Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid (Shayda Kafai)

Reviewed by Julia LeFrancois

Content Warning: Sexual assault; multiple references to oppression and survival, in myriad forms.

“Reborn in Crip Kinship”

Hello, dear reader. I’d like to preface this moment between the two of us, by inviting you into my space, and in a way, locating myself within this process. I was given a similar invitation while reading this book, and it feels appropriate to offer the same for you. As I am writing this, I’m sitting cross-legged at my kitchen table, wearing fuzzy socks, pajama pants printed with stars and constellations, and my favorite blue t-shirt that reads, “She is messy but she’s kind” in small, white letters. It’s my favorite because the material is soft against my skin and the message makes me feel seen. I keep shifting in my seat because my body hurts. I’ve been having flare-ups of pain and can’t seem to find a comfortable position.

I don’t know if it’s a lack of sleep or the increased anxiety and depression as of late, but either way, my chronic illness shares this moment with us. I invite you to take a moment to be in your space and notice what else is here with us. How does it feel in your body? What does your environment smell or sound like? What thoughts and feelings brought you to this moment? What need does your current state of being communicate? I ask these questions because they are questions that Shayda Kafai asks in her love letter to Sins Invalid, the performance arts-based disability justice community, to whom this review of love is also directed.

Kafai begins her love letter by amplifying the voice of Sins Invalid co-creator, Patty Berne, and their call to create the radical project that became Sins Invalid. Patty sets the stage by bringing us to The Bay Area of San Francisco in the early 80’s, when queer space meant underground art and crip bodies refusing to conform to society’s dismissive line of sight. They bring us back to the present where the pandemic has exacerbated the capitalistic confines of work and ableist policies that force us to prove our right to live. Our right to create. Our right to not only exist, but to thrive. Within this thriving is the power of Sins Invalid, where Patty tells us to “dream without shame…out loud and in public” (11), as the Sins Invalid art-activists do on stage by sharing their own sensual, liberating, crip-centric stories.

Kafai answers this call to action with a declaration of love and a commitment to call the rest of us home. She offers this love letter to us. To you and to me, and to all of her kin, so that we can love in community and in magic. So that we can be reborn into endless possibility, and crip-centric liberating space. This love letter, she shares, was born from need because “need communicates, says disabled communities have wisdom, says we survive true when we declare and co-create a world that honors us, a world where we are never too much…need says crip magic” (13). Kafai delivers us unto this magic on every page—begging us to recognize that our messy joy is worthy of space and radiance. It is also worthy of rest. Finding crip kinship comes from this place of rest, folded between the arms of revolution and disability artwork. This is something that has always been difficult for me. Most times, resting feels irresponsible. It’s unproductive and feels synonymous with white supremacist concepts like laziness and being idle.

Reading through this book, we are reminded that there is not one true way to do anything. Kafai moves us away from limitations into the reality of endless possibilities. The reality where we can be however our bodyminds choose to be and need to be. We can write, dream, learn, experience joy and access. View from afar or up close and personal. Engage with community, perform, or have sex. As a disabled, Mexican-American woman, who is healing from sexual assault and actively trying to dismantle toxic beliefs about her own body, this is a moment of rebirth. For me, it is lifegiving. It is where I allow myself to fully practice self-love—and rest. Validating this moment of rebirth, Kafai tells us that “revolutions begin with rest, with time to think, feel, and create our way into dreaming new realities” (165). This is the stuff of magic. Of crip dreams and aspirations and stars aligning in love and community. For you, this moment of rebirth might be different. It might look and feel like nothing I can ever experience, but it is the moment where you will affirm your own magic and discover the collective liberation that comes from co-creating a world and witnessing a gridwork of fibers, a persistent and complex arrangement of all things tender and kindred (18).

This tender world asks that we willfully write ourselves in. A task that Sins Invalid creates on stage and Kafai offers in this love letter. So often, we are told that we don’t matter, or that we don’t matter enough. This is what ableism does. It dehumanizes, infantilizes, or fetishizes. It erases, colonizes, and murders. It is why writing ourselves in becomes a responsibility of all of us who dream—all of us who need disempowerment to become empowered exchange and contribution. Sins Invalid write themselves in, and Shayda Kafai does the same. They write themselves in to be accessible to all bodyminds, but also to love, honor, and admire.

In Crip Kinship, Kafai’s visual descriptions of Sins Invalid artwork are love letters unto themselves. The way Kafai describes Sins Invalid as “what it looks like to love ourselves and one another with compassion and tenderness, like the plants” is how I would describe Kafai’s own writing. Reading through her honoring of Sins Invalid, she ignites within us, survival magic and encourages us to do beauty (101) by blurring boundaries or doing absolutely nothing but exist.

Interwoven in this love letter are glittering reminders that all bodyminds are intersectional, worthy, and beautiful—a reclamation of agentic beauty. One that is outside the normative, capitalistic, white supremacist, ableist, cisgender patriarchy. Beauty as intervention and resistance. As non-disposable and magical. As unapologetic and limitless—embraced ugliness. Kafai reminds us of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s description of the kind of “beauty that radiates from our hearts, not from symmetrical bone structure” (163).

Kafai explores the awakening of Sins Invalid with calls to action from folks like Mia Mingus and other storyteller legacies, and how their goals of collective liberation are approached through different, while equally necessary tactics, ask us to challenge normative paradigms and unashamedly claim our beauty and ugliness. Kafai asks us to accept this challenge by embracing our bodyminds and restoring the sparkle society tries to erase. By liberating ourselves and others by being, doing, and not doing, from our cozy crip-centric bed caves. This is how we resist assimilation and leave evidence that we were here. The moment we embrace our place in that universe, we are reborn into communal labor and no longer alone. This is love. It is decolonization, doulaship and finding crip kinship. We need crip kinship and collective liberation, otherwise we will continue to be erased from the world’s stories.

The world has communicated that they do not want our magic, so we need to create a new world full of our own magic and stars. Full of our own power chairs and sexual drool. Full of our abilities to create and exist in crip-centric liberated zones. Kafai sees the Sins Invalid community as a “[seedling] that asks that we create something magnetic out of all the chaos and oppression, because, in the end, empowered with our crip, queer, decolonial lineage, we are the only ones who can” (177) and invites us, her dear readers and movement-makers, to gather in communal learning. To welcome revolutions like Sins Invalid into our lives as a practice—not a moment. To recover our histories by rejoicing in each other’s stories and bodyminds, and embracing our rights to giddiness and joy. And to staying alive.

Kafai asks us to imagine what it would be like to enter crip and queer spaces where “beauty is for everyone and what it would feel like to “emancipate…and decolonize beauty” (156) where we can become stars in our crip universes. To me it would be like coming home. When we allow ourselves to imagine this co-created, crip-centric, liberating world, we allow ourselves to become storytellers. We allow ourselves to bear witness to each other’s stories and truly believe that we deserve to exist and to thrive. Exciting us toward our liberated futures, Kafai reveals Sins Invalid’s plans for the future of our crip communities and ends her love letter by extending the invitation to dream. To us, her kin. She invites us to discover our own bodyminds and embark on our own journeys. She reminds us that in order to reclaim our bodymind stories, we must develop a disability justice-centered map to take with us—complete with pit stops wherein we can empower our crip kin to find their own magic and be reborn. Pit stops to cafes and online spaces. To gardens and the margins of printed pages. To celebrations and crip-centric liberated zones.

In the middle of this invitation, she offers her love and asks us to pause. While this book offers an opportunity to think and plan, it also reminds us to rest. And so I will. I will rest my mind and my heart, pour myself a cup of tea, and snuggle with my dog in my cozy bed cave. I will nourish my thoughts and my body—and exist. Then I will answer the call. I will develop my cripped out future with the nourishment from storyteller legacies, online performances of Sins Invalid, and the poetic love letter from Shayda Kafai.

Title: Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid
Author: Shayda Kafai
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Julia LeFrancois (she/her/ella) is a master’s student at the University of New Haven, where she is studying community psychology research evaluation. She identifies as a storyteller, change-maker, and scholar. Currently, she works as a research assistant for Esperanza United, assisting in restorative justice, gender-based violence, and youth empowerment projects. As an undergraduate, she developed her project, Embodied Narratives: Bodymind Resistance Through Storytelling, as a tool to redistribute power within marginalized communities. Prior to becoming a scholar of community psychology, Julia trained as a sign language interpreter and has been working alongside the Deaf community since 2012. She plans to merge her experiences into social justice-centered work while continuing to be a resource and contributor to her communities.