Secret Identities

Secret Identities

A review of James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded (Tor, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

James Alan Gardner’s They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, continues his exploration of the superhero. Gardner focusses his narrative on the perspective of another of his superheroes, Jools, whose superhero identity is 99, an homage to Wayne Gretzky. 99 has the ability to be the best in the world at any given profession and has access to all of the knowledge of wikipedia, which she calls her WikiJools ability. Yet Gardner’s heroes are never so simple, and Jools’ incredible ability also contains the potential for her to fall into the mad genius role.

In Gardner’s superhero universe, characters are constrained by story and by superhero tropes. The universe literally shapes people into comic book tropes. Gardner uses this method to examine tropes of superheroes and to complicate them, but, like in most of his narratives, Gardner is most interested in the power of story and the way that stories shape the characters and people that come into contact with them. In having his characters resist the roles their world tries to force on them, Gardner uses these characters to illustrate and complicate those tropes, playing with what it means to be a superhero, a supervillain… or someone who doesn’t want to be either. Characters recognize that certain things will work in their universe primarily because they make a good story.

As much as Gardner is fascinated by the mechanics of the superhero universe, his primary focus is on character and his characters are complex, often coming into conflict with what they think they should or shouldn’t be. Gardner has always been a strong writer of character-centred narratives, and the superhero narrative provides him with a space to examine characters because of the comic narrative of the secret and dual identity. Superheroes already have complicated engagements with identities and made the perfect space to explore the multiplicity of identities people express throughout the day. Jools, a character with self confidence issues, is able to further highlight character complexity as she searches for the real her, the TRUE identity. In They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded Jools not only takes on her role as the superhero 99, but also takes on another superhero identity, joining a second superhero group temporarily in order to ponder who she is. Not only does Jools’ identity change with her costumes, she also sees others who exemplify who she could be, watching heroes who are entirely hijacked by their superhero identity and losing themselves in them, and watching a mad scientist at work, exemplifying Jools’ greatest fear about her abilities. Indeed, one character tells her that being a Spark, a superhero, is like an infection and that it changes who one is and overrides their personality in order for them to fit the narrative.

Gardner tells a story of the struggle for identity amidst a changing world, examining the way that people shift and change for different needs. But on an authorial level, he also explores the struggle between character-driven narratives and world-building-focussed narratives. Not only is Gardner telling a powerful story, he is highlighting the nuances of story itself.

To discover more about James Alan Gardner, go to https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To find out more about They Promised Me The Ray Gun Wasn’t Loaded, go to https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765398789

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A review of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kai Cheng Thom decided to include the word “Memoir” in the title of her book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, yet she also cleverly weaves fantasy elements into her text, telling stories about the death of the last of the mermaids, the mythic First Femme, ghosts, and a magical Trans woman who casts spells on her sisters. She weaves fairy tales into her “memoir”, revealing the problems of Cinderella narratives for Trans women, discussing doctors who are so unlike fairy godmothers (always wanting something in return for their transformations), telling tales of goddesses, escapees from towers that trap them, and the magic of the everyday.

Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir is meant to complicate the idea of memoir itself, and especially the tropes of the “Trans Girl Memoir”, which is so often about a person discovering that they are Trans, leaving her home and ending up suffering on the street, becoming the victim of abuse. Thom’s Trans memoir is one filled with magic, but it is also about fighting back – about never being a victim and about coming together as a community to protect each other. Her tale evokes the magic of connections with other Femmes.

She tells her tale through prose and poetry, through letters and dramatic scripts, and through sharing the histories of other Trans women on the street (often narrated by someone else). Her narrator is someone who hungers for their stories like we do as the reader, but she also filters those stories through her own knowledge, her own craving for a place to belong and a people to belong with. Yet, despite her craving for belonging, we are told that the narrator is an escape artist, and, perhaps she even escapes from the text in a way, leaping from the simple veracity of the mundane world and into a space where fantasy is a more powerful truth than Truth.

This is not a Trans woman’s memoir. This is a story about stories… about our need for stories. Its a story about the fact that there are stories behind the stories that are told. It is a collection of myths from the street, urban myths. It is a collection of truths. Kai Cheng Thom complicates the idea of Truth in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, teaching us that some fictions speak greater truths than works that claim to be collections of truth. She teaches us that in the act of storytelling, we transform ourselves, and in the act of hearing, we create community. She shares her love of storytelling with us as readers, reminding us that the veracity of a story doesn’t matter so long as it shares and tells us truths about ourselves through the act of reading.

Kai Cheng Thom uses the word “Memoir” in her title to complicate memoirs – to illustrate to us that there are no simple truths and that truths are always shifting, changing, and transforming. She illustrates that life is a fantasy made up of our collective stories interweaving with each other and creating magic.

Thom’s narrator tells us “Someday, I’m going to gather up all of the stories in my head. All the things that happened to me and all the things I wish had happened. I’m going to write them all down one after the other, and I’ll publish a famous best-selling book and let history decide what’s real and what’s not.” This is a tale that invites the reader into the process of truth-making, using the term “memoir” to invite questions about what is true and to whom.

To discover more about Kai Cheng Thom, visit her website at https://kaichengthom.wordpress.com

To discover more about Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, visit https://metonymypress.com/product/fierce-femmes-notorious-liars-dangerous-trans-girls-confabulous-memoir/

The Teaching Rocks

The Teaching Rocks

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Petropaths” in Take Us To Your Chief (Douglas &McIntyre, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Petropaths” is a tale of the ongoing nature of colonial violence, centred on the exploration of the way that this continued assault has created a generation of indigenous youth who are, as he suggests “stuck between the past and the future”. He points out a need for youth to connect to their past and to create a future, something that colonialism has sought to deny indigenous peoples by erasing the past and presenting imagery of a white future. It is significant that Hayden Taylor uses science fiction as a genre of critique when exploring the issue of most science fictional texts presenting a very white future that portrays an absence of indigenous people. Hayden Taylor uses science fiction and a time-travel narrative to explore the idea of temporal uncertainty, but also calls attention to the problematic way that indigenous people are portrayed in most time travel narratives.

Hayden Taylor centralizes elders in “Petropaths”, pointing out their role in providing educational opportunities for youth that ground them in the ongoing practice of engaging with teachings. The narrator, an elder, explains to his grandson along with the other elders that “he need to know who he was, where he came from and what his path was”. Elders in this tale are situated not only as guardians of the past (as they are in many narratives that feature ageing), but also as guides to the future, having a role that subtends time.

“Petropaths” is a tale about petroglyphs, sacred carvings in rock, and Hayden Taylor situates these rocks as a text that extends through time, connecting the person exploring the texts to the past when they were created, to their presence now, and to the future they will survive into. Hayden Taylor is from Curve Lake First Nation whose territory extends to the petroglyphs frequently called the “Peterborough Petroglyphs”, and often acknowledged as “The Teaching Rocks” by Anishnaabe people. Teaching is central to this tale and the relationship between Hayden Taylor himself and “the teaching rocks” underscores the role of the petroglyphs in his story as storytellers and teachers themselves.

Hayden Taylor illustrates the role of conversation that the petrogyphs represent in his tale when he says “It took me a while to understand these were musings and dreams of our ancestors, the thoughts and history of our people carved into Mother Earth for us to see.” These are not static background images in his tale, but, rather, are centred and engaged in a conversation with the characters. He describes these stones as teaching “a lot more than one of those degrees at university”. These stones are not static, rather they “tell their own story their own way… like a whisper in the wind…. Like it was the Earth telling us a story… or, more accurately… like it was a song waiting to be sung”. The stones are not static background figures, but, rather they are storytellers and teachers, engaged in a process of conversation.

The imagery of stone is not isolated to the petrogyphs, but is also evident in the imagery that Duane’s grandfather ascribes to his dissociation from his emotions. He discusses “the wall he had spent years building, emotional brick by emotional brick”, paralleling and yet also contrasting the petroglyphs, which the story situates as a wall. Yet, although both are walls, the petroglyphs are a living, changing text that speaks and shifts for Duane, and may have the power to disrupt the static wall he has constructed for himself.

“Petropaths” is a story that acknowledges the importance of learning and, especially learning through storytelling. This learning is not individualistic, but, rather, it exists in conversation with petroglyphs, the land, animals, and community elders. It’s a story about taking the time to listen to others, but also to listen to oneself. This community of teachers engaging in storytelling is part of the process of beginning to heal Duane from the colonial violence that he has experienced. Storytelling is not just something that Duane hears, but, rather, Hayden Taylor has him engage in storytelling, adding his stories to others while also becoming part of the story. The past is not something fixed or static in Hayden Taylor’s tale, rather it is something that shifts and changes while bringing new voices into it. Duane’s time travel is part of this conversation with storytelling and his role in becoming part of the story. He is an active participation in the past and Hayden Taylor uses this active participation to illustrate that history is not passive, but, rather, that we are always in conversation with the past and the stories told about the past. As Duane says “History isn’t in books anymore. We can walk through it.”

To discover more about Take Us to Your Chief, visit http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com/books/take-us-to-your-chief/

To find out more about Drew Hayden Taylor, visit http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com

Truths in Fiction

Truths in FictionA review of Kate Story’s “Where Will The Seas Roll Up Their Thunder” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Where Will the Seas Roll Up Their Thunder”, Kate Story speaks through a voice that is underused in fiction in generally, and especially in monster stories – the voice of an older woman who lives in a long term care home. This woman is having a conversation with a student about a topic that is generally unrepresented in fiction featuring older adults – the future. Story still explores ideas of the past and nostalgia, which are firmly connected to the representation of older adults, but she connects these not to the woman’s age, but to her status as a Newfoundlander, interested in Newfoundland history.

Story captures the rambling quality of a good storyteller, willing to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas and willing to go into tangents and rants. She captures the magic of storytelling and links it to exploring the truth behind narratives. She interacts with key features of narrative like the feeling of being chosen (a theme that is over-represented in fantasy narratives) and the problematic quality of this theme and how it stems from a life that seeks significance when being underrepresented as a woman in canonical stories. Her unnamed older woman wants to have made an impact on the world around her, a significant change and not to be easily erased. She interacts with notions of truth and fiction and the assumption that older adults are indulging in fantasy if they mention the strange and unnatural rather than representing truths. Her narrator has access to truths that others ignore. She points out the interweaving of landscape and story by presenting her narrator uncovering truths located beneath the surface of the Newfoundland landscape and things hidden in plain sight.

Story blends science and fantasy in her narrative, giving a new origin story for the tales of dragons and connecting past and future in a cycle of death and rebirth. 

Story connects the skepticism of the student researcher to the possibility of truth in a narrative inside of what seems to be a folkloric story. She highlights the multiplicity of truths and points out that “truth” itself is a story, always subject to revisions and changes.

To discover more about Kate Story’s work, visit http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/

Radical Acts of Beauty

A review of Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2” (Edited by Hope Nicholson, Alternative History Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Daniel Heath Justice’s “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is a comic about resilience and transformation, highlighting the desire of a two-spirit boy to change the world around him through acts of beauty. Despite homophobia, environmental degradation, and all forms of hate against each other, Strange Boy seeks to heal others by bringing beauty into the world. Like many people who seek to bring healing and beauty into the world, especially if they are marginalized, Strange Boy experiences violence. He discovers that a lot of the violence from the people around him is an externalized form of self loathing, their hatred of themselves projected outward toward anything beautiful, anything that represents a reminder of joy that they can’t imagine themselves having.

“The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is an act of beauty in a harsh and close-minded world, it is Daniel Heath Justice’s act of transformative magic, sharing a story of transformation with a world that needs beauty. It is a tale that reminds us that no matter how much violence the world inflicts on us, we can speak back by bringing beauty into the world. Our acts of art can be transformative, remaking the world and opening up others to express their beauty. 

Beautifully illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, “The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds” is filled with images of movement and light. It is a comic that can show the interiors of bodies and make even our bleeding, organic insides things that can be filled with a certain magnificence and wonder. Alvitre is able to capture the etherial quality of hummingbirds, their darting magnificence.

The intwined arts of Daniel Heath Justice and Weshoyot Alvitre add to the message of the story, emphasising the focus of the story on collaborative arts and the ability of one form of art, one story, to resonate in another.

To discover more about Daniel Heath Justice, visit http://imagineotherwise.ca

To discover more about Weshoyot Alvitre, visit https://www.facebook.com/Weshoyot/

To find out more about Moonshot Vol 2, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1350078939/moonshot-the-indigenous-comics-collection-volume-2

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

Unsettled in Utopia

Unsettled in Utopia

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” (Warner, 2000).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” is a narrative about home, memory, and communication. The planet Toussaint is settled by Caribbean people from earth who honour their history through events like Carnival and who remember the history of slavery in their tales. The travel to Toussaint is celebrated as a different type of crossing – crossing the stars by choice instead of being forced to cross the ocean by slavery and the tales of the people of Toussaint explore the interconnections between these two types of travel that brought them to where they are now. Nalo Hopkinson explores the dangers of travel and the issues that travel creates regarding ideas of home and belonging. She intwines ideas of exile and colonialism, exploring the way that these ideas can intertwine – being removed from one place without choice and displacing people from another. The people of Toussaint send those they view as criminals through a gateway to another world called New Half-Way Tree where their exiled lives interfere with the indigenous population of the planet and displace them. Most of the exiles arrive onto New Half-Way Tree with an assumption that they are better than the indigenous inhabitants, treating them as people who are in the way at best or wanting to eliminate them. When Tan Tan arrives from Toussaint to New Half-Way Tree, she wants to treat the indigenous inhabitants of the planet with respect since Toussaint culture is focused on the idea that there should be no masters and everyone should be treated with respect. Yet, her attempts to interact with the indigenous population mark her as an outsider to both populations.

Although Hopkinson situates Toussaint as a Utopia in many ways, creating a society that is based on notions of equality, that is open to different types of relationships, and is a place where people are not subjected to back-breaking labour, she creatively questions the utopia she writes. In order to make way for the human inhabitants of Toussaint, the nanite system the planet uses eliminated indigenous fauna that it viewed as threats to the new inhabitants, causing mass extinctions. Although the nanite system allows people to communicate more readily and have access to information, it also interferes with ideas of privacy and everything on Toussaint is surveilled. Further, when the society views someone as subversive or dangerous, they are sent to New Half-Way Tree, where the egalitarian notions of Toussaint only apply to human beings, not the indigenous population, the Douen and the Hinte.

Hopkinson illustrates that the notion of home – especially the notion of home for people in exile – is always complicated.

Midnight Robber is a tale about tales, delving into the fuzzy border between reality and myth and the way that memory and who we are always becomes partially mythologized. TanTan becomes partially mythologized as stories about her circulate amongst the populations of New Half-Way Tree and she is integrated with the tale of the Midnight Robber. She hears tales about her that have been turned into myth and story and she both finds herself in these tales and simultaneously discovers that she is uncertain who she is. As people stop believing that she is real, something about her sense of selfhood is also made etherial and unclear. TanTan, like the community of New Half-Way Tree, is unsettled.

To discover more about Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at http://nalohopkinson.com.

To find out more about Midnight Robber, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/writing/fiction/books/midnight_robber