The Golem and The Jinni


In her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, Helen Wecker crafts a tale of two magical creatures who find themselves amongst the large mass of immigrants in 19th century New York City. Chava is a golem crafted from clay, recently created because golems are naturally bound to servitude and her master wanted an obedient wife. When her master dies at sea, Chava finds herself in the city all alone.

Meanwhile, a tinsmith in Little Syria is busily fixing a copper flask when a young man suddenly leaps out of it. The man reveals himself as Ahmad, a jinni entirely made of fire. Ahmad had been trapped in the flask for the past century and was now finally set free by the tinsmith. Given their newfound freedom, Chava and Ahmad must try to settle into human guises and make a living for themselves in this strange new city. Chava takes up a position at a bakery, and a kind Rabbi who knows about her supernatural nature gives her housing. Ahmad voluntarily works for the tinsmith who freed him to keep himself occupied.

One fateful night, Chava and Ahmad cross paths. As soon as they meet, they immediately recognize each other’s magical nature and are warily drawn to each other. Due to this curiosity and the relief in knowing they are not the only supernatural beings in the city, Chava and Ahmad begin to take nightly strolls together and form a tentative friendship. They talk about their struggles in fitting in to this human society.

By Mia Carnevale

Ahmad is an ancient, restless creature who grows impatient each day with what he perceives as the monotony around him. He longs to go back to the desert and be with his own people, but he must first try to find a way to return to his full original form. Chava, however, is extremely new to the world and is deeply overwhelmed by it. She throws herself into her work to build a routine and be able to serve others. Despite their differences, Chava and Ahmad both find it easy to speak freely with each other, even though it leads to heated arguments. The main questions explored in the novel arise through conversations. What does it mean to be a human being? How does one control primitive instincts while assimilating to a new world? Is there a middle ground between free will and submission to fate?

As the novel unfolds, Chava and Ahmad interact with a variety of background characters who each carry their own vibrant stories. There is Mahmoud the ice cream maker, a long dead Bedouin girl, an heiress named Sophia, and a cunning wizard named Schaalman. All of these characters seem unrelated to each other at first, but their story-lines all eventually tie together through unexpected and sometimes dramatic revelations. Wecker does an excellent job at building up the story’s main conflict and resolving it in a refreshing and inventive way. The lives of Chava and Ahmad remain extremely intriguing to the very end of the book, but the author still gives us a satisfying amount of closure with their fate.

As an avid reader of fantasy novels, I can attest to the fact that most of them are mainly based on European/Western legends and mythology. That’s why I found The Golem and the Jinni to be a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre; it focuses on magical elements from other cultures that haven’t been nearly as ambitiously explored. Through the titular characters of The Golem and the Jinni, Wecker draws upon Jewish mysticism and Arabian mythology respectively. She takes inspiration from these stories, adding her own thoughtful ideas and interpretations into the creation of these creatures and the laws that bind them. The different narratives are neatly woven together in a “story within a story” format that reminds me quite a bit of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights. The enchantingly vivid imagery and careful world-building are reminiscent as well.

The Golem and the Jinni is a gripping and dazzling tale filled with magic, adventure, and danger. However, it is also much more than that. It is a book that raises profoundly philosophical questions about faith, culture, society, and most importantly, the immigrant experience. Even though Chava and Ahmad are powerful magical creatures, they are also immigrants in an overwhelming city. Throughout the course of their experiences, they both must figure out how to stay true to their roots while they attempt to create a new life for themselves in this city they now hesitantly call home.

-Contributed by Grusha Singh


Navigating A Sea of Literature With Sjon’s “From The Mouth Of The Whale”

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“Here is another manifestation of insanity: people are united in actions that they would neither have known how to do nor dreamed of doing until seized by madness.”

~ From the Mouth of the Whale, Sjón

Sometimes you get tired of reading books in a specific genre, books by well-known authors, or whatever books are currently popular. Sometimes, the desire to read something different can be all-consuming. And in the sea of existing literature, that isn’t an impossible desire. Though, for best results, such a book should be found entirely by accident.

That is exactly how I came across Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, hailing from a country whose literature is on the peripheries when it comes to attention and recognition: Iceland. The summary seems straightforward enough: Iceland, 1635—Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught healer and academic, is branded a heretic and shunned by society, forced to seek refuge with his wife Sigga and survive the country’s harsh conditions. Beginning with a prelude where Lucifer has a confrontation with the Father, the book is set up to make the reader assume that the story will follow a rather predictable, linear storyline, with the possible interweaving of religious motifs on the side.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only clear formatting in the book lies in the seven sections into which it is divided. Otherwise, the reader is constantly being forced to remember that this is a story about Jónas, as opposed to a reflection on religion or the culture’s practices and ideologies in the 17th century. At a certain point, however, the certainty wears away as the captivating narrative takes effect.

Religion is the most dominant theme, with frequent indications of just how attached the Icelanders were to God and the Christian faith. What’s interesting is the way in which even religion seems unable to escape the dark and complex nature of existence. The second section begins with a rather unusual retelling of the story of Adam: how he grew so lustful that he began to desire his own shadow, and how God took it away while thinking of how to solve the problem. Where most books tend to focus on the idealized and sanitized versions of Bible stories, Sjón is clearly comfortable with presenting their darker side, the conflicts and dirt that may in fact have happened but that humanity has chosen to erase in an attempt to idealize them.

The novel’s biggest strength is how skilfully it weaves magical realism into an otherwise realistic and convincing narrative. Eventually there’s nothing surprising about hearing the story of how Jónas tried to exorcise the ghost of a young boy and almost drowned in a stream of excrement, or the vision he has of a being ripping out his fifth rib which, when placed on the doorstep, reminds Jonas of his wife—who has been standing there the whole time. Other incidents, like his reveal that the King of Denmark’s prized “unicorn horn” was actually a narwhal’s, rely on historical facts that nonetheless maintain a touch of the otherworldly. The same is the case with the almanac-like “entries” appearing at varying stages throughout the novel, providing dictionary-like definitions that sound like something taken from historical records. Their only shortcomings are how inconsistently they appear.

The novel “echoes across centuries and cultures,” as the blurb on the back states, in a more indirect sense than most will expect, and that was the best part of the entire story. It’s not a novel that strives to teach its reader something, to chastise the past, or even to weave an entirely compelling story. One must let the story’s natural course exert its power, which it possesses a great deal of, to grow attached to Jónas.

It’s a book that serves as a character study through the eyes of the culture and environment that surrounds him. The elements of magical realism, especially the very last scene in which a younger Jónas is willingly consumed by a whale, can be taken literally in the sense that they add a touch of excitement to the story. Another interpretation is as signs of how the human mind doesn’t always know what’s real.

Unusual and memorable, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is worth a read not only to delve into the aforementioned world of the unusual, but also to experience the literature of a culture that isn’t dominate in the current literary market, at least in North America. The writing style is refreshing and full of risk-taking, and whether you love or hate the book after finishing, it will leave a memorable, lasting impression.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

A Whimsical, Booklover’s Adventure Story: The Summer of Permanent Wants

Summer of Permanent Wants
Illustration by Julia Bartel

There is a certain pride an author feels in their ability to take a reader to another place, whether real or imaginary. Other authors do not have this as their main goal, instead aiming to bring that far-flung fantasy into our immediate surroundings, or, in this case, pretty close to that.

The Summer of Permanent Wants by Jamieson Findlay tells the story of eleven-year-old Emmeline and her grandmother. They decide to spend their summer aboard a boat they have transformed into a floating used-bookshop, making their way from Ottawa up the Rideau Canal. If that isn’t an interesting enough plot in itself, the fact that Emmeline has an unusual problem where she cannot speak, read, or write adds to the sense of unusualness. What place could such a girl possibly have among books and in such a place where she is likely to encounter people without the ability to properly interact with them?

The story is indeed unusual from start to finish, beginning with Em’s condition and ending with the adventures the two have on their journey. Along with their cat Lafcadio and the two crickets Cass and Nova, the reader is taken through eight tales. Eight adventures take up a chapter each but are nonetheless tied together.

The character of Gran is the perfect example of how a reader of this book might react: expecting to find a logical approach and solution to each of the tales. But Findlay successfully proves that there is a touch of the unexpected and unusual in all our lives.

The Fourth Tale, “In the Court of the Reptile King,” for instance, begins with Em swimming in the Bay of Small Blessings when suddenly an anaconda swims towards her. The appearance of a boy named Tom takes the story into a strange yet somehow logical and realistic direction. The reptile breeding facility Reptile Haven, located on a small nearby island, is home to Tom, his uncle, and numerous reptiles of different kinds, one of which was the escaped anaconda. Secret visits from his aunt Mara lead to the reptiles’ escape and a full-scale hunt in the attempt to find them. The situation ends happily when the stubborn La Gomera lizards finally decide to mate.

However, the tale as a whole ends on a different note. Em senses a Presence, one that is old and wild, much more so than the Indian snake god Senesha. It’s the indescribable feeling you get of something much bigger than yourself, yet without a readily identifiable form or essence. It’s merely overpowering and noticeable, hiding around familiar corners.

Others, like the Last Tale, “The Book of the Jewelled Net,” focus on a notebook that falls into the hands of Em and her grandmother, a book that apparently contains all the information in the world. Its previous owner was rumoured to have been driven mad. He attempted to read it but always found the contents to change, discovering new pockets and secret fold-out pages that didn’t exist before. Em finds this out for herself, when on her second look through it she cuts open a page and finds Scrabble pieces inside and an illustration of her late grandfather’s boat, Cygnus.

To some, it may be a metaphorical approach to the journey of self-discovery and self-reflection, the belief that you always learn something new about yourself over the years or rediscover something you may have forgotten. The notebook is, after all, based on the Buddhist god Indra’s net, and it is well known that religion is perceived from various angles, depending on the viewer. Our emotions and memory are much like this notebook, only lacking the clear physical form that can be readily pointed at. We have the same mental tangles and hidden pockets, and at times can get lost in the search for a detail we know is somewhere within our inner pages.

The Fifth Tale, and my personal favourite, “A Patriot of the Night,” is about Em and her grandmother’s encounter with a woman named Tenebrio in Hathaway Falls, the home of what Tenebrio calls a “natural darkness.” She is on a mission to return it to her ‘country’ but is pursued by ‘agents of light,’ so to speak. With the help of a magician, the Great Zucchini, Tenebrio manages to make her escape when a vial of this darkness breaks and causes a mass blackout in the area, heading in the direction of the sky.

Darkness can be both physical and emotional, as many know, having encountered both forms on a daily basis. Science has not been able to explain everything—there is still the absence of an equation that could explain black holes, for instance. The arts often step in at this point, though in this case it is a gentle nudge to the reader in the direction of what appears at first glance to be pleasant absurdity. Darkness cannot be bottled, and no one fears the dark to the point where they avoid even small patches of shade. But these are so carefully woven into the storyline that it is difficult for them to feel out of place or ridiculous. If anything, these twists in the plotline are like landmarks you happily stumble upon after roaming near it with your nose buried in a map. Which brings it all back to Em’s condition.

Em gets through the entire story by using a mixture of sign language, gestures, and body language, as well as her own logic and, even more importantly, her curiosity. Em is a clear reflection of ourselves; her adventures are no different from the unexpected surprises each one of us encounters. Events from the past may seem absurd or logical, depending on how and when you reflect on them. But this doesn’t detract from their wonder and their validity.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

A Movie for the Child in All of Us: A Review of The Little Prince

Le Petit Prince
Illustration by Margaryta Golovchenko

The modern pressures of having a career and being on your feet, working 24/7, are issues that have been talked about for several decades. With the emergence of mechanization, on one hand, the working class hoped that machines would make their workload easier, while, on the other hand, a new fear of job loss began to sweep the population. Today, these pressures and fears are most significant to the growing generation that is about to enter the workforce and that has been dubbed just about everything from “the hopeful generation” to the “lost” one.

How do these issues relate to an animated movie? The French movie, The Little Prince, initially released last year in Europe and coming to theatres in English this year on March 18, addresses the challenges of growing up by taking a beloved classic and putting a new spin to it. For it is now more than ever that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s witty and honest prose is relevant. If he thought that his generation was going through a growing up crisis during World War I, then he would definitely have quite a bit to say about our society today.

True to its origins, The Little Prince film adaptation maintains the original novella’s plot, carefully weaving it into a fresh narrative that continues the magic into the present day. This is the first big plus of the film, as I found out for myself that a younger audience will most likely struggle with this new spin on the novella, to say nothing of how they would fare with a direct adaptation of the novella. Instead, the viewer is introduced to an unnamed cast of characters, being able to refer to them only as “The Little Girl,” “The Mother,” “The Aviator,” and “The Little Prince,” among others. At first glance, this seems impersonal, but I’d argue this is the very thing that makes the movie even more successful, beyond its new twist. The vagueness of the names allows the viewer to delve into each character and analyze them in a much more objective manner. It’s easy to imagine yourself or one of your parents as either “The Little Girl” or “The Mother,” yet this allows much more room for the “Yes, but” mindset to step in, preventing an outright disassembling of the characters in order to pick out the parts that are relatable and throwing out those that are not.

This leads me to discuss the way these characters all coexist in this new narrative world. In the beginning of the movie, a little girl and her mother sit in a drab, grey hallway and discuss a ‘game plan’ for a successful interview. Over the course of the next ten minutes or so, the viewer learns that the girl was hoping, as per her mother’s advice (or under her pressure), to enroll into a prestigious academy. Her résumé of achievements at her young age is impressive to the judges, so they declare they shall ask her only one question in order to judge whether she is fit to enroll. Much to the shock of both the girl and the mother, the question is not “Why are you worthy of attending,” but rather the much more open, and hence ‘dangerous,’ question of “What do you want to be when you grow up.” The pre-planned answer to the former is not applicable in this case, and the lack of preparedness catches the girl by surprise, causing her to faint.

Already, at ten minutes in, the viewer is presented with the theme of the movie, the crisis of growing up, which is taken directly from the present-day context. It isn’t surprising, then, to see the events that follow: the way in which The Mother plans out a strict schedule for her daughter to pass the entrance exam to the academy, and the shock of the seemingly absurd tale of The Little Prince that The Aviator presents to this young girl not long after.

How does one decide “what they want to do” in a time when we have what is, arguably, only an illusion of freedom? Artists and writers are frequently discouraged from their “fantasies” of pursuing creative jobs, which aren’t deemed “worthwhile” or the kind that is likely to bring in a “good income.” Professions such as lawyers and doctors seem like the best choice, at least to the concerned parent. But if you have everyone wanting to become lawyers and doctors, how many of them will truly be able to settle into the job market and be able to get that aforementioned high paying job?

More importantly: if everyone grows up and becomes serious, who will be left to dream, to wonder about the beauty of the sky because they know that somewhere a star is inhabited by a flower?

This is where the film offers some insight, continuing the story long after The Aviator has told The Little Girl about his encounter with The Little Prince. The viewer finally sees what is arguably the most difficult moment in any fairy tale: the possibility of the main character losing their magic, that spark that makes them stand out from all the others.

In order to keep my argument as spoiler-free as possible, I will refrain from delving into all the complexities that ensue in the latter part of the movie. But I have no doubts that this movie has been made at the perfect moment in time. I consider myself lucky to already have a passion and be following it—no matter how difficult it may be at times—but there are children growing up who do not have this comfort of confidence, or have had it taken away from them. This movie is an ode to them, and to the children inside us, acting as a reminder that we need to tend to them, just like to The Rose.

So when The Little Prince comes out this March in theatres, there are a slew of reasons why you should go see it: the animation is gorgeous, particularly the delicate and whimsical paper-like style that hearkens back to the original novella; and the soundtrack is composed by none other than the master Hans Zimmer himself. This is only to name a couple. But the main reason to see this movie would be to do so for yourself, for the glimmer of hope this movie brings in its successful attempt to bring back some of that magical, childish curiosity that each of us carries.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Infinity, Ineffability, and Loss in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph”

First published in 1945, “The Aleph” became one of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s most beloved stories. Like many of Borges’s works, “The Aleph” is concerned with the nature of infinity and the illusion of reality. It gleefully traverses multiple genres and modes of fiction, including fantasy, satire, allegory, memoir, epistolary fiction, and voyage narrative.

“The Aleph” is narrated by a fictionalized version of Borges who recounts his experience of the Aleph, a point in space that contains all other points in the world. The insistence upon the conflation of the author Borges with the character Borges destabilizes and distorts the demarcation between fiction and reality.

The story opens with Borges mourning the death of his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo. Borges recounts how he visits the house of Beatriz’s family on the anniversary of her death each year for several years, gradually becoming acquainted with Beatriz’s first cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri.

A mediocre poet with delusions of grandeur, Daneri has made it his lifelong ambition to write an epic poem that will describe every location on the planet in ultra-precise detail. In his poem, aptly titled The Earth, Daneri substitutes mundane words like milky for luminous words like lactescent. Unsurprisingly, his poem is terrible.

When a business on the same street attempts to tear down Daneri’s house in order to expand, Daneri confides in Borges that he cannot lose his house because there is an Aleph in his basement, and he needs it to complete his poem.

Though Borges believes Daneri to be insane, he asks to see the Aleph for himself. Unbelievably, the Aleph is real, and with it Borges is able to see every place on the planet instantaneously and simultaneously. But Borges denies seeing anything to Daneri in an attempt to make him question his sanity out of an immature hate for him.

In a postscript to the events, Borges writes that Daneri let his house be demolished, but that he went on to have the first part of his epic poem published and won second place in the Argentine National Prize for Poetry. Borges also asserts that he believes that another Aleph, the real Aleph, is located in a stone pillar in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Cairo. This Aleph is believed to contain the entire universe, not merely the earth, within it. And though it cannot be seen, if one places one’s ear to the pillar, one can supposedly hear it.

The Aleph (א) is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (think aleph-bet). It symbolizes the wind, the air, and the sacred breath of life. In Kabbalistic tradition, the Aleph signifies the Ein Soph, the divine origin of all existence. The Aleph is seen as the spiritual source of all letters, speech, and language.

Though it is the origin of language, the Aleph cannot be contained by language because it comprises infinity and is therefore ineffable.

It is this failure to articulate the spectacle of the Aleph—the failure to represent it using language—that is at the heart of Borges’s story. When trying to describe the Aleph, Borges repeats the phrase “I saw” almost forty times in a single paragraph, as if through anaphora and the accumulation of details he can capture the wonder of the Aleph and thereby confirm the truth of his experience.

Yet Borges’s endeavor to convey what he saw in the Aleph is futile, for language is a medium that progresses. Words follow words and sentences follow sentences, and the reader can only read about one subject at a time. The Aleph, however, shows every place in the world at once; there is no progression from image to image or from place to place—everything is seen at the same time. Language may be asynchronous, but the Aleph is synchronous.

Because of the restrictions of language, Daneri’s poem will be a failure, and Borges’s own attempt to describe the wonders of the Aleph will be barely the shadow of the echo of the real thing. The limits of language mean that Borges cannot ever overcome the distance between signifier and signified. He cannot accurately convey his experience in words.

Just as the Aleph cannot be contained by language, it cannot be retained by memory either.

After seeing the Aleph, Borges feels certain that he will never again relate to other people or exist in the world in the same way that they do. But after a few restless nights, forgetfulness gnaws away his memories, and he returns to normality even though he does not want to.

Reflecting on his experience, one question remains to haunt Borges: did he see the real Aleph in the mosque in Cairo when he looked into Daneri’s Aleph, or was it his imagination? He realizes that he can no longer remember what he saw in the Aleph, just as he can no longer clearly remember Beatriz’s features.

In comparing these two fading memories, Borges returns to the problem of the limits of language. Just as Borges cannot articulate the world he saw in the Aleph, he cannot articulate the pain of loss.

But that is not the only meaning behind this comparison. The progression of time is inexorable, and as the bodies of our loved ones decay, our memories fade. Against out will, life goes on and balance is restored—yet nothing is ever quite the same. Ultimately, for Borges, the loss of a loved one is the loss of a world.

-contributed by Alex De Pompa



Art and Reality

Over a month has elapsed  since Gabriel García Márquez’s passing  on April 17th. The following day I decided to pick up his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, widely considered to be the author’s magnum opus.

The book chronicles the lives of seven generations of the Buendía family living in the fictional town of Macondo. Its renown consists in part of its being a pioneering work of magical realism and its anticipation  of the upsurging popularity of Latin American literature in the 1960s and 70s. Mesmerizing for a number of reasons, the book intimately entwines dreamlike and fantastical elements with serious documentation of a recognizable and real world.

Márquez’s book must have been on my mind as I visited some of the galleries participating in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival taking place throughout May all over TorontoAlthough we frequently talk about the content of literature or photography as being magical, I don’t think we recognize often enough the magical properties of art itself; specifically, those arising from the relationship between art and reality.

There are three possible relationships. First of all, it is clear that art can mimic or recreate our reality. Here, the photo or the book doesn’t do anything but re-present things which occupy the reality that we ourselves occupy. The page is as flat and depthless as the surface of a mirror.


Hendrik Kerstens, Aluminum Foil, March 2012.

Danziger Gallery, New York.


But to say it’s depthless is not to say it’s without meaning; it’s to say that its meaningis contingent upon things outside of the four edges of the page, specifically things that occupy our reality. Consider Henrik Kerstens ’ speculative photograph. Its subject is recognizable as a thing from our reality. In an immediate sense, it is a girl with an aluminum hat; on a more profound level, it is reminiscent of a 17th century Dutch portrait . It is speculative insofar as it presents an image that we do not regularly encounter, yet it is composed purely of the elements of our reality and, as such, functions within the limits of what is possible in our reality.


Conversely, consider Mary Sibande’s A Terrible Beauty is Born. It is immediately evident that the subject matter is not bound to the laws of our reality. It contains plant-like sentient curlicues that both appear to be part of a dress and are unaffected by gravity. The subject also defies normal notions of space and time. Despite the shadows on the ground, there is no horizon line or any background distinguished as such that would ground the subject in a certain location. Moreover, the pastiche costume—consisting of elements of a uniform of a domestic servant, Victorian-era upper-class fashion, and carnivalesque embellishments, all in a brilliant fuchsia—defies historical location. This photograph constructs a reality of its own.


Mary Sibande, A Terrible Beauty is Born, 2010.

Gallery MOMO.

By positing this second relationship I do not mean just the creation of an alternative reality, but more generally the creation of a reality that does not already exist as our own. The photograph presents a reality that exists in its own right. To find the meaning we must look in the art, not outside of it.

Márquez demonstrates the ability to nimbly negotiate back and forth between art and reality. The book’s focus is familiar to us: people with recognizable traits performing recognizable activities. Úrsula is an ancient grandmother who knows everything about everything, yet is not immune from the children who play pranks on her. Fernanda’s religious modesty leads her to speak in euphemisms, causing everyone to believe she has gastrointestinal issues rather than gynecological ones. Mauricio and Meme are a young Romeo and Juliet until a guard shoots him and she is sent to a convent.

Yet Úrsula speaks with ghosts before she dies and Fernanda consults invisible doctors who are able to properly diagnose her. Yellow butterflies follow Mauricio everywhere he goes. They follow Meme even after his death. Cards forecast the future. Nomads import flying carpets. The town experiences rain for many years without stopping. Yet One Hundred Years of Solitude never descends far enough into its own reality. It constantly flitters between our world and its own world. It doesn’t set roots in one reality at the expense of the other, but perpetually draws upon elements from the two. This is the essence of magical realism, the  hybrid cousin in the family of speculative genres.


On a more intimate level, the book affects my understanding of love, solitude, family, war, and the like. For instance, the more times that Amaranta rejects the men who fall in love with her, the more I become convinced of the potential hardness of the human heart and expand what I imagine to be the human capacity for indifference. When José Arcadio is tied to a tree, I learn  how an obsession with knowledge can lead one to madness.


I don’t necessarily have to believe that I will endure or witness these kinds of experiences myself; it is enough that my understanding of these concepts has changed so that now whenever I talk about love or solitude I have a new understanding of the nature and possibilities of these notions.


This is the power of art itself: the capacity of an inanimate object to alter the reality of a human being .


I acknowledge that I have taken the definition of reality for granted here and that there is more than one facet of reality with which a work of art engages. However, addressing these facets would not contradict the relationships I’ve outlined, but would only make them more intricate and interesting. Nevertheless, my hope is that what I’ve said so far is enough to convince the reader that when considering any genre or medium of art, it is imperative for us to recognize the magic of art itself, not just the magical world that it portrays.

More information on the ongoing Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival can be found at

 -contributed by Alexander Pytka


Of Imagination and Fantasy: The Importance of Childhood and a Look at Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie”

For many readers, it seems that  speculative fiction (once you figure out what it means) conjures up either thoughts of the future or the ancient worlds past. Visions of demons and monsters, aliens and robots, or their hybrid kin tend to spill from the stories we read and, as a result, the realms of  sci-fi and horror cloud our minds; but is this the only “ speculative”?

Where are the worlds we saw as children when our toy soldiers came to life and shot their plastic green guns filled with imagined bullets or when the dolls that we groomed so meticulously walked with a womanly confidence and won the hearts of all the soldiers in our toy boxes? These magical moments that we experienced as children seem disappear from our daily adult lives. Now, when we look at stuffed animals or tiny figurines, all we see is plastic and thread.

But for speculative fiction writer and most recent winner of the Hugo Award for Science Fiction, Ken Liu, the power of childish imagination does not only exist in his stories: it thrives. In his short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” Liu envisions the synthetic life of origami animals and their struggle to exist as supernatural entities for a Chinese-American child named Jack as he struggles to accept his mother’s heritage as his own.

A small paper tiger by the name of Laohu replaces a human friend for Jack, who is able to give the tiger life when they play. Like any other tiger, Laohu can leap and growl, he can hiss and bite, and he can grow old and die. The significance of this toy and its close relationship with Jack present a unique magical realist twist on the classical characters found in fantasy and sci-fi.

Liu is a master of playing (quite literally) with his characters and using them to express very adult themes through the eyes of a child. There are underlying notions of racism and self-acceptance alongside Jack’s mother’s struggle to integrate into the foreign home she lives in are are very real issues, and not necessarily fantastical. Many of us hail from foreign countries or have ancestry in foreign countries that may or may not make us feel very comfortable in our own skin. Racism isn’t something made up nor was it an invented monster for any particular tale, but much like robots or zombies it is something that threatens the autonomy of characters in both fantastic and general fiction tales.

This story exposes in its skeleton many aspects of traditional speculative fiction: the fantastical, the realistic, the familiar, and the strange. All the pieces of the puzzle exist within it, so why is this sort of speculative fiction not as popular? That is to say, what does Dracula have that Laohu does not?

I had never head of this story, nor did I have any idea of who Ken Liu was until a couple of weeks ago. The notion of re-visiting childhood seemed boring to me and, in my quest for exploring new speculative pieces, my interest was hardly piqued by the first glance at this story. Out of boredom (or maybe the desperate desire to select a piece for my upcoming blog article) I figured, “What the hell.”

I quickly fell in love with the plot and the character of Laohu. Perhaps it’s the fact that I stem from a multicultural family (my mother is African and my father is American with German parents) but the cultural asymmetry between Jack and his mother really struck a chord with me. I understood Jack’s desire to fit in and I felt the pain in his heart as he was torn between two worlds. But what gripped me the most was how Jack’s perspective on his heritage shifted as grew up.

Jack starts out  consumed by the “magic” of his mother’s creations. His eyes light up when he holds the paper animals in his hands, feeling their spirits come to life. But quickly, Jack’s peers and neighbors strip him of his love for these origami creatures (in Chinese these are called zhezhi) and he sees them as nothing more than colored paper.

Perception and the willingness to believe is such an important part of what allows us to accept things as magical or fantastical. Without that readiness to accept something as true even if every sign is pointing to the opposite, we would not have speculative fiction. Horror,  sci-fi,  fantasy,  cyber-punk,  steampunk,  dystopian, and  utopian themes all depend on the reader to revert to a childlike mentality in order to view these make-believe worlds. Yet what’s striking is that when presented as adult universes, we can easily accept them; it is the inclusion of child-like elements that separates the fantastical from the immature.

The world of a child, through the eyes of a child, is the most magical world of all. When we are able to bestow life into lifeless objects: paper, plastic, and fabric, we are able to transport ourselves into the true universes in which the  speculative genre was meant to be. A villainous A.I thriller is good, a classic blood-curling horror about bloodsuckers is great, but maybe what we need to really need to (re)experience  are those cuddly and childproof fantasies of our youth: the kind filled with paper tigers and simple hearts like Laohu.

– Contributed by Hannah-Sophie Hirsch