Editor’s Note: sb. smith’s edited volume, Disabled Voices Anthology, was reviewed (by Diane R. Wiener) in this issue of Wordgathering. Diane R. Wiener interviewed sb. smith for Wordgathering.
WG: Thanks for conversing with me about Disabled Voices Anthology, sb. Can you please begin by sharing with Wordgathering’s readers a bit about the book, how you got the idea to edit it, and how the project came about? Thanks!
SBS: Basically, Disabled Voices Anthology is comprised of multi-genre writing and art from Disabled creators in Canada, the US and the UK. It’s a book that is by the Disabled community, for the Disabled community. It strays from dominant narratives about Disability and allows Disabled people to guide their own narratives.
I got the idea to edit it when the publisher, Rebel Mountain Press, visited my publishing class. They were presenting on their catalogue of books which includes an anthology of queer writing and art, and another of Indigenous writing and art. I had wished to myself for there to be more texts of this sort for Disabled writers and artists, and decided to pitch the idea to Rebel Mountain Press. They accepted and now here we are!
When I pitched it, I stressed to them the importance of trying to keep all aspects of the book’s creation in the hands of Disabled people, so I became the primary editor, the cover art came from a Disabled Métis artist named Shelby Brown, and, of course, all the writing and artwork inside are by Disabled/mad/ill/neurodivergent/crip contributors. The foreword was written by queer disabled femme Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and I believe the advanced reviews were all written by Disabled and/or ill folks, as well. All that to say, I really wanted to create a book that both resists the oppressive abledgaze and exists outside it. This is extremely hard to accomplish in the publishing world, so I’m grateful that an indie publisher like Rebel Mountain Press was willing to take that on because it’s the hard work that matters and that most mainstream publishers aren’t doing, for whatever reason.
WG: Thanks, so much, sb.! Can you kindly comment further about how or in what ways you believe the book’s contributors and the book, itself, join ongoing as well as emerging disability poetics and CripLit work and discussion?
SBS: Well, I think there are a few things the advance reading reviewers said about the book that are relevant. A.H. Reaume mentioned that the book “tells a more complicated story of being disabled” than usual abledgaze narratives, for example. And Alok V Menon said that the book represents “community realized through complexity and knowledge created by people who have for so long been effaced.” I think those two descriptions really speak to some aims of criplit: self-determined narratives that provide more complex, nuanced ways of understanding Disability and Disabled people. At the same time, the writing and art also has a sense of not catering to abled readers and an intention to take part in something by us, for us.
WG: I have a question about readership and audience. If you were going to describe this book to disabled people, as a resource (or in whatever ways you might wish to describe it!), what might or would you say? And, if you were going to describe this book to nondisabled people, particularly those who want to get more “woke” about disability, what might or would you say?
SBS: Good question. Intended audience is something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently with regard to my own writing and artwork. I think Disabled Voices Anthology was the first project I took on where I was really conscious of the intended audience, potential audience, and so on. I think one aim I had for this book was to create a place where baby crips—or, people who are sick/disabled/etc. but don’t yet identify as Disabled–can see reflections of themselves and feel welcomed in and embraced by community. I think I saw that happen at the official launch event, and it was really, really beautiful. With seeing just that one person having a crip coming of age right before my eyes (so far as I could tell), I felt like my job was done–I’d reached some of the intended audience.
Otherwise, this book is, of course, for other Disabled people to enjoy. Another aim I had with it was to create a place where we can revel in crip joy, anger, and brilliance. I always say that each piece of cultural work (art, writing, etc.) that comes out of our community is an invitation to survival. I forget who, but in the documentary Vital Signs, one of the interviewees near the end of the documentary says something to the effect of “surviving oppression on a daily basis requires disability culture.” This is something I whole-heartedly agree with. Disability justice says that creative works are just as important as traditionally academic works or otherwise. This is also true. I think we need art and writing just as much as we need persuasive essays or protests in the streets. Art is the sustaining lifeblood of the community.
With regard to what I would say to abled readers who want to “get woke” about disability… I don’t encourage the consumption of disability, disabled people and bodies, or any other marginal identity for the purposes of trying to get woke. In my experience, wokeness in abled allies often manifests as performative allyship, virtue signalling, and so on–all things that are of more harm to what we’re trying to accomplish than they are good. If abled people want to read this book, that’s fine. But I would caution against the impulse to say/believe that they “get” disability after reading it. This book is a collection that represents a fair range of disabled voices, but certainly not all, which would be impossible! Even if there was a book that did, somehow, capture the entire lot of us, I still don’t think it would do the service abled allies looking to increase their wokeness are looking for. That said, I think it could be beneficial to society on a broader scale for abled people to see representations of disability that are not ones the abled imagination or abledgaze has dreamt up. It could be challenging, I think, for people who have never been exposed to true, meaningful representations of disabled people to grapple with what they might read or see in this anthology, but that’s a challenge that I think more abled people should be willing to take on.
WG: Thanks for your thoughtful responses, sb. It seems like the primary focus of the book is engaging “insiders”—those who self-identify as crip, whether “baby crips” or more “seasoned crips.” Plus, as you noted, the risk of appropriation is always great, so a secondary goal for the book is not so much to help the abled get “woke,” but, rather, to address what you referred to as a “broader scale” at the societal level, by providing a plethora of never-always-“complete” (since, yes, that would be impossible) representations.
On a related note, what do you think about fellow crips also grappling with these ongoing conversations about the politics of representation? What do you think, in particular, of the debates that are now so commonplace about how representations (fictional and nonfictional) and their presumed authenticity are not the main “focus” that progenitors of crip liberation need to have? Might the choices and narrative emphases offered regarding what you referred to as “true, meaningful representations of disabled people” create a kind of closure rather than openness, paradoxically, for some crips, too? This is partly the argument made by Ria Cheyne in Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction (which I reviewed recently for Wordgathering). I’m very curious about your thoughts!
SBS: Oh my! A doozy of a question gets a doozy of an answer, haha!
What I’m hearing, between what you’ve mentioned here and what I’ve gathered from the review of Cheyne’s book, is that the politics of representation in disability cultural work often results in identity fragmentation and relies on binary thinking. I don’t disagree. I do think it’s important, though, to note that sometimes a strategic essentialism is necessary, especially when using abled-centric platforms for disability cultural production. That’s what I’ve done with Disabled Voices Anthology, by entering into an overwhelmingly-abled-centric publishing industry and saying, “let me, a disabled person, make a book about disability. No ableds allowed–for once!” That’s what I’m doing when I say, “true, meaningful representation.” Do I think the representations in this book are the true, meaningful representations of various fragments of the disabled identity (madness, chronic illness, neurodivergence, and so on)? No. But do I think they are more true and meaningful than what we’ve seen in, say, movies like The Upside or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hell yes.
I think what Cheyne is debating and what I’ve mentioned in terms of representation are two very different things: She argues down identity fragmentation with regard to representations of disability and debates the authenticity litmus disabled people often utilize when responding to disabled representations. I am saying, abled people and their ill-informed imaginations need to move out of the way. Still, I think it’s worth trying to tackle both ideas here in my answer because they are related, like you said, and they both relate to the aims of the anthology.
This harkens back to something I was thinking about recently with regard to reliance on binaries. I realized (after reading a well-circulated tweet that essentialized disabled experiences as either congenital or acquired and implied a hierarchical value to each type) that the disability community loves a binary, unfortunately. Acquired/congenital, disabled/abled, physical/mental, etc. I think it makes our already complicated and messy lives a little more simple, but it’s still important to resist where we can. This got me thinking about our varied experiences, more broadly. To illustrate: One of my formal diagnoses is fibromyalgia. Lady Gaga also has fibromyalgia, but do Lady Gaga and I have the same disabled experience? Hard no. For various reasons not limited to wealth, status, educational attainment, habitus, available resources, comorbid disabilities, and so on. Similarly, does someone with cerebral palsy inherently experience it in the same way as, say, Ryan O’Connell? No. Thinking that one representation of disability covers them all is ill-informed and foolish. As is thinking that two people with the same disability experience it the same. My experience is different from both everyone else who has fibromyalgia and every disabled person with diagnoses that don’t resemble mine.
But, I would rather see Ryan O’Connell represent a character with cerebral palsy on Special than an abled actor or an actor with another unrelated disability. I would rather find safety and comfort in writing about disability by disabled people. I would rather see a representation of fibromyalgia that looks like mine because if Lady Gaga is my only role model, I’m going to feel like real hell about myself for not equally achieving what she has. Or, if my only other reflection of myself in media is a mentally ill person who, inevitably, either dies by suicide or is magically cured by the end of a film, I’m going to believe death is my only option if I can’t clean up my crazy.
And that is eugenic ideology being internalized in me. No creative whim of a novelist or screenwriter is more important than expunging these imagined ideas/images/representations of disability from ourselves and society’s collective understandings of disability. I don’t care if a film or book is supposed to make my abled counterpart feel if it’s harming me or my friends. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but it seems like the arguments for creative liberties are something Cheyne touches on.
Overall, I see debates around representation and identity politics/fragmentation as undermining the importance and fragility of human life more than I’m comfortable with. This is something we talk a lot about in sociology, specifically with regard to sociological pursuits with too much emphasis on either empiricism or broad theory. And it’s something that both disturbs and disappoints me.
So, what’s important to me is this: Survival. I think there is often real, direct harm done to disabled people when we see representations of ourselves that have been dreamed up by the abled imagination. Likewise, I believe every disabled person deserves to see reflections of themselves in media that feel meaningful and true and accurate. Scholars can debate the life out of themselves and our culture(s) trying to figure out what the parameters of good/bad, true/false, authentic/hollow, helpful/harmful representation are, or by trying to find a middle ground to avoid the politics of identity fragmentation. I don’t need a middle ground, personally. Political identities are political and we can’t avoid the sometimes unsavory aspects of politics. More importantly, if drawing lines that distinguish true, meaningful representations from false and/or harmful representations of ourselves gives us comfort, keeps us safe, and keeps us alive, that’s what I care about.
WG: I am good with doozies. Is that the plural of doozy? Well, I guess we can decide, agree, disagree, D) all of the above, or E) something else (!). Thanks for your deep and candid reply, sb. Last question: Is there anything that you would like to add, in terms of the book, your upcoming projects, or anything else, for the “good of the cause”—disability literature, poetics, the arts, and culture, broadly? And, bonus question: where/how and in what formats can folx get a copy of the new book, in order to maximize benefit for the crips?
SBS: Let’s see… I don’t have any major projects on the go right now but I have a few new written pieces that cover topics like eugenics and pain out in Arc Poetry Magazine, Burning Jade Magazine, and Five Dials, so check those out–I keep my website (www.sb-smith.com) updated with my most recent publications.
I recently read Unmeaningable by Roxanna Bennett and it really changed the way I approach my poetry writing in particular, so I recommend that to any disabled people looking to go deeper with their writing. Also, I’d recommend the Sins Invalid Skin, Tooth and Bone: The Basis of Movement is Our People book for anyone looking to meaningfully align their work with disability justice principles. Those are the two cultural texts that really meant something to me as a reader and writer this year.
Disabled Voices Anthology is available in hard copy. There is also an ebook that the publisher has told me is screenreader-friendly, but I personally can’t confirm that, unfortunately. The ebook and hard copy are available to order from online book retailers and the hard copy should be available to order from any local booksellers as well! Readers also have the option of emailing the publisher (Rebel Mountain Press) with specific requests for accessible formats.
About sb. smith
sb. smith (she and they) is a fat, genderqueer, bisexual, mad, and disabled person of poor, chronically-ill Scottish/Irish descent living on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land (known as Vancouver, Canada). They were the editor of Disabled Voices Anthology (Rebel Mountain Press, 2020), and her work has been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, The Quilliad, Maclean’s, antilang., Burning Jade, Rooted in Rights, Portal, Sad Girl Review, Navigator Student Press, and more.
About Diane R. Wiener
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere; her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, and The Abstract Elephant Magazine; her flash fiction appears and is forthcoming in Ordinary Madness. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.