A culture is defined by the literature it produces. As a minority group, people with disabilities have, historically, been defined by what non-disabled people have written or spoken about them. Recently, the literature of people with disabilities has been in the spotlight of popular culture with the Oscar winning film “Breathing Lessons” by Mark O’Brien, and with “Moving Violations”, a memoir by John Hockenberry.
The writings of O’Brien and Hockenberry, and over 30 other writers, are featured in a new anthology titled “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out”. The book is published by Plume books.
Fries thought of the idea of an anthology after attending a forum on disability and performance art in 1994. “I put out a call for submissions,” Fries stated in a phone call from his home in Northampton, MA Thursday afternoon. “A great deal of time was spent reading. I wanted to make a book that was strong literature, and to worry about any message later.”
“Staring Back” is the latest work from Fries, whose disability is due to missing bones in his feet. Fries wrote very honestly and openly about the struggles he felt as a disabled and gay person in his 1996 book “Body, Remember”, which tells a powerful tale of abuse, recovery, and life. Fries is promoting the book heavily, with a book tour that begins soon and will hit Boston on November 20th. “I hope the book can be used as a text book for a disability studies class,” Fries added. “Hopefully people will be compelled to read an anthology completely written and edited by writers with disabilities.”
“Staring Back” covers a broad range of writing, including nonfiction, poetry, fiction and drama. The writers involved have a diversity of physical disabilities and present a wide spectrum of perspectives. One of the contributors, current-Californian Jean Stewart, used to work at the University of Maine in the Department of Botany. In 1970, Stewart formed a writers group at UMAINE “which lasted for several years.” Stewart continued from her home in California. “It was a small group of students and faculty. Steve King was in it before he got his first story published. Burton Hatlen was very active, as well as Jim Bishop.” She also stated that Stephen King’s future wife, Tabitha Spruce, was a member as well. “I just received my copy yesterday, but it looks wonderful. The book covers a lot of territory,” Stewart said when asked about the book. Stewart submitted a work of fiction for the anthology. His story, “The Interview”, deals with the process of interviewing a prospective personal care attendant.
The book has many authors Stewart knew and respected. “I really enjoy Adrienne Rich. She speaks her beliefs clearly,” Stewart commented. Rich, who was awarded an honor from President Clinton, publicly refused the award. Rich has an excerpt from her work “Contradictions: Tracking Poems”.
Other writers are equally honored to appear in the anthology. Mike Ervin, a writer and journalist from Chicago, thought “It was amazing” to be between writers such as Stanley Elkin and Ann Finger. Both are noted writers in disability-related literature. Ervin is a regular contributor to several disability magazines.
“Staring Back” does cover a great deal of territory. Many of the writers are some of the most eloquent voices for the rights of people with disabilities. Jean Stewart is a pioneer in the area of rights of prisoners with disabilities. Fries is a strong and eloquent voice telling the world about the experience of being disabled and gay. “I hope this helps people with disabilities realize that they are not isolated,” Fries added. “I never had this type of writing when I was growing up.”
“Staring Back” is a wonderful volume of art which is worthy of many hours of solitary, uninterrupted reading. “I hope this anthology will viewed as disabled literature having credible literary value, not as therapy,” Fries said. There is no doubt that “Staring Back” will be an anthology that will stand up to any contemporary literature being published today.