Book Review: Firsts: Coming of Age Stories By People With Disabilities (Belo Miguel Cipriani)
Reviewed by Seeley Quest
Full disclosure: I have briefly met the editor of this collection when he featured in a literary reading in San Francisco, appreciated the chance to start following his non-fiction, and began reading Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities with a bias toward previous work of his. Now living in the Twin Cities, Belo Miguel Cipriani has started Oleb Books which released this title October 2018 in paperback and ebook editions. The introduction explains his search for written narratives of disabled peers' experiences after he became blind, and frustration with how few he could find that don't treat disability as a premise for pity or punishment. The amount of stories associating disabled characters with badness and deserved ill fates, or with the heroism of extraordinary overcoming to escape association with pitiable fortunes, motivated Belo to start writing better stories, and eventually call for submissions for this book. His work in journalism profiling other disabled people led him to notice the prevalence of them being "regularly the first to do something in their communities: first deaf person to lead a theatrical play in their high school, first quadriplegic to attend their small liberal arts college…" It prompted musing on the passages people with disabilities go through, and how little is published that reflects our everyday, and specifically unique, first or foundational experiences of various life moments. This collection is a fair introduction for both disabled and abled readers to a range of interpretations of the theme, 'slices of life' that will be compelling to a broad audience. I'll briefly survey all the essays, to introduce the variety of writers and their focal points.
The opening story, "Life with Lexie" by Heidi Johnson-Wright, comes out crackling with blunt delivery and crass humor. It got me wondering if the writer self-deprecates with ‘blue' slang consistently in her author persona, or if the tone was particular to its setting of her late teenage and early adult experiences in college in the early 1980s, with such delivery being ‘hip' then. I am not prudish, just felt that this writer went to some effort demonstrating how far from prude she is too, and that editorial intention in starting the anthology with it might include showing readers that physically disabled people can articulate brazenly with the best of ‘em. Lexie being the name of her first care attendant at eighteen, and also a classmate in the English department, is someone Johnson-Wright indeed experiences a ‘coming of age' with. She includes a rare exploration of shifting emotional dynamics, ambiguity in perceptions when crips receive personal attendant care from someone in a professional context, yet also have layers of intimacy that prompt friendship attachments or sometimes romantic ones. Investigating these bonds and the complex ways disabled people and our attendant support people actually feel in relating is something I hope to encounter more published work addressing.
"Dark Clouds" by Nigel David Kelly, concerns a man acquiring symptoms in his mid-forties while in athletic shape, including hearing loss and increased tinnitus, nausea and vertigo with a growing tumor's pressure on the brain. From Ireland, he notes recent loss of UK government supports for disabled people, the benefits of his local township having supportive policies and accommodations for residents, and of support from his spouse. His coming to an increasingly disabled status changes his relationship to employment and to the importance of reducing stress. "Landmines" by Caitlin Hernandez, a blind artist, is about becoming intimate somewhat unexpectedly with another queer friend of hers, and is poignant in her reflections on a first time of falling for a man, illustrated by her choice of poetic language. "Overdubbing the Cody Effect" by Sam E. Rubin discusses being diagnosed autistic and tracked into special education with a couple teachers including 'Cody' whose approaches to behavior control prompted PTSD. With later homeschooling and creative, patient tutors, Rubin shares the perspective at the end of essay about how much he's benefitted from compassion for not being perfect, which now helps him to consider compassion toward a teacher treating him imperfectly.
"The Hearing Child" by Kevin Souhrada offers his perspective coming from a Deaf-centric family, starting to have his own children and dealing with them hearing when their parents don't. This informs his points on opportunity for equal treatment despite minority status. "I Did It" by Cathy Beaudoin relates the grit the author has, after becoming legally blind and leaving accounting work, determined to transition professionally by getting into and through a PhD program in accounting in order to start teaching it and become a tenured professor in the field. She states awareness of the additional effort required to get through scholastic requirements when she doesn't use some accommodating tools for her blindness, and resistance to acknowledging the usefulness of adaptations in her life being related to "fear that people might judge me as less capable." "I Did It" is among the stories in the anthology that illustrates an author's internalized ableist prejudices and pressures, and let readers decide how to process these expressions of sentiment.
"StarWords" by David-Elijah Nahmod again comments on the consequences of being sent when young into restrictive medicalizing environments, in his case, a psych ward in NYC to address his effeminacy at age eight. He is articulate about the repeated medicating and controlling measures effecting conditions of anxiety, mania, depression and PTSD which he manages today. Becoming a fan of escapist superhero and horror TV and film, and contacting an editor of a genre publication about reviews, leads him to opportunities to encounter stars, while disclosing when necessary about his anxiety with interviews and social pressure, helps him navigate journalism work.
"Firsts in Art" by Kimberly Gerry-Tucker elaborates on autistic perception, and the author's specifics in visual and tactile detail processing are themselves mesmerizing. Her observations of sensory overwhelm and hyper-focus recognized as spectrum characteristics later in her adult life, and of pursuing strategies to cope with challenging social interactions, contribute to the literature reflecting experiences of growing numbers diagnosed at any age. "Heart in a Bottle" by Christina Pires also shares the poignancy of a young woman socially alienated enough to be less experienced with dating, and the difficulty of emotionally gauging a long distance suitor met online.
"Baring It All" by Andrew Gurza relates a first opportunity to have sex as a college student and the heightened vulnerability of sharing nudity with another for someone otherwise used to only being exposed to people performing body care activities as attendants. "Sleeveless At Least" by Teresa M. Elguézabal is framed by the writer's intent to return to her tango dancing with dress code and all, after severe injury by car accident. A compelling point is how much being committed to a community of dancers is able to push her physical rehab work, both negatively with her own beliefs that she couldn't experience satisfaction dancing in adapted formats without matching her peers, and positively when she first returns to a tango milonga and attendees embrace taking turns dancing with and including her. Despite some ableist attitudes in the narrative, the end satisfies with her awareness of the focus and presence required to join the dance floor.
Elguézabal's and Beaudoin's essays are particular in being by women who become disabled later in life, and in putting the most focus on grit despite difficulties because of prejudices imposed by those around them. No included essayist shies away from comments on challenges associated with their experiences as disabled. However, the scope of "firsts" is broad and allows emphasis to shift to inaugural experiences they've found notable for many reasons, and the mix is refreshing for not having a majority focus upon hardships of disability. The narrators both accomplish things worth celebrating, and suffer on occasion—the collected texts simply give a chance to read of life experiences informed by cripple sensibilities, a still under-shared perspective. I look forward to what grows from this Firsts collection premise, and expect many readers will too.
Title: Firsts: Coming of Age Stories of People with Disabilities