Friday, April 03, 2009

Humanizing the Impossible: Ursula Pflug Reviews Finding Creatures

Ursula Pflug, author of Green Music, reviews Finding Creatures & Other Stories for the Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Ursula's long awaited story collection After The Fires is on the Aurora Awards short list. She is also a journalist, produced playwright and creative writing instructor.

April, 2009 : Review:

Humanizing the Impossible

Finding Creatures and Other Stories, by Casey June Wolf

I first ran across Casey June Wolf's work in the Canadian speculative anthology Tesseracts. The ninth volume in the series, edited by luminaries Geoff Ryman and Nalo Hopkinson, included a wonderful fantasy story of Wolf's called "The Coin," about Haitian street-children. Its sense of place was almost palpable, hence I wasn't surprised to find out Wolf has worked extensively as a volunteer in Haiti. The second time I ran across her writing was when she posted a rant on the SF Canada list-server. [See Comment Secion of this post for the full rant. CJW] The subject was feminism—the many headed monster—though I can't remember whether people were for or against. Wolf's observations were ones I largely agreed with, but my point is that her rant was deeply passionate and personal and intelligent. It evidenced a life rich in experience, and a mind noble enough to examine that life, and brave enough to turn some of its gleanings into art. I must have made a mental note to pay attention, because when Wolf's debut story collection "Finding Creatures" recently launched, I immediately got myself a copy.

The same rich breadth of experience, passion, and compassion fires the nine stories herein, which includes the (previously mentioned) magical and thought provoking story, "The Coin." The titular "Finding Creatures" is about a dusty Winnipeg summer, during which eight year old Bernadette, an only child, wishes terribly for playmates, and if she can't have those, an animal will do. She has richly detailed fantasies, the kind only children and world-building fantasy and science fiction writers have. She brings home worms and leeches and dogs and things, all of which are disallowed. Then one day, seemingly in answer to her fervent prayers to baby Jesus, a horse appears in her yard. The horse is quickly named Angel, and takes the little girl for rides around the neighborhood, during which they are invisible, which is probably a good thing, as Bernadette and Angel wander farther and farther afield. One day all this changes. They visit a section of town they've never been to before, where a little boy plays alone. When he looks up he sees both the horse and the girl. Another day, the pair encounter a girl called Manjeet, who thinks Angel is her horse, and named Sita.

Over the rest of the summer, the list grew. Children who had played with Angel at lunchtime or on weekends. Lonely children seeing her for the first time. Children who'd spied her in their yards but never approached her. Children who had known her long ago, who thought they'd never see her again, and there she was, and there we were, too.

And when September comes, and Angel stops coming, those who had the luck to ride her around the dusty summer streets of Winnipeg form an ad hoc gang. There is a surprise ending to do with living breathing dinosaurs, but I won't spoil it by including it here.

In the story "Claude and the Henry Moores," a security guy (Claude) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (where Wolf has also worked) discovers that the Henry Moore sculptures are inhabited by beings, trapped within them in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the alien-in-the-tree in the second story, "Thunderbirds." Claude also discovers he is able to free them using a combination of empathy and what can only be called metaphysical faculties. But first he takes them (and himself) north to watch the Aurora. The deep and healing beauty of nature is wonderfully described in this passage as well as many others in the collection.

In the aforementioned "Thunderbirds," an indigenous back woods sort called Norman encounters a crashed alien ship. He buries the body, first wondering what the proper protocol for doing so is, finally deciding that all dead must be treated with respect, even if one doesn't know the customs by which they lived and died. Meanwhile the alien, who goes by the name Chitta and is capable of such things, isn't dead at all. She has however exited her body and entered the first living thing within easy reach, which happens to be a tree. Chitta spends days on end learning about her new body, and is only a little sad that she will no longer be ambulatory nor have an intellect with which to engage with others as before. Nevertheless, inhabiting a tree with one's spirit and mind intact is preferable to death. One day, Norman returns to the crash site, and something draws him to the tree. He sits there, and maybe he falls asleep for awhile, but in the end the alien in the tree and the man communicate somehow, and leave one another enriched, even though the meeting and the communication have both been so subtle as to be barely acknowledged by its participants.

What is curious about both stories is what happens to their protagonists when they encounter the alien Other, largely by the use of subtle skills which some might call psychic and others might say are the inevitable result of true compassion. Both Claude and Norman wish mainly for their strange friends to find freedom. Claude, in particular, leads an isolated life but both characters go largely unnoticed and, uncomplaining, try to find joy in their simple routines. These stories exemplify Wolf's central theme which is: what is one to do with one's loneliness? Her answer seems to be: reach out in any way you can, even if the reaching takes a form that many might tell you is simply not possible. And as such, of course, these stories about alien communication serve as metaphor for the eternal human problem of communication.

In both stories, what is at first momentous becomes small scale and human, and this, in the end, humanizes the impossible. Charles de Lint, in his lengthy introduction, makes much of Wolf's work for her combined rich imagination and rich reserves of empathy.

Wolf uses different genres, different voices, different cultures—in short whatever she needs to make the story work. What ties it all together is her sure-handed prose and a depth she brings to her writing, that indefinable element that rises up from between the lines and gives a good story its resonance.

I might add that she creates characters whose human vulnerability readers will recognize and take joy in. Not only that, but fiction writers with serious intentions must be supported, or we as readers have all fallen victim to the censorship of the marketplace.

And I've always had a soft spot for bravely ranting women.

Copyright © 2009, Ursula Pflug. All Rights Reserved.


Apr 3, 00:36 by IROSF
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Lynda said...

"deeply passionate and personal and intelligent" works for me. And I think I need an Angel. :-) Thanks for telling me about Finding Creatures.

Athena Andreadis said...

Sounds like a marvelous collection. And could I please have a link to/copy of that rant??

Thank you!

Athena Andreadis
Starship Reckless
To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek

C. June Wolf said...

Thanks, Lynda and Athena. (And Ursula!)

Let you have a look at the rant in question--good point.

On a list Ursula and I participate in, one of the members wished us a happy Women's Day, and attached some jokes that were meant kindly to fluff up our sisterly feathers a bit. I was a little distressed by the jokes and tried to explain why.

This is what I wrote in response:

CJW: hey, CA. thanks for the good woman wishes. to you as well, and a shared wish to all women and non-women in honour of the day.

to celebrate i:

took a day off. i started the morning with A. Merritt, The Moon Pool (YAY!), and finished the evening with Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower. neither of which has anything (much) to do with anything i'm writing (unlike most of my reading these years).

in the middle i rearranged furniture, talked with my being-dumped friend on the phone, bought cotton string and shelving materials, ate sun-dried tomato and balsamic vinegar chips, and served raw liver to my cats. it was a good day.

but! without meaning disrespect, i get a little squinty-eyed when i get emails that are meant to be pro-woman which end up making "girlfriends" sound like saints and men as one of the rest of life's letdowns.

a little background.

my mom "joined the women's liberation movement" when i was fourteen, had already been on my own (eg, on the streets) for several months and was now living with her in a small apartment. she had recently left my dad and he had taken the remaning kids and moved back to the prairies.

my nineteen year old boyfriend was an ex- (soon to be ex-ex-) junkie, a sensitive soul who had struggled with a deep feeling of self-worthlessness ever since being given up by his mother at birth and being bounced from one foster home to another. when he was thirteen someone finally adopted him--he was a good-looking boy and very smart. this upper middle class, well educated woman lost little time attempting to seduce him, which pretty much destroyed the last hope he had of being part of a real family.

well, he thought it was great that my mom was joining women's liberation, and decided he would, too. (this was in 1971. we talked like that in them days. or some of us did.)

i thought it was a lousy idea. i thought it would only add to the disinterest she seemed to have in me and my siblings, and feared losing her support entirely. none of us had a clear idea of what feminism really meant, or what it would mean in our lives.

over the years, our understanding grew, and whatever the details of our strengths and weaknesses, feminism had a profound impact on how we saw the world, ourselves, and our relationships. i have no regrets in having learned those lessons.

but the women that i worked together with in the women's movement were far from perfect, and far from always there for me, or anyone else. many of them were wonderful, of course, but like all human beings they had flaws, and one of the flaws of people who believe they know a truth that the rest of the world resists is that we have a tendency to decry the other guys, to see anyone who doesn't see things our way as the enemy.

that wasn't just "sexist pigs". that was women who were not feminists, women who were feminists but not the right kind of feminists, (too militant, not militant enough, lesbian, not lesbian, middle class white professional, lowbrow working class, etc. etc.).

nobody was trying to be a jerk. we all really believed and we were right about the broad brush, but not always right about the details and methods of getting from a to b.

although i learned a lot about friendship and solidarity and the joy of working for something truly important, i also got the brunt of a lot of judgemental attitudes because of my ways of thinking and perceiving and simply being. attempts to control my thinking were out front and obvious, done to protect us all from being diverted from our goals, and i saw a lot of harm done to other women, too, by well-meaning but narrow-minded and, i might say, desperate people.

i think that fear is responsible for much of the in-fighting in the left. we see terrible things that have hurt us and we want to change them, and any small thing can be seen as a threat to that over-arching goal. our fear of not achieving a better world can lead us to being right jerks in the present one. by the end of my four years at the particular place i worked, i was a wreck.

i found myself so constrained by all the right perspectives we had argued out that it was difficult to just be human. when i left that group i had one clear goal in mind (after picking myself up off the floor).

i wanted to learn how to listen to and care about people no matter what their opinions were, no matter whether i thought their way of thinking would take us to the brink of destruction or not. i wanted to be human enough to love even when that judgemental side of me feared them and wanted to cut them down. because i had gone far enough in the direction of one-right-way to see how dehumanizing and destructive it is for all of us. and because i could see that nothing is accomplished by polarizing into camps. it only deepens the divide.

i am surprised and saddened sometimes by the extent to which sexism still has hold in our society, and i am proud of the many women who have taken so many risks to understand and correct that situation, whether i like their conclusions and their way of doing it, or not. i also value the many women i have loved and befriended, beneighboured or simply friendily bestrangered over the years. my life has been enriched by them, their humour, their kindness, their intelligence, their wildly varying perspectives, their unique lives and lessons.

equally the men. and equal to the men in my life, the women have been at times opaque, cruel, blaming, cowardly, and righteously wrong.

we have all been hurt by sexism. men have not suffered in the same ways as women, but any system of oppression has costs on a deeply human level for both the guy on top and the guy below. those costs translate into limitations in their self-image and screwups in their treatment of themselves and those around them. but when the chips are down, it isn't always a woman who is there when you need her. often it's a man.

so please, when you wish me a happy women's day, don't think you need to set me and all womanhood above our brothers, sons, and dads. yes, they've screwed up. so have we. and we are all muddling through as best we can. together.

i do appreciate the recognition and celebration of our struggle and sisterhood. i am very grateful to the women who have taught me to question and resist those destructive messages. and i am grateful to my old ex-ex-junkie ex and all the other men i have known who have valued women enough to try to figure that stuff out, too, and have made so many great changes in their--and our--lives.

so, happy international women's day, everybody!


CA wrote:

Wow Casey, you obviously have some strong feelings on this topic, but you read far more into this than I think was meant either by the woman who sent this on to me or me myself. International women's Day is a recognized holiday like St. Patric's Day. If I say happy St. Pat's to people on that day, does that mean I'm dissing all non-Irish catholics? I don't think so. There is a lot of hard won wisdom in what you said, but your reply was maybe a little harsh. CA

CJW: i'm truly sorry if i offended you and i hope you will read my letter again in a different light. it wasn't meant with any harshness at all, but in fact with great empathy. i tried to make clear that i wasn't at all offended by your intention--to wish us a happy women's day--and that i appreciate that.

but ever since i got on email, most of the forwards i have received that were intended to celebrate women have done so by trying to idealize us and taking shots at men.

i don't think we need to do either of those things to appreciate and encourage ourselves and other women. we really are good people, even though we screw up in lots of ways and fail each other sometimes and ourselves as well, often because of the sexism we have internalized. we really are amazing in our real struggles and victories. and we do deserve to celebrate our achievements and our solidarity.

i know the messages aren't intended to hurt, and neither was my response. they are written with humour and affection, and that is great. but they fail to see who we really are--flawed and wonderful human beings who are striving against the confusion and difficulties caused by a hurtful, inherited world view. and they set up or rather continue some of the confusion inherent in that worldview, that us-and-them thing, the idea that in order to be truly good we have to be perfect, and so on.

funnily, when my feelings on this topic really were strong, i would never have written that note. or if i had it would have come after great provocation and would have been accompanied with anger. i just wanted to explain my thinking about something that goes around all the time without comment.

once more, i'm sorry if my attempts to explain my thinking felt personally directed at you. i was trying (clearly unsuccessfully!) not to do that--particularly when it was clear that you were well-wishing, something i am greatly in favour of.

oh--and i was not in any way protesting your wishing us a happy women's day. your st. patrick's day example isn't a parallel. if you sent around a message about st. patrick's day that put catholics and protestants in an equivalent light, then yeah, i would have an issue. (as a matter of fact, being in the main a mix of irish catholic and irish protestant, i do have a problem with a lot of what passes for humour regarding the irish.)

i know you wrote to me off-list, but you haven't said anything i find particularly embarrassing and i want to respond to the list as well--if you read my letter that way, then like as not other people did, too.


"Love is a demonstrative emotion."
Words of Wisdom, Sistah Souljah

Athena Andreadis said...

Thank you for publishing the rant, Casey! As I said in our private exchange, the key is to think humanely and try to see people as distinct individuals.

Ursula's description of The Coin reminded me of a Northern Exposure episode in which the main female character, pilot Maggie O'Connell, acquires a summer lover... and it's subtly revealed he's a werebear.

I ordered your book and look forward to reading it.

C. June Wolf said...

Glad you liked the rant. Not often I et _asked_ for one!

I vaguely remember the werebear. Very vaguely. Not sure you will find much similarity between that and "The Coin", but I'm glad you are giving it a shot. Enjoy!

Maggie V. Jones said...

An interesting discussion. It's the very thing you are talking about Casey that left me at odds in my own life. Experiences dictate us, and my experiences as a child didnt reflect some of what I came to feel about the male species as an adult. How could I marry (pardon the pun) my hatred of some men as a kid, to the love and happiness I came to experience with my husband and sons as a young woman? My experiences as a youngster eventually led me to Uni to study Women Studies, and the course though empowering left me with more problematic questions than answers. That slogan 'do you speak for me sister ?' was so apt, because nobody can speak in all entirety for anyone, as we all walk in different shoes. Iv'e also experienced bigotry connected to my class and religion not just my gender. However, Im no 'all knowing' and cannot claim to speak for those people who have also experienced racism because of their colour, or discrimination due to disability, or even because of thier sexual orientation. Womens oppression is specific but certainly not the only oppression, and there are many overlaps. Men are equal partners with us in both being victims and in perpetuating oppression on others. It's all political, its all about power, and it's too complex in its many manifestations to try and pigeon hole and put nice neat little labels on it. Hence why I started to dislike the word 'Feminism'. The very word itself lends weight to being discriminating towards males, and diminished the oppression that men may have experienced also. I came to think it was time to ditch the 'F' word as a dirty word. I preferred a move towards the ideology of 'humanism', a more inclusive term. Ulike some though I dont feel that the ideology of 'humanism' is incompatible with the spiritual or divine. Its about justice, morals, ethics and about education. A humanist life stance can compliment and enrich the spirital side of us, and vice versa in my opinion. I think we should have a 'HUMAN' international day, but that's just my opinion, with all its subjectivness, and born out of my own life experiences :)

C. June Wolf said...

Hi, Maggie.

Thanks so much for your thoughts here. I understand what you are saying. There seem to be problems with all of these terms, and in many ways it isn't the term itself, but what it comes to mean in our minds, or in the culture generally.

I don't worry too much about terms but about how we treat each other, and whether we are open to examining our hearts and actions. I'd be happy to celebrate International Human Day with you; also International Abuse Survivor Day, International Helpful Neighbour Day, International Immigrant Day, and so on... We all have important experiences to share.

I think the reason words like feminism are important is because in the general mush, there are always groups whose experience is not quite understood by the whole, and whose needs and points of view tend to get watercoloured out of sight.

I agree that men have suffered and been oppressed, and class is a HUGE issue.

It's when we have an idea that normal is white, male, middle class, educated, and so on, that the issues of oppression--and that includes the way young white males are hurt--that we have a harder time seeing either how we ourselves are acting out oppressor patterns, or how the world might look from another point of view.

So from that angle, I think there is a need for overbalancing in the direction of using words like feminist. But I do see how it can get out of kilter again.

I think the bottom line is that as long as we are human, hurt by this and strengthened by that, uneven in our healing and imperfect in our thoughts and actions, there will be problems no matter what we call ourselves. But there will also be growth, and learning, and sharing over time.

I'm interested in hearing more about your thoughts about discrimination against class and religion, if you want to share them (with, you know, the entire world here...).

Thanks for writing.

Maggie Jones said...

Lol ... No Casey I'm going to go and hide away again and stick to my doodling, I feel on safer ground. I scare myself when I start rambling political, and I always feel guilty afterwards because I wonder if my thoughts are petty or insignificant, as I know there are others in the world with worst woes, harder burdens, or more important agendas. I can just picture me Mam saying to me now, "you don't know how lucky you are me gal!" Bless her :) By the way I enjoyed the review by Ursula Pflug.

C. June Wolf said...

I know what you mean, Maggie. I've had those reactions for years when I open my mouth--though it's getting easier. I know there is always someone worse off, but that doesn't mean we don't all have some insight to give, or some real things to say OUCH over. I love the sound of your Mam, though!

Glad you liked the review. And to anyone reading Maggie's comments, don't let her kid you. She's the brilliant painter who did the cover for Finding Creatures & Other Stories, and she is amazingly talented. (And wonderful, I have learned since we decided to use her art for the cover.)

Hugs, Maggie!