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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A Mosaic of Stories

A review of Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson’s Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast (Edge 2013)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

It is very exciting to see one of the prestigious Tesseracts books sharing a name with this website. I was quite honoured to see that they had chosen a name that matched the name I created for my website. Tesseracts has been a Canadian SF institution since Judith Merril edited the first collection in 1985, recognising that there was a need for a Canadian collection of SF and that there was something distinct about Canadian spec fic that could only come out by bringing works of Canadian SF together in a collection instead of the random inclusions of Canadian SF in American and British anthologies.

Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast is an exciting addition to this historic institution and rather than focusing on a single theme or idea, this collection sought to bring together Canadians from around Canada in order to capture some of the distinct flavours of Canadian SF from our diverse regions. Canada is a huge country and this collection was a huge endeavor. While reading this collection, I found myself flipping back to the author descriptions to constantly find out where authors were from to get a sense of that regional flavour, an idea of whether Canadian SF ‘tastes’ differently in different parts of our country. Tesseracts Seventeen provided a chance to travel across this country, but also into the minds of Canadians: their visions of the future, their travels across the universe, and their ventures into the unknown. Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson were able to capture a tiny bit of Canadian diversity, a few wondrous tiles of the mosaic of thoughts and perspectives that creates the overall picture of Canada.

The tales in this collection bring together ideas about family, memory, privacy, religious fanaticism, dreams, isolation, the history of residential schools, aging, stigma and identity, issues of conformity, poverty and the exploitation of workers, … namely, issues relevant to Canada today and our constant pondering of Northrop Frye’s question “where is here?”, speculating about what Canada is and how to define our identity. Despite most stories being set in the future, on other worlds, in other realities, Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast speaks very much to Canadian realities, questions of today, and issues relevant to this world.

From a church devoted to Star Trek’s Spock to imaginary friends to ageing ghosts to sacred kitchen recipes to a galactic civilization that forces conformity to living graffeti … this is a book of Canadian magic, a passport to the Canadian beyond.

You can read reviews of individual short stories on this site at:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/19/life-drained-by-residential-schools/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/15/haunting-disability/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/chilly-renewal/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/cityscapes/

You can explore Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast at Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess0/about-tesseracts.html

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 5: Disability in Canadian SF

How many spaceships are wheelchair accessible? Do office buildings create light shielding for the undead who might be singed by solar exposure? Can my guide dog be a werewolf? Does one need to simply WALK into Mordor… or can one wheel in instead? SF has an interest in the body, whether it is the augmented body of sci fi, the body horror of the gothic, or the magically altered body of fantasy, and it is worth looking at the way disabilities are portrayed in Canadian SF.

Speculative fiction often explores the figure of the outsider, particularly the body that differs from the norm, and people with disabilities are often the subject of interest by SF authors. SF readings of the disabled body often speak to the way that disabled people are ‘read’ in our world and our time. This episode examines the interest in bodily difference and in treatments of the disabled body that can be either empowering or intensely problematic.

Among the positive portrayals of disability in Canadian SF that are discussed, we take a look at

Tanya Huff’s Blood Books

James Alan Gardner’s Expendable

Leah Bobet’s Above

Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy

and

Sparkle Hayter’s Naked Brunch

Click on the icon below to hear the full radio programme.

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.

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 Alison Sinclair

An interview with Alison Sinclair by Derek Newman-Stille

I consider myself very fortunate to have both done research on Alison Sinclair’s work, publishing a paper on the representation of disability in her Darkborn series and now to have had a chance to speak with her directly about her work and share her insights here on Speculating Canada. I hope that you enjoy this opportunity to delve into her creative process and to explore the power that good SF has to question the status quo.legacies_cover_h200

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

Alison Sinclair: I was born in the UK, but after that if you ask me where I come from you get an itinerary. Went pretty much from the cradle to science, was a bench scientist for a number of years, gave up the bench for medicine, then medicine for clinical research. Currently I work in health technology assessment. Wrote almost from the time I could put sentences together – got my first rejection when I was nine, having sent my first ‘novel’ to a New York publisher. I wish I still had that letter, or the opus itself, for that matter, but it got lost in one of our moves (there’s always that one box). It only took me twenty-five years to get published, which was Legacies, followed by Blueheart and Cavalcade. Followed by moves and market shifts, which led to a publishing gap until Darkborn, though two of the novels I wrote during the gap are now coming out from Bundoran Press.

Spec Can: What are some of the questions you hope that your speculative fiction writing will evoke?

Alison Sinclair: I have to admit I don’t think about audience while I’m writing. Part of it is that it’s such a challenge to make coherent such a complex structure as a story to myself, never mind anyone else. I’ve made people laugh by complaining that I’m not a verbal writer, but it’s true: once a piece of writing is advanced, I get characters speaking in my head – sometimes they won’t be quiet – but what I’m trying to capture in words is something best described as a shape and a tone, a set of tensions and balances, something entirely non verbal.

And to be honest, thinking about audience means that I run the risk of the inner censor being activated, and my inner censor is scary.

Spec Can: In what ways does your interest in science and medicine complement your interest in writing Speculative Fiction?

Alison Sinclair: The two of them grew up together, side by side. Science fiction gave me ideas (realistic or otherwise) of what being a scientist was and was like, long before I met my first working scientist, never mind set foot in a lab. (I’m afraid my CV might be best explained by my having seen the job I wanted at the age of nine and refusing to accept I’d been born 300 years too soon to become the science officer on a starship.) Fantasy – particularly portal fantasy – appealed to the explorer in me. Once I started writing science fiction, I could start building the science I knew into the stories. At the time I wanted to be a geologist, so I built from the geology up.

Spec Can: One of the things I really enjoy about your Darkborn Trilogy is that you illustrate the fact that if half of our society were blind, we would have to accommodate blindness. It is only because the blind population is smaller that we are able to ignore them. In what ways do you hope that your work will question the social construction of disability and help readers to ask why we aren’t accommodating blindness and other disabilities?

Alison Sinclair: One of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me is trying to shift reference frames, whether it’s an individual character or a whole society. I want, as much I can, to capture the sense that people have that their way of living is the normal way to do it. I want the alternate frame to be completely convincing: of course that’s the way it is. The influence of too much physics, I suspect, when one way of simplifying the equation to the point you could get on with solving it is find a suitable reference frame!

Spec Can: What inspired you to examine the topic of blindness and disability in the Darkborn Trilogy?

Cover photo of Alison Sinclair's "Darkborn" courtesy of http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/

Cover photo of Alison Sinclair’s “Darkborn” courtesy of http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/

Alison Sinclair: I got the seeds for the Darkborn/Lightborn division while I was reading a fantasy novel where the whole light/dark imagery and good/evil division was overt. So the two seeds were making the division literal, and making the ‘dark’ side the heroes. Since the Darkborn were nocturnal, vision didn’t seem useful to them – although having grown up in the UK, I did allow them fire. (Barbara Hambly can have her characters shiver through entire novels, but I’ve shivered through enough winters without wanting to relive it.) Then I tried to work myself into Darkborn perspective where blindness was their norm. However, I knew that many successful nocturnal species had specific adaptations to let them function in poor light or darkness – exceptional low light vision, sonar (bats), electroreception (fish in murky waters). Hence, the Darkborn got sonn, although I took considerable liberties with its original model.

Spec Can: What were some of the challenges that came up when you were creating a world where half of the population was blind? How were you able to explore this notion? What sort of world-building techniques did you use? 

Alison Sinclair: To the Darkborn, their limits are problems to be solved by technology and social organization. I wrote them as highly inventive and willing to take considerable risks to extend their reach. Hence, distance travel by train, which does not require steering, and the use of a system of bells for inshore navigation—though having kayaked in fog, I share Telmaine’s opinion of Darkborn in boats. Since they own their world, and are technologically more advanced than the Lightborn, they can engineer it according to their needs. The most challenging aspect of their lives is not directly that they are blind but that direct sunlight is lethal to them; sonn is no protection there. They have very accurate clocks and a complex system of social, legal and technological responses to that danger that have developed over centuries, and that they now take for granted.

When I was writing from the point of view of Darkborn, I found I had to explore a different vocabulary, one of shapes and textures. I have a fairly good spatial sense, so I was able to imagine myself into the spaces my characters were moving around in, and write from that perspective. When writing interactions between characters, I had to lose the language of eye contact, and to a certain extent, facial expression. Passive observation is difficult for Darkborn – it can be done, but it’s a skill – and most Darkborn have to use sonn, so that the object of their observation is aware of them. Sneaking around is difficult, too, as I found when Ishmael was trying to get to speak to Tercelle.

Spec Can: In the Darkborn Trilogy, you explore the topic of stigma, particularly the stigma attached to being able to perform magic. What inspired your interest in stigma? Was there a particular social stigma that informed your perspective on stigma?

Alison Sinclair: I suspect I came to use stigma for a number of reasons – it’s dramatically useful, because it imposes constraints on power, breeds conflict and jeopardy and ensures characters with gifts don’t have too easy a time of it. I suspect it’s also because my background is Scots Presbyterian, with an ingrained assumption everything in life must be paid for, usually in suffering.

Since with the Darkborn I was drawing in broad strokes from the Victorians, I included their emphasis on propriety and social order. Everything about magic threatens that social order – it is unregulated power, independent of wealth, social class, or gender. Very awkwardly, mages crop up in the best of families, and even weak magic, like Ish’s, reveals what lies underneath the social facade. Stronger mages can use their magic to coerce others into acting contrary to their wishes and interests – which is where they find an enemy in the otherwise fair Archduke. The usual forms of might and authority cannot defend against it. Mages like the Broomes’ commune have been partially protected by polite society’s choosing to ignore their existence, a tacit agreement that if they don’t trespass or threaten the power structure, they’ll be let alone – And stigmatized groups, as we know from history, have many uses to the larger society. By the end of Shadowborn, of course, that compact is thoroughly broken. One of these years, I’ll have to write the fallout on both sides of the Shadowborn insurrection. What I need to do is think about the plot, beyond and then there were consequences.

Spec Can: Gender features strongly as a topic in your work, particularly the relationship between women and men and the roles that society forces on them. What inspired you to explore gender and why is it so significant in your work?

Alison Sinclair: In my three earlier SF novels, and in my earlier writing life generally, my attitude was best summarized as, ‘I moved here to get away from all that.’ As a reader, I enjoyed the exploration of gender roles, even grim ones, like Charnas’ A Walk to the End of the World – I went straight from Wyndham, Clarke and Asimov to the social and feminist SF of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – but I lived with it in every day life and had no desire to live with it in my novels. When I made up my own worlds, I could make them ones in which the principle of equality was non-negotiable. And then along came the Darkborn. I suspect it betrays my underlying attitudes and assumptions about fantasy, that one cannot escape the historical models. For the Darkborn, property, propriety and inheritance are paramount, and at least at the top of society, they have strict ideas of male and female roles and responsibilities. Rather than going the route of having a woman who rebels, I made Telmaine one who would not have questioned her place (which is, after all, near the top of the social pecking order), except that she has magic, and it forces her to an awareness and a series of choices she would not otherwise willingly make.

Spec Can: What can fantasy and science fiction novels do to bring attention to social issues and critique the status quos that we perpetuate in our society?

Alison Sinclair: My personal view is that the role of science fiction and fantasy is less to critique the status quo than to explore the alternatives, both desirable and undesirable. Critiquing implies accepting the constraints of the present day. For that, there is mainstream literature, which has a superb tradition of it (though I have the sense that the novel as social critique has fallen out of favour in mainstream literature. Maybe SF/F is being asked to make up the deficit …). In SF any and all givens are up for change, provided the writer can make a story out of it. And even if fantasy looks to historical models, those cover several millennia of human experience in finding solutions to the problem of how to get along with each other (or not), and building families, societies, civilizations and great works of art or atrocity.

I also think the exploration of alternatives is particularly important, given its appeal to young adults, who are still developing the intellectual tools for critique, but who respond strongly to the aspirational aspect. You can see that in the number of people who work in space exploration, or in science in general, who trace the origin of their ambitions to Star Trek or early SF, and by readers’ responses to Jo Walton’s Among Others, in which the protagonist envisions and constructs a different life for herself through reading, primarily of SF.

Spec Can: Is there something particularly Canadian about the way that you explore identity in your work? What aspects of your Canadian identity do you see showing up in your writing?

Cover photo of Alison Sinclair's Lightborn courtesy of http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/

Cover photo of Alison Sinclair’s Lightborn courtesy of http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/

Alison Sinclair: The experience that shows up most persistently in my work is of being an immigrant. Mine’s a more subtle dislocation than most, since I was not crossing boundaries of race, language, or religion, but there were distinct differences in social norms and expectations. I entered Canadian society at an age when I was just learning the customs of the world outside my family, and re-entered it in my teens, when I was starting to learn to negotiate the adult world. I came from a society where accent and vocabulary were basic markers of origin and class, which more than anything else determined inclusion/exclusion. As a newcomer to Canada, I had an accent that set me apart, and a different vocabulary. As a small, memorable example, I spent my first morning at a new school in near agony because I did not know the proper way to ask to be excused to go to the washroom – and at eight, that could make or break you socially. Words had different meanings, the tiny taboos of school society were different – though the punishments for breaking them were as cruel – boundaries were different, manners were different … The paradigm Sinclair character is the one who has started in one place and ended up in another, and who lives with the perpetual unease of having come from somewhere else, if he or she is not actually caught between two worlds. That’s Lian in Legacies, Rache in Blueheart, everybody in Cavalcade, Erien in Throne Price, Ish and to a lesser extent, Balthasar in the Darkborn novels, and Teo in my upcoming novel, Breakpoint: Nereis.

Spec Can: What is the appeal of magic? Why do you think readers keep being fascinated by the idea of magic?

Alison Sinclair: Well, there is the pure power fantasy, but I think there’s also the fascination with the idea of working one’s will on the real world, of escaping physical boundaries. And for the imagination, there’s the opportunity to come up with an entire magical system, all its rules, properties and symbols, from scratch, and be able to unify it thematically with the rest of the book. How often do SF writers get to rewrite the rules of the universe to suit themselves? I admit I spent a certain amount of time staggering around punch-drunk with I can do anything, before writerly discipline set in and I had to start thinking about logic and consequences.

I want to thank Alison Sinclair for this fantastic interview and for all of her insights, as well as for writing enlightening fiction that questions social norms. You can explore her work at http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/ .

 

Upcoming interview with Alison Sinclair on Friday February 21st

Scientist involved in medical research and Science Fiction and Fantasy author, Alison Sinclair is an author with diverse interests. I was lucky enough to encounter her work when it was recommended to me by a colleague, Cathy Schoel, because of my research on disability in Canadian Speculative Fiction. Sinclair’s Darkborn series features a world where half of the population is blind, and as someone who is interested in representations of disability, I found this absolutely fascinating. She was able to challenge a lot of the assumptions about disability in our world, posing questions to readers about the treatment of people with disabilities. I consider myself very fortunate to have now had the opportunity to talk to Alison Sinclair after looking at her work through a disability studies lens.

In our  upcoming interview on Friday February 21st, Alison Sinclair talks about silencing the inner censor that can prevent creative explorations, the relationship between science and science fiction, the power of good fiction to alter people’s assumptions and frame of reference, developing a complete fantasy world by exploring a different environment and different people’s norms, effectively writing a blind culture and considering the social relationships of disability, the dramatic and character development potential inherent in stigma, and the uses and abuses of stigmatised people by those in control. Sinclair discusses the power of Speculative Fiction to question taken for granted social norms and propose alternatives to the way we view the work.

Cover photo of Alison Sinclair's "Darkborn" courtesy of http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/

Cover photo of Alison Sinclair’s “Darkborn” courtesy of http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Alison Sinclair: “I’m afraid my CV might be best explained by my having seen the job I wanted at the age of nine and refusing to accept I’d been born 300 years too soon to become the science officer on a starship.”

Alison Sinclair: “Once I started writing science fiction, I could start building the science I knew into the stories.”

Alison Sinclair: “One of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me is trying to shift reference frames, whether it’s an individual character or a whole society. I want, as much I can, to capture the sense that people have that their way of living is the normal way to do it.”

Alison Sinclair: “I suspect I came to use stigma for a number of reasons – it’s dramatically useful, because it imposes constraints on power, breeds conflict and jeopardy and ensures characters with gifts don’t have too easy a time of it.”

Alison Sinclair: “When I made up my own worlds, I could make them ones in which the principle of equality was non-negotiable.”

Alison Sinclair: “My personal view is that the role of science fiction and fantasy is less to critique the status quo than to explore the alternatives, both desirable and undesirable.”

Alison Sinclair: “In SF any and all givens are up for change, provided the writer can make a story out of it.”

Alison Sinclair: “The experience that shows up most persistently in my work is of being an immigrant. Mine’s a more subtle dislocation than most, since I was not crossing boundaries of race, language, or religion, but there were distinct differences in social norms and expectations.”

Alison Sinclair: “The paradigm Sinclair character is the one who has started in one place and ended up in another, and who lives with the perpetual unease of having come from somewhere else, if he or she is not actually caught between two worlds.”

I hope that you enjoy our upcoming interview and all of the questions that Sinclair raises about the relationship between speculative fiction and society.

If you have not had a chance to read Alison Sinclair’s work yet, you can explore her website at http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/ .

You can check out a review of her novel Darkborn at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/blind-magic/

Interview with Lydia Peever

An interview with Lydia Peever
By Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo of Lydia Peever

Author photo of Lydia Peever

I recently had the opportunity to hear Lydia Peever speak at Ottawa’s author reading event “A Midsummer Night’s Scream” hosted by Postscripts to Darkness, and the passion in her voice and her ability to bring critical attention to issues that are often ignored by society prompted me to ask her to do an interview here on Speculating Canada.

Lydia Peever is the author of the novel Nightface and the collection Pray Lied Eve. She is also a photographer and web designer with a particular interest in photographing road kill. You can find out more about Ms. Peever and her work at  http://nightface.ca.

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

Lydia Peever: Sure. I grew up in Northern Ontario. At one point I would be best described as an artsy yet anti-social high-school dropout that messed up at college too. My focus has been split between writing and photography since I was at least ten years old, so art always seemed more important than school. Over the last five years, I became serious about my career as a writer, published, and moved to Ottawa to obtain my diploma in Journalism with honours from Algonquin College. I try to balance the amount of fiction and non-fiction I write since I enjoy both, but right now fiction is winning.

Spec Can: Is there a sense of community among Ottawa authors? What is it like?

Lydia Peever: Yes, but from where I sit it appears fractured. There are very active open groups for general fiction, genre-specific writing circles, and a few seemingly impenetrable covens. It really depends on what you look to get from this ‘community’ as a writer. We have The Writers Festival, which is very rich in content though very narrow in scope. The independent bookstores are amazingly supportive of local authors, though as anyone knows they have their own trouble and seem to be an endangered species. Horror and dark fantasy authors, being the least social creatures in this genus, are harder to find. We seem to be slowly coagulating due to the efforts of Ottawa Horror profiling authors, Postscripts to Darkness publishing many of us and holding events, and the Chiaroscuro Reading Series which launched in Ottawa this year.

Spec Can: Is there a distinctive “Ottawa style” of writing? What do many Ottawa-based authors have in common and what connects them?

Lydia Peever: I would have to say no. Each author brings their own style of writing for certain. Regardless of genre, demographic or particular biography, Ottawa authors could be from anywhere in the world. Like any author anywhere in the world, we sometimes write what we know so stories can be set within the city or fashioned out of a similar looking lump of clay. That isn’t really peculiar to Ottawa authors though. When I talk to authors on behalf of Ottawa Horror, I ask similar questions and get very different answers.

Spec Can: Is there a distinctive Canadian style of horror? What is different or unique about it?

Lydia Peever: Somewhat. I have tried over the last two decades to read as much Canadian horror as I can. For a time I was seeking Canadian female horror authors. There are not many to choose from! I stand to be corrected, but I find we are far less brutal than our fellow North American or British counterparts. I can’t name a Canadian splatter-punk hero nor can I name a Canadian horror author that is a household name here and abroad. We have carved a niche in cinema – a quiet subtle brooding horror – but not yet in print.

Spec Can: Several of your short stories deal with the topic of drug addiction. What inspired you to write about drug addiction?

Lydia Peever: Drugs are mentioned here and there in my stories as a colour to paint a character with. Usually a dark colour as drug abuse is basically a dark thing. In Crocodile Rot, where the sun shines bright on intravenous drug use, I talk about it like it’s happening on our front porch, because it probably is regardless of where you live. Many authors tend to draw as much on life experience as they do on what they see or imagine others experiencing around them. I have seen a lot of drug abuse around me in high school and beyond, sometimes with scarring or deadly affects. My long-term ex was a hard drug user and eventually succumbed to an overdose. Several people I know have entered a methadone management program, and a few have successfully stopped taking drugs. A lot of people I know will never stop. I can’t turn a blind eye to the dark alleys around me since I’ve walked down them. People I knew since childhood have walked down them. I’ve lost people down dark alleys. Stigma and fear surrounding drug abuse and its affects are far more damaging than communication, education and true understanding. I write just as often about mental health issues, which I know just as well and can at times be related.

Spec Can: What can horror and Weird fiction authors be doing to bring social issues and critiques to the attention of their audiences?

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Lydia Peever: Write. It is all we can do, right? If it moves you, it will move your readers. I learned that emulating authors like V. C. Andrews and Stephen King when I was young. Both tend to write very strongly when they had a message about women’s issues (no matter if it were presented inside-out) which is not my forte, but it is how I learned that concept. It is deeper than ‘write what you know’. Much deeper. If you write about the things happening around you that really shake you to your foundations – the stuff that gives you real nightmares that aren’t fuelled by the last movie you watched – people will tune into that. If you have a history with a social issue be it addiction, debt, domestic crisis, sexual conflict, mental health; write about it. Never be afraid to write about what shakes you up, breaks your heart, or makes you scream. If you are afraid to come clean with your own experience, at least fictionalize it or choose a good pen name. Don’t keep that precious dark ink bottled up.

Spec Can: How can horror “teach”? How does it cause audiences to shift their perspective and question things?

Lydia Peever: Any form of instruction starts with a nice theory primer conducted at arm’s length. Horror is kind of like that. You may not have experience with the specific terror or the ‘other’ found in the story, but it explains itself neatly and from a safe distance. You can inspect so many otherwise inaccessible worlds this way. Death, science, religion; and many other things you may otherwise avoid or be loath to discuss with those around you. As with other fiction, there are entire worlds in each book that are based on our own, to one extent or another. The avenues for real world extra-curricular research are unending if you are truly engaged and inspired by what you are reading. Many of my hobbies and much of my non-fiction reading has been initiated by horror I have read.

Spec Can: In what way can horror be an empowering genre for women? How can horror novels/short stories/movies be feminist texts?

Lydia Peever: Think critically when watching. Apply gender issue thinking to what you read and see. This applies to all media, really. The experts on horror and the feminine are now luckily found within universities. Through Ottawa Horror, I was able to attend portions of the Monstrous Feminine course taught by Aalya Ahmad at Carleton University on feminist literature and film. My close friend and colleague Amy Jane Vosper has recently completed her thesis on horror and the feminine. I’m no feminist, myself, so am perhaps the worst authority. As a teen I did struggle with the idea for a while. In the 90s, it seemed there were very few strong women portrayed in horror. It was slim picking, so I identified with Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor even though she had weaknesses I still can’t identify with. Currently, you can’t turn your head without Eskimo kissing a Sarah Connor type in one form or another. Strong women are everywhere, but not without their weaknesses or flaws. I am always on the lookout for realistic females. Being a very independent and childless single girl, I tend to discard the plot device of women as a ‘vehicle for a child-bearing uterus’ which sadly, nearly every story boils down to.  On the other hand, you have ‘jaded harpy’ which is another trope that needs to be discarded. It depends on what kind of women you are. In the last decade, you have a better chance of finding strong women in horror dealing with unimaginable strife but you may have to juxtapose a few of them if you are looking for an ideal archetype.

Spec Can: Do you find that your photography work complements your writing? In what ways can your photography inspire your written work and in what ways does your written work bring your attention and interest to various images?

Lydia Peever: I do. Even if not directly or for the public to parallel. From snapshots of flowers or carefully composed landscapes, I photograph a lot of things that tell a story to me and myself alone. I like to capture desolation or loneliness in many of the photos I take that no one will ever see. Even when doing portraits, I end up taking a few candid shots with pensive, lost or thoughtful looks. Then, you have my fetish, gore and band photos. Those likely complement my writing in the most obvious way. Images of one tied to a St. Andrews Cross or doused with blood on stage come easy to me since I’m not offended by the nature of the concept. Same with images of graveyards and road kill, though those are a neatly captive subject less likely to move into bad lighting or blink.

Spec Can: Your work is often very close to reality, with small deviations into the Weird or horrific. What inspires you to slightly “Weird” reality, while still sticking close to the believable world?

Cover photo of Nightface courtesy of Lydia Peever (artwork designed by Lydia Peever, herself)

Cover photo of Nightface courtesy of Lydia Peever (artwork designed by Lydia Peever, herself)

Lydia Peever: The world is really very weird, if you pay attention. It is all in how you describe it. A psychotic carnival trailer murder scene at midnight can be a very unrealistic and scary place if you zoom in on a scene like that in fiction. Then, if you zoom out and tell the story from the beginning it is all very cozy. The city it is in, the people that are there, the words you hear and events of the evening could be anywhere and lead up to anything. A trip to the dentist can be as fraught with weird as the trip to that carnival trailer after dark. I like living in a world like that, so I pay attention to the weird. Also, having the dark and odd interests I’ve always had, or having come face to face with strife the average person does not usually have to see without the ability to live in La-La Land, I marry the two on a day-to-day basis. It’s how I think, so I guess it is also how I write.

Spec Can: In what ways can horror be a social activist medium?

Lydia Peever: In the same way that you can bring issues that are important to you or the inverse of being able to learn from horror. Infuse what moves you into a story. Let a story sprout from blood spilled in real life. Let those you know or who have passed transmogrify into beast or angels. Write it all down. Sometimes the message is very clear and your story does the heavy lifting for you. Sometimes it’s all very cryptic and subtle. In that case you can dust off your soapbox and append an intro to your story or present it within a themed anthology. There are more and more of these in submission calls every year. You can tour your book to various media outlets and talk about the underlying issue as opposed to talking about your plot. Talking about what drove you to write it and what you learned through that journey or afterward. Talking to readers is another way. They tell you something about your work that you didn’t even see.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to this interview?

Lydia Peever: Yes, a huge ‘thank you’ for enjoying the reading at Black Squirrel Books and for taking the time to chat! Support for artists and authors is just as important to me as getting all my thoughts on paper. Buying books, music and art is one thing, but talking to and about the people that are doing amazing work is just as important. Not everyone can support art with their wallet, and not everyone can make it to every event. Interviews, profiles, reviews, blogs, discourse; it’s all part of supporting us who wring ink into the literary ocean. Thank you.

I want to thank Lydia Peever for this absolutely incredible and insightful interview. As someone who has taught courses about horror, I really appreciate her insights into the importance of horror for shining light on aspects of our society that we tend to stigmatise, repress, and ignore. This was a VERY inspiring interview. To find out more about Ms. Peever, visit her website at http://nightface.ca/portfolio/ .

Upcoming interview with Lydia Peever on Friday August 23

I had a great opportunity to talk to Lydia Peever after an author reading in Ottawa recently and knew I wanted to hear more about her insights, so I was pleased that she agreed to do an interview here. I was particularly excited that Ms. Peever brought attention to issues that are generally ignored or hidden in our society due to stigma like drug addiction and mental health issues. By bringing attention to things that people ignore, we can make positive changes. Lydia Peever reminds us that horror can shine a light on the areas of stigma that our society casts into the dark.

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Cover image from Pray Lied Eve courtesy of Lydia Peever

Check out our interview on Friday, August 23, where we discuss writing-group communities versus cliques, gender and horror writing, writing about addiction, bringing attention to mental health issues, the teaching power of horror, the need to express, the ability of horror to be empowering to women, the need to read and watch horror critically, the relationship between writing and other artistic expressions, the insights that come from talking to fans, the power of horror as a social activist text,

Lydia Peever: “The world is really very weird, if you pay attention.”

Lydia Peever: “If you write about the things happening around you that really shake you to your foundations – the stuff that gives you real nightmares that aren’t fuelled by the last movie you watched – people will tune into that. If you have a history with a social issue be it addiction, debt, domestic crisis, sexual conflict, mental health; write about it. Never be afraid to write about what shakes you up, breaks your heart, or makes you scream.”

Lydia Peever: “At one point I would be best described as an artsy yet anti-social high-school dropout that messed up at college too. My focus has been split between writing and photography since I was at least ten years old, so art always seemed more important than school.”

Lydia Peever: “Drugs are mentioned here and there in my stories as a colour to paint a character with. Usually a dark colour as drug abuse is basically a dark thing. In Crocodile Rot, where the sun shines bright on intravenous drug use, I talk about it like it’s happening on our front porch, because it probably is regardless of where you live.”

Lydia Peever: “I can’t turn a blind eye to the dark alleys around me since I’ve walked down them. People I knew since childhood have walked down them. I’ve lost people down dark alleys.”

Lydia Peever: “Stigma and fear surrounding drug abuse and its affects are far more damaging than communication, education and true understanding. I write just as often about mental health issues, which I know just as well and can at times be related.”

Lydia Peever: “You may not have experience with the specific terror or the ‘other’ found in the story, but it explains itself neatly and from a safe distance. You can inspect so many otherwise inaccessible worlds this way.”

Lydia Peever: “A trip to the dentist can be as fraught with weird as the trip to that carnival trailer after dark. I like living in a world like that, so I pay attention to the weird.”

Lydia Peever:  “Infuse what moves you into a story. Let a story sprout from blood spilled in real life. Let those you know or who have passed transmogrify into beast or angels.”

Check out our interview on Friday August 23, and let Lydia Peever remind you: “Don’t keep that precious dark ink bottled up.”