Cityscapes

A Review of Lisa Poh’s “Graffiti Borealis” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada From 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

Our urban environments are places of identity, places where one can find oneself, but they are also places of loss. Lisa Poh’s Graffiti Borealis is about the notion of finding a voice and finding a place in the city. Daniel, having moved to Canada for his dream job, finds himself out of place. The city is a strange place, particularly since all of the graffiti on the walls come to life around him and call his attention to him.
Graffiti is generally seen as a form of vandalism, but Poh explores the potential for it to be a medium for people without voices to speak, to claim the urban environment for themselves as they are pushed to the fringes and to be able to say something despite being largely silenced. Graffiti can represent the need to speak, to express, and graffiti can be a form of resistance to erasure. In Graffiti Borealis, the graffiti literally NEEDS to speak, not for the author, but for itself, calling the attention of Daniel, who is one of the few people who can see graffiti art move and hear it speak. He is called upon by urban art to save tags and other street art from a section of the city that is being demolished as part of an urban renewal project. The graffiti itself fears being erased as the city re-forms itself once again to privilege certain architecture and certain inhabitants.
Daniel finds another person who is out of place, a Haitian-Canadian graffiti artist who has been able to see her graffiti move, but not had the opportunity to speak to her own art. Calling herself La Gueparde, the artist also wants to rescue the graffiti from obliteration and bring it into new vitality elsewhere, to give it a home in an urban environment where everyone is trying to find a sense of home.
The connection between graffiti and the notion of finding home is made even stronger when La Gueparde refers to the rescued works of art as “refugees”, bringing to mind the search for a home and the need to find a place of one’s own. Despite being an inherently temporary medium, constantly being erased, tagged over, and modified, graffiti serves here as an evocation of a love of place, a way to make a place of home out of an isolating urban environment. Poh, by making the graffiti in her fiction a portable medium, alive, vibrant, and full of movement and identity, underscores the power of this art form for creating a sense of belonging, and since Daniel and La Gueparde are both figures trying to find their voice and place in the city, giving them the power to move the graffiti by summoning it off of the surfaces it occupies gives them the power of being mediators in discovering a place of belonging.
To find out more about Tesseracts Seventeen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 4: An Interview with Kate Story

Local Peterborough author and native Newfoundlander Kate Story was able to visit Speculating Canada on Trent Radio to talk about Newfoundland’s fairy tale tradition and how she incorporated it into her novel Blasted as well as exploring her own experiences as a Newfoundlander growing up surrounded by these tales and traditions. In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, Kate discusses the relationship between place and notions of home in Canadian literature, the interaction of people with their landscape, and the interplay between rural and urban spaces in her novels. As a performance artist, she was able to also comment on the wider arts community and her engagement with multiple artistic media.

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.

Rabbi Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Excessive Greenery

A review of Kim Goldberg’s “Neither Slumber Nor Sleep” in Urban Green Man (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

A rabbi loses his position at the Beth Shalom Congregation when he becomes interested in a new supernatural phenomenon that appears in Nanaimo. Called in to investigate a series of strange events regarding the sighting of a huge Green Goddess figure and sudden surges of greenery over the urban space, the rabbi’s faith is challenged and questioned when he sees a bizarre series of events that defy his beliefs in the logical universe and that seem to reflect a pagan belief system more than they do a Jewish one. But, it is his belief in logic and the undeniable facts of the Green Goddess’ appearance in the city that cause him to eventually believe that she is appearing in the city.

He investigates the situation with logic and deduction, looking at these strange tales and gradually piecing together undeniable evidence that convinces him of the accuracy of these unusual reports – as Sherlock Holmes would say “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

Much like the bumbling police in a Sherlock Holmes tale, the RCMP in this story grasp for simple answers instead of investigating the case, blaming the sudden appearance of vinery overgrowing buildings on student pranks and acts of protest. Goldberg critiques the RCMP’s too easy assumptions in recent years that youth culture is linked to acts of rebellion, and their desire to suppress instances of protest as though they are symbols of a decaying society. Her vision of the RCMP reflects the issues of police violence against protestors who are advocating for environmental issues in Canada.

As the Green Goddess’ acts of environmental re-assurgency continue, environmental advocates join her in their pledge to “assist the Green Goddess in her mission to refoliate Nanaimo by whatever means necessary”. Although originally the police had assumed protest, eventually protestors join this environmental cause, seeing the Green Goddess’ actions of refoliation as beneficial for urban spaces.

Despite his assertion that “I am a man of both Talmud and science, neither of which places much store by pagan rituals”, the rabbi begins to see that there is not so much difference between the religious ideologies expressed in the Talmud, the principles of scientific investigation, and the likelihood that the Green Goddess represents a real change rather than an urban legend (particularly when it is reported that the Green Goddess has a series of Hebrew letters inscribed across her forehead that are the same as those that are used in evoking a golem). Moreover, he begins to wonder if the behaviours of this golem are threatening or if the world needs further acts of refoliation.

Goldberg examines the role of faith in modernity, and the interaction between notions of logic and belief. She creates a character whose observation of facts has isolated him from his community and resulted in his expulsion from his own congregation. Using the combination of environmentalism and the discourse of faith and logic, Goldberg explores the idea that modernity leaves many things unquestioned, particularly our assertion that an urban space and notions of progress have ascendency over green spaces and the significance of natural growth. By situating police powers in opposition to assumed (and then eventually real) environmental groups, she calls attention to the need to question government and media images of environmental protestors as violent people and instead suggests that we, as a culture, need protest – we need to question social messages and interrogate how our actions impact the environment.

Although, of course, not named Sherlock Holmes, the rabbinical protagonist of this story shows many similarities to the canonic character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales. By leading her readers through a similar analysis of the evidence, deep detective work, and psychological insights, Goldberg evokes this figure from literary history and questions the foundations of the idea of logic, reminding her readers of the importance of looking deeper into what appears to be “evidence” rather than accepting the assumptions that are presented.

To find out more about Kim Goldberg, visit http://pigsquash.wordpress.com/ .

Penning the Subtle Murmur of Death and Splash of Blood

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying (Forthcoming 2013, Exile Editions)

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

By Derek Newman-Stille

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s This Strange Way of Dying is just one step abstracted from reality, with one foot in The Weird. Populated with monsters, magic, and folklore, her work is fundamentally about the human outsider experience, the deeper engagement with the world that comes from being on the fringe, looking in at the oddity that is “The Normal”. From this outsider position, her characters navigate a world that is simultaneously familiar and odd to them. The city in Moreno-Garcia’s work, is a place of wonder and misery. She engages with the estrangement of the urban environment and the isolating and abject quality of living in modernity.

Setting most of her stories in Mexico, and exploring Mexican legends and Mexican urban environments, Moreno-Garcia uses the power of being a person between spaces (both Mexican and Canadian) to navigate the duality of her identity, presenting Mexican themes for a primarily Canadian reading audience. Her stories revel in the creative space of between-ness.

Moreno-Garcia provides the deep and intelligent critiques of “The Normal” that can best be expressed through outsider characters and their ability to have a dual vision of society both from the fringes and from within, questioning and interrogating the norms that are constantly being imposed on them. While engaging with monsters, monstrous changes within, and the touch of magic and death on their lives, her characters explore their relationship to the environment, to mortality, critique capitalist disparity, war and violence, and explore their estrangement from others. Her stories swirl around a critique of people who are obsessed with the mundane while ignoring the violence, disparity, and death around them. The glimpses she provides into the dark don’t allow the reader to escape from the reality of horrors embedded in our world.

Penning shadows that soak and stain the page with midnight ponderings, Moreno-Garcia creates worlds of dark wonder that pull the mind of the reader into a dream-like-state of pondering. Courting death and violence as her muses, and breathing them out onto the page, whispering little deaths onto the paper, she evokes the horror that exists around us, constantly being pushed to the shadows by our own desires to ignore it.

Much like the god of the woods in her story Shade of the Ceiba Tree, her voice is joy and love, yet the reader discovers that beneath the layers of beauty in her words is the subtle murmur of death and the splash of blood on the earth. She, too, wields a double-ended blade of fear and desire.

You can explore some of my reviews of individual stories from this volume at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/coyotes-in-urban-turf-wars/ and https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/commodifying-extinction/ .

To find out more about This Strange Way of Dying and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, visit http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/This Strange Way of Dying will be available on September 1, 2013.

Coyotes in Urban Turf Wars

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Nahaules” (in This Strange Way of Dying, Exile Editions, 2013)

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

Cover photo courtesy of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Artwork by Sara K. Diesel

By Derek Newman-Stille

As in many of her works, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s short story “Nahaules” makes the urban space strange, exploring the intrusion of the folkloric into the cityscape. Nahaules, coyote shapeshifters, old stories, have come into the city, changing the city gradually as scents of the forest battle with smog, and buildings crack like mountains.

When she begins to be stalked by the nahaules, Moreno-Garcia’s unnamed narrator has to set aside her disbelief for legend and myth and start relying on old techniques for warding off the coyotes and reclaiming the urban environment. She is hunted, made a victim in her own home and she escapes from the mythical into the urban as long as she is able to until she is met with the inevitability that myths of old can only be fought with techniques of old.

The unnamed narrator, like many women in urban environments, is met with the process of being estranged from her home, made unsafe in an environment that she identifies as her own as predators push her to feel more and more uncomfortable. Stalked, she is forced to move further and further from areas that she considers her own, driven from her home by the predatory impulse of male stalkers as they move deeper into her territory. She plays with the image of being a victim, a sacrificial goat, while simultaneously turning the predatory behaviour back on her oppressors.

Moreno-Garcia reminds us that monsters hunt in urban environments and that people are made to feel unsafe and insecure, that their homes can be made strange and uncomfortable by intrusions of predators who rule through intimidation and threat.

To find out more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, you can visit her website at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ . To read this story and others from This Strange Way of Dying, you can explore it at http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/this-strange-way-of-dying/ . This collection will be available in the fall.

The Absurd Undercurrent to Rationality.

A review of Cory Doctorow’s Shannon’s Law (in Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands Ed. Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, Random House, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Borderland is a place that exists between the Elfland and mundane reality. It is a strange blend of the fantastic and the urban, a city that is invested and embodied with the oddities and absurdities of magic. Elfland is a place where secrets are kept. It is a place that is so different from our own realm that humans can’t comprehend it and the elves that come across to Borderland can’t explain the differences. It is this oddity, this confusion and difference that attracts the attention of Shannon Klod. When the Way from the human world into Bordertown opens after having been closed for years, he packs up every bit of technology and crosses over with the intention of ridding Bordertown of what he sees as chaos, that uncontrolled oddity that makes Bordertown so fascinating and simultaneously confusing. Shannon brings the internet to Bordertown, seeking to create a connection between the worlds, one that is technological, run by rational processes and anchored in reality.

Of course, in order to get the internet to work in Bordertown, he has to incorporate the magical, the absurd into his specifications. It requires the use of carrier pigeons, mirrors atop buildings, and other oddities that are uncommon to the work of techies. Shannon and his techies see these as inelegant solutions to problems, wishing to streamline the process and make it make sense. But, chaos naturally resists order.

Borderland, much like the fairy world, Elfland, runs according to a creative paradigm rather than a sense of order and simplicity. The Elfin lands run on ideas of aesthetics, dramatic situations, and things that are interesting. Information can pass between the realms, but only if it is interesting. Shannon claims to be anti-aesthetic, to not understand the artistic and to exist in a state of pure rationality. When Shannon tries to expand his internet connection beyond Borderland into Elfland, he has to paint binary code into the frame of a painting and write numbers into a poem in order to make it fascinating, interesting and therefore of sufficient quality to pass between the realms. A man who does not like to believe he has any aesthetic sense has to rely on the artistic ideas of others and himself in order to get materials to pass between the realms. He has already allowed the creative to slip into his consciousness, changing him and illustrating on an unconscious level that there is room for movement away from a purely rational outlook to one that includes the epic, the magical, and the passionate. He falls in love with a half Elf, half human woman, a blending of the absurdity of the Elfin realms and the rationality of the human realm. She is a techie, interested in Shannon’s project, but also enjoying acts of epic beauty, fascinated by jumping from rooftop to rooftop and the rush of excitement that comes from risk.

What Shannon ignores is that aspects of the internet are magical themselves, they resist easy laws and easy understandings and defy attempts at control. Control systems are constantly updated to try to regulate the internet, but it is always altering as people interact.

“They’ve got their epic magicks and their enchanted swords and their fey lands where a single frozen moment of deepest sorrow and sweetest joy hands in a perpetual balance that you could contemplate for a thousand lifetimes without getting the whole of it. But… we invented a machine that allows anyone, anywhere, to say anthing, in any way, to anyone, anywhere.”

To find out more about Cory Doctorow’s current projects, visit his website at http://craphound.com/bio.php

Oracular Warnings

A Review of Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle (2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Betelgeuse Oracle courtesy of Joseph Macchiusi

Cover photo of The Betelgeuse Oracle courtesy of Joseph Macchiusi

Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy, presenting an apocalyptic present that is partially scientific and partially supernatural, challenging the firm boundaries that are often placed between them.

Macchiusi’s protagonist, James, is a security guard at York University who has always had a slight penchant for visions, but when the world is suddenly bombarded with neutrinos from the dying star Betelgeuse and all electrical systems are destroyed, the human population of the world goes into seizures and people begin to change. James ends up acquiring a new voice in his head, the voice of the Egyptian god Horus. In this apocalyptic world, where technology has been permanently disrupted, James is forced to re-assess the way he views the world, gathering together a group of people to ensure survival.

The disruption of technology and electrical systems allows Macchiusi to explore our own dependency on technology and the technological deserts we have created that are our cities. He critiques modernity’s need for technology by illustrating the terror and destruction wrought by a world that has been denied something that has become a staple of our existence. In addition to needing technology for basic survival, Macchiusi notes that we have become information junkies, addicted to telecommunication, and one of his characters brings his disabled cellular phone with him everywhere as a form of talisman for the world that he pines for.

With the changes in technology and the neuro disruption caused by the pulse from Betelgeuse, people start becoming wholly unlike themselves, experiencing challenges to their identity and their selfhood as they are forced to do things that are out of character in order to survive.

Our society has reduced community down to the basic nuclear family, and James, a family man, is forced to challenge and change his notion of community as his family is lost to him. In order to survive, new community units need to be formed, based on mutual sharing, and the willingness to sacrifice things for strangers to survive. Characters cement their bonds to each other not just through sharing nutrients, but through shared stories, the telling of tales to one another that draw members together, inviting them into the process of creating new, shared myths and tales.

Like many apocalyptic narratives, The Betelgeuse Oracle, asks readers to question their dependencies on things around them and the danger of continuing on the path we have created. Through the vision of cities as wastelands of abandoned technology, deserts of lifeless buildings and suffering humanity, Macchiusi calls on readers to look critically at the society we are creating and our separation from the natural world.

To discover more about Joseph Macchiusi and The Betelgeuse Oracle, visit his website at http://josephmacchiusi.com/ .