has to suspend a reader’s disbelief immediately, engage them with the character or characters, and make them WANT to know what is going to happen.

Spec Can: What is different about Canadian Fantastic fiction than American Fantastic fiction? What different themes, issues, and ideas tend to surface in the North?

Diane Walton: I am probably not the best person to ask this, partly because I don’t do a lot of reading for pleasure any more, and what I do read is extremely selective. I don’t pay attention to themes or issues. If anything, it is entirely possible that some influences from Canadian and British SF have made their way into the work of new American writers, as the genre becomes more and more global.

One the other hand, I bet more Canadian fiction has a stronger focus on something like a harsh winter and fighting the elements.

Spec Can: What are some things that readers and fans can be doing to encourage more reading of Canadian fiction and to support our own literary community?

Diane Walton: There is lots of information available online these days, and it’s ridiculously simple to Google phrases like “Canadian science fiction writer” and “Canadian science fiction magazine”. In fact I just did that, and the first thing was a Wikipedia list of Canadian SF writers, followed by a listing for Robert J Sawyer, and then followed by SF Canada, the professional organization that I’ve recently been elected Secretary-Treasurer of. Then the Aurora Awards are mentioned. Then the Sunburst Award. All very good sources of great books and authors a Canadian fan should get to know.

Spec Can: What would you like to see more of in Canadian SF fiction?

Diane Walton: I’d like to see less snobbery from the gatekeepers of the literary “establishment”, and then maybe top-notch authors like Guy Gavriel Kay would be on the short lists for mainstream prizes like the Giller and the GG where they deserve to be.

Spec Can: To finish our interview, what can readers do to find out more about your own work and about OnSpec magazine?

Diane Walton: Well, we do make a free sample available to download from our website www.onspec.ca , and the magazine is also ridiculously simple to buy in digital format from Weightless Books. https://weightlessbooks.com/format/on-spec-magazine-1-year-subscription-4-issues/  And of course we sell print subscriptions.

There aren’t many back issues of On Spec still available, but you can read some memorable stories from our early days, in On Spec:The First Five Years, still available from Edge Publishing. (That’s where you’d find “Muffin”) And this summer, our 25 year retrospective, Casserole Diplomacy and other Stories, will be published by our friends at Tyche Books. (“Mourning Sickness” is in that book, as well as other personal favourites.)

We’d like to think that once a reader has seen what we have to offer, they’ll be happy to keep us in the business of providing good reading for a while longer. We depend on word of mouth because our funding doesn’t give us enough to advertise, and so every new subscriber is gold for us. And while I have your readers’ attention, might I add that we are looking for sponsors and new sources of funding, so donations are always welcome.

To conclude, I wanted to add a quote: “A short story…can be held in the mind all in one piece. It’s less like a building than a fiendish device. Every bit of it must be cunningly made and crafted to fit together perfectly and without waste so it can perform its task with absolute precision. That purpose might be to move the reader to tears or wonder, to awaken the conscience, to console, to gladden, or to enlighten. But each short story has one chief purpose, and every sentence, phrase, and word is crafted to achieve that end. The ideal short story is like a knife–strongly made, well balanced, and with an absolute minimum of moving parts.” – Michael Swanwick

Thanks for this opportunity!

I want to thank Diane Walton for all of her insights and for taking the time to talk a little bit about Canadian short fiction and the nature of running a speculative magazine.