Hypermedia Literature as a Platform for Marginalized Voices
Hypermedia literature—writing that features nodes of electronic text or media immediately connected to other text or media through a hyperlink—is still a relatively young genre. Despite its newness, hypermedia literature allows authors to revolutionize the role of readers, manipulate structural elements to control the narrative progression of the piece, and incorporate mixed media. These techniques make hypermedia literature an effective platform for marginalized voices, including those of women, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community.
One of the strengths of hypermedia literature is that it requires readers to take on roles not traditionally associated with reading. The exact number of roles the reader takes on and their functions are debated by scholars. One such scholar, John Slatin, postulates three roles for the hypermedia reader: browser, user, co-author. Browsers wander the text and engage where they please. Users read the text for a specific purpose, often using a clear path set out by the author. Co-authors help rewrite or reshape the content through their own interactions with it. Slatin admits the boundaries between these roles are not always clear, and one reader may fit more than one role (875). Piret Viires, in contrast, argues that a reader has four possible tasks when engaging with hypermedia texts: interpret, navigate, configure, write (159). Finally, Alessandro Zinna argues that readers interact with hypermedia in eight distinct ways: following a linear path, following one or more divergent paths, writing text, erasing text, linking text, erasing links, creating text and links with no erasure, and creating and erasing both text and links (Di Rosario 103). The reality is that the number and type of roles that a reader takes on depends on the piece they are reading.
The varied roles that a reader plays when reading hypermedia literature ensure that the reader is required to do more work than they would need to when reading print publications. Most notably, readers are required to interpret the relationship between different nodes of content and make decisions about how they will interact with the media. In traditional print literature, authors have already made those decisions for the reader (Conklin 40). But hypermedia relies on readers making sense of and interpreting the relationships between nodes of content (Slatin 876). When reading hypermedia, the reader must bring together “snapshots” to create the cohesive experience of the work (Bolter 48). For example, when reading Illya Szilak’s “Queerskins,” readers must put together pieces of Sebastian Adler’s life to form an image of who he was. Similarly, readers of hypermedia must make decisions about how to engage with a work. Often, multiple links are presented and readers must decide which to follow, either arbitrarily or based on the presentation of the link. These choices may even allow the reader to manipulate the text (Kac 62). Because clicking different links leads to different content being displayed, every reader has a different experience of the poem (Funkhouser 31). Making these choices creates a sense of “agency” or control for the reader. It allows them to insert themselves into the process of reading and build a text that is different from what the author created (Patterson 76). It is important for authors to consider the reader’s different possible experiences of the text. The author must compose their work with the understanding that the reader will make choices that may lead to several different reading experiences and that all reading experiences are “equally valid textual encounters” (Kac 65).
When the reader can make choices that manipulate the text, the distinction between reader and author blurs. Readers may be asked to manipulate text or to arrange units of text into a cohesive whole. Early hypertext author Michael Joyce argues that there are two types of hypermedia literature: exploratory and constructive. Exploratory involves guiding a reader through paths to find the knowledge they are looking for. Constructive demands that the reader become part of the creative process (Di Rosario 101). However, the “authorial” responsibility doesn’t look like a traditional writing process. Robert Kendall argues that “the reader’s role resembles that of an author organizing a final version from preexisting rough drafts and notes” (161). The form of hypermedia literature can be limited by structure as the poet arranges it, but the final version of the text is only revealed to the reader through their own manipulation of it. Therefore, both author and reader contribute to the experience of the reader (Kendall 161).
Although the reader takes on an authorial role, the writer can still “relinquish as much or as little as control as he [or she] chooses” (Bolter 43). Specifically, the author may limit what the reader can see and manipulate the reader’s experience of time. Links may only appear after the reader meets one or more specific conditions, such as typing a specific string of text or viewing a specific piece of text or media (Bolter 44). Authors can also control the reader’s experience by modifying their experience of time. Scrolling text may move more quickly or slowly across the screen, demanding a different reading speed. Writers may also constrain the amount of time readers have to consume a particular piece of text by programming text to disappear or be modified within a set amount of time (Viires 158). For example, in Fred Wah et al.’s “High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese,” several pieces of text are only displayed briefly before the reader is returned to the previous page. However, in this case, the same text can be revisited again. Other pieces may not allow the reader to revisit text, forcing an incomplete reading (Di Rosario 108).
Controlling the reader’s experience of hypermedia literature requires a careful use of structural elements. Writing in hypermedia therefore becomes not just about the words, but also how the text is laid out on the screen and how different nodes are interconnected (Slatin 876). Elements may have a “progressive” or “associative” relationship. In a progressive hypermedia piece, information is presented in a way that is narrative, chronological, linear, or otherwise logical. Associative hypermedia nodes are connected in content, but not in a particular order (Kendall 163). These associative relationships allow the reader to experience content in a fluid, nonlinear way. By allowing a nonlinear presentation of content, hypermedia encourages the reader to follow different pathways when reading the work (Kac 62). This can “introduce new procedures of reading that violate the reader’s expectations of a linear narrative” (Bolter 47). The reader experiences a “kaleidoscope of possible structures” (Bolter 47). For example, in Mark C. Marino’s adaptive hypertext “a show of hands,” the first text a reader interacts with is selected according to the image the reader chooses out of a mosaic. After this, the reader is presented with a choice of several relevant links. As the reader continues exploring the text, they are always presented with the most relevant unread links.
To keep a reader oriented—or in some cases, disoriented—in a non-linear structure, authors may use clues within the text to help or hinder the reader. These tools include typography, background colours, and navigational aids. One of the most basic typographical clues used in hypermedia and hypertext is the colour of links. Links can appear different colours depending on whether the link is visited, unvisited, or visited during a different semantic context (Kendall 167). In addition to text colour, font and text decoration can also be used to signal different types of links or different authors in a collaborative piece (Slatin 881). Writers of hypermedia literature may also look beyond the text to change the colour or image of the piece’s background to send different signals to the reader. For example, the background images in micha cárdenas’ “Redshift and Portalmetal” change when the reader migrates from one planet to the next. Finally, graphics can be used to orient the reader by providing visual clues like a progress bar that reveals how much of the text the reader has engaged with (Kendall 167). The author can also include map or table of contents to orient the reader (Bernstein 26). Readers of “my body—a Wunderkammer” can return to the main woodcut drawing of the woman and explore the body using the image as a kind of map (Shelley).
Hypermedia literature also allows authors to add mixed media components to their work. Unlike early hypertext fiction, most recent hypermedia literature incorporates images, videos, and other design elements in addition to text (Funkhouser 13). Modern hypermedia usually involves “complicated multimedia works combining written texts with video clips, works of music, media art” (Viires 156). Mixed media goes beyond enhancing a poem’s visual presentation and allows a deeper engagement with the reader. By combining hypertext poetry with various other forms of media, authors create multi-faceted and interactive works. In Illya Szilak’s “Queerskins,” the juxtaposition of text with multimedia elements underscores the fragmented and dichotomous nature of human identity.
The techniques described above have been used to great effect by marginalized writers. Shelley Jackson explores a woman’s body and sexuality in “my body—a Wunderkammer.” Hypertext and hypermedia literature are also used to speak about the experience of immigrants. In “A Show of Hands,” Mark Marino narrates the story of Mexican immgirants in California, while “High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese” by Fred Wah et al shows the experience of Chinese immigrants in British Columbia. In the final examples discussed in this essay, the stories of queer and gender non-conforming people are shared in Ilian Szilak’s “Queerskins,” Dietrich Squinkifier’s “Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!” and micha cárdenas’ “Redshift and Portalmetal.”
Shelley Jackson’s “my body—a Wunderkammer” explores a woman’s gender and sexuality while blurring the lines between fantasy and reality to remind readers of the lack of fixed human identity. The piece opens with a woodcut image of a woman. The reader can choose to click on various parts of the body to open a related node of text. Within the text, there are several hyperlinks the reader can follow to further explore the narrator’s body and history.
The narrator offers an unusually frank discussion of her own sexuality. In the text “Vagina,” the narrator recalls “as soon as I was alone in bed, my hands slid down into my pajamas to their resting place between my legs.” Readers are presented with a character who isn’t afraid to explore parts of her body typically associated with shame. In the “erogenous gen.” section, the narrator recalls discovering a “new way to masturbate” without touching her genitals. Because readers must physically click on body parts to delve deeper, they are forced to confront female sexuality and the female body (Van Dijk 9). Interaction with the naked female body becomes unavoidable.
In addition to exploring sexuality, “my body—a Wunderkammer” plays with the dichotomy of gender. In “Vagina,” the narrator describes how unfair she believed it was that she would never know the feeling of having a penis. She states that “the division of the sexes seemed like a grotesque blunder.” In “Tail”, the reader learns that the narrator was born with a prehensile tail, which she is in turns fascinated by and ashamed of. Her tail becomes a stand-in for a penis, and is used to sexually penetrate a friend. The narrator straddles the divide between male and female. The reader finds that “gender and even sex distinctions are not stable: the narrator feels more like a monster or a hermaphrodite than a woman” (Van Dijk 8).
As the piece blurs the lines between male and female, it also blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. In “Vagina,” the narrator also recalls inserting pages of books into her vagina and removing them later to find that her “vagina had rewritten Joyce.” Her vagina also tends to pick up objects, and she recalls wandering through a furniture store and accidentally stealing a couch that affixes itself to her genitals. The narrator treats the fantastical vignettes the same way she treats more realistic ones. The reader finds that the narrator is at best imaginative and at worst unreliable. The narrator, too, has trouble knowing which realm she is operating in. She mentions in “Eyes” that she is now “haunted by the feeling that this world is insufficiently real.”
By blurring the lines between traditional dichotomies, “my body—a Wunderkammer” explores the lack of a fixed human identity. It presents the human body as a collection of distinct parts. The title references a Wunderkammer—a cabinet of wonders—and the structure of the piece reflects that. What the reader finds is a collection of curious objects they can examine in any order they like (Van Dijk 8). “The metaphor of the ‘Wunderkammer’ announces that there is no ‘real’ and complete body to be found in or beyond this work” (Van Dijk 8). The author reminds us that the body is a “narrative and cultural construction” (9). In “Cabinet,” the narrator reveals her intention to build a replica of the piece in the form of “a huge wooden chest in the shape of my body, with innumerable drawers in which I will store my findings…You will have to feel your way in.”
Another marginalized group that finds a voice through hypermedia literature is immigrants. Mark C. Marino’s “a show of hands” tells the story of the de Palma sisters, the daughters of a murdered Mexican immigrant couple, who become involved in the 2006 immigration reform rallies in LA. The interconnectedness of the sisters’ lives is revealed through an overarching motif of hands. To help the reader navigate the complexities of the narrative, Marino uses adaptive hypertext and navigational aids.
The lives of the sisters are complex and frequently overlap. Santa Rosa cares for her dying husband Eduard, who has just learned that his biological father was a smooth-talking man who raped his mother when she was a teenager. Santa Maria has a tumultuous relationship with the owner of the store she works with, and learns that her teenage daughter (a kleptomaniac) is pregnant. Santa Paula is a photographer and cleaning woman whose lover Luis stages a fake INS raid to drive immigrants to the epicenter of the immigration reform rallies. The title of each link identifies one or more characters who play a central role in that vignette. Some segments recycle previously used text with little to no changes but identify different characters in the title. Even though the words are the same, the context of a particular sister’s life changes the reader’s interpretation.
Throughout the piece, the interconnected and complex narrative threads are held together by the overarching motif of hands. The title page presents a photographic mosaic of clasped hands made up of smaller images of hands. To access the text, the reader must select one tile in the mosaic. The content of each node is also linked thematically by a mention of hands. Characters shake hands, touch objects, and pray. To further stress the importance of hands, Tess, aunt of the de Palma sisters, paints the family as a hand. The thumb symbolizes Tess, while the four fingers are the sisters and Santa Maria’s daughter Katrina. Katrina’s infant son is held in the palm. Hands and fingers representing other characters reach out from the borders of the painting.
The piece takes advantage of an additional piece of technology: adaptive digital narrative using the Literatronic system. Links have different destinations depending on what the reader has already encountered. At the end of each chunk of text, the reader can select from one or more recommended links. The top link in the list is the one that is most related to the text just read. The ever-changing order of links and the number of plotlines can make the reading experience confusing. Marino includes some navigational aids to combat this. A progress bar shows what percentage of story the reader has already explored. Readers can also open a table of contents and select links from there. Those readers who wish to explore the text over several sittings can create an account to save their progress.
“High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, an Interactive Poem” by Fred Wah and other members of the High Muck a Muck Collective tells the story of Chinese immigrants to British Columbia. The piece uses geography and multimedia to explore the unique challenges and tensions faced by immigrants and the children of immigrants as they attempt to reconcile past and present and East and West.
The importance of geography to the piece is clear almost immediately. After clicking through the title page modelled after a lottery card, readers find an image of the map of BC superimposed over a human torso. Several clickable ink blots correspond to BC towns that played an integral role in Chinese immigration to BC—Victoria, Vancouver, Richmond, and Nelson. When the reader clicks one of these towns, they are taken to a collection of media related to that location. For example, the Victoria page includes images of the gates to Chinatown and the Chinese Cemetery among text and other media. Other clickable dots on the map of BC relate to broader topics rather than specific towns. Clicking on the Canada dot leads to the image of railway lines across an arm. The railway lines are painted red, resembling blood vessels. Several points along the arm can be selected to reveal lines of poetry. Readers can also explore the coastline of North America and Asia by selecting “Pacific Rim,” or visit “Everywhere and Nowhere” by selecting the dot at the base of the throat.
“High Muck a Muck” utilizes a variety of media to build an immersive experience for readers. The project depends heavily on Fred Wah’s poetry, but the work is not limited only to text. Each page also displays drawings by artist Tomoyo Ihaya and background music by Jin Zhang. On some screens, readers can select an ear icon to listen to an audio recordings of scholars providing cultural context or Chinese-Canadians recounting their own experiences. Each city has a corresponding video. The video for Victoria plays a reading of Wah’s poetry over the visuals of a black and white film about the secrets of Chinatown, while the video for Richmond includes footage of a car driving around Richmond neighbourhoods with lines of Wah’s poetry displayed at the bottom of the screen. Other videos include recordings of performance art and puppetry. The project includes a final element: a live installation. Visitors to the installation are given lottery cards to stamp, and a machine reads the cards and projects video, audio, and/or text accordingly.
The juxtaposition of media reveals the complex nature of identity for Chinese immigrants living in Canada. The immigrants are torn between traditional culture and contemporary pop culture and feel displaced by the diaspora of their people. The text contrasts symbols of traditional culture and modern pop culture. Readers encounter poems where Sun Tzu and Bruce Lee are mentioned in the same breath. One poem, “Call of Duty: Dream,” is reimagining of the Fleetwood Mac song “Dream.” The tension between old and new is mirrored in the tension between East and West, as immigrants and the children of immigrants find themselves torn between two cultural identities. The reader is constantly reminded of the geographical distance between immigrants living in Canada and their roots in China. Nelson features the text “China is so far away.” The drawings featured on the Richmond page include an Air China plane and immigration billboard from Canadian Government that asks “H1-B Problems?” Fred Wah’s poetry regularly mentions the word diaspora, noting that “the diaspora jumps and scatters all its citizens.” Immigrants and the children of immigrants will always be separated from their homeland. The title of the piece references the Sitkum language, highlighting another layer of the tension—living as immigrants in a colonized land where the original inhabitants are systematically oppressed.
The final marginalized group that finds a voice in hypermedia literature is the LGTBQ community. In her hypermedia novel “Queerskins,” Illya Szilak uses hypermedia to tell a fragmented, multi-voiced story of a “young gay physician from a rural Midwestern Catholic family who dies of AIDS at the start of the epidemic.” Despite the fragmented nature of the story, Szilak maintains control of the narrative by arranging links as a series of chapters.
On the title page, the reader encounters a collection of still images and looped video clips. Selecting a chapter from the bottom navigation bar opens a collection of text (in the form of diary entries), videos, and audio clips. Readers can drag the frames of the images and videos around the screen, at times revealing additional frames hidden underneath. Through the snippets of media, the reader begins to see fragments of the main character Sebastian’s life: his devout and reclusive mother and a distant father, his early experimentations with his sexuality, his partners and lovers in adulthood, and his work as a doctor in the E.R. in Los Angeles. As the chapters progress, the reader begins to piece together the story’s plot, culminating with Sebastian’s death from AIDs in the African desert. Near the end of the novel, the reader re-encounters pieces of text and audio clips from earlier chapters, which are now imbued with new meaning. However, even with the fragments that are revealed, there are still missing pieces that the reader will never know. As Sebastian’s mother states, the fragments of his diary seem “too meager for the task of recollecting a life.”
To further complicate the fragmented nature of the story, it is told in through many voices. The reader sometimes sees two sides of a scene—from Sebastian’s perspective in a diary entry, and from another person’s perspective as an audio clip. Often, the different voices the reader is exposed to create tension through juxtaposition. In Chapter 16, the reader encounters both cartoon pornography and a video of Holy Spirit Revival in the Philippines. In Chapter 20, a diary entry graphically describing a sexual encounter between Sebastian and one of his partners is placed next to a sing-a-long video of a song from the Disney film Cinderella. The last page contains a single video clip of Jerry Falwaell, a southern Baptist minister, telling the reader that God loves them.
Although described as a hypertext novel, Queerskins is in many ways not a typical piece of hypermedia. Szilak controls the progression of the piece by grouping hypermedia nodes in parts and chapters. A menu bar along the bottom of the page allows the reader to select a chapter. The narrative is not entirely linear, as many of the diary pages and audio clips are presented out of order, but Szilak still controls its progression. Readers can jump ahead to a different chapter or page, like skipping ahead in a print book, but in doing this, the reader is aware that they are not following the progression as the author intended.
Some queer writers have found creative ways to reinvent hypermedia as a genre. A response to the “GamerGate” controversy, Dietrich Squinkifer’s “Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!” uses stylistic conventions of a text adventure game to explore the role of queer and gender non-conforming characters in video games. Though the use of links presents some choices for the reader, the narrative progression remains tightly controlled, much like the controlled progression of a video game.
GamerGate began when a former lover accused game designer Zoe Quinn of sleeping with a game journalist to receive positive reviews of their game Depression Quest. Several gamers who felt videogames were under attack by so called “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) responded by harassing Quinn. On various internet forums, Quinn’s personal information was released to facilitate her harassment. A number other figures labelled as SJWs were also attacked, including game developer Brianna Wu and critic Anita Sarkeesian. Among the harassment, they received threats of death and rape (Todd 64).
The structure of “Quing’s Quest” is modelled after classic text adventure games. The title is a direct reference to the popular “King’s Quest” series. The opening page are reminiscent of video games from the 80s and 90s with a large background image of animated stars, a glittery cursor, and upbeat music. Readers must click the text “Insert Disk 1 to Begin” to advance to the next screen. Throughout the piece, readers are regularly asked to insert another numbered disk, a reference to classic computer games which often required several disks to run. After clicking the hyperlink prompting the insertion of disk one, the reader is presented with information about the setting they have entered, the Captain’s Quarters. Readers can click hyperlinks to read descriptions of the environment and learn more about the characters. For example, clicking on the “You” in “You are in the Captain’s Quarters” leads to a description of the protagonist. Text and links are the main components of the piece, but they are occasionally supplemented by audio clips. If the reader chooses the optional “use the toilet” link, they hear sound of a toilet flushing. And when the reader chooses to reminisce about their home planet Videogames, the background music changes to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1. Keeping with the structure of early text adventure games, the piece does not feature any images or video clips.
The protagonists of the piece are queer or gender non-conforming, while the antagonists are modelled after the gamers who participated in the harassment of Quinn and others during GamerGate. For example, one of the protagonists is introduced as “Nero the genderfluid social justice pirate,” and the spaceship on which the piece is set is called “The Social Justice Warrior.” The reader learns that the protagonists are fleeing their home planet Videogames, which has been invaded by “misogynerds” who refer to themselves as “Gamers.” One character explains that “Misogynerd society was (and still is) divided into a ruling class, called “men”, and a slave class, called “women”” These misogynerds claim that “Videogames was a planet that they alone discovered” and ignore the contributions of the planet’s native inhabitants.
Throughout, Squinkifer maintains control over the piece’s narrative progression. There are some choices the reader can make. While exploring the closet, the reader can choose from a variety of over-the-top items of clothing to dress in, including a “hot pink Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati t-shirt.” The reader can also choose not to explore certain optional links. However, there is only one possible storyline, and the reader has no opportunity to change the story’s trajectory or experience the critical plot points out of order. The lack of true choice for the reader is most obvious during the climax of the story when the protagonists are arrested by the “misogynerd police.” The reader is initially presented with a wall of possible solutions, including running away or escaping through a trapdoor. However, when the reader attempts to click almost any of the links, the link is replaced with text that rejects the solution. The only link that allows the reader to progress is “Put on some music!” This link leads to a series of dance moves which turn the misogynerds into piles of glitter. To finish the piece, the reader has one final choice, to either destroy Videogames or let it destroy itself.
“Redshift and Portalmetal” by micha cárdenas presents a soberer account of queer life. The piece uses hyperlinked poetry—with some images and videos—to examine what it means to be a trans woman of colour in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by climate change and colonialism. The world presented to the reader is bleak, hostile, and confusing to navigate.
The protagonist of the piece and her partner are both trans women, described as “two femmes of color hunting non-transfer lipstain/building knowledge/so [they] can colorshift into [their] full spectral brilliance.” Throughout the piece, readers are reminded that an already challenging situation is even more difficult for these women. Packing to leave the planet involves sorting out hormone doses. To get hormones on the “ocean moon,” the protagonist must either borrow from a friend or turn to “diy biopiracy.” The reader is forced to make a choice between these two options, neither of which are ideal. Though cárdenas describes this work as a game, there is no winning. The reader can only hope to survive.
The landscape explored in this piece is one that has been ravaged by the effects of human-caused climate change. The piece opens with a slightly shifting landscape that resembles clouds of red gas. The reader is immediately confronted with text that declares, “Your planet is dying.” Readers can choose “Stay and help” or “Go to the ice planet.” If the reader tries to remain on earth, they find air “thick with chemical smells.” The narrator determines that the planet is making her ill, and the reader has no choice but to move to either the “ocean moon” or the “ice planet.” Things are not much better if the reader decides to relocate. The reader is eventually chased off the ice planet by an ice storm, and offered the option to visit a “planet with no rain” or “the ocean moon.” On the planet with no rain, people suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and other medical concerns because of the planet’s troubled ecosystem. Visiting the ocean moon leads to the end of the narrative.
Throughout the piece, cárdenas acknowledges the tension surrounding migration. The characters have no choice but to leave a planet that has been destroyed, but settling any other place is an act of colonialism. The protagonists and reader must engage in migration mindfully, reciting a “prayer for decolonial time travel.” The author’s note further expands on the concept of colonialism, dedicating the project to “the native peoples of the Anishnabe, Mississauga, New Credit and Grassy Narrows territories” who “struggle against the murder and disappearance of native women, as well as against mercury poisoning, logging and other destructive practices that harm them and their homelands.”
The world the reader is presented with is hostile and difficult to navigate. As the piece progresses, the reader experiences the discomfort of a text that is difficult to navigate. There is no map to orient the reader to their place in the story, and no progress bar or other visual aid to indicate if reader has explored all possible links. The result is a reading experience that can be frustrating or uncomfortable. But then, the experience of being a trans woman of colour searching for a new home in the aftermath of a planetary disaster is in and of itself frustrating and uncomfortable. After reaching a possible end to the story, readers are invited to try again. Although the reader may re-enter the text, they will not find a different or more satisfying conclusion.
As demonstrated in the above examples, hypermedia provides marginalized writers with the tools to create engaging works that invite readers to question the status quo. The successful use of hypermedia literature to give voice to women, immigrants, and the queer community should be taken as a positive sign for other marginalized groups. As hypermedia technology evolves, these other groups will have increasing opportunities to present content in a way that is unique and meaningful. In a world where systemic oppression and discrimination still exists, hypermedia literature is more crucial than ever.
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