Timelines

Timelines
A review of Joanne Findon’s When Night Eats The Moon (Red Deer Press, 1999)By Derek Newman-Stille

Time travel is ultimately about responsibility – responsibility to the timeline, to the past, the present, and the future. Perhaps this is why it works so well for a Young Adult novel. In When Night Eats The Moon, Joanne Findon’s narrator, Holly, begins her voyage through time by idealising the past. She sees the past as an idealised place, separate from the issues of modernity and she wants to escape her personal circumstances (the tension between her parents and the shroud of secrets they have woven around her life) to find a reality that resonates with her desires. She has to cope with the clashing of fantasy and reality and the uncertain barrier between them. Rather than her fantasies being eclipsed by reality as occurs in so many coming-of-age narratives, Holly’s reality is expanded by the incorporation of the fantastic into her life and her fantasies are augmented by the infusion of the need for thinking about the real world impact of imagining.

Holly is placed on the edge of family secrets and forbidden knowledge beyond her understanding. Holly discovers a group of vessels filled with time that are able to transport her to the ancient past, letting her meet the builders of Stonehenge. During her voyage, she meets Evaken, a boy who has also discovered forbidden secrets in a Magician’s Apprentice narrative where he takes on magic for which he doesn’t yet have the wisdom to understand. This collision of times and secrets produces a space of healing, an integration of separate narratives, of stories divided by space and time. Holly is able to gain perspective on her own life when she encounters the violent collision of people in the past and is able to bring a perspective from the future to people in the past who need new tales to give them context on their complex world. 

Believing that she is powerless to change the world, Holly learns that she has the power to change the world. She has to come to terms with the responsibilities, challenges, and complexities of realising that she has meaning in her world and that her choices can alter the world. 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 48: A Discussion of the Work of Max Turner

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I interrogate the work of Max Turner, an author who explores the notion of the psychiatric institution through the perspective of a vampire. Turner sets his vampiric character in a former psychiatric institution in Peterborough Ontario called the Nicholls’ Ward. In this discussion of Max Turner’s work, I explore ideas of aging, coming-of-age narratives, expectations of young adult fiction, vampirism, assumptions about psychiatric institutions, and general ideas of home and belonging.

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

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

You can explore Max Turner’s work at http://maxturner.ca/

Psychiatric Vampirism

A review of Max Turner’s Night Runner (Harper Trophy Canada, 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I am excited to be able to talk about a book that deals with Peterborough, the town that I have come to call home. Max Turner’s Night Runner takes place in the Nicholls’ Ward in Peterborough, the city’s former psychiatric facility. The Nicholls’ Ward closed in 2010 due to issues of cost for repairs and updating of equipment and spaces and it was moved over into the main Peterborough Regional Health Centre building. Throughout the building’s history, it was at various times used as offices for the hospital, archives, a nursing residence, a meeting space, and a library. It was only in its final years that the building was switched to primarily a psychiatric facility. 

Max Turner’s Night Runner takes a novel approach to the teen vampire story by setting the vampire initially in a psychiatric facility. Zach Thomson grew up in the Nicholls Ward after his parents died when he was young. Night Runner takes place when Zach is 15 years old. His experience of youth hasn’t been the same as that of other kids – which is not surprising because children rarely grow up in psychiatric facilities. But his experience is different from that of other children for a variety of health related reasons outside of his mental health. He has an allergy to sunlight, he has a limited diet and is allergic to most foods, and he has bouts of anger and silences that can last for days. Zach has been recognized by his nurses as being in need of specilized medical care. Growing up in a psychiatric ward, Zach has never considered himself normal and he isn’t even certain what ‘normal’ for a teen should be. 

Max Turner creates a novel that questions ideas of normalcy and appropriateness by disrupting ideas of what can be considered normal. He challenges the behaviour of society in ostracizing certain people because of their difference. By situating Zach in a psychiatric institution, Turner questions ideas of family and the type of people that can make up family, extending the idea of belonging to a wider group of very different individuals. 

Night Runner, like many Young Adult tales, is a story about self discovery and the idea of developing a purpose. Zach believes that his life so far has been one of uncertainty and a lack of purpose because he has been in a psychiatric facility all of his life uncertain about what is “wrong” with him and waiting for a cure for his various allergies. 

Turner explores vampirisim as a blood-based pathogen, an infection, but one that radically changes the body, and one that can be spread through the bite. It is also an infection that generally comes with an end date – as every vampire eventually experiences Endpoint Psychosis, a psychiatric illness as they reach the end of their lives and therefore radically change. It is appropriate that a story that deals with the idea of Endpoint Psychosis begins in a psychiatric institution where the same issues of determining “capacity”, self control, and selfhood are diagnostic features both for the psychiatric nurses and for the vampire council who kills vampires they see as being dangerously out of control due to Endpoint Psychosis. In both areas it is up to others in positions of power to determine mental health and ability.

Night Runner, like vampirism itself, is about radical change, coping with different social and emotional pressures and the process of discovery. 

To discover more about the work of Max Turner, visit his website at http://maxturner.ca

To discover more about Night Runner, visit  http://us.macmillan.com/nightrunner/maxturner

 

Writing Girls

Writing Girls
by Derek Newman-Stille

I have been reading a lot of teen lit recently and thinking about the representation of girls in literature, particularly teen lit written by middle aged men. One of the things that I keep noticing is that the representation of girls is often continuing to be enmeshed in tropes and assumptions about girls rather than recognizing the complexities of the teen female experience. It amazes me how many middle aged people (and men in particular) tend to write out their assumptions about how their daughters think about the world.gender question

A lot of teen lit tends to very accurately capture the voice of a middle aged adult’s opinions about teens… and very little about the actual teen’s experience of the world or the things she would consider to be important or evocative. Far too often, I have encountered male authors writing girls either as “this is what I thought of girls in high school” or “these are how I think my daughters encounter the world around them.” I have seen this particularly in the “um-like-ya-know” voice that authors often ascribe to teens… which both represents the snippets of conversation that they think they are hearing and the little tidbits of memory that they have from when they were teens (abstracted by age and years away from the teen experience and therefore turned into trifles).

Teen girls are complete characters, not just tropes that reflect our own assumptions about them. They are complex, have diverse motivations… they are HUMAN. They are not symbols of a changing world, icons of the deterioration of responsibility, or catty voices of a generation in trouble. So, when we see things like the “ugh-I-wish-I-could-talk-on-the-phone-all-day” or the “gosh-its-great-to-have-no-responsibilities” voices, we should recognise that these are tokenising teen experience and embodying the voices of adults who are speaking from a position of privilege rather than encompassing teen experiences.

I have focused here on girls rather than boys because the representation of male teens doesn’t tend to have as many problems (though there are still issues with the portrayal of male teens as not-particularly-bookish and more-action-oriented, as well as being stuck in the trope of how-do-I-become-a-man… which often devalues the complexity of their experience and tends to encourage male readers to ignore any aspect of their personality that is not within society’s view of masculine), but girls are still written about as shallow, needy, and incomplete, particularly when they are written about by male authors who tend to make assumptions about what girls are thinking that are more based on their own sexist, ageist way of viewing the world than they are revelatory of the teen experience. This is frustrating both from a social justice perspective as well as from the perspective of a reader who likes characters who are not one-dimensional. When authors write teens that are merely icons of social assumptions about femininity and youth, the story suffers as much as society does from the misrepresentation of girls and the continuity of the oppression of the teen female voice.

Interview with Anna Frost

An interview with Anna Frost

Author image of Anna Frost.  Anna Notes: "This was taken in Nara, Japan, in 2008. Nara is a popular destination because of its numerous temples and its tame sika deer. They close in rather quickly when they figure out you’ve got deer crackers in hand! "

Author image of Anna Frost.
Anna Notes: “This was taken in Nara, Japan, in 2008. Nara is a popular destination because of its numerous temples and its tame sika deer. They close in rather quickly when they figure out you’ve got deer crackers in hand! “

By Derek Newman-Stille

Anna Frost is the author of The Fox’s Mask and The Fox’s Quest, both fantasy novels that are set in ancient Japan and feature Japanese mythical beings. As a Teen Fiction (YA) author, she pushes genre boundaries and brings in characters that question norms.

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

Anna Frost: I’m a French-Canadian girl with hermit tendencies and a fondness for World of Warcraft player vs player fights. My house is full of chinchillas and ferrets and therefore impossible to keep clean for longer than five minutes.

Spec Can: What inspired you to set your novel The Fox’s Mask, in Ancient Japan?

Anna Frost: I’ve been reading manga (Japanese graphic novels) and watching anime (Japanese animation) since high school. Add in a few years of Japanese language classes, a month-long trip to Japan, and a fascination with Japanese fox shifters (kitsune). That kind of prolonged exposure was bound to influence the ideas that pop out of my head.

Spec Can: Why do you think so many authors set their fantasy novels in a world that is reminiscent of the Western Middle Ages instead of places like Japan? Why do they seem disinclined to explore Japan as a site of fantasy?

Anna Frost: I think people are inclined to write what they know, or at least start there. Because North American writers have a general cultural awareness of what the Middle Ages were like, it’s a logical starting point for world building. It takes effort to use a different culture as the base and even more efforts to spin out a story that is respectful of the model culture. People may also be afraid they’ll make offensive mistakes. It’s certainly something I worry about, but I think it’s better to try and fail than not bother trying.

Spec Can: What fascinates you most about Japanese myth?

Anna Frost: Generally speaking, I love how different their mythology is. My favorite example is the contrast between the Japanese fox shifter and the European werewolf. The mythical werewolf has no depth: it’s a terrifying man-eating beast. The fox shifter, however, is not so limited. It can be malicious in its tricks, but it can also be benevolent. It can even be portrayed as a seducer of men.

Spec Can: What were some of the issues that came up as a non-Japanese Canadian writing about Japanese subject matter?

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Anna Frost: It’s frequent for me to have to do extra research to understand certain aspects or details of Japanese culture. Everything related to religion is especially tough, because not only do I lack any sort of personal experience with Buddhism and Shintoism, the way these two religions coexist in Japan seems unique. Today the Japanese do not seem to consider them separate at all. I’ll spare you the historical reasons for it, but it’s both extremely interesting and difficult for an outsider to grasp and portray properly.

Spec Can: What inspired you to make your kitsune characters capable of transsexual transformations?

Anna Frost: That part comes straight from Japanese mythology. A male fox can turn into a human woman as well as a female one can. It’s one big reason why I find the kitsune legends fascinating. 

Spec Can: When I was a teen, LGBTQ2 books were non-existent for teens. How is that changing now? Do you see there being more LGBTQ2 books for teens in the future?

Anna Frost: Author Malinda Lo recently compiled a graph that indicates that if you put all the main publishing houses together, LGBTQ books currently represent less than 1% of new YA books coming out every year. I’m sure this number will grow as society continues to shift in favor of equal rights.

Spec Can: Fantasy books tend to still be pretty heterosexist. What are some ways that authors can “queer” their fantasy books a bit more? How can authors bring more LGBTQ2 content into their novels and what are some of the challenges they may encounter?

Anna Frost: That’s a tough question because it would never occur to me NOT to have LGBTQ characters in my work. It’s simply part of my worldview. The best advice I can give is this: do your research, avoid stereotypes, and always remember that LGBTQ characters are no less human and complex than anybody else. They need motivations and goals unrelated to their sex life. My favorite fantasy books are the ones where being gay is roughly as strange as preferring white chocolate over milk/dark chocolate.

Spec Can: What are some of the things you hope your novels will do to inspire readers?

Anna Frost: I don’t have lofty aspirations. If the reader is entertained, I’m happy. If the reader has also learned something or been spurred to find out more about Japan, I’m extremely happy.

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

Cover photo courtesy of Anna Frost

Cover photo courtesy of Anna Frost

Anna Frost: I’d like to mention that Masque Books, a brand new imprint from Prime Books, will be publishing a new project of mine in the fall. I would call it a Japanese steampunk fantasy with a genderqueer main character. It’s got samurai on airships, giant sea serpents in the water, and steam mechas on the battlefield. The name is pending, but I’m sure it’ll be a fun one.

I want to thank Anna Frost for this fantastic interview and I encourage you to check out her novels at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=180 . I am pleased that she was willing to share so many insights and was willing to talk about how easy it is to include LGBTQ2 characters without those characters being entirely and exclusively defined by their sexuality.

Upcoming interview with Anna Frost on Monday July 8th

Anna Frost is a Teen Fiction (YA) author of novels set in ancient Japan. This Monday July 8th, check out our interview and discussion about writing Japanese culture as a French Canadian, why fantasy authors so often favour a Western Medieval world context for their novels, cultural awareness and the dangers of writing about a culture that is not one’s own, myth, writing queer/ LGBTQ characters, and exploring trans characters.

Here are a few teasers for our upcoming interview:

Anna Frost: “It takes effort to use a different culture as the base and even more efforts to spin out a story that is respectful of the model culture. People may also be afraid they’ll make offensive mistakes.”

Anna Frost: “LGBTQ books currently represent less than 1% of new YA books coming out every year. I’m sure this number will grow as society continues to shift in favor of equal rights. “

Anna Frost: “That’s a tough question because it would never occur to me NOT to have LGBTQ characters in my work. It’s simply part of my worldview.”

Anna Frost: “My favorite fantasy books are the ones where being gay is roughly as strange as preferring white chocolate over milk/dark chocolate.”

Check out our upcoming interview to see some of Anna Frost’s tips on how to avoid cultural and sexual stereotypes and create strong, realistic, deep characters. If you are not familiar with her work, you can explore my review of Anna Frost’s The Fox’s Mask at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/transformations/ , and you can explore her novels at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=180 .

TRANSformations

A review of Anna Frost’s The Fox’s Mask (Musa Publishing, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

It is refreshing to see a fantasy book that is set in Imperial Japan. So often, fantasy series are based on a Western Medieval archetype, inferring that this is the only forum for sword and sorcery. Anna Frost, although not Japanese herself, explores the imagery and richness of Japanese culture as a framework for her novel The Fox’s Mask. Populating her novel with Kitsune (fox spirits), healing spirits from springs, demons possessing humans, and dragons, it is clear why she chose an ancient Japanese setting for her fantasy series because it is so rich with mythical material for her to incorporate into this narrative. The framework of Shintoism works so well for explorations of the fantastic, having a general comfort with the notion that the natural world is populated not just with recognised animals, but also with a range of spiritual beings and manifestations.

Frost’s novel explores the relationship between duty and love (whether that be of a job or of a person), the social obligations that try to push people to accept familial responsibility over their own needs. Akakiba is a kitsune, able to transform from human form to fox form. He is a samurai, interested in protecting humanity from demons who would do them harm. He loves his job, and tolerates the humanity that he serves to protect… yet, his world is shaken when he is forced to take on a human apprentice, Yuki. Despite sharing years with his apprentice, he keeps secrets from him about his past, his family, and his kitsune nature. Despite his family wanting him to hold his first duty to them, he sees his primary duty as the protection of humanity, honouring his relationship to Yuki, and living the samurai lifestyle.

Yet, his choices have consequences. By not choosing to settle down and have a family of his own, he risks his clan, a people that are facing extinction as their numbers dwindle. Not only the foxes, but all spirits and otherworldly beings are beginning to dwindle, gradually disappearing from the world. The world is changing and Akakiba is faced with the notion that he may be contributing to that change by not taking a mate.

The Fox’s Mask is further enthralling because of its willingness to feature LGBT or queer characters. Characters are accepted in a large number of different relationships and love is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Because the foxes are able to change shape between human and fox and change sex between male and female, they are comfortable with ambiguities of gender and sex. They aren’t stuck in the human notion that one’s born gender defines them, or that one must chose to only enter into a sexual relationship with the opposite sex… the only challenge is that they try to encourage their members to enter into relationships with the opposite sex to ensure that there are children born and that the dwindling population continues. Anna Frost’s engagement with queer subject material is complex, not allowing easy relationships, but instead inviting the reader to engage in the complexity of issues that arise from a past society that is different from our own (both because of the past setting and the fact that they are foxes).

To find out more about The Fox’s Mask, visit Musa’s website at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=400