Reality Skimming

Interview with Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille has a Masters Degree in Anthropology from Trent University. His Masters Degree involved an analysis of ancient Minoan and Mycenaean Art and his interest in the archaeology of ancient societies has had a great deal of impact on his own artistic trends. Many of Derek’s paintings are heavily influenced by the artistic trends of the ancient world and one can see in his art imagery revolving around Palaeolithic goddesses or cave paintings from the past. As a classicist, Derek is particularly influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, deriving a lot of the themes of his artistic works from classical myth. His interest in anthropology and archaeology has influenced his work, showing an overall love of the rich depth of diversity in the human experience and the wide range of methods people have used to express themselves over the course of human history.

From an early age Derek was interested in the artistic styles of the Group of Seven, fascinated by both the creative style and the philosophical ideologies behind the works of Lauren Harris in particular. Harris’ concept of trying to capture something beyond the physical appearance of nature, its soul, influenced Derek to move away from realism to try to capture the feelings evoked by the experience of observing nature, its internal perspective. This interest in the imaginative led Derek to move more and more toward expressive forms of art and the need to create dreamscapes of form and image to express his own emotional experience. Like the Group of Seven, Derek desires to paint what lies beyond the surface image of his subjects: the emotional and spiritual dimension. With his art, Derek tries to capture what is beyond, behind, through his subjects.

Derek's art shows a distinctly Canadian flavour both from the influence of the Group of Seven, but also through the distinctly Canadian interest in diversity. As a culture the prides itself on the idea of the 'cultural mosaic', Canadian culture has influenced Derek's desire to pain from a diversity of styles and influences, creating a patchwork quilt of international and intranational artistic accents. His work is intranational because he recognises that even before European settlement, Canada was made of a vast network of diverse and distinct peoples and through the process of European settlement, a diversity of cultural influences have been added to our landscape. His work therefore borrows from the fluidity and sculpted shape that was characteristic of the Group of Seven's painting style, but also highlights the spiritualism in nature characteristic of the works of Anishnabee, Haida, and Metis peoples. His work also incorporates elements of art nouveau, art deco, Celtic, Minoan, and Norse styles of expression. Derek's art shows the natural Canadian receptivity toward inclusivity and his work shows an unorthodox blend of styles, varying in artistic technique depending on the feeling or idea he wishes to express or the emotional dimension he wants to evoke from the viewer. He feels that limiting oneself to one dominant style has a negative impact on expression and prevents the artist from exploring the depth and complexity of his subject.

In his youth, Derek was told that he had a fine motor learning disability and that this would prevent him from developing fine motor skills and thus not allow him to do fine art or any form of highly skilled artistic work. Derek’s love of art, need to express, and belief in the importance of art pushed him to continue to develop his style and engage with various creative fora.

Interviewed by Sarah Trick

1. Thank you for agreeing to talk to Reality Skimming! Please tell us a bit about yourself and your project, Speculating Canada.

Thank you for this opportunity to do an interview with you. Speculating Canada ( grew out of my current research for my PhD in Canadian Studies at Trent University. My research is focussed on exploring the representation of disability in Canadian speculative fiction, and, in particular looks at the way monstrous protagonists in Canadian urban dark fantasy are often written in a way that suggests the experience of people with disabilities in Canada. For example, monstrous protagonists, like people with disabilities, are often described in urban dark fantasy as experiencing barriers to employment, the need to pass as normative bodied, differences in senses, dealing with bodily difference, the medicalised body, etc.

Speculating Canada is sort of a combination of a number of different things that were important to me like making Canadian speculative fiction (SF) more known, showing my love of the genre, discussing Canadian speculative fiction as a tool for learning and opening up new questions and ideas, and making scholarly work accessible to the public. Often academic work is written in a way that excludes the public and makes it inaccessible. So, on Speculating Canada, I try to combine reviews of Canadian SF with a little bit of literary analysis. I do this to recognise the intelligence and depth that readers of SF have, and to allow them to critically think about the work they are reading and experiencing.

I also try to show the ability of SF to question things, to open different social norms up to speculation. SF has an incredible ability to push boundaries, help people move out of their comfort zone, and challenge pre-conceptions that our society doesn’t often challenge. SF has an incredible ability to link up with higher education in its ability to open everything to discussion and constantly ask the question “why?”.

I do regular author interviews on Speculating Canada, and I think I do something a little different with my interviews. I see a lot of websites that ask authors questions about writing: Why did you get into writing? What is it like to be an author? etc. So, I thought I would do something a little different and ask authors about what kinds of questions they are hoping to raise with their literature and give them a forum for discussing the big issues of today and how they manifest themselves in literature. Authors are often really keenly aware people who have an incredible grasp of social situations and issues around them and SF authors, focussed on the future, on the darker side of things, or on other worlds of possibility, often are looking into things that the majority of our society ignores or leaves unquestioned. I like to allow authors to really express these insights and show the ability of SF to question “the normal” (an invented category, itself).

2. What inspired you to start Speculating Canada? Do you believe Canadian speculative fiction is ignored or unnoticed compared to mainstream CanLit? You say in your introduction to the website that speculative fiction is seen by the mainstream establishment as 'a literature not of here;' that is, it is foreign and not essentially Canadian. You say, though, that speculative fiction gives us the opportunity to engage with questions of our own identity. How do you see it doing so, and what role do you see for Speculating Canada in the process?

Speculating Canada came out of many of the interests I mentioned above, but it also came from an unusual personal circumstance. I have been experiencing health issues for the past year that have, among other things, affected my memory. I began taking more extensive notes on the Canadian SF that I was reading (for me, there is no such thing as JUST reading for fun – reading for fun and reading for research happen together and I always have a bit of a critical analytical perspective when I read). It occurred to me that I could take those notes and share them with people to try to encourage people to read more Canadian SF and to make people aware that they can be doing critical analyses of Canadian SF on their own. So, my recent memory disability was inspiration for the creation of Speculating Canada.

I definitely agree that Canadian SF tends to be ignored or unnoticed in comparison to mainstream CanLit. For some reason, many Canadians think of “realist” fiction when they think of Canadian literature. My own personal awareness of Canadian literature throughout most of my childhood was that it was about rocks, trees, lakes, survival, and depressing family situations. When I read Science Fiction as a child, it was generally from abroad (American, British, or Australian) and I often felt a sense of displacement – I couldn’t find myself in Science Fiction from abroad. So, when I finally discovered Canadian SF while in University, I developed a love of it and discovered a medium that really spoke to me.

I definitely see speculative fiction as a medium that can bring attention to social issues around us, and possibly give voice to people and ideas that are often under-represented. SF is often referred to as the “literature of change”, and it has a lot of potential to become this, but a lot of people who are writing SF are still recycling current stereotypes and treating them as though they are inherently natural rather than socially created. One can see this in the stereotypical treatment of people of colour, people with disabilities, and in the treatment of gender and sexuality. A lot of things still remain unchallenged and I see SF as playing a huge role in opening up some new ideas and challenging some things that have been unchallenged for too long. Canadian SF is already starting to bring attention to social issues and social questions and I hope to see more of those questions being asked as time goes on.

Several fantastic Canadian authors are bringing attention to and challenging social issues like Claude Lalumiere, Michael Rowe, Gemma Files, Karl Schroeder, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia (a small sampling of the numerous authors who are using SF as a medium of change). When interviewing authors for Speculating Canada, I have really seen how keenly aware and interested they are in social issues and in promoting ideas of diversity, social and environmental justice, and challenging ideas that limit us as a society. SF can really become a medium of change and help society to ask itself the tough questions that will lead to deeper awareness and hopefully help us promote a more diverse, inclusive, society.

3. What do you see as common attributes of Canadian speculative fiction? Is there anything specific about the genre that makes it unique? Where do you see the field going in the next few years? How has it evolved thus far?

I have had a lot of difficulty with the question of what defines Canadian SF. I have been struggling with this for a while, and I think the best thing that I can say is that there is an indefinable quality to Canadian SF, something that one can feel rather than pin down with a specific line of text. I do know that one of the things that really has jumped out to me about Canadian SF is its ability to question taken-for-granted notions and its ability to take things into new and unusual places that are the point of genesis for new ideas. Canadian SF seems to have an interest in that place where the surreal meets the real, that point of possibility that suggests to us that anything can be possible and that we are limiting ourselves by not considering new possibilities. I think our history as a nation that has had some challenges in defining itself, a nation that often asks the questions “Who are we?” and “What makes us distinct?” has given us a unique interest in questions of identity and a comfort with ambiguities, an ability to be okay with not having all the answers. We are able to “live in the question”, be okay with not having a tidy situation that wraps everything up into a nice, cohesive box. Canadian SF is more about asking questions than providing answers, and I think this is an incredible place for us to really make serious social changes and provoke serious thought. We are okay with morally grey characters, we tend to like ambiguous endings where there are still some questions left unanswered, and we like characters that question things and aren’t totally set in their ways or one-sided.

I think one of the biggest challenges to Canadian SF involves the challenge of market pressures. A great deal of publishers impose their own ideas about what the market is like on authors. We can already see it in terms of the misconception that Americans won’t read Canadian literature because they are only interested in things happening in the US. This is unrealistic and insulting, particularly to the SF readership who are interested in reading about far-off places and getting away from the comfort of home. Yet, it has influenced a lot of authors to either set their stories in American cities or to try to creatively avoid naming the location for their stories to suggest a general North-Americanness that ignores the idea of “place” entirely. I think the biggest challenge to authors is to really push against market research to write about what inspires them rather than what they are told will sell. The thing that is often ignored when market research is brought in as part of the creative process is that readers will often like things that are well written by an inspired and excited author who loves what they are doing and when authors begin to write for the market, they often lose that passion and their audience can feel that. SF readers are generally really bright and know when an author has lost their passion for the craft and are writing what they are told to write instead of what speaks to them personally.

4. One difference that I see is that Canada has many small presses that publish SFF. (Not that the States doesn't, of course, but it seems to me that SFF in Canada specifically is very much supported by the small press culture, and vice versa.) This is, of course, a very personal connection for the Okal Rel Universe, as the Saga is published by EDGE and Virginia O'Dine [ed. note: formerly] of Bundoran Press is a longtime Friend of the ORU. Do you think that small presses and speculative fiction in Canada have shaped each other, and if so, how?

I think that small presses have a really essential role in creating really good Canadian SF. Small presses often give the opportunity of authors who are marginalised to have a chance to get their work out into the world and read by people. They seem to be more willing to take chances on authors than the big presses and that allows us to see a lot more diversity in the authors. Personally, most of the books that I tend to enjoy most come from smaller presses, so I am a bit biased in favour of small presses (the books reviewed on Speculating Canada probably reveal this love of small presses).

I think that small presses provide a great place for questions. They often allow authors who challenge things, authors who are generally considered a bit to risky for mainstream publishers to get their work out. So, I think small presses have been influential in the ability of Canadian SF to develop as a genre that questions things, that pushes boundaries, and that challenges the status quo.

One of the things that I think we should be doing as a reading audience is showing more support for small presses by visiting their websites more often to see what books are available (since often books from small presses don’t come up in our recommended lists on Chapters, Amazon, and other booksellers), and also writing reviews of the books by small presses that we read. Reviews can be a really great way of bringing attention to the works of authors who generally publish with small presses and the more attention we bring to them, the more books that they are able to publish.

5. Your academic research is on "Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monster for exploring the representation of disability issues." Could you tell us a little about that? Do you treat these two topics separately or together? Do you think the Canadian representation of disability is different from that offered by other cultures? Do you think the monster can ever be a positive symbol?

I think the monster is often a positive symbol. The monster comes to represent the things that we repress and suppress, the hidden, secret things, and the fringes and it has an incredible value in showing us what we fear and questioning the nature of those fears. Monsters have traditionally been given all of the undesireable characteristics of society, anything that deviates from “the norm” and so they come to represent things that are attributed to the outsiders of society, those pushed to the fringes, under-represented, and oppressed. By exploring the monsters we create, we can come to see what (and who) our society is ignoring. Most works of Canadian urban ‘dark’ fantasy question notions of the monstrous, complicating black and white notions that we, as a society, create to make ourselves feel like we are right, normal, and good. Authors of Canadian urban ‘dark’ fantasy often question the barrier that separates the normal from the ‘Other’ and show us that these “us versus them” categories don’t work and often ignore social complexities.

In terms of my research on disability, the monstrous protagonist (the monster hero) often faces issues that people with disabilities face: having to deal with a society that rejects them, having to deal with spaces made for “normal” bodies that don’t include them, being treated as social outcasts, facing barriers to employment, and being feared. As a disabled person myself, I have often found myself identifying with the monster in books because historically they have been portrayed with similar issues and experiences to those that I encounter. I recognise that able-bodied society both intentionally and unintentionally portrays people with disabilities in monstrous ways, and so I like the figure of the monster because it has become an empowering symbol for me of the socially oppressed group finally having a voice. The monster becomes the manifestation of the challenge that is offered by marginalised people: that voice in the dark that is largely ignored and villainised that won’t be silent and that haunts a society that tries to impose ideas of “the normal” in ways that exclude people.

So far, by researching the monstrous, I have been able to bring attention to disability issues and the ability for SF to challenge ideas of the “normal body” at various conferences that I have presented at. I have given papers on Canadian author Sparkle Hayter’s Naked Brunch and its ability to question the medical treatment of people with disabilities. She presents the figure of a werewolf who is treated as though lycanthropy (werewolfism) is a disease and disability that can be treated and is forced to undergo damaging “treatment” in order to become “normal” and in the process risks losing the special abilities granted by being a werewolf in addition to risking severe pain, drug addiction (to the treatment drugs), and possible psychiatric issues in order to force her body to seem human. People with disabilities are often treated as medical oddities and are often subjected to “treatments” that are more focussed on normalising their bodies than on allowing them to lead a healthy, happy life. I have also presented on Tanya Huff’s Blood Books which situate detective Vicki Nelson, who is going blind due to retinitis pigmentosa and is excused from the police force, alongside Henry Fitzroy, a vampire who is constrained by his inability to go out in the sun. Both of them try to “pass” as “normal-bodied”, making themselves appear to fit in to social ideas of what is felt to be “normal” behaviours. The issues in these papers are a bit too complex to cover in this interview, so please excuse the brevity. So, the monstrous has an ability to challenge concepts of normalcy, and my hope with my research is to explore the ways that Canadian urban ‘dark’ fantasy authors ascribe characteristics onto their monsters that are often experienced by people with disabilities and others that are socially excluded.

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