Book Review: (Dis)-Ability: A Short Story Collection
Compiled and edited by Emily Dorffer, with help from Jon-Paul Reed
Reviewed by Patricia A. Dunn
According to editor Emily Dorffer, each of the twenty short stories in this new collection was written by an author with a disability. The need for this book, she explains, grew out of what usually happens in traditional literature when disabled characters appear. Often they are used "as little more than tools for the development of other characters," or they are represented as "burdens," "saintly fountains of inspiration," or "unhinged horror villains" (Foreword). This collection successfully challenges—even explodes—those limited representations.
One of the tenets of Disability Studiesis that disability is as much a function of society's view of disability as it is the individual's particular impairment. In fact, in her recent overview of the field, Literature and Disability, 201), Alice Hall writes, "Society 'disables' individuals by excluding or discriminating against them and creating affective, sensory, cognitive or architectural barriers" (21). Stereotypical representations of disability in many canonical texts surely contribute to these discriminatory barriers. The stories in this collection, however, in addition to being lively and entertaining, will play a big role in dismantling many stereotypes about disability. With only one exception, protagonists in all these stories are characters with disabilities. They tell their stories through either a first person (personal) or limited omniscient point of view, some taking full advantage of flashbacks and flash-forwarding to provide exposition or move the plot. Their authors portray them realistically, with all the features, foibles, and rich differences that we are used to seeing in non-disabled characters elsewhere.
Fifteen of the stories appear for the first time in this collection, with five previously published ones. Some are almost "short shorts," while others are long,and they are set indifferent cities and countries (New York City, Berkeley, Providence, Baltimore, England and Egypt.) Their protagonists live with a variety of impairments: blindness or low vision, muscular dystrophy, OCD, epilepsy, spinal cord injuries, Tourette Syndrome, autism, as well as some invisible disabilities such as depression or anxiety.
What also makes this collection stand out is that the stories represent different genres: science fiction, fantasy, epistolary, traditional, slice-of-life, and surprise ending. Some are bleak, though not entirely; some have a happy-ish ending; some are primarily humorous, with a clever twist. Some endings are unresolved but satisfying. Some focus heavily on the protagonist's impairment and how that impairment becomes, once the person is out in society, a more serious disability. Others, however, are fast-paced, futuristic adventure or heist stories, in which the disability plays only a supporting role.
While space prohibits an overview of each story, some are mentioned here to provide a taste of the range and themes. Many of the stories include an annoying, non-disabled person who provides unsolicited "help" to the protagonist with the disability. Sometimes this "help" is just tiresome; sometimes it is disastrous. Non-disabled people in these stories can be well-meaning, or they can be bullies. Mostly they are clueless and presumptuous. For example, in the first story, "Neural Plasticity," by Anita Goveas, when the disabled protagonist gets on a bus, there is a "helper" who has a voice described as "the buzzing of a bee. Or a hornet." The woman wrongly assumes that the protagonist is on her way to a hospital and proceeds to give her directions to get there. The narrator goes about her business getting herself where she needs to go—the university—but she laments the change in how people view her now. The story does not end on that note, however.
Another story that shows non-disabled characters making wrong-headed assumptions is the last one, "Wounded in Providence," by Matthew B. Johnson. In this slice-of-life piece, a nurse in a clinic waiting room assumes that because the narrator uses a wheelchair, he must be the patient she is looking for, even though the narrator and the patient differ in size, age, and race. She also seems to doubt that the narrator even knows who he is: "the implication was that because I was in a wheelchair there was something very wrong with me." He is concerned about "people assuming that I was mentally deficient simply because of the chair." And in "After First Contact," by Terry Sanville, the narrator critiques the ableist view that people with disabilities cannot or should not have sex. He recounts an embarrassing encounter he and his girlfriend had with social workers, who "treated us like children." In Jennifer Lee Rossman's "The Falling Marionette," the disabled protagonist hears with dismay the whispered comments of hospital staff and patients when she has trouble controlling a futuristic contraption designed to help her stand. They say, "Poor girl. So brave." She does not want their pity. Through a point of view not often explored in canonical fiction, the stories in this collection take up social issues also not often explored.
Many of these stories also offer striking imagery. Megan Seitz's "Conscious" provides a frightening description of having a seizure, and then a dead-on accurate view of a hospital emergency room. Blind or low-sighted narrators provide rich descriptions of textures and sounds that are beyond what sighted readers might notice. In "Change," by Katrina Byrd, a couple with differing views of their shared blindness are having a strained conversation at a restaurant: "Nothing between them but the clink of ice from her drink glass, light chewing of food, and the scraping of forks against ceramic plates."
My only quibble with the collection is that some minor characters become fairly easy targets as villains. Teachers, principals, speech therapists, and social workers take a bit of a beating in some stories, as do, of course, parents. Sometimes these depictions come across as stereotypes, but it's possible, perhaps even likely, these characters are based on real experiences had by the respective authors.
This anthology is an important and engaging collection in which the authors give their disabled characters center stage. They also give them personality, wit, attitude, and agency. In this book, readers will identify with dramatic situations rarely described in other fiction, and with characters in these pages who get to be fully developed people. Other readers may be productively uncomfortable if they see themselves as the oblivious or ignorant minor characters, seen through the point of view of these protagonists. I highly recommend this book and will find a way to work some of the selections into a future class I teach.
Title: (Dis)-Ability: A Short Story Collection
Editor: Emily Dorffer
Publication Date: 2018
Hall, Alice. Literature and Disability. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.