A review of Jennifer Lee Rossman’s “Names” in Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press, 2019).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Jennifer Lee Rossman’s “Names” is a tale of alterity, a tale of the anger a small community has for people they consider “peculiar”. Like many outsiders, Rossman’s narrator, Beck, is able to notice things that others don’t, able to pick up on things that her community is invested in ignoring.
Rossman’s use of a character who misreads “normative” social cues allows for a complex social interaction with other characters and propels us into a situation where conversations can be precarious. Rossman is able to draw us into Beck’s mind in a way that allows readers to feel the anxiety and danger of communication, sharing a vulnerability that adds power and dimension to this story and invites readers to think more about dialogue and how dialogue often centres “normative” communication styles.
While centring a character who has non-normative social interactions, Rossman weaves a tale about the magic of speech, thought, and names, exploring a shape-shifter who can be drawn in by thinking or speaking about them. Communication suffuses “Names”, inviting readers to speculate about the way that language and social interactions shape our world.
Rossman explores the complex and often dangerous interactions that non-neurotypical people have with the police, and couples this with the threat of police racism. Beck tells the police that they won’t be able to solve a crime involving the death of a Navajo woman because “all your deputies are white”. Beck, who is a person of colour in addition to being non-neurotypical, is aware of the way that police will often not be able to navigate knowledge systems and ways of interacting with the world that are not their own. Beck recognizes the uniqueness of her perspective and that this gives her insights that police may not have.
Rossman tells a tale of a murder case that can’t be solved with neurotypical, white ways of thinking, one that requires different knowledges and experiences that most of Beck’s small town are not capable of working with. This is a tale of a girl who has been told all of her life that she is peculiar and shouldn’t be herself facing a monster who is capable of taking the form of anyone else, shifting into other people. It is a tale of someone who is incapable of being someone else learning that her identity is powerful. As Beck states “All my life, people have tried to make me say names, make me look them in the eye and touch them without flinching. They shame me into not being me. And all my life, I’ve tried not to be. Tried not to be me. But this is me. I’m peculiar and I can’t be any other way if I tried, and I don’t want to try.”
Rossman’s story, “Names” is part of the anthology Nothing Without Us, a collection of fiction by disabled authors edited by Cait Gordon and Talia Johnson and published by Renaissance Press. Nothing Without Us seeks to give voice to the narratives that disabled people want to read and to ensure that our stories are told to us by us. These are tales that challenge the tired tropes of disability and the problematic reduction of disability in order to explore our complexity as disabled people. Nothing Without Us offers a space where we can hear disabled stories that don’t have to explain themselves to an assumed abled audience, but rather recognizes that we need stories for ourselves too, stories that many of us have searched for.
to discover more about Jennifer Lee Rossman, go to http://jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com
To find out more about Nothing Without Us, go to https://nothingwithoutusanthology.wordpress.com or Renaissance’s website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sa=false&sbp=false&q=false