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.