Tag Archives: disability

Cry Coyote

Cry Coyote

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

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“Truths”, Fantasies, And The Stories We Are Told About Ourselves

“Truths”, Fantasies, And The Stories We Are Told About Ourselves

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

We disabled people are asked to tell our stories over and over again. We are asked to narrate our bodies and the difference of our bodies again and again. When we meet with doctors we have to tell the stories of our bodies (and often have to retell them until they fit the medical model that doctors need to understand our bodies). The same happens when we meet specialists. We need to narrate our bodies to employers to get accommodations, to schools to get access to resources, to funding agencies, to government officials when we need additional supports, and, yes, even to strangers on the street.

 

I recently had someone follow me down the street for multiple blocks asking me what was “wrong” with my body, asking me to tell him the story of my body. This was happening despite the fact that I was having a conversation with my friends that this guy was interrupting. He believed his own demand to hear the story of my body overrode the conversations I was already having. I told him that I didn’t want to tell the story of my body to a stranger, and like most people who I tell this to, he became enraged, told me that I was rude and that he was just curious, and then he said “besides, I am a PSW, so I am an expert on people like you.”

 

This is not a unique experience. It happens regularly. I am frequently bombarded with questions about my body by strangers, and many of those strangers (who have no disabilities of their own) then believe themselves to be experts on my body and tell me that I don’t really need to use my rollator or my cane, that I can cure my disability with crystals or yoga or positive thinking or walks in the woods or “blu-ray healing”. The narratives people place on my body abound and they come from a society that tells able-bodied people that disabilities are the purview of the public, that our stories are open to their interpretations and their adaptations.

 

Often the stories of our bodies preclude us even being part of them. Frequently, when our bodies are written about by “specialists”, their stories of our bodies continue on without our own narration, telling stories about us. This seems like it should be something unusual, to have our stories told by other people, but we need those stories told by people who are “specialists” on our bodies in order to get access to many of the accommodations we need. Our stories become papered entities – accommodation letters to professors, medical notes, specialist reports. Our stories are told and retold and we are not considered experts on our own stories. In fact, we are considered inherently biased and our stories are rendered as problematic, fictitious, and yes, even fantastic. 

 

This rendering of our own stories as fictional extends into publishing about disabled bodies, where, frequently, our actual stories about our disabled bodies – told from our own experiences – are considered less authentic than stories told about disabled people by able-bodied others. Like many disabled authors, I have been told that my factual rendering of my disability’s story is not believable, that it doesn’t match with what audiences want or believe, or that it doesn’t ‘ring true’ for a disabled narrative. Publishers and editors are much more interested in the papered story about disability, the one constructed through things they have read before – the story full of tropes about disability. This isn’t surprising (even though it should be) because disabled stories are often inauthenticated, are often rendered as less worthwhile than the people who claim to be experts on our bodies. We are accustomed to this. We get it from doctors, politicians, and others who consider themselves to be experts who render our stories for others, who erase the personal in order to create a fantasy about disability. 

 

So, with all of the fantasies already created about disability, the fictions that are constructed around our bodies because these fictions are considered more realistic than our own tales, are there possibilities for us to reshape those fantasies? Can we assert our own tales through the unbelievable, the magical, the imaginative, and use these stories to reshape the way that our bodies are treated as fantasies? 

 

There is a huge potential in fantasy for operating on the level of imagination, for operating in the realm of the un-real. We disabled people have so often been told that our stories need to be retold by specialists in order for them to be considered real that there is a liberation in telling a story that we don’t have to be x-rayed, MRIed, assessed, and narrated before it can be considered true.

 

Abled people are constantly believing things about disability because they have been told that imaginations about disability are “true”, so there is a power in challenging thoughts about disability at the imaginative level, at the level of possibility, and therefore to introduce new possibilities for thinking about disability, for imagining us.

 

Although I have heard from fellow disabled people that what we need is real change, often we forget about the power of imagination as an agent of change. We create change by imagining new possibilities, by thinking up new alternatives, and by challenging what we think of as “truths” because frequently when something is portrayed as “truth”, it is stagnated, constructed as unchanging and unchallengeable. Fantasy stories about disability open up disability itself to imagination, let disability as a subject be something that is fluid, changeable, reimaginable, and adaptable. 

 

As disabled people, we already live in a world of fantasy. We live in a world that pretends that we are invisible, in a world where words – when wielded by policy-makers – can magically take away everything we need. 

 

We have the power to use those fantasies to remake our world, to reforge it as one that includes us, and, not only that, but represents us, and even, dare I say, celebrates us?

Amulets

Amulets

A review of Heidi Heilig’s “The Long Road” in Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Heidi Heilig’s “The Long Road” begins like many trope-filled stories about disability does – with a self-loathing disabled character seeking a cure. The trope of “the cure” and especially “the magic cure” is built into a large number of fantasy stories, creating a quest for characters around the discovery of a cure, or having characters use magic to transform their bodies into normate bodies.

The difference with Heilig’s narrative, is that although her disabled narrator begins a long quest with her family wearing protective amulets to ward off evil (since her disability is seen as a marker of evil) toward Persia where her family believes there will be a cure… Heilig switches the narrative, breaking from the typical fantasy “magical cure” trope and instead allowing her character to gradually realize that the notion of “the cure” is a problematic one that causes her to view her body as a problem to be “fixed” and instead starts to question the idea of normalcy, realizing that bodies are far more complex than her family had led her to believe. It is only through finding a disabled community and companionship with another disabled person that Heilig’s protagonist is able to begin to re-assess everything she has taken for granted as “truth” for so long.

Heilig reminds her readers that we frequently find knowledge and new ideas within our own disabled community and that we construct our own community as we find other people like ourselves who don’t make us feel like outsiders or exiles. Heilig makes the exile literal by having her characters wander the desert in search of a cure, believing that they can return home “normal”, but although her character searches for normalcy (which is so often the fantasy quest attributed to disabled characters), instead she finds the power of community and challenging her assumptions. Rather than a physical transformation, Heilig presents her readers with a transformation in thought and perspective, an awakening to new possibilities for disabled existence rather than the erasure of disability.

To find out more about Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374306502

To discover more about Heidi Heilig, visit http://www.heidiheilig.com

An Interview of Ulla Kriebernegg About Ageing Narratives

By Derek Newman-Stille

Ulla Kriebernegg is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Inter-American Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. Dr. Kriebernegg’s research primarily focusses on Inter-American literary and cultural studies, with attention to Jewish-American Literature and Ageing Studies. She is the chair of the European Network of Ageing Studies and an executive board member for the International Association of Inter-American Studies.

In this episode of Dis(Abled) Embodiment, Dr. Kriebernegg and I talk about Ageing Studies, with a particular focus on the literary and cultural representation of ageing. We examine the way that ageing is expressed in our cultural imagination, particularly looking at the anxieties, uncertainties, and hopes that get attached to images of Long Term Care. We explore narratives of care and responses to ideas of care, examining connecting ideas of gender, sexuality, and difference. We talk about differences in the way that long term care occurs in different nationalities and the different imaginative possibilities that exist for re-thinking long term care.

In addition, we examine Care Home Stories: Ageing, Disability, and Long Term Residential Care co-edited by Dr. Kriebernegg and Dr. Sally Chivers. Care Home Stories, published by Columbia University Press, is a collection of essays that examines the stereotypes and assumptions that exist around long term care and offers new narrative possibilities that allow readers to re-examine ideas around long term care.

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Thank you again to Dr. Kriebernegg for taking the time to do an interview with me here on Dis(Abled) Embodiment.