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

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Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 34: An Interview with Helen Marshall

At the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, I was able to take a few moments of Helen Marshall’s time to do an interview. In this interview on Speculating Canada, we talk about the relationship between bodies and text, aging, changes, open endings, the power of fiction to open up new ideas and new possibilities, writing as an act of personal reflection and exploration, horror, transformations, and history and its relationship to speculative fiction writing. As always, Helen Marshall invites new ways of looking at the world through her fiction as well as through her discussions of fiction.

During our interview, Helen Marshall surprises listeners with an author reading of her brilliant, wonderful story Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects.

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.

To discover more about the work of Helen Marshall, visit her website at http://www.helen-marshall.com/ .

 

Water and Reflection

A review of Ursula Pflug’s “The Water Man” In Harvesting The Moon and Other Stories (PS Publishing Limited, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the author

Cover photo courtesy of the author

Water: it runs through all of us, binding us together; we need it but too much of it can kill us; it is reflective and we can see ourselves in it, slightly distorted (which sometimes reveals more than a clean, perfect image); it is changeable. Ursula Pflug plays with the multiplicity of magic embodied in water in “The Water Man”, exploring how water connects us but also reveals that individuality is a fiction and we are made up of multiple parts, always shifting and changing. Pflug takes something as common and ordinary as water and turns it into something extraordinary, revealing for readers that water has always had a quasi-magical quality.

Exploring the life of a mask-maker who creates new artistic visions out of people’s discarded junk, and the weird thoughts that come from sharing water, Pflug explores transformative possibilities, revealing that the static world is entirely one of imagination and that everything is constantly changing. “The Water Man” takes place at a time of celebration, a carnival that reminds viewers that the world is in a perpetual state of death and rebirth as winter becomes spring, that new worlds are always forming and that they need that sleepy time of freezing to dream up new visions of the world.

To discover more about Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://www.ursulapflug.ca/
To find out more about Harvesting The Moon and Other Stories, visit http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/harvesting-the-moon-hardcover-ursula-pflug-2155-p.asp

Chilly Renewal

A review of Dominik Parisien’s “My Child Has Winter in His Bones” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada From Coast to Coast (Edge, 2013)

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

By Derek Newman-Stille

In My Child Has Winter in His Bones, Dominik Parisien evokes his characteristic blend of the human and the landscape, amalgamating a child with the icy lake where his parent fishes. Like much of his poetry, this piece evokes the horror and beauty of a body modified and the child in this poem is described as being almost fish-tank-like, clear and full of aquatic matter. There is a beauty in the image of the body as a living landscape, an ice-scape imbued with life and yet always temporary, doomed to thaw in the spring. Parisien evokes the beauty of the permeable body, a body that is revealed as being integrated with its environment even though we spend so much time as a society creating barriers around our bodies, trying to suggest that they are separate from their environments.
Although a temporary body, the child’s body evokes the image of renewal, a body that is forged from the ice and then melts in the spring to be re-formed.
Unlike most poetry that is obsessed with images of youth symbolised in spring and growth, Parisien reverses this paradigm by equating youth with winter, with the freeze, and with a season that we tend to think of as inherently liminal, frozen, between times: the Winter. Parisien invites his readers to question why we associate youth with the Spring and asks us to look at the shallow way we observe youth and the passage of the seasons.
To discover more about Dominik Parisien, visit his website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/
To discover more about Tesseracts Seventeen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 6: Canadian Queer SF

As a queer man, do you know what I want to see:

a sci fi novel in which one of the typical space bros says “yo fags, no homo” and instantly has his head bitten off by a glitter-wearing, feather boa carrying alien, who instantly spits it out and says “No hate, bro”;

or a femmbot who decides that since he has been denied the right to transition to a male robot, he is going to take matters into his own hands and solders a vibrator onto his body;

a fantasy novel in which the evil queen finally gets her princess love;

a white knight who realises that the black knight keeps kidnapping princesses to get his attention;

a horror novel in which the werewolf reveals that she is only biting women because she wants to create a female-only pack

OR a sparkly vampire… oh wait, that’s been done before… and with a straight vampire at that.

There is an under representation of queer people in genre fiction, but this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio explores Canadian queer, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG (Q – Queer and Questioning, U – Unidentified, I – Intersex, L – Lesbian, T – Transgender, Transexual, Two-Spirited, B – Bisexual, A – Asexual, G – Gay, Genderqueer) fiction.

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/ .

 

Clear Cut Future

A review of Susan J. MacGregor’s Evergreen (in Urban Greenman. Edited by Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine. Edge, 2013).

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

By Derek Newman-Stille

The quest for self-discovery can be painful and difficult and often people who seek to discover themselves encounter questions that they don’t want answered, murky areas that they fear to look too deeply into. When Cat’s grandmother does a card reading for her, she shies away from the tough parts of the future that are revealed. She doesn’t want to reveal that she is conflicted about her future, and she is unwilling to peer too deeply into what her future can hold – should she go to law school or get a government job until she figures herself out? She is still sorting through her values and fears the transformative potential of making a decision too soon….

But, decisions sometimes occur when we least expect them to, when events coalesce around us and push us into an avenue we least considered. As Cat’s grandmother predicts, she is pushed by circumstance into a meeting with a man who will change her life and cause her to question her relationship to the world around her. She is asked to explore her roots… literally, and is transformed into a tree by her new companion, able to question her relationship to the world around her and explore her values. He seeks to transform her into a tree in order to paint her suffering, to explore the human intersection with the environment and evoke human compassion for our natural world… but the lack of compassion that already exists means that workers try to clearcut the forest that Cat has been entreed in.

In order to save herself, she must question the logic that she has applied to her life, her relationship to the natural world, the ideas she has taken for granted, and eventually determine her future’s course (if she survives to have a future).

Sometimes we need to transform literally to transform our way of thought, and Cat discovers that she needs to become something else to discover what she wants to become.

To read more about Susan J. MacGregor, visit her website at http://suzenyms.blogspot.ca/ .