A Northwest Based Literary Journal

A Week-Long Discussion on Diversity in Literature: Day 4

All this week Tahoma Literary Review is offering a discussion of diversity in literature, with posts from a TLR contributor or editor. We hope the series will lead to a lively discussion. Comments are open this week.


Nobody’s Loaded Gun

By Kelly Davio

I often hear that diversity in publishing is important because readers need to find representations of themselves in literature. It’s a statement that used to make sense to me, but it doesn’t anymore. When I went from being an able-bodied person to a person living with a debilitating neuromuscular disease, I recognized how insufficient it is merely to read about characters who bear some outward resemblance to us.

Bodies like mine appear in creative writing all the time, but not in forms to which I can relate. When I pick up a literary journal and find a poem in which a disabled body makes a cameo appearance, I’m almost inevitably met with a human presented in fragments: a limb here, a single eye there, a clump of falling-out hair here. Usually, these picked-apart bodies serve some moral purpose—they’re metaphors for social corruption or a world gone wrong. In still other poems—well meaning ones, surely, but just as unrelatable for this reader—a poet holds up a disabled person as a figure of strength or fortitude, but in such impersonal terms that the body seems to belong to everybody who takes a passing interest in its peculiarities, not to the person who inhabits it daily.

If I believed what these sorts of poems have to say about people like me, I’d view my own life as a kind of ghoulish cross between a memento mori and a reminder to carpe diem. But I don’t find myself in these poems; I can say with certainty that I’ve never looked in the mirror at my drooping eyelid and contemplated my face as a representation of social ills, and I’ve not once festooned myself in awareness ribbons (though it does sound like a Project Runway-worthy craft project) in celebration of the human spirit.

Fiction, too, is often a letdown when it comes to finding positive representations of disabled people; authors are forever killing off characters like me. It’s books like The Fault in Our Stars, in which teenaged kids die painfully onstage, that make me think that writers approach the sick or disabled body the way they look at Chekhov’s gun—the rifle that Chekhov said must never be placed on the mantle in a scene unless it’s going to go off, and soon. When the sick body enters a contemporary story, I brace myself, knowing that the character—the one in which I’m supposed to recognize myself–is about to go boom.

The good news is that, whatever the standard line in literature tells us, we disabled people aren’t loaded guns. We don’t exist to suffer or die for dramatic effect. We are people, complex and multi-faceted as any. We work and socialize, we have hobbies and tastes, families and relationships. We love and we hate. We exercise. We buy toilet paper. We have secret recipes that we’ll never share. We laugh at a good joke, and we laugh heartily and often at ourselves. We move through this world differently, often painfully, but we live the full range of human experiences. We deserve a literature that represents us in all of our humanity.

So who’s going to write these novels, these poems? I’m not one to say that writers shouldn’t explore stories outside their own experience. Far from it—I think the writer should feel abundantly free to inhabit other people and other lives. The key to writing across difference, though, is to treat others’ experiences with respectful understanding. It’s not enough for the able-bodied writer to simply speculate as to what it might feel like to be disabled. That’s the simplest way to arrive at a generalized, impersonal caricature. Instead, I encourage writers to get to know us. Engage in conversations, person to person. It’s in the specifics of life, not in assumptions, that characters begin to truly reflect the enormous spectrum of the human experience.

Even as I urge able-bodied authors to do better with characters like me, I must admit that I haven’t been doing enough to advance a more realistic view of disability in my own writing. In fact, it’s only in the past year that I’ve begun to write or speak openly about my experiences. There’s risk in writing and talking about disability. What if someone won’t hire you to speak at a conference if he knows you’ll show up clattering along with a cane? What if you’re told by a potential publisher, as I was, that he “doesn’t have any patience for sick people”? What if readers begin to look you differently if they know you are, in fact, different? I don’t have answers to those questions, though I’m bound to arrive at them soon enough. What I do know is that, if we want better representations of ourselves in literature, we have to take those risks in order to show literature what we look like.


Kelly Davio is Co-Publisher and Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former Managing Editor of The Los Angeles Review and former Associate Poetry Editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. She is also a book reviewer for Women’s Review of Books.  She earned her MFA in poetry at the Northwest Institute of Literary arts and teaches English as a Second Language in the Seattle area.

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Categorised in: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

13 Responses

  1. I’m surprised to see The Fault In Our Stars used as an example here. To me–admittedly a YA writer and high school teacher–on of the most powerful things about that book is the way that Hazel is NOT a loaded gun. She’s MORE alive on the last page of the novel than she was on the first. And the character who does die is in vibrant health when we first meet him. In fact all the “sick” bodies in the book are fully articulated human beings with wishes, desires, beliefs, and stupid mistakes just like any other teenager. John Green’s main goal in the world is to remind us all that every person is unimaginably complex and absolutely irreducible, something I think he does beautifully in this particular novel…and, it seems to me, the very thing Kelly is arguing for here! 🙂

    • Hi, Ali. Thanks for this comment. High school teacher to high school teacher, sorry I’m not able to agree. For me, The Fault in Our Stars is to illness what The Help is to race–convenient, feel-good stereotyping. One of the main issues with the characterization in the book, for this reader, is the repeated insistence that the ill and disabled just want to be treated “like everyone else.” I can’t get behind that sentiment at all. We want healthcare that doesn’t bankrupt our families. We want to be treated with dignity. We want reasonable accommodations as guaranteed under federal law…

      I do see why many people enjoy the book, but I’m not among them.

      • Kelly–thank you. Holy buckets, I never would have made the comparison to THE HELP, but doing so is *quite* helpful (my son is black and I couldn’t stand the book).

        • Thanks, Ali. I should point out that the fact that books like The Fault in Our Stars and The Help are problematic isn’t to say they shouldn’t be read or that nobody can like or appreciate the good things about them. We like what we like. But we can and should be aware of the problems within them, if only so we ourselves know how to do better as writers.

  2. I very much appreciate this post, which is at once brilliant and humble — a beautiful (and rare) combination.

    Thank you for naming how ableism is surely one of the most insidious and invasive of prejudices. It effects so much — how buildings are constructed, and how we all act towards each other in public as well as private spaces.

    Naming is a powerful tool and I’m hoping many people read and think about this post. Last year a newly disabled student gave a remarkable talk/performance about disability and feminism in a women’s lit course at UC Riverside, and people in the room were changed by it. I certainly was (and I was the teacher!).

    But you do more than name a wrong. Your call to all of us to open up a space for narratives about different sorts of embodied characters is a crucial act, in my humble opinion. And I’m excited about what that space can make possible for us as writers, readers, and as human beings.

    Thank you again.

  3. Is there really a “repeated insistence that the ill and disabled just want to be treated like everyone else?” I didn’t get that reading at all. In fact, I can’t even recall a single point where the main characters asked to be treated as though they were like everyone else. Hazel Grace does exactly the opposite, and uses it as a point of discussion with her parents (the ones who actually want her to be treated like everyone else). There’s a point where Hazel acknowledges this, like, “aren’t you the one who is always asking me to try to live like a normal teenager?” There’s an insistence, if anything, on the characters not being like “everyone else.” What with the running joke of “cancer perks” and the most intimate relationships being with other cancer patients. Even the relationship that doesn’t work out, I’m not sure that I would read it as one character wanting to be like everyone else, it’s about a character who wants to have someone love him “always,” for everything. And that’s the beauty of the book and what makes it so popular, I believe. It’s a human story about love operating inside of the conventions of a “cancer narrative” and it’s very aware of what it’s doing. That’s why people feel good after reading it. Love is human. The Help comparison is a poor one. There are no saviors outside of the main characters. They find and save themselves. That’s one of the things that makes it beautiful. TFiOS isn’t necessarily trying to be about cancer or healthcare: the drug in the book is fictional. You can tell that from Hazel Grace’s insistence that many of the nonphysical things she experiences have nothing to do with her illness, but they are symptoms of dying.Perhaps the reading you have of the text has more to do with the lens of examining it as a story about the “disabled” or those with “illness.”

    Great post, though. Very interesting thoughts on diversity and its usefulness! I, too, often read a lot of writing by people who are unlike me. Partially by choice, partially because of curricula, partially because we’re all, in some ways, still trying to identify exactly who we are. Hence, the importance of diversity in literature. I look forward to the rest of the posts in this series and hope they are all this good!

    • Thanks, Kevin. I think, if you don’t recall that bit, you may want to revisit the part in which (hey, spoiler alert for anybody who plans to read the book for the first time) the protagonists visit the author in Europe. As he sits there, drunkenly abusing them and being rude as all get-out, Hazel makes a lengthy reflection on the fact that she’s so glad that he’s not treating them as “special.” I found it pretty, well, awful! I don’t imagine that anybody likes to be verbally harangued or finds it somehow refreshing to be the object of a drunken rage.

      I agree with you that the book isn’t primarily about illness or health care. Yet it’s illness that precipitates the love story. It’s illness that ends the love story. You can’t tell a story, a genuine one, about cancer patients involved in the US health system without involving both. I understand why many people like the story, and why they feel that it’s compelling. I don’t think the book is terrible by any means. What I do think is that it’s possible to do better–much better–in terms of representing a real, lived experience.

      • Ah, very true. There is that moment, but then [EVEN MORE SPOILERS] she’s lost all compassion for him and any real desire to connect with him for the rest of the book, so I just chalked that up to forms of rationalizing why someone would chose to so/say such horrid things, especially someone who is respected. The author was just awful. [/SPOILERS]

        But, yes, the rest is oh so true. They are, in some ways, inseparable. There is always a way to do better. Greene goes a great job of setting the foundation because ultimately isn’t it a story about dying and dealing with love AND death? What’s more universal than that?

  4. I have truly enjoyed this series and this post was very insightful. Kelly’s so right in stressing that as writers we need to reach out, lean in, get close, ask questions, be curious, and learn if we are to begin to understand the life of another human being.

    I loved this line:

    “It’s in the specifics of life, not in assumptions, that characters begin to truly reflect the enormous spectrum of the human experience.”

  5. I have not read TFiOS, for reasons I touch on below, but I definitely know what Kelly means by “a human presented in fragments” (a perfect phrase for this topic).

    In adult literary fiction, characters with disabilities are often “angels and outcasts,” to borrow the term from Trent Batson & Eugene Bergman’s classic study of Deaf characters in 19th & 20th century lit. Though this book is 30 years old, not much has changed: T.C. Boyle’s TALK TALK (2006) presents a Deaf character as a pure victim–literally, of identity theft, and figuratively, for lacking any agency as a main character in a deftly structured but hollow literary thriller. Mark Haddon’s CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (2003) has a narrator who is a collection of symptoms convenient enough to tell the story in an engaging way for the reader, but too incomplete to feel like a character with agency.

    I have found effectively drawn characters with disabilities in ‘supporting roles’, roles that reveal something about a main character. Nicholas Montemarano’s “The Usual Human Disabilities” (https://www.bu.edu/agni/fiction/print/2003/57-montemarano.html) and Miriam Gershow’s “A Step Ahead” (http://www.webdelsol.com/bwr/step_ahead.htm) characterize people with disabilities in a way that is believable, neither angel nor outcast, though neither story quite brings the person with the disability or their experience to the center.

    The best work about people with disabilities comes from people with disabilities: the magazine WordGathering does a great job with this — check out their “Tiny Tim” issue — and HandType Press also does great work. (Disclosure: I have work out with them. But you should really start with John Lee Clark’s essay collection, WHERE I STAND. Really.) Raymond Luczak’s story, “XPT 556” in HandType’s DEAF LIT EXTRAVAGANZA, is another good place to start and a perfect complement to Gershow’s story. Luczak, being Deaf himself, nails the particulars of the experience, while showing awareness of the larger hearing world and, you know, humanity.

    There’s a reason it’s hard to find oneself in someone else’s work as a person with a disability: Disability is incredibly specific. I’ve never read TFiOS because I don’t expect to see the reality of my own experience as a pediatric brain cancer patient in there, and I don’t have a great desire to read something that trivializes and romanticizes the uncomfortable reality I spent 15 years experiencing.

    That doesn’t mean I should avoid reading it. I should read it, even if I don’t want to. Still, I can’t help but think of the time I spent in college reading ‘stories about cancer’ looking for models that reflected my own reality, and only finding the reality of temporarily able-bodied adults with very good health insurance struggling with their own mortality — something I learned along with my multiplication tables.

    Thanks, Kelly, for writing this!

    • Thanks so much for these great reading recs–I look forward to tucking into the Montemarano and the Gershow (loved her novel The Local News) stories, and I’m not familiar with WordGathering, but I look forward to reading them as well!

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