The Massachusetts Review: “Disability Justice” (eds. Khairani Barokka and Cyrée Jarelle Johnson)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

During the past decade it has become increasingly common for literary journals, particularly those connected with universities, to devote an issue to the work of disabled writers, so it is not surprising that The Massachusetts Review dedicated their Winter 2022 issue to “Disability Justice.”  The guest editors for this issue are poets Khairani Barokka and Cyrée Jarelle Johnson. Barokka brings some important anthologizing experience to the project, having been one of the editors of Stairs and Whispers, a groundbreaking anthology of D/deaf and disabled writers from the UK.  

The editors’ “Introduction” is short but critical for providing a framework for what they hope this issue of MR accomplishes. They set the tone for the volume by invoking  Audre Lorde’s now-canonical The Cancer Journals as a bellwether for the writing and art they have gathered. In Johnson and Barokka’s words,  they have chosen work that “pushes back against dominant depictions of disabled people as helpless, minor, or merely as patients and nothing more.” (p. 600) While it is unlikely that anyone reading an issue on disability justice is not already aware, the work of which they are speaking is intersectional disability literature, something that MR has already signaled by the choice of this issue’s editors. This means casting as wide a net over disability as possible. More than simply searching for work where disability is informed by race, gender, or class, the volume is international in scope, including writing from every continent other than Antarctica. Ferreting out the work of writers and artists from such a variety of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds also means finding the translators who were interested in translating the work of disabled writers – not an easy task.  In some of these cases the editors have even reached back into the past, illustrating that, while much of the jargon around disability is recent, writing by disabled people has been around longer than most of us.

It is fair to ask who the intended audience of “Disability Justice” is. While most journals of the Massachusetts Review’s stature are going to insist that those whose writing and artistic work are included live with disability themselves, Barokka and Johnson reject the idea that first-person accounts of disability and illness should be private and shelved, saying instead that we are lucky to have these works “available to us.” The use–twice–of the rather insular term “OwnVoices” without definition suggests that there is a certain amount of preaching to the choir. Who is (are) the “us”? A hope for disability justice in the world implies that the work from the community is truly a reaching out and not merely a speaking to the community itself (as valuable as those kinds of projects may be). I’d like to think this is the case.

With that in mind, I want to take a birds-eye view of the volume, make a few observations about the poetry included, and then focus on a few pieces that feel to me as though they might have a more global appeal even to those with little knowledge of disability literature or art. A quick look at the “Contents” gives readers a snapshot of the diversity and scope of the volume. One of the things to be appreciated is that beside each title Italics indicate not just the author but the genre of work it is and whether or not it is a translated work. This formatting and information allow readers who so choose to go directly to the work(s) in which they are likely to be the most interested. For further convenience, at the end of the issue there is an alphabetical index and, just before it, a “Notes on Contributors,” whose inclusion is particularly helpful since it will be the rare reader who will recognize the majority of the authors.  

One thing that the table of contents does not do is to divide the work up into sections with labels. The organization, or rather connections among the works, are more subtle. The only immediately observable framework is the planned use of poems by Zuo Lao and translated from Chinese by Yi Zhe as both the first and final works in the anthology, poems that reflect Zuo Lao’s experience as a person who is hard of hearing. This placement emphasizes the fact that the pages in between gather together global work and underscore the importance of translation whenever a work of literature or art is experienced.

One example of the kinds of connections that the anthology makes is via its beginning with Brian Teare’s reference to art in the anthology’s third entry, followed by Vivan Li’s poem “Red.” Both of these themes come together in the essay that follows, Lynn Buckle’s “The Sound of Red and Green.” Buckle, a deaf art teacher who uses Irish Sign Language to communicate, describes a day when she has taken students out into the field to search for “red.” Buckle’s use of ISL pivots the reader to the next three poems, all translations from the French by Stephanie Papa of works performed by Deaf poets. At the end of each of the poems is a QR code that can be scanned by the reader, allowing them to view the presentation and performance of the poems in Sign. Not surprisingly, one of these poems, a piece by Levent Beskardes, is titled “Red.” It is with these kinds of connections that the themes of intersectionality and interconnectivity are constantly reinforced within the issue.

Poetry has always been at the cutting edge of disability literature and there are many examples in this issue of MR. Almost two decades ago when Jim Ferris began to formulate a theory of disability poetry he pointed out that in addition to the content of the poems, one of the things that disability poetry had to offer to poetry in general was the way that disability could affect poetic form. Since that time, several of those techniques have become common enough to be recognizable. The poetry in this volume gives readers a chance to witness this history and its ongoing presence. One of the most common techniques used is erasure poetry. Typically, erasure poetry takes an existing document and crosses out words from the original to change the original or intended meaning. A great example of this form as presented in this issue is Camisha Jones’ “On Behalf of the Hospital in Response to Your Grievance.” (p. 700) By taking a letter addressed to her from the hospital and blacking out sections of it, Jones leaves the reader with her perception of how the needs of disabled people are actually perceived and treated by the medical establishment. 

A second example of the way that disabled poets have made use of form has been to take a poem and fracture it down the middle vertically like a separated spine. In their poem, “how we protect the mutant from annihilation by the ‘normal’” (p. 693), Andy Jackson and Gaele Sobott take this approach one step further. In a poem that reflects the genetic components of the disabled body, the lines are shaped to resemble a double helix in which mutation is reflected by the breaking and interchanging of the lines.

                                  meridians of knowledge/ systems fixated on fixes

                                     without a north / still our limbs think

                                         or south / our minds reach

                                        outward / unplans

                                          into fractal  / ever-shifting maps

                                     brokenness / surveyed by genetic engineers

A third way that disabled poets have tried to use form is in the subversion of linear progression. One poet who has been particularly active in adopting this approach is Brian Teare. Teare’s work has been affected by the way that he experiences art and in the past his poems have been written so that they can be read in a variety of directions, each reflecting a different story. Teare’s contribution to this volume, “from Poem Bitten Buy a Man,” gives some sense of this process. Teare writes, “I break language at every angle.” (p. 615) Teare’s practice in this respect happens by incorporating symbols, varied typography, and spatial rearrangements. His approach is not merely poetic dilettantism, but purposeful:

          My experience of life is very 

fragmented. I love it. I love deictic words, whose meaning

depends on and points to their context. (p. 616)

What Jones, Jackson, Sobott, and Teare are doing is not merely telling their stories–valuable as those are–but finding ways in which the forms of their art, as informed by their bodies, can push back at mainstream perceptions of disability.

In addition to poetry, Barroka and Johnson have chosen a range of work – essays, fiction, art, and hybrid work. Almost without exception, each of these will appeal to some readers and merit being included in the anthology. By way of example, I will just select a few that appealed to me and explain why. One of these pieces is Christine Barkley’s “Third Person Bio.” It is short, effective, and reminiscent of Gertrude Stein. The story opens:

“I am a writer,” and I hate this part. I am a writer so I am grateful for  the requisite third person: she is a writer, and she hates writing about herself.” (p. 696)

This turn of the screw allows the writer, who has been diagnosed with OCD, to try to look at herself objectively or, more accurately, as she feels someone else (say, the reader) would see her. The fictional writer attempts to accomplish this goal objectively but can’t break away from her constant need to repeat herself, as in lines like, “She gets frustrated when she has to repeat herself and she has to repeat herself. She has to” and “She is as sick as everyone else is of hearing about how sick she is, talking about how sick she is, being as sick as she is.” It is easy to relate to the constant unsolicited denial of a truth about oneself, “She’s still not bitter about it.” 

Another short work – one page, in fact – that grabbed my attention was Olivia Muenz’s hybrid “diagnosing.” Rather like Camisha Jones’ erasure poem, Muenz begins with a document and alters it, but in this case the document is not a text but a series of medical images. Rather than erasing, Muenz superimposes her own text above each of the images. With phrases such as “cum on in/ to my big show” and “wut are you trying 2C” (p.  722), Muenz immediately implicates the viewer in voyeurism. Caught between ignoring the piece and being complacent in “staring,” the reader is likely to feel they have been sucker-punched.

The book’s longer essays and stories are also well worth taking the time to read. For me, the most intriguing may have been Bhavna Mehta’s “You Are Always Entering Your Future.” The unifying symbol in the essay is the snake and, like a snake, the story winds through both time and place, moving from the author’s life as a disabled child in India up to her life as an artist in the United States. As someone who is now a wheelchair user, but in youth frequently had to crawl, Mehta reflects on the Capital Crawl at the House of Representatives during which disabled people abandoned their chairs and crawled up the steps as a form of protest. Mehta says, “I had never considered crawling as a form of protest.” And for good reason. In India:

“None had a wheelchair. We were isolated from each other, there was no community, the impetus for protest had not yet made it to us” and further, “we were regarded as crude, burden, special ugly, inconvenient, abnormal and unnatural.” (p.635)  

Still, the accusation of unnatural, prompts the author to recall Nagani, the half-human half snake being of Indian tradition where the hybridity might be looked at as a way of transcending fixed notions of gender, body form, and mobility. In her own embroidery art – a photograph of which is included in the essay – the snake becomes a symbol for working against those fixed notions. It is a fascinating essay and, probably by no coincidence, is book-ended by the penultimate story in the collection, “Snake Dance” by Wakaya Wells.

The editors have done such an admirable job of gathering together writers and artists from the wide expanse of disability, particularly with regard to D/deaf writers, that it seems almost petty to try to poke holes in their accomplishment, but I do have to admit disappointment that there does not appear to be representation of DeafBlind writers such as John Lee Clark or even a nod to work that is being attempted in Protactile. Granted that not many DeafBlind individuals would find the Massachusetts Review accessible, I’d argue that it still seems as though their experiences should have been included. 

Having said that, though, the “Disability Justice” issue is likely to be mind-expanding even for everyday readers of the Massachusetts Review or those with the college equivalent level of education that is required to appreciate much of the journal. In choosing such a broad selection of disabled writers and artists, Barokka and Johnson have avoided the tendency of the usual “Special Disability Issue” to put a particular political stamp on its contents. It is hard to shoehorn the work of writers such as the tenth century poet Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri into concepts and language of disability that have only emerged in the twentieth century or to insist upon adherence to them as the price of admittance. The kinds of cross-fertilization in space, time, and language offered in this issue of The Massachusetts Review, where no one position dominates, de-centers the constraints of definition and gives us the larger view of disability that we all deserve. 

Title: The Massachusetts Review: “Disability Justice”
Issue Editors: Khairani Barokka and Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Date: Winter 2022

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also an editor of the anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).  He is currently working on an anthology of disability poetry to be published by Northwestern University Press in 2025.