Category Archives: Reviews

Narrating Blindness

A review of Rod Michalko’s “Explain Yourself” in Things are Different Here (Insomniac Press, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Explain Yourself”, the first story in his collection Things are Different Here, Rod Michalko exercises his characteristic wit and sense of play to bring attention to the way that sighted people are always asking blind people to explain how they became blind. Michalko plays with the overall notion of storytelling within the story by having a character, Jason, who invents stories about how his friend Matt became blind whenever he is asked. Michalko explores the subversive power of storytelling, using fiction as a mode for opposing ableism in public spaces. 

Frequently the able-bodied feel that they have a right to demand narration by disabled people, asking us how we became disabled and wanting us to give them our narrative. They frequently ask us how we became disabled out of an attempt to ensure that they don’t fall into the same “tragic” circumstances. There are power dynamics to that demand for us to narrate, and “Explain Yourself” is a story narration that is an act of resistance, a commentary on systemic ableism and the power of storytelling as a mode of resistance. Michalko is best known for his academic work in disability studies, but this shift to fiction stories is also an act of education (and I don’t mean that in the way that people often mean “educational” sources on disability – i.e. stories that explain our bodies). Michalko brings his readers into the critical questions and ambiguities that fiction does so well.

“Explain Yourself” is a tale about Matthew, a blind man, and his friend Jason, who is sighted. These two met at the gym and have a friendship based on mutual humour. Instead of people asking Matthew directly about his disability, they ask Jason because they are too uncomfortable speaking to Matthew directly, but still have their curiosity and ableist privilege to feel the right to question Matthew’s body. Jason had not asked Matthew how he became blind throughout the history of their friendship, but decided to let Matthew know how often he gets asked about blindness. 

Michalko uses this narrative to bring up critical questions about able-bodied allies. His character Jason interrogates why he feels proud to have a blind friend, and how he feels about narrating a blind man’s story as an able-bodied person. Like much of Michalko’s scholarship, “Explain Yourself” is an exploration of narratives – who gets to tell them, how they tell them, and what they mean.

To discover more about Things Are Different Here, visit http://www.insomniacpress.com/new-books.html

Breakable

A review of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017).
By Derek Newman-Stille

While Caroline M. Yoachim tells a story of a girl turning to glass in her story “Dreams as Fragile as Glass”, she uses this speculative medium to invite questions about the way that parents react to their children being diagnosed with illness. A contagion of transformation into glass is an appropriate medium for her to use since our society generally portrays children with congenital disabilities as fragile, and parents are normally convinced that they need to treat their children as quintessentially breakable if they are disabled, cutting them off from experiences they may want to have. 

Hikaru’s greatest desire is to surf. She views surfing and the magic of riding the waves as something that makes life worth living, but she has inherited genes from both of her parents that make her inclined toward a disability of becoming glass. Just as she is convincing her mother that she should be able to surf, Masumi notices the first part of Hikaru becoming glass. Masumi needs to balance her own desire to protect her daughter as she is showing signs of her disability with her desire to let Hikaru live the life she wants to live. 

Yoachim invites critical questions about the way congenital disabilities are thought about in “Dreams as Fragile as Glass”, exploring the complexities of parental relationships with their disabled children and the desire to both protect them and allow them to live a life worth living. 

To find out more about Caroline M. Yoachim, visit http://carolineyoachim.com

To discover more about The Sum of Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

A Green Lantern with Anxiety

A review of Sam Humphries, Robson Rocha, Ethan Van Sciver, and Ed Benes’ Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet (DC Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

The Green Lantern rings are supposed to go to people who have an ability to conquer fear… so what happens when a ring goes to someone who has agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress? Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet explores Jessica Cruz, a woman with agoraphobia who did not leave her apartment in three years. She is open about her anxieties and throughout the comic she constantly questions whether the Green Lantern ring chose correctly when it chose her. The ring constantly assures her that she is the person that it was meant for, but she keeps believing that she does not deserve it. The Green Lantern that she is partnered with, Simon Baz, also keeps believing that she is not suited to be a Green Lantern, referring to her as a “nervous wreck”.

Her anxiety interferes with her ability to form green light into constructs, a power that all of the other Green Lanterns have. There is a danger in this inability to use her ring to its full extent that may illustrate that the comic is trying to suggest that people with disabilities cannot achieve what non-disabled people can. 

The Green Lantern rings choose people by saying “You have the ability to overcome great fear. Welcome to the Green Lantern Corps”. This opens up the notion of “overcoming” in disability narratives, particularly in the case of Jessica Cruz who we are introduced to in the middle of her work to overcome her fears. Most of the other Green Lanterns are introduced as people who have an abundance of self confidence, which is generally connected in Green Lantern comic to the power that the ring draws on: Will power. But Jessica complicates easy notions of fear and will power through her anxiety. Frequently in public discourse around disability, and particularly mental health disabilities, non-disabled people will tell disabled people that they can overcome their disability by working harder and putting in effort (namely, that they can overcome their disability through will-power). We see this image replicated through what we in Disability Studies call “Inspiration Porn”, those problematic inspirational messages like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” or “Before you quit, try” or “Excuses. Let’s hear yours again”. Statements like these are intensely problematic because they ignore the bodily reality of disabled people and our knowledge of our own bodily limits. So, creating a Green Lantern who has anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia invites critical questions about the way we define disability. There is a danger that this comic could become more inspiration porn because it could become another overcoming narrative, after all, the statement “you have the ability to OVERCOME great fear” is built into her induction into the Green Lanterns and this has a danger of being linked to the fact that the ring is powered by will-power, which is what inspiration porn messages try to suggest can overcome disability with their messages that “if you try hard enough, you can overcome your disability”. 

While there are dangers in the portrayal of Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, it is fascinating to see a superhero with anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia, particularly since the superhero genre is frequently about big adventures outside of the home (and for the Green Lanterns, frequently off planet), engaging in activities that could cause PTSD while not having emotional or psychological repercussions for any of the events that happen to them. Jessica Cruz represents a potential destabilizing of these superhero narratives of the person who is impervious to trauma (or who can get over trauma in the space of a single issue comic book). This could be helpful in critiquing the overall portrayal of heroism as something that resists trauma or psychological repercussions at a time when it is important that we examine the toxic culture that ignores traumas visited on people who are put into dangerous situations and the culture that makes people with trauma frequently hide it in order to fit with the image of the “hero” who overcomes everything. 

To find out more about Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet , visit the DC comics website at http://www.dccomics.com .

Knitting Narratives Together

A review of Embroidered Cancer Comic by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin (Singing Dragon, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Sima Elizabeth Shefrin takes a fascinating approach to comics, creating a comic out of textiles, embroidering her narrative onto fabric. There is a sense of intimacy about using textiles to talk about cancer that links the artworks produced to the history of textile work in the home. The use of embroidery, for me, evokes memories of embroidery samplers on the walls of the home, and transforming this textile basis into a comic allows a sliding of forms between the usually stagnant stitched image and the dynamism and mobility of the comic book. 

Shefrin’s Embroidered Cancer Comic deals with the complexity of cancer and its presence in the home, exploring the disease not through its pathology, but through the effects it has on the family. Shefrin openly shares her experiences of her husband’s cancer and the intermingling of their feelings from his diagnosis through to his surgery. She examines the way that people try to take control over their cancer narratives either by changing their diet, or by avoiding the doctor, instead using alternative health practices to try to avoid medical intervention. 

This is not a typical tragedy narrative of cancer, and Shefrin brings humour into her narrative, evoking the complex feelings of her readers, who are brought along through her emotional journey. Shefrin doesn’t shy from the personal either, bringing us into spaces of intimacy like the bedroom where readers can engage with questions about relationships where sex isn’t always possible, or isn’t possible in the same way as it was before. 

Shefrin evokes the idea of change and transformation, using stitches to bring narratives of adaptation to life, exploring the way that bodies and their interactions shift when cancer is introduced into them. 

To discover more about Embroidered Cancer Comic, visit http://www.singingdragon.com

To discover more about Sima Elizabeth Shefrin, visit http://www.stitchingforsocialchange.ca/home.htm

The Reaper Cat

A review of Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”in The Sum of Us edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In 2007 reports abounded of a cat in Providence Rhode Island who predicted the deaths of more than 100 residents in an older adult care home. Oscar, the “miracle cat” was worked as a therapy cat for the residents and was reported on by geriatrician David Dosa in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dosa reported that Oscar would nap near patients a few hours before they would die, and he eventually wrote the book.

Oscar evoked a number of questions by the public around omens as well as the ability for cats to smell impending death. Oscar was also the inspiration for Juliet Marillier’s short story “The Gatekeeper”.

Highlighting a cat in a collection of short stories about caregivers and caregiving evokes the interesting relationships between humans and animals, and the emotional labour that our pets do for us. Marillier’s cat, who names himself Cat even though everyone around him has a different name for him based on the cats that they had when they were younger, constantly works to make sure that the residents feel safe and cared for. Marillier brings attention to the constant work that cats do, ensuring that their humans are emotionally healthy and well. Cat has integrated himself into the care routines of the older adult care home where he is working, checking on patients when human staff aren’t sufficient in the care home for the care needs of the population. Cat is often with patients at their deaths when human staff are busy elsewhere. 

Marillier writes Cat as a servant of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, and Cat believes he has a religious duty to make sure that he can give comfort to human beings, and, particularly those human beings who are transitioning into death. Rather than simply being part of the expectations of a pet’s role, Cat’s care for humans becomes his religious duty, complicating ideas of care.

In “The Gatekeeper”, Cat’s role is questioned and he and the man who rescued him and brought him into the home, Tariq, may have to leave because the home, with its strict policies considers the presence of a cat to be a question of hygiene. Rather than listening to residents about the importance of having a therapy cat, administration at the older adult care home decides that the cat shouldn’t have a role there. This relationship to the cat is further complicated because Tariq is unwilling to give up Cat (who he names Hamza), and, as a result may lose his job. Tariq is Afghanistani and has precarious employment in Australia due to his immigrant status. He is perceived as unqualified for others jobs that he could have and positioned as a care provider. His loyalty to Cat/Hamza comes into conflict with his need for employment and his ideas of care, a style of care based on personal connections with the residents, is already suspect in an older adult care culture that is often based more on efficiency and bodily needs over the emotional needs of the residents. Cat provides for the emotional needs that a neoliberal health system doesn’t allocate time or funds for. He provides care for the price of treats and connects residents to feelings of safety, comfort, and memory.

Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper” operates in the realm of speculative fiction to open up critical questions about health care and ideas of quality of life, while focusing her narrative on human-animal relationships. She brings attention to the devaluing of emotional labour and care work, highlighting the therapeutic potential of human-animal interactions, and human-human interactions in a home. She provides a cat’s eye view of the nursing home system, taking the narrative out of the hands of doctors, nurses, and PSWs and envisioning a new type of care work. 

To discover more about The Sum of Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

To find out more about Juliet Marillier, visit  http://www.julietmarillier.com/ 

Obsessively Complex

A review of “The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James” by Ian Williams (Graphic Medicine, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

“The Bad Doctor” by Ian Williams is a tale of the entwined experience of a doctor and his patients. Unlike most medical narratives that tend to reinforce the hierarchical position of doctors as the arbiters of knowledge and patients (particularly those with disabilities) as receivers of knowledge, “The Bad Doctor” complicates narratives of disability and medical authority. Williams’ exploration situates Dr. Iwan James as someone who learns from his patients, changing with each medical encounter. He is a figure who combines narratives of disability with narratives of medical experience. 

Dr. Iwan James is portrayed as a doctor who has experienced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) his entire life, generally fixating on ideas of the occult as a threat and prayer as a method of averting disasters. Interweaving with narratives of encounters with patients, including one patient with OCD who helps Dr. James re-assess his own compulsive thoughts, Ian Williams also portrays elements from Dr. James’ childhood. Drawn with beautiful trees coming from his head that hold bubbles about all of the things that the young Iwan wants to protect, these pages about his obsessive thoughts illustrate the complexity of OCD. Young Iwan spends most nights going through a series of blessings of each family member, having to repeat these blessings if anyone or anything is missed. Even stuffed animals need a specific number of pats each night to ensure that they are protected. Williams draws circles of light around each of the things that young Iwan wants to protect, linking them together in a complex pattern of thought, and yet these images are also surrounded by caution signs depicting possible outcomes if he misses anyone. As Iwan grows up, he begins to obsess over the occult, believing that his dog died because he listened to occult music. After his wife becomes pregnant, Iwan sees occult imagery everywhere around him and seeks to try to protect his children from their influence. 

Dr. Iwan James develops coping mechanisms for his OCD, able to develop methods to control these obsessive thoughts, but they don’t disappear from the narrative. This is not a narrative of disability where there is an easy solution through a “cure”. Rather, Dr. James’ continued work on himself allows him to be a better doctor, to engage with patients from a place of knowledge, but not of arrogance. Instead, he is able to share his narrative with patients to help them to better understand themselves and their own compulsions. Dr. James still has persistent thoughts and continues to have suicidal ideation from time to time and these suicidal thoughts enter into the comic page in imagined scenes of shooting himself in the head or guillotining off his own head. Ian Williams illustrates the way that these thoughts can interrupt everyday narratives by inserting them between panels, at random, evoking the power of suicidal thoughts to seep into the mind during every day encounters.

Told through powerful snippets of encounters with patients and intense flashbacks of obsessive compulsive thoughts, “The Bad Doctor” creates a complex view of medicine and the relationship between an individual and the medical system. 

To discover more about “The Bad Doctor”, visit Graphic Medicine’s page at http://www.graphicmedicine.org/ 

An Act of Recovery

A review of M.K. Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (Graphic Medicine, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

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A graphic novel about a nurse’s experiences in an HIV/AIDS unit during the peak of the infection and when the infection didn’t have treatments that prolonged life as they do today seems as though it would be a depressing tale, and indeed it was. But, this was not just a tale of lives lost and the pain of losing friends and family, this tale was one of mutual support and community.

 

The history of AIDS is one that is enwrapped in Queer history, and like many parts of our history, it is erased. Unlike many other cultures, Queer culture isn’t passed down through family lines from one generation to the next. We often rely on members of our community to share the Queer history that they have uncovered.

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M.K. Czerwiec helps to bring the history of the Queer community’s interactions with AIDS to new generations, letting us connect to aspects of our history not through the distant medium of history books that often bleed all of the emotion out of a historical event, but rather through her own personal experience with AIDS as a nurse who worked with people who were infected. In “Taking Turns”, Czerwiec shares her own story and how it touched multiple parts of the Queer community and the medical community as they engaged in a shared experience of AIDS. This is not a distant, pathological story, but instead one that is intensely personal, real, and relatable.

 

The medium of comics is one that was intensely powerful for the story of a nurse in an AIDS care unit because it prevented the sort of cool standoffishness that often occurs when we talk about AIDS, a distancing technique that we frequently use to pull ourselves away from the memory of those lost to the virus. But, with a comic, the reader looks directly into the eyes of the patients. We see their transformations as the virus progresses. We see the medical equipment that surrounds them and shapes their existence.

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“Taking Turns” is an embodied experience where the story can’t be distanced from the bodies of the people involved. They are always present in the reader’s vision, preventing any pathologized readings or distancing. M.K. Czerwiec invites her readers into her world and her own history, making sure that we understand AIDS beyond the medical models we often receive.

 

When I was growing up, those of us in the gay community received constant warnings about AIDS. AIDS was constructed as the boogeyman haunting every sexual encounter. Posters were everywhere at gay clubs and in health units, warning us that we were one thin piece of latex away from certain death. These posters generally featured images of condoms or drops of blood or needles, but rarely let us see the human faces behind AIDS, the people who experienced the virus. This contributed to a lot of the fear around AIDS and the fear directed toward people with the virus. Czerwiec’ comic is one that I would have liked to have read as a young Queer person. It would have helped to humanize the people who had AIDS in our community instead of distancing us from them. It would have been a reminder that we, as a Queer community, need to pull together and protect and support our community.

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“Taking Turns” is a painful narrative, but, more than that, it is a hopeful one – a tale of community coming together in a culture of care. It is a body story, one that is fundamentally about embodiment and the experience of living. So many AIDS narratives are about death and this one is also about life.

 

You can discover more about Taking Turns from Graphic Medicine at http://www.graphicmedicine.org

You can explore Taking Turns further at http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07818-2.html