David Brooks and guest editor Andy Jackson (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 2 2016: Writing Disability
The term ‘disability’ covers a vast range of experience: body shapes that differ from the norm, impaired bodily function, chronic pain, chronic disease, learning difficulties, the autism spectrum, conditions labelled ‘mental illness’, combinations of those and more. Though that’s an important point, it’s also an obvious one, and perhaps only in an academic context would you invoke a French theorist to make it, as in this passage from Andy Jackson and David Brooks’ essay ‘Ramps and the Stair’ in this Southerly:
Derrida tells us that we should not, when talking about animals, use the word animal. It is an umbrella term, an intellectual violence. We should say cat, we should say horse, we should say mouse. […] ‘Disability’, then, an umbrella term? an intellectual violence? There are as many forms of disability as there are things a non-disabled person might be able to do. The term effaces even as it tries to draw attention.*
But with or without Derrida, cats, mice and horses, this Southerly focuses on disability. The contents are listed according to kind of writing – essays, poetry, short fiction etc (you can see the online version here). They could as easily have been listed according to kind of disability. Here’s a partial list:
- An intensely personal obituary by Bruce Pascoe for Gillian Mears, best known as the author of Foal’s Bread, who died of multiple sclerosis last year
- Koraly Dimitriadis, ‘The Recipe’, an exuberant short fiction in which a Greek family deals with a matriarch’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease
- Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, ‘Permanent Problems’, a memoir, self described as ‘a story about identity and anxiety, about rude questions and boring answers … a story I can’t grow out of, even as I grow up’, followed by ‘life prep (dear able bodied partner)’, a brief, caustic lyric on the same theme
- Heather Taylor Johnson, ‘Trying to Talk about Ménières Disease’, a poem (a fourfold haibun?) that vividly captures devastating encounters with a medical practitioner
Blindness / visual impairment:
- Ben Stubbs, ‘A Different View’, in which the author, a travel writer, is taken on a blindfold walk through the streets of Adelaide by a blind activist/educator, almost as good (or bad) as being there
- Amanda Tink, ‘Deafness: a Key to Lawson’s Writing’ reminds us that Henry Lawson was deaf, and argues that his disability lay at the base of his commitment to social justice. (I do wonder if Ms Tink has thought much about the influence of Henry’s feminist mother and his class background)
- Jessica White, ‘A Great Many Capital Foreign Things’, a memoir about her own experience as a deaf person, including her time researching colonial novelist Rosa Praed’s daughter Maud, who was deaf.
- Darcy Hill, ‘Disjointed Words’, a revelatory personal essay recounting a couple of hours in the life of an autistic university student
- Jessica Clements: ‘Theories of Lght’, a fiction in which a boy on the autism spectrum (though it’s not named) begins school. It opens a gentle door for readers unfamiliar with the territory
- Josephine Taylor, ‘Mark My Words’, the most scholarly piece in the journal with four pages of ‘works cited’, about vulvodynia, a condition of chronic unexplained vulval pain. I’m not drawn to writing that quotes the likes of Lacan or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and parts of this essay are hard going, but as it’s rooted in, and animated by, the writer’s quest to come to terms with more than fifteen years of acute pain, it’s hard to turn away
- Michèle Saint-Yves, ‘The Inner Shepherd’, a spectacular story in which a character takes 12 pages to sit up in bed in the morning, bringing extraordinary self-discipline to the task.
- Liana Joy Christensen, ‘Before They fall’, a memoir that pays pained tribute to a friend who lived with mental chaos.: ‘He could not help being ill; I could not help writing.’
- The cover is by Fulli Andrinopoulos, represented by Arts Project Australia, whose website declares that it insists ‘that intellectually disabled artists’ work be presented in a professional manner and that artists are accorded the same dignity and respect as their non-disabled peers’.
Not easily categorised:
- Elisabeth Holdsworth, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams, the friends of our youth and 83 seconds’ ranges widely over stillborn babies, misdiagnosed back injury, childhood epilepsy, survival of Dachau – friendship, grief, solidarity, courage …
I would have been satisfied with this richly diverse reading experience, and then the short reviews section sprung a pleasant surprise on me in Michael Sharkey’s review of David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice. This book is an elegy to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who lectured at Sydney University and was a mentor and friend to Musgrave and Sharkey. Though I wouldn’t presume to claim him as a friend, he was one of the three most inspiring, and dare I say loveable, teachers I had at university (the others were Elisabeth Hervic, of the French Department, and David Malouf). The review sent me to Gleebooks to buy a copy of the book, but the real delight was in Sharkey’s departures from the business of reviewing to note down some of his own memories of Bill:
Bill Maidment received that sort of admiration and affection from several generations of students and fellow teachers. He represents a world now gone, when an Air Force radio operator, journalist, plein-air geographer and adventurer, forensic critic, collector of Australian folklore and arcane Renaissance knowledge, and brilliant lecturer could exist in one person, and hold a packed lecture theatre in such thrall that the listeners erupted in applause not only at the end of lectures but sometimes following a bravura exegesis.
- Because my WordPress format doesn’t distinguish italicised text in quotes, I’ve used purple for words that are italicised in the original. I’ve also altered punctuation slightly to follow Australian conventions.