"I talk about speculative fiction in particular, as theory given characters and taken form. And so, rather than it just being a theoretic concept out there somewhere, it becomes this very specific—here's a character that embodies this theory. Here's a world that embodies this theory. And then we play it out."
My focus is on disability studies. So accessibility is really important to me. And part of that accessibility means connecting to students on a level of a mentor or colleague as well as, as an instructor. And so I like to take the kind of hierarchical power of the classroom and disrupt it. I very much see the field of education as conversation and movement.
You're listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
I'm Derek Newman-Stille. I'm a queer, non-binary, Disabled person. I am an activist, an author, an editor, and an academic. I teach primarily at Trent University, but I take this idea of teacher outside of that realm because I figure we have a responsibility to teach in the public realm as well. Becoming a writer was something really challenging for me. I thought of myself primarily as an academic writer—so I could write essays, I could write analyses, I could write anything that did academic work. And I felt comfortable within that genre, but I always thought of my own writing as something very personal, something that I would hide away in journals. But I started to realize the possibilities of my own writing basically by thinking through arts-based research, by thinking about my work, as my fiction work, as doing things to my academic work couldn’t do.
Arts-based research is basically using different creative projects in order to think about our research subjects in order to expand upon our research ideas. One of the great things about working in academic spheres, as well as in writing is that so often they speak to each other. I talk about speculative fiction in particular, as theory given characters and taken form. And so, rather than it just being like a theoretic concept out there somewhere, it becomes this very specific—like here's a character that embodies this theory. Here's a world that embodies this theory. And then we play it out. Part of the problem with academia as a construct, a, an ivory tower where essentially, um, all of the intellectuals end up just talking to ourselves and not to anyone else. And so ABR, arts-based research lets us move that into the public sphere, lets us take that idea, the ideas that we're working on and play them out in art, play them out in performance and music and through writing.
So in addition to exams, essays and all of that regular academic stuff, I have my students do an arts-based research project and I have them examine a disability from art.
Counter narrative is one of, I think, the most powerful tools that we have, as especially folks doing social justice work. So I have students take existing narratives, the things that we’re told about disability and write around them, find different ways of narrating possibilities. Look at the possibility of writing something else. Instead of writing disability as victim, as tragedy, as ugly, write disability as beautiful. Look at the aesthetics of disability and look at the possibilities within that text for speaking back to it. And I think there's so much potential for our students learning how to speak back.
I think it's one of the most powerful exercises that I have them do. Often it's where they have what I call the “aha moment” where suddenly they get it. Often with the essays and stuff they're working in a very distanced kind of way. Art creates that intimacy. And so when they're producing these written works or visual works, they have that intense connection to what they've produced and they do the research beforehand to produce something really powerful.
Excerpt from “Charity™” which appears in the anthology Nothing Without Us, edited by Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson
You know what they say:
“What doesn't hurt you makes you stronger.”
“The power of positive thinking is truly amazing.”
“Have you thought that maybe a better outlook would help?”
“You'd be amazed at what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it.”
It was that time of year again.
Time for my body to be on display again. Time for me to grin and bear it with the, “Oh thank you. Oh, I hadn't thought of that. And Oh, what a fascinating perspective. I will try harder.”
My cheeks hurt almost as much as my leg stump. Both were performing for the amusement of the rich, giving them a chance to treat me as a spectacle they always wanted.
Sometimes I think of these charity events as a continuity of the freak shows of the past. And sometimes I think I may have preferred to be in the freak shows at least then my performances could have been interesting and I would have been able to choose the character I could play.
One of the challenges with CanLit is that it tends to be so focused around realist fiction. CanLit has historically been attached to this idea of what was happening in Canada, arts and cultures, especially during the fifties toward this idea of essentially an arts nationalism. And part of this was because of the Massey Commission and a few other projects at the same time. So there was a lot of this kind of educational focus in Canadian arts and culture. I think that because of that kind of focus on the real for the longest time, CanLit, created this bubble and viewed—especially an issue between what they saw as Canadian content, which was “real content” and American content “pop fiction.” And so they drew things like speculative fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, horror, romance, all of these things they projected as American influences. And so they largely excluded them.
Speculating Canada is sort of a hub that I've created—I call it a digital humanities hub—where people can connect to different ideas together, they’re able to kind of come in as a community. I have interviews on the site that I do with individual authors. It also is a space for reviews of literature. So my hope is that I engage with reviews in a different way than most people on Speculating Canada.
Doing editing work is really fascinating because you, you get to essentially project, uh, or choose different projects that relate to your special interests. And so there's something really rewarding about this. And so my two collections, Over the Rainbow and, We Shall be Monsters are both kind of passion projects for me in terms of We Shall be Monsters, I love Mary Shelley's work. I love Frankenstein.
And so I decided I would do a collection of Frankenstein fiction. It was basically just this fascination with this idea of the way that Mary Shelley's monster expanded into the imagination and shifted so many different ideas and essentially shaped science fiction from then forward. We ended up getting a lot of submissions from folks who were, um, on the margins as well, because there was something about this figure of the monster. And I think that's why the monster appeals to me as well, being someone who is, who is, queer, non-binary, Disabled, the monster is that outsider figure. And so seeing the way that a lot of folks gravitated toward this was really powerful. And we ended up having a huge collection of people who were themselves in fringe identities playing with these notions of what does my body mean? What does my identity mean? And how am I projected as the monster?
Back in high school—I think this was something common during this time period. It was in the early eighties, (purposely blurred out). What used to happen was they would have people come in to talk about risks. It would always be a Disabled person. And their entire role on stage was to basically project to the audience, “You don't want to be like me. So here's what to do to prevent being like me.” These were cautionary tales and for a, a young Disabled person like me, I was seeing myself on the stage, not as someone who could be potentially damaged in the future, but as someone who was actually living with disability now. This sent a strong message that my body didn't matter, that my body was a problem that my body was a sign of warning to people. Horror is something interesting for the disabled body as well, because of course the horror is not being disabled as so many stories—so many horror stories play out this idea of the tragedy, the horror is becoming disabled.
When an actuality, I like to reverse that and say that the, the horror is actually being in a society where you can't be bodily yourself. You can't express yourself, you can't fit in. You've got all these barriers placed around you and an entire society that projects you as the monstrous. A lot of the horror stuff brings up ideas of the freak show for me and that history of Disabled people performing for an able-bodied audience and still being treated as the spectacle as the other.
I think one of my favorite activities, especially for, uh, for my creative writing students is I have a PowerPoint that I've set up that shows them different locations around the world. Um, and it shows them different climates, different geographies. And then I asked the students to imagine what kind of possibilities could exist there.
What kinds of stories could be told within these geographies? So I use a few different images. Um, one of them that I use is the, the Hell Mouth, the mouth of hell, which is this essentially this space that at some point it, it was leaking methane gas and someone decided the best thing that they could do is to throw a match in there and that this would help. And so this has been burning for like 70 years as a giant hell mouth.
One of the other areas that I do is I show them the Salt Plains and get them to imagine like possibilities there. And I love showing them environments that are tropical as well. So I do a lot of images of areas with birds of paradise in them because birds of paradise are just the weirdest birds. They have so many unique characteristics and their dances are so unique. And so I love to show like these spaces where there are birds of paradise, so that students get a sense of the uniqueness of like performance and the way that performance is shaped by space. And I talked to them a little bit about the need for this diversity of performances, um, within a space where there are very few predators of the birds. So they can be as pretty as they want without being eaten.
It's primarily for my, my speculative fiction writing students. And so I asked them about, if this were a climate on an alien world, who would live there, how would they interact with their environment? How would they create this space? But I think that visual play really helps them to get a sense of the diversity of our own planet. And it lets them project themselves into these notions of otherness. So they start thinking about things like the way that setting influences character. It gives them a sense that setting is a character itself. The setting plays with the story, the setting shapes its own stories and that certain characters and certain stories can't be told in different settings. They need certain characteristics of the environment.
Excerpt from Whispers Between Fairies
Even the word inspires fear.
We are written into tales as impediments, as obstacles for the hero to overcome, as villains, but stories need witches. The world needs witches.
Portraying us as antagonists of fairy tales is ridiculous. We ARE fairytales. Our magic is words, the power of things spoken. We create through words—we aren't created BY them.
Our role is more complicated than “villain.” Villains are too simplistic, too often reduced to easy motivations, shallow desires. We do some things that villains do—we punish, we curse, we hurt, we confine, and so we are read as villains.
But there is a secret to witches.
We punished to teach. We curse to instill lessons. We meet people at the fork in the path and wait for them to treat us well, to show us basic kindness. That's what we want, you see, a basic level of humanity from one person to another… and not one motivated by a potential reward, nor by beauty, nor by anything selfish.
That's why we can be ugly at times, poor at others, and always asking for compassion.
So recently I had this great opportunity with my friend Nathan Frechette to create a collection together. We had been talking for a while about fairytales and Nathan and I got to chatting about this idea of what if we increase this material around fairytales. What if we created fairytales that dealt with disability, that dealt with queer identities, that dealt with trans identities, and that dealt with nonwhite identities? What would it mean? How would we be able to frame this? One of the things that was really interesting—and it was kind of an afterthought—that we decided to each do our own history as a fairytale. We realized that basically this was a thought around instead of having a bio, we would have our, our lives fairy tale-ized. This is something that I use as a writing activity for my students. I have them write a little story about a time in their life and then pass it on to someone else who then turns it into a fairy tale.
And so instead of doing that for Nathan and I had each of us write our own story and weave in fairytale throughout that. And I think that was honestly the, the most powerful two stories in the collection were these stories where we wove our own identity into fairytale. Fairytales in general are actually really violent. We don't often think about them this way, because we think about them as tales for children. But we deal with things like wolves eating people. This is not children's content, right? This is not tame. And so some of that tradition kind of filtered into the stories that we told in Whispers Between Fairies as well. And we told stories about very violent things, about very real things, because we wanted to deal with marginalized folks, and marginalized identities are constantly subject to violence, are constantly subject to abuses, to structural power damage. But also that fictional element made it a little bit more palatable, I think for our readers.
There's something that happens by fictionalizing, these, these events and aspects that allows people to instead read a story about transformation, magic, et cetera. And then only afterwards started thinking about, wow, things are really kind of problematic in this world. This stuff really happens. Instead of initially being faced immediately with that reality of something, they have a moment to think and pause to take a step back and to look at the rest of their society within that lens. And I think that's one of the qualities of the mythic, of the magical, is that we don't think about it as something that happened to an individual. When it's something in a fairytale, all of a sudden it becomes, this could be anyone's story. And all of a sudden, we start to internalize this as this is a social issue. This is something wider. This speaks to our entire society.
Migrating home was one of the stories actually that that came from a fairytale that Nathan had suggested. But then I started making a connection to some research that I did a couple of years ago for a group that was looking at long-term care homes. And in one of the long-term care homes, there was a, a person who identified very strongly with Santa Claus and he had all of these Santa figures set up around his room. The people in the home, the, the care staff, complained about all of his Santa figures and told his family they weren't going to clean his room unless he got rid of them. And so I started thinking about that in the context of “Migrating Home,” I decided to play out this idea of a long-term care home of a nursing home, where there was someone who was fixated on this idea of the mythical.
And in this case, the character was fixated on the idea of the Swan and kept on creating little paper, swans that he built his room with. And every day it'd be the care staff would come in and essentially destroy all of them. And he'd have to start over. Then this pollination came together into that story where the character was creating swans, was imagining his history as a Swan, or possibly was. I wanted to have that ambiguity between whether he was just fixated on this possibility, or maybe this really happened. And the character was essentially one of the swans who was teasing, you know, his sibling who was trans and kept on mocking this sibling who was trans. And eventually the sibling turned him into a swan. And so it was about this idea of recognizing trans possibilities within the tale, but also recognizing the fascinating space of long-term care homes as a space betwixt in between as well.
They’re a space that is situated as outside of our society. And yet it's a place where people create a home. It's also an institution and yet it's called a home. And so there's that, that interesting kind of pull back and forth in long-term care homes between notions of community versus notions of exclusion. And so I thought it was a perfect kind of space to play with that tale of the, of the swans.
One of the things that I'm, that I'm really playing with right now has been disability aesthetics. The beauty of disability, the community around disability. I've played with disability a bit in the past, but mostly around my own body. But now I think a lot of my work is focused on that idea of creating community of recognizing a Disability Arts as part of creating a Disability community. And I look at, for example, the Deaf community, the Deaf community has recognized that deafness is a culture rather than a disability.
They see deafness as something that creates a unified language, unified history, unified system of arts. Just like there's a French culture, English culture, et cetera., in Canada, there's a Deaf culture. And I very much am looking at the idea of disability along the same lines. Disability needs to be recognized as a culture, as a community, as a group of people that share something in common. And, so far, most of our work, especially in Canada around disability has been focused on policy change. We've been so interested in that idea of making changes to policy, of making changes to laws that we haven't focused as much on creating that community together.
I think there's something that needs to happen on an artistic level that perhaps policies don't change people's hearts and minds, art does. Art is what creates that transformative possibility. Seeing art, reading, art, viewing different possibilities within the Disabled community, opens up people to that idea that our lives matter, that the things that we do matter. Our accessibility matters. And so I think a lot of my work lately has been focused on that idea of trying to create a community through DisArts, through disabled art.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Derek’s work, including their collection Whispers Between Fairies. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Derek Newman-Stille discusses breaking down the classroom hierarchy, disrupting fairy tales, and the need for Disability Arts. They discuss:
Getting “a-ha!” moments through arts-based research, and sharing research insights in the public sphere (0:58)
Moving past CanLit’s attachment to realism and creating a community for speculative writing through Speculating Canada, a digital humanities hub (4:55)
Their Frankenstein fiction anthology We Shall Be Monsters and examining ways we project horror in an ableist society. (6:30)
Helping students develop speculative worlds using the diversity of nature on planet Earth—including Birds of Paradise! (9:14)
Creating contemporary fairytales that make space for marginalized identities in their collection Whispers Between Fairies (13:00)
Recognizing Disability Arts as part of creating a disability community and increasing accessibility (18:08)
The Flexibility of Fairytales
Fairytales are something that started in the oral narrative. They began by tales told by one person to the next. And one of the things that we do when we tell tales to each other—I always tell people think about when you've got a kid nearby, right? And they just had a bad day and something's happened to them. You tell a story and it can be like, you know, a Cinderella story, but you change the details to fit with their life, with their experiences.
That's the way fairytales have always been. They've always been flexible. They've always been changeable. The main issue with fairytales was when they got codified into books, right? All of a sudden they get stuck, they become unchangeable, and yet they still resisted that possibility.
I actually did teach a class on fairytales for the English department at Trent. I exposed them to this idea of fairytales existing in versions, that there's always a multiplicity of different tales. And I invited the students then to imagine different possibilities within the tales. I had them first take different stories. And what I had them do was a mash-up. You know how sometimes you, you encounter these like, you know, Little Women and zombies and things like this, you'd just mash them together. And so I had them play with these ideas of fairytales, mashing them up, and imagining possibilities. This got them to see the possibility of fairytales as something that is adaptable, um, something that is “mashable,” something that they can play with rather than something static.
I like to introduce possibilities with students to think about things like, for example, um, one of my favorite activities is to get them to think about the idea of the Hansel and Gretel tale. And so I have them read it and I ask them, “What's the moral of the tale?”
And they tell the moral that they've been told, which is “don't steal.” And then I tell them what about the child abuse? And they're like, “Oh, because of the witch.” And I'm like, no, because of the parents who threw their children's the children out of the house and they all of a sudden go, “Oh, wow.”
I'm like, what would this mean for a child reading this, thinking about the possibility that they might lose their house, that they might be kicked out of their house? And this is a very real possibility when we're dealing with poverty, with starvation. It's very possible that this is a tale to explore that idea of what does it mean to be kicked out. And what does it mean to, to be relying on the kindness of strangers. Is theft really the issue here when it's children who are starving, uh, who have been isolated from their home?
And so getting them to think about these tales within new possibilities, gets them to think about the openness of those tales. I also do a little activity with my students where I have them imagine this story from different perspectives. So I ask them to, to write in first person, second person and third person, to examine all of those possibilities and then to imagine from the villain's perspective. And so that kind of possibility of writing it from these different perspectives allows them to get a different view of the text, allows them to view the text as something dynamic and changeable.
Supporting Students During the Pandemic
Right now, one of the issues that I'm facing in the classroom is the issue of COVID, of course. With the coronavirus going on, teaching has changed and especially, um, a lot of the teaching that I do, I rely on my background in theatre to perform to the audience. And so often what I'm doing is when I'm teaching, I'm reading the audience at the same time as I'm talking to them. So I notice things like all of a sudden, the “huh?” face on people or the “that's interesting, keep on talking about that expression.”
I'm finding it very interesting to switch to an online model. We use Zoom, um, which means that students can shut off their cameras, um, which I understand purpose of shutting off their cameras means that we don't see the background of what's going on. A lot of students are in situations where they're in poverty or they have, uh, situations where they have to live with parents who are intrusive or children who are intrusive. And so when they shut off their cameras, it's difficult to read their body language but at the same time I recognize the purpose of it.
I'm also finding I'm doing a lot of more therapy type work with students, um, because they're in crisis, they're having a lot of difficulty dealing with the pandemic, um, dealing with isolation and they really want to chat. And so, um, I've been doing things like scheduling time before and after lecture for decompression. And one of the things that I do is I actually bring out my, my rabbit as a therapy pet. And so even though these are university students, I bring out Butterscotch anyway and she gives them some sense of comfort, especially when we're handling like big, difficult topics, which we often do in gender and social justice.
Derek Newman-Stille is a PhD student at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek is a Queer, Nonbinary, Disabled activist, artist, author, and editor. They edited the two collections Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile) and We Shall Be Monsters (Renaissance Press) and they have a story in the all disabled collection Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press). Their art has been featured in Lackington’s Magazine and Postscripts to Darkness. Derek runs the 9 time Aurora Award winning digital humanities site Speculating Canada and the site Dis(Abled) Embodiment. Derek researches Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monster for exploring the representation of disability issues. Derek is an artist of many mediums and their visual arts can be seen at www.dereknewmanstille.ca.