Accessing The Mermaid

Accessing The Mermaid

Accessing the MermaidA review of Angeline Woon’s “The Mermaid and the Prince of Dirt” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories, edited by Kaitlin Tremblay and Kelsi Morris (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In “The Mermaid and the Prince of Dirt”, Angeline Woon takes the exploration of essential otherness in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and reworks it into a tale of disability and trying to fit into a world that actively prevents spaces of accommodation. The Little Mermaid was already a tale about ideas of belonging and spaces that prevented access, but Woon’s reimagining of the tale focuses on the way that our social and physical environments are made to exclude and reject certain bodies. 

Woon’s narrator is a mermaid who sought the land not due to her obsession over a human prince, but because she wanted to escape the control of her older sisters who regularly made decisions for her. As a mermaid, she already felt like an outsider. Annalee seeks out a witch who can give her access to the surface world and, like the mermaid in Andersen’s tale, Annalee gives her voice in order to gain the ability to walk on the surface world.

Annalee doesn’t rankle at her loss of voice and finds that as long as she can move and dance, she can express herself, but her sisters view her as incomplete without having a voice and decide that she can’t be complete unless she has one, so they unilaterally make the decision to trade with the witch to get Annalee’s voice back. The witch decides to take away most of Annalee’s legs as part of the bargain and Annalee becomes a wheelchair user. Decisions over her body are still being made by her sisters and she is assumed incapable of making her own decisions.

Rather than seeking a prince, Annalee finds Liam, a person who experiences mental health issues, but is also willing to believe her when she says that she is a mermaid, which most people refuse to do. Although Liam doesn’t come from noble blood, he is a prince to Annalee because he is one of the few people who is willing to make spaces accessible to her body. 

Woon’s reworking of The Little Mermaid becomes social commentary, bringing attention to the way that accessibility is still not a priority for most people, issues with government financial assistance (both the lack of it, and the constant requirement to prove disability), and the willingness and readiness of our society to assume the worst of people experiencing mental illness. 

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit https://thosewhomakeus.wordpress.com and http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/

To discover more about Angeline Woon, visit https://angelinewoon.wordpress.com

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Rage

RageA review of Serena Valentino’s Poor Unfortunate Soul (Disney Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Poor Unfortunate Soul, the last book in this series by Serena Valentino wasn’t as powerful as the other two tales, and part of that may be because Ursula didn’t have the same sort of sympathetic portrayal that the Evil Queen or the Beast did. Valentino’s Ursula was a creature shaped by understandable rage, but unlike the other villains with greyed morality, Ursula is portrayed as distant, a figure of rage from afar rather than the close-up pain and frustration we feel with the protagonists of the other two books.

Valentino provides a background for Ursula that allows us to understand her anger, frustration, and pain, giving us a glimpse into an undersea world where she was constantly ostracized for her appearance in a realm that could only accept one particular body type. She resisted this bodily narrative, being herself even though she was pushed to the fringes of her society for it. Ursula in Valentino’s narrative is the sister of King Triton, king of the mermaids and Ariel’s father. 

Ursula’s rage is justifiable in this narrative since it comes from the pain of years of isolation. It is also the kind of powerful rage that could be transformative, and that could overturn a kingdom that reinforces a strict status quo. Valentino hints that King Triton’s patriarchal control is at the centre of Ursula’s pain and rage, noting that the king imposes beauty standards on the women around him, a male hegemony that positions women as beings to be looked at rather than to wield power. This could have been a powerful feminist tale tale with Ursula challenging the patriarchy and trying to push for an overthrow of a system that disempowers its public, and it seemed to be building toward this at the start, but there is a sudden shift in the narrative toward positioning Ursula as a creature distant from the reader instead of the reader getting the chance to see the world through her eyes. We get pulled out of that dark potential where change is possible and thrust onto the surface while we watch the status quo become re-established.

To discover more about Serena Valentino and Poor Unfortunate Soul, visit http://www.serenavalentino.com/projects/ursula/ 

Orwellian Uprising

Orwellian Uprising
A review of Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha’s “Fables: Animal Farm” (Vertigo, 2003)
By Derek Newman-Stille


The second volume in in the “Fables” comic book series, “Fables: Animal Farm” introduces us to the fairy tale characters that can’t pass in the human world. Whether giants, talking pigs, Puss in Boots, flying monkeys, or trolls, the fairy tale characters who passed into the human world and are unable to pass as human are confined to a small village away from human civilization, deprived of common rights of movement, and limited in the activities they can participate in. 

Feeling treated as second class citizens, many of the residents of The Farm want to challenge a system that divides characters by appearance. But, these beings from fairy tales of the past are integrated into a tale of the present as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” becomes a modern text that weaves into this tale of exploitation and class difference. Like in Orwell’s tale, certain residents of The Farm decide that they can exploit the anger that the residents all have over being treated as second class citizens in order to take over their society. 

“Fables: Animal Farm” explores ideas of class conflict, but it also interrogates ideas of segregation of certain populations, and the residents of The Farm remind the reader (and the human-looking fairy tale characters) that no matter how good the buildings are in a segregated community, it is still a prison when you are unable to leave. There is a commentary here on other institutions that segregate disabled populations or aged populations from an able-bodied population that consistently expresses a desire not to see people with disabilities or the aged. The residents of The Farm are similarly hidden from sight, removed from social interaction, and isolated. Indeed, they represent their isolation by playing on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies by slaughtering one of the Three Little Pigs and placing his head on a pike. The characters use this symbolism to illustrate that their isolation, rather than their bodies, have transformed them into animals and monsters. 

In “Fables: Animal Farm” Willingham, Buckingham, and Leialoha illustrate that texts have power, and, particularly, that they ask social questions. Mixing fairy tales with some of the social commentary from Orwell and Golding’s tales, “Fables: Animal Farm” reminds readers that fairy tales and other stories that we tell ourselves are our way to understand our place in the world and that tales should be revisited because every time we revisit them, we observe something new and relevant.

To find out more about the Fables series, visit Vertigo at http://www.vertigocomics.com/graphic-novels/fables-vol-2-animal-farm 

Ozpressed

Ozpressed
A review of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (ReganBooks, 1995)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is a tale of oppression and marginalisation. Maguire centralises his narrative on the life of the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, giving readers the opportunity to question the singular portrayal of a narrative and opening up the possibility that any narrative only speaks one truth among many. Maguire explores the Wicked Witch’s life from her own perspective, giving new context to her tale and examining her as a marginalised figure.

Like many figures who have been socially assigned to the category of “problem”, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, had characteristics that others could point to as “different”. She was the only green skinned person in Oz, making her a target for discrimination, assumptions about her origins, and threats to her safety. Even her own father thought that she was a physical manifestation of his own sin, illustrating the compulsion to moralize difference.

Elphaba’s birth and life come at a time when the social political situation of Oz is already uncertain. The citizens of Oz have sat by while the Wizard of Oz has exploited the existing discriminatory attitudes of the citizens to launch campaigns of rights denial, ghettoisation, and ultimately extermination for Oz’s marginalized populations. Elphaba, a person who has lived her entire life through the lens of discrimination, launches a campaign of freedom fighting against the Wizard, seeking to find a place for herself in the world by getting rid of the horrors of the world.

Steeped in philosophical debate about the nature of evil, battles of political discrimination, and, of course, fairy tale battles against those who inherit the title “witch”, Maguire’s tale is fundamentally one about belonging. It is about the desire for home, and the question of whether a home can be made or something one has to be born into. It is about what constitutes belonging and who doesn’t belong when we create barriers around belonging. And, of course, it is about the horrors visited on those who the people in power decide don’t belong.

To discover more about Gregory Maguire, visit http://gregorymaguire.com