The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability (edited by Alice Hall)

Reviewed by Liz Whiteacre

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability highlights the diverse perspectives scholars are using to facilitate conversations about disability literature. Disability has been represented in literary works for centuries, and the contemporary analyses included in this 2020 anthology edited by Alice Hall suggest there is still much to explore in critical disability studies. Hall writes, “In order to [‘transform critical and cultural theory’ as Tobin Siebers posits], critical disability perspectives must be given a place on curricula and disabled writers, scholars and students need to be able to access [the] physical spaces of schools, universities, arts institutions and libraries” (1-2). The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability offers scholars, writers, and readers an excellent opportunity to engage.

I approached this anthology not only as an educator, poet, and reader, but also as a person whose personal experiences with spinal injury have impacted all of these lenses. After an accident in 2000, I had two years left in my MFA program. I relearned to walk, I read and wrote poems, I taught students composition—but I was as yet unaware of the vibrant community of writers with disabilities. Michael Northen opens his essay, “Disability Poetry: Testing the Waters of Definition,” with a brief history of disability poetry, sharing poet Jim Ferris’ “first list of [the] characteristics of disability poetry” from 2007 and noting that “[A. J.] Baird had put out a call [in 1983] for poetry in Kaleidoscope, the United States’ first journal dedicated to disability writing and art” (241). It wasn’t until 2010, just three years after Ferris’ seminal essay, that I was introduced to the Inglis House Poetry Workshop through a chance submission call, which led to my discovery of literary magazines, like Kaleidoscope and Wordgathering, and suddenly I was immersed in a vibrant community of disability writers and advocates. I read this anthology as a person who has taught disability literature at universities in creative writing courses, a poet who explores disability in her work, and an enthusiastic reader.

This anthology offers an introduction to the developing canon of disability literature (we are introduced to many works in the genres of fiction, poetry, drama, life writing, and graphic narratives) and a diversity of literary criticism (scholars in this collection employ critical disability studies, trans studies, gothic studies, modernism, feminism, afro-modernism, gender, race, nationality, class, ethnicity—the critical approaches are varied and demonstrate, in my opinion, how intersectional and interdisciplinary conversations of disability literature can be). Scholars reading this anthology are given an excellent overview of current conversations in the field and invitations to join in research and discussion. 

Rebecca Sanchez, who discusses “Deafness and Modernism,” ends with a call to scholars: “To be clear, such scholarship [like Lennard Davis’ and Christopher Krentz’s work] is vital in demonstrating the ways that disability, far from being peripheral to the literary canon, has in fact suffused it. Much more analysis in this vein is required to continue to recover the work of disabled artists and to unpack the ways cultural representations of disability have shaped both people’s understanding of disability off the page and our various literary traditions” (193). The essays in the anthology also provide helpful contexts and questions for educators interested in integrating disability literature and studies into their curricula. I found myself taking notes on works and theories for future use while I read. In classes like Introduction to Creative Writing and Poetry Writing, I have integrated work by writers with disabilities (as I do other marginalized groups) with the goal of providing students with models that offer experiences with texts by and about people who are both alike and different from them. 

In the introduction, Alice Hall shares, “This Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability therefore aims to give readers a sense of the rich history of literary disability studies but also to engage them in current critical debates” (4). This anthology has personally offered me new ways to look at texts and start conversations with students about the ways we engage with disability (both on and off the page), and I have noticed in writing courses with diverse models that students are more likely to explore disability in their own creative writing.

Poet Lucia Perillo was an educator and mentor who encouraged students in her classes to write about their relationships with their bodies in honest ways. I appreciated Johanna Emeney’s discussion in “Disability in Contemporary Poetry” where she observed that 

Perillo often had a troubled relationship with ‘this new identity as an afflicted person’; identifying herself as a disabled poet was caught up with notions of being ‘typecast’ and a dread of receiving undeserved recognition for being a minority (‘The Body Munity’). However, in her published work, the raw and intensely curious manner in which she studies the human body as it fails shows her perspective: that impaired embodiment is worthy of art, worthy of looking at. Her way of depicting it, with great empathy for others and self-compassion, also demonstrates a universalist understanding of human responsibility. (237)

I share Emeney’s quote in full because people writing about and with disabilities may share Perillo’s sentiment, choosing to distance their physical selves from their personas on the page for many different reasons, and having the opportunity to step back and look at the field of critical disability studies might be a benefit because it offers an opportunity to reflect on how their work adds to those larger conversations. 

Ann M. Fox, in “The Problem of Intersectional Invisibility,” challenges us all to participate: “To understand how disability is intimately bound up in—and indeed, has been used to help create—outmoded ideas about race, class, gender, and sexuality, is to increase liberation for all bodies, and to imagine a future in which disability identify is visible, vibrant, and valued” (301). I know that as I have become more engaged with a community that supports and advocates for disability literature and studies, I have grown as a writer, educator, and person. 

Throughout the anthology, scholars point to what can be gained off the page by studying disability on the page. In “Disability and the Marriage Plot,” Clare Walker Gore shares, “my hope is that, as readers, we will become ever more attuned to the work being done by disabled characters and by the dis/ability system itself, and thereby become ever more skeptical of its distorting categories, and ever more alive to the contradictions, the complexities and the capabilities that it works to conceal” (130). Essays in this anthology will challenge readers in many ways. 

Kristen Harmon starts her essay “Challenging Phonocentrism: Writing Signs and Bilingual Deaf Literatures” with the questions, “What is Deaf Literature? How can written literary words be deaf? Many readers of English texts may never have asked themselves questions like these about reading and writing: how can written literature—a poem, play, short story, novel, or other creative forms—be Deaf (and signing)? How can it have been hearing (and speaking) to begin with?” (43). Not only can this collection introduce readers to new perspectives when they read representations of disability in literature, but it can also introduce them to new works they will want to check out. Some readers may find the cost of the anthology prohibitive, and I encourage them to put in requests at their local libraries, so that they (and other interested readers in their communities) can have the opportunity to explore The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability

I highly recommend this anthology to scholars, educators, writers, and readers. In the essay “A Grammar of Touch: Interdependencies of Person, Place, Thing,” Shannon Walters writes, “literature is equipment for living because it teaches us important things about what we value, the attitudes we form, and how to react to shared situations” (343). The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability is an engaging companion to excellent works in disability literature, and I hope it sparks many new conversations and insights.

Title: The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability
Editor: Alice Hall
Publisher: Routledge
Date: 2020

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About the Reviewer

Liz Whiteacre is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches creative writing and co-advises Etchings Press. She is the author of Hit the Ground (Finishing Line Press) and co-editor of the anthology Monday Coffee & Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs (INwords Press). Her poems have appeared in WordgatheringDisability Studies QuarterlyThe Healing MuseBreath and Shadow, and other magazines.