Enter the Raccoon

I would never have known about the existence of Enter the Raccoon if it wasn’t for Beatriz Hausner herself, who came in as a plenary speaker for the Vic One program. Surrealism is clearly not the most popular genre, and the science-oriented students could be seen smirking quietly. But it was undeniable that, once she began to read, a trance-like quality in Hausner’s voice took hold of the entire auditorium. In that moment, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was the way in which she read or the words themselves. I only knew that I wanted to read more of her work and see if I could experience such a feeling on my own.

The results were indeed replicable, although I did learn one significant thing: Enter the Raccoon isn’t the type of book you’d want to read on a subway ride, for the wandering eyes of nearby passengers might occasionally be shocked by what they come across. The collection traces the love affair of the narrator and a human-like raccoon, with a particular emphasis on the sexual side of the relationship.

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The prose poems interchange: a piece that furthers the reader’s understanding of the love affair may be immediately followed by a poem that has a very journal-like quality to it, discussing things such as artwork in a museum, a popular Chilean TV show, or the way in which raccoons act as carriers for diseases. It’s strange to describe and feels equally strange while reading, yet there is an allure to the poems that makes it impossible to put the book down.

Despite the raccoon’s description as not only human-like in stature but also possessing several mechanical limbs, the relationship he shares with the narrator is not far from the kinds one might encounter on a daily basis. It is possible that one might have experienced something similar in the past.

The wordplay and riddles that the two lovers exchange are perhaps tamer than the act of leaving and staying that categorizes modern relationships. There is always a sense of sitting on the very edge, wondering whether the relationship will continue or end, and on what note the latter would happen. Most significantly, there is an element of nostalgia present even when Raccoon and the speaker are together, as if there is a much greater emotional and psychological rift between them.

While this half of the collection may be less accessible to some readers, the other half makes up for it quite easily. Hausner mentions Amy Winehouse several times, and the event of her death is recent enough for the impact to still be palpable. These moments also act as an invitation for the reader to take a glimpse at the poet’s internal thought process.

The technique of automatic writing in these rather personal and at times rather informative pieces is what brings out the other side of surrealism; the much less outlandish one that counteracts the sheer bizarreness of reading about the relationship of a human woman and a human-like raccoon. These other poems still manage to transport the reader into a deeper exploration of the self-conscious by remaining rooted in present day scenarios and factual events.

Either way, Enter the Raccoon never stops exerting its weird charm. It also isn’t the type of collection that one can easily pick up and dive into. Rather, it requires a proper mood or mindset (or a ridiculous sugar high, take your pick). It successfully demonstrates that the fantastically bizarre isn’t as bizarre as one may think, successfully pairing it with real-life examples that create a transient state that is no less odd but enticing.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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A Letter from the New Online Editor

Dear readers and contributors,

My name is Shahin, and I am going to be The Spectatorial’s Online Editor for the coming year. It is an honour to inherit Miranda’s legacy, and her mentorship gives me confidence in taking on this role.

This is The Spectatorial’s third year, and we have a lot of new faces and ideas on board. We have planned many exciting additions—but not to worry, they will not replace the beloved literary exploration we’re known for. We are merely broadening our focus to include speculative art, events, and the like in our coverage, and we hope that this helps The Spectatorial to grow into an inclusive, vibrant community of lovers of all things speculative.

We promise to continue our mission of celebrating the mystical, the unreal, and the unboundedness of the human imagination, and I hope that you will ride with us for another incredible year.

All my best,

Shahin Imtiaz.

A Letter from the (Old) Online Editor

Good afternoon,

This is an update on the transitions that are happening at The Spectatorial. We are in the process of changing our staff as many of us graduate from U of T and head off to explore other worlds. This includes the management of the blog and all our online platforms.

As of today, I am retiring as Online Editor. I leave the position and the blog in the capable hands of Shahin Imtiaz. The two of us have spoken at great lengths about what will come next for The Spectatorial’s blog, and I have to say that I’m excited for all of you. Next year will be full of new ideas, enthusiasm, and much speculation.

I hope all of you will keep on reading The Spectatorial, whether it’s the blog or the print journal–or both! It has been a pleasure to read and edit all of our writers’ work. I have been very, very lucky to learn from all of them and to serve as this year’s Online Editor. I wish all of our readers and writers the best.

Thank you one and all.

Sincerely,

Miranda Whittaker

The Dinosaur Experience: an Interview with Short Story Star Julia Drake

Dinos
Image from: http://www.jurassicparkjeep.com/rex_paddock.png

This interview has been edited for clarity.

While fiction has for a long time been associated with the weight of a thick, white-paged novel in one’s hands, you may have learned that this image is neither historically representative of print culture, nor is it representative of the recent expansion of literary forms and mediums. The short story is one such example of a blooming literary form. While it has always been a unique and masterful creation, in the past few years it has been revitalized and has received more mainstream attention. Short story collections, such as Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner’s speculative fiction collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, are often raw and powerful commentaries on modern life and current events.

This distinctive form of writing can capture historical moments, reflect on pop culture, and engage with all kinds of readers—from those who make quick library runs after work to those with an e-book reader on the subway and to those who, like many university students, surf the web between projects looking for a thrilling, quick read to restore their energy and imagination.

However, not only is the short story being used to represent technology, communication, and personal relationships in the modern world, but it has also found a new niche on the internet, revolutionizing its accessibility and circulation. Blogs, online journals, publishing websites, and databases are growing in popularity, redefining their content and catering to a wider and wider audience. The expansion of self-publishing and online publishing is providing seasoned as well as aspiring authors with new and exciting opportunities to release their work, and is providing readers with a new literary wonderland.

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read—one you can access through a couple clicks of your mouse—here is one suggestion that will bring a smile to your face. Julia’s Drake’s “The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay” will be relatable to all university students. We at The Spectatorial are grateful to the author for answering a couple questions about her stories, ideas, and experiences.

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Illustration by Iris Benedikt.

 

How did you come up with the idea of combining two such different ideas—a classic movie plot and a college application essay?

Truthfully, I watched Jurassic Park for the first time last year around college application season and the idea just popped out of my mouth: “Boy, this kid would have a great college application essay.”  My roommate laughed (kindly, perhaps), and that was all I needed to run with it. A lot of humor can be derived from shoehorning zany ideas into familiar forms—I think of George Saunders writing stories in the form of customer service letters or office memos. Luckily I work in a university writing center and had been reading a lot of personal statements, and it seemed to me that it was a form ripe for exploitation. We’ve all gone through the agony of writing application essays, and we’re all familiar with the tropes and tricks that we rely on when writing them. Fewer of us, I’d argue, have outwitted dinosaurs.

Is the short story your preferred literary form, and what attracted you to this form? Do you think that the short story has certain potentials of expression that other forms of literature do not?

I started out writing short stories because that was what was asked of me in college. A professor of mine once said short stories save the writer from having to do the “furniture arranging” you have to do in a novel—you can get to the crux of the problem much more quickly without having to do an extended set-up. This of course presents its own set of challenges, but it can often make a short story feel more urgent, and in that way the stakes are higher than in a novel. It’s also higher stakes for the writer: every word counts.

Do you have any advice for ambitious university students who want to explore writing, editing, or self-publishing? 

Write all the time, and trust yourself that what you’re saying has value. Don’t talk yourself out of projects, particularly not if they matter to you. Try to love the act of writing as much as possible, even when you’re struggling.

Can you offer any encouragement to young writers who are considering online publishing?

Read all the submission requirements—meeting expectations is part of the battle. Remember that when your works gets rejected (and it will be) that it may have been read by some twenty-year-old intern and that that person is not the absolute authority on your talent (I say this as a former twenty-year-old intern). And you can always Google “famous rejected authors”. I find myself doing that a lot.

How do you feel about fan-fiction? Can it be a useful tool to practice writing skills and develop style for young writers?

Anything that gets you writing is a useful tool. If other works inspire you, embrace that and see where you wind up. Updates on classics— myths, Shakespeare, fairy tales—are always popular, and we’ve been recycling the same stories for years and years. Imitations of authors you admire can be hugely helpful, too, in figuring out how certain authors are achieving certain effects. In painting, everyone paints the same still life with the pears and the silver bowl before they move on to abstraction; imitations and fan-fiction can serve a similar purpose in that they help you to pin down the basics before developing your own style.

-contributed by Polina Zak

Gateways to Glory: an Interview with Brian Gottheil

Brian Gottheil is a University of Toronto Law alumnus and the author of Gateways, a self-published fantasy novel that he is launching March 29. As a journal for speculative fiction, The Spectatorial is thrilled to interview Brian about self-publishing fantasy fiction. This interview has been edited for length.

from Brian's site
Image from http://briangottheil.com/gateways/

Your Goodreads page describes your work as being novel that reads like historical fiction. Is this due to your writing style or historical details that inspired your world?

When people say that Gateways is fantasy that reads like historical fiction, I think they are talking about the plotting and the world I tried to build. I wanted a world like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series, in which magic exists but is poorly understood with limited influence. In this type of world magic doesn’t drive the plot, as it does in, say, Harry Potter (of which I’m also a big fan, by the way). The plot is driven by the politics in the historical setting, and the struggles of people without extraordinary talent to achieve their goals in a harsh world—which is often the stuff of historical fiction.

Fantasy stories often look to the past for setting or inspiration (Medieval kingdoms, Victorian villages, ancient empires). What drew you to history when you were writing Gateways?

I’ve always loved history, and I’ve been drawn to it for as long as I can remember. I love history for what it teaches us about the world and how it came to be the way it is, and for the incredible stories it contains, which are all the more amazing for being true. But as a storyteller, one of the most fascinating things about history is how uncertain it is. Sure, everybody may know the basic facts of what happened, but there are always different interpretations and perspectives. There’s always a new story to be told.

Gateways is set in an alternate world that resembles Europe during World War I. A lot of fantasy stories draw on medieval or Renaissance worlds, but I’m not aware of much fantasy based on the early twentieth century. There was so much happening then! The  most horrific war in human history; nationalist movements and the start of the decline of European colonialism; a sense of triumph in modern technology (ships that were “unsinkable” and such) at the same time as a sense of tragedy in the loss of traditional ways of life. It’s a fascinating world to explore.

Fantasy is such vast genre. What elements do you love the most about fantasy or speculative stories?

Funnily enough, it’s not the magic. In fact, when magic gets too powerful or the story focuses too strongly on it, that often ruins a fantasy novel for me. I really love fantasy that’s more than an escape, that tells us something about the world we live in. I think fantasy and sci-fi are very well-suited for that, because in the words of a friend who studies this stuff, they create “mirror worlds” that reflect the real world but allow extra room for creativity and exploration. So as far as elements go: strong world-building; realistic characters and situations; themes that are meaningful “mirrors” to the real world; and, just like in a non-fantasy story, a plot with enough twists and turns to keep you reading. I hope I’ve lived up to all of that in Gateways!

Here at The Spectatorial  we know that a lot of work goes into designing a printed book. How did the design/printing process work for you?

It’s actually surprisingly easy to self-publish these days. I used CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s print-on-demand service. They have pre-formatted templates that you can download into Microsoft Word and just plug in your own text. Then you upload it back, they review it for compliance with their formatting requirements, and then you can either proof it online or order a proof copy that they ship to you.

The other aspect of design is the art for the cover and the map, which I am not at all equipped to do on my own. I found a list of cover designers through Smashwords.com (the non-profit e-book distributor I used), browsed the portfolios on their websites, and chose one whose other work had the feel I was going for. I filled out a questionnaire and we then e-mailed back and forth a couple of times, exchanging ideas and stock photos that could be adapted into the cover. Fiona was brilliant and I strongly recommend her. You can find her at: http://fionajaydemedia.com

What is the most difficult part of being a self-published novelist?

Self-publishing a novel is one thing; getting people to read it is another. As a self-published novelist, you have to do all of your own marketing. That isn’t, in itself, a difficulty; it can actually be kind of fun. The most difficult part is simply finding the time for it. I work a full-time job, and I also have a number of hobbies, friends whom I don’t see often enough, and all sorts of other things that make it difficult to prioritize the marketing.

What would you recommend to other fantasy or speculative fiction writers who are interested in self-publishing their work?

First, invest the money in a professional editor and a cover designer. The more self-published books you read, the more you will realize how much a well-edited book stands out from the pack. I’ve always seen myself as a very strong writer, proofreader, and editor, but even so, I cannot overstate just how much Gateways improved by working with my editor, Allister Thompson (http://www.allisterthompson.com). Then, go for it! Just be ready for the time and effort it will take on the marketing front.

Where can our readers find your novel?

At http://briangottheil.com/gateways/purchase-gateways/  you will find links to all of the places where you can buy Gateways. Or, just search “brian gottheil” on your e-reader’s bookstore.

Remember also to check out the launch party here: http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/gateways-launch-party-tickets.

You can pre-order your copy of the print version, which I will sign, when you get your party ticket, but only until March 9. Party tickets will remain open until the actual party, March 29.

 -contributed by Miranda Whittaker

A Call for Blog Writers!

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Do you want to get involved with The Spectatorial but don’t know how?

Do you know a great fantasy, horror, dystopian, sci-fi, steampunk or otherwise speculative novel/movie/series/comic/event that you want to share with our readers?

Do you want to write about all things speculative but don’t know where to start?

Do you want to earn contributors’ points so that you can apply for a position on The Spectatorial’s editorial board?

Do you want to become a part of the wider community that loves and supports speculative genres in art?

Write for our blog!

We’re looking for writers to contribute short non-fiction pieces (800 words max.) that will be posted weekly. These pieces can be reviews, critiques or musings about the nature of speculative fiction. Write about what that fantasy novel meant to you growing up. Analyze the representation of science in your favorite sci-fi movie. Write about the way alternate history plays out in a steampunk comic series. Critique the way that the human body is re-imagined in the horror TV series you’ve started. Write about whatever speculative media you love, hate, or are fascinated by. We’re also looking for interviews and posts about events in the speculative media community. Help us spread the word about conventions, festivals, performances, art shows and much more!

Send your ideas for posts to spectatorialonline@gmail.com. Drop us a few lines about yourself and your topic.  If you have any questions please email them to spectatorialonline@gmail.com. We can’t wait to hear from you!

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