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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2017 - Vol. 14, Issue 4

"Naked and (Mostly) Unafraid: A Review"

written by

Erika Jahneke

As I write this review, it is hard to move forward. Not because my mobility impairment has gotten any worse, or because tech years are counted so differently from regular years--although it is hard to think about writing when you wake up every morning afraid your faithful PC might turn into a giant paperweight overnight. My hesitation does not reflect a lack of quality in the eclectic stories in the new short-story collection ”The Right Way To Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability”(points for the saucy title, taken from a pleasantly explicit story by Jonathan Mack), edited by Sheila Black, Michael Northen and Annabelle Hayse.


We are in a time where it is hard to know what will happen, even from day to day, and the urge to solve all of the world’s problems could lead someone into stasis. Could we be reading these worthwhile and empowering stories by candlelight after the latest round of budget cuts? These characters would be worthy companions, but I hope it doesn’t happen anyway.


This kind of hand-wringing about the national situation is not an option for the characters in these stories. This collection depicts a population on the move, even if it’s just to steal a kiss in the hallway like Allison Oatman’s lead character in her story “Hospital Corners”. I may worry about whether this book is a sign of a movement with a future, or a relic to treasure like a beautiful fossil in amber, during Trumpistan’s darkest hours. But the characters featured in this anthology have too much living to do, whether they are students or teachers, troubled youth, or even old folks with a mission, as in Floyd Skloot’s ”Alzheimer’s Noir”, to give in to such pervasive yet ill-defined anxieties.


Whatever they are going to do, they are going to do it now, because they may not get another chance. I hesitate to write that there is a lesson for the world in that viewpoint, because every artist with a disability faces that kind of faint praise from the moment we pick up a crayon or sit at a keyboard. (Some readers may just be excited to learn that, unlike at America’s multiplexes, not one of these characters is at Death’s door, although treatment does figure prominently in some of them, most notably in Dagoberto Glib’s story about a man’s stroke “please, thank you.”


Unlike most cinematic interpretations of such material, we get a sense that his protagonist will live to fight another day..”I leave in an daughter and son are coming for me and I can’t wait to see them and leave…”(page 146) Still, both clichés do have morsels of truth. Disabled life is often raw and unfiltered and its ability to exist outside some of the conventions of “mainstream” society and all of its shams masquerading as good manners seems to feed a real hunger in the American soul.


As with all other hunger, however, it is really important to feed it with the right nutrients. We can’t feed our bodies with grease and our souls with the empty sentiment of “inspiration porn”, but rest assured, The Right Way To be Crippled and Naked is a hearty buffet of aspects of the disability experience. Many disabilities are represented, from congenital deformities to the changes that come with aging and an array of others, with characters that are gay and straight, single and coupled, young and old.


The diversity is present without the earnest sense that the editors were holding space in the book open until they got a “live one” from an exceptionally tiny and much-maligned minority group. As the afterword states, plenty of writers without disabilities depict characters with disabilities, but all too often, the impairments take center stage, either as the obstacle a character has to overcome, or as a metaphor for mortality and weakness and character, beyond a general sense of protective pity, or in the case of comic-book villains, sorrow and revulsion, is beside the point.


The last two generations did not invent using disabilities in stories. Consider a character like Tiny Tim. Tim Cratchit is a powerful symbol of forbearing suffering, but we never really understand how his life affects him because we never see anything from his angelic eyes. Maybe that is what motivates writer Anne Finger to continue to imagine famous disabled people brushing up against each other throughout history in some of her stories. An encounter between two famous socialists in the story “Comrade Luxembourg and Comrade Gramschi Pass Each Other In The Congress of the Second International on The 10th of March 1912.” Maybe Finger feels she can reclaim some of our lost past, especially for those of us not just active in fights about classic disability issues and remind us that those before us had a voice and we need not reinvent the wheel, even if it powers our motion. Finger writes that she enjoys such stories as a means of “Making the impossible” happen and causing these figures to claim an identity that in their day was shrouded in shame and mystery. She repeats the sentence “It could not have happened.” Before setting up a fairly possible scenario.


When times are difficult, art can feel like a luxury, something to ponder in simple times. It can be easy to feel that any book that is not some high-minded political treatise is a shallow diversion. When things are polarized, tactics are essential, but fiction fills a role that those guides cannot by enhancing our empathy for others.


The Right Way To Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability: An Anthology

Cinco Puntos Press, 2017, 352 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1941026359

Born too late to snog a Kennedy, but a smidge too early (and too disabled) to sweat it out in the park with Occupy, sometime journalist, activist, and fiction writer Erika Jahneke often feels caught in multiple worlds. Current ambitions include a future for her novel, a nice vacation and a legal way to keep MSNBC's Chris Hayes in her pocket in a Jiminy-Cricket style conscience arrangement.

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