Writing disability – incomplete and important

Something very interesting is happening at the moment in Australian literature. Disability is beginning to be given space to express itself. And not as inspirational or tragic, but in its complexity and diversity. There is a tremendous history, of course, to writing by disabled people in Australia, but this feels like a new wave of sorts. A beginning, and incomplete, but significant nonetheless.

Later this year, a landmark anthology of poetry (with accompanying essays by the poets themselves) will be published by UWAP. Shaping the Fractured Self, edited by Heather Taylor-Johnson, features the writing of 28 poets, many established, many emerging, from within the experience of chronic illness, pain and disability. It’s akin to the landmark anthology Beauty is a Verb, though with its own particular field. It takes trauma and experience head on, showing how poetry expands our sense of community and beauty.

And recently, major literary journal Southerly published Writing Disability (issue 76.2). I co-edited the issue with David Brooks. It features some breathtaking and intriguing poetry by Peter Boyle, Quinn Eades, David Stavanger, BR Dionysius, Shari Kocher, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, Anne Elvey and many others; provocative and insightful essays on Henry Lawson’s deafness, the linguistic and personal meanings of vulvodynia, mental illness and marginality, autism and collaborative writing; as well as fiction that ranges from the unsettling to the humane. I’m proud of what we selected, while aware there is so much more out there. I encourage you to buy a copy, and while you’re waiting peruse the Long Paddock, the online section of the issue.

I should also say that the artwork for the cover is by Fulli Andrinopolous. Rather than select an image that illustrated or represented disability (a questionable aim, it seems to me), we really wanted instead to give an opportunity to a disabled artist whose work explores form and colour in a more abstract yet still intensely personal mode. Disability is not only a topic, but a way of seeing.

What follows is a brief excerpt from the essay “Ramps and the Stair”, by myself and David Brooks.


Framing this issue of Southerly as “Disability” is a curious constraint—how do we as editors decide what does and doesn’t fit into the theme? What is “disabled writing”? Is it simply any writing by a disabled person? Or, could the disability be within the writing itself, regardless of the bodily status of the writer—language that inhabits its own peculiar limitations?

Surveying the contemporary literary scene, it would seem that disability exists only either as topic or as identity. Someone writes a short story featuring a character who is in a wheelchair, or has autism, depression, an unnamed degenerative condition. Usually, the character appears to symbolise human vulnerability, or they overcome their impairment with courage or acceptance. Or, someone writes an essay—about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or the media’s misrepresentation of disabled people, etc—attaining credibility as a writer either because they themselves are disabled or they work in the “industry”.

But writing is not only the subject and the author, but its mode, style, aesthetics—its form. And what is disability but a question of form, which forms are considered appropriate to the world as it is organised now? It would take a much longer essay, many volumes probably, to properly unravel the connections between disability and literary form. It’s an undertheorised area, for many reasons. Not least of which is the ambivalence writers and academics have towards admitting to any “lack” of ability or competence. Deconstruction happens to texts, not bodies, certainly not ours. But aren’t bodies also texts? And aren’t texts also bodies?

As I was reading submissions to this issue, I wanted to know who was doing the writing, where they were coming from. I felt, intuitively, that subjectivity matters. I wanted ‘“disabled writing”. What I found was a lot of writing by the parents, siblings, friends and carers of disabled people. If I read attentively, I was reminded that, while we think of pain as inherently isolating and individualising, disability isn’t quite like that. There is a leakiness to it. Something disabling overflows into the lives of those close to me.

Perhaps the poems, stories, memoir and essays here leak into each other. To quote or paraphrase: a mother locks herself in the pantry while her child screams inconsolably. A revolving door of psychiatrists. Sounds from words I’ve never spoken, but should have. How being marked speaks to wounding and to creativity. Max is a master of sound and rhythm more so than I. Learning to hate the word ‘“proud”. The inertia of overladen assumptions see how these structures melt. The twists and kinks of the paper were his mnemonic. Each piece of writing speaks for itself, and the connections speak. There is also writing here that wasn’t submitted specifically to the theme, but these also belong.

Some submissions were rejected for the way they perpetuated the clichéd figures of the unfortunate victim, or the victorious super-crip, a mode of characterisation which Stella Young called “inspiration porn”. Or, worse, where a disabled person appeared as an object, without agency or subjectivity.

Other submissions just didn’t even reach us. Some writers experience such isolation or suffering that the economic and psychological space required for writing just isn’t accessible to them. Other writers produce immensely interesting work that is hard to place in a literary journal. Still others don’t have language, at least not in the way you or I might think of it.

In The Biopolitics of Disability, David Mitchell writes, ‘“as a politics of atypicality, disability can be most productively understood as an identity based on incoherence… a fortunate dishevelment of normative coherency” (98). So, it should be no surprise if this collection of writing doesn’t quite seem to cohere. It’s incomplete, unwieldy, flawed; perhaps it even contradicts itself. You could say the same, perhaps, of this editorial essay. This is not a tragic accident or a heroic achievement. It’s how language comes out of our bodies.



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