Book Review: The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Sheila Black, Michael Northen & Annabelle Hayse)
Reviewed by Anne Kaier
The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked is the first anthology of short fiction by and about—though definitely not just for—disabled people. Most of the characters in these wonderful stories have a disability—overt or hidden. Sometimes their disability triggers the action; sometimes itís a sideline in a tale about ordinary teenagers or middle aged people with a disability going about their lives. The characters fall in love, not always with the right person, get into fights, have sex, worry about their jobs, deal with family dynamics. But because the writers of these pieces are disabled and because they chose to put disabled characters in their stories, we get a perspective on the lives of disabled people which is complicated, which blows away stereotypes and which brings readers some moments of wry or exhilarating recognition. Ah, I often thought, reading these stories, yes, thatís what itís really like. I know I should amend this, point out that non-disabled writers can and have written interesting fiction about people with disabilities. In his astute "Afterword" to the anthology, Michael Northen calls out a Flannery OíConnor character who refuses to wear a special shoe. But that story was published sixty years ago. "Despite a handful of remarkable single-author collections," writes Northen, there have been no anthologies of disability short fiction." If youíve been looking for characters and short stories which mirror the complex, various experiences of people with disabilities in contemporary life, this book is a prize.
Northen and his fellow editor, the poet Sheila Black, also edited (with Jennifer Bartlett) the groundbreaking and very successful Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability (2011), which was mentioned as a Notable book by the American Library Association, among other honors. Itís now widely used in disability studies and sits on the shelves of many poetry lovers. Itís no surprise, therefore, that the editors of Crippled & Naked picked out short fiction that is uniformly well-written. These stories are elegant, smart, serious fiction from both well-known authors such as Anne Finger and Raymond Luczak as well as newcomers such as Megan Granata.
In fact, Granataís excellent story, "The Sitting," asks a question central to this anthology: what is the right way to write about disability? The protagonist of the story is a painter, who makes some money doing hour-portraits at a beach festival in California. She used to be a caricaturist, but the straight-laced arts committee at Laguna Beach only wants the slightly flattering pastels that people on vacation will buy on impulse. The artist is routinely turning out nice portraits of the festivalís guests, until she is approached by a man whose face has been badly burned and his young daughter, who has just had her face painted a sky blue color, complete with clouds. The artistís focus, of course, is on the father. She has to make the kinds of choices that all writers, disabled or not, have to make when drawing or photographing or writing about people with a disability—obvious or not. "As a caricaturist, Iíd play up quirks," the artist thinks, "as a portraitist, Iíd tone them down." But faced with the man who has lost his lips and whose face is a patchwork of scars, the nervous artist decides to paint him exactly as she sees him, in "the precise, unearthly color" of his skin. For the first time in years, she draws a sitter exactly as he is.
This way of sketching characters as they are, without simplifying them by stereotype or sentimentality, makes for wonderful reading. The title story, by Jonathan Mack, is a superbly written, smart riff about a gay man who has—or perhaps hasnít—decided to become a Jain monk. Itís a Ďwhere do I fit in this world?í story, full of intelligent insights and fresh metaphors. The narrator, too, is looking at a disability, in this instance, his crippled leg, describing it and trying to work out how it will fit into his life. The result is not always pretty. "Several weeks ago, at the gym," he says, "while toweling off and attempting to use a nearby mirror to spy on the naked muscle hunk around the corner, I happened to catch a glimpse, instead, of my crippled legÖ The leg looked to me like half a dried wishbone. Like a thing designed to snap. I could not imagine how Iíd managed to spend my life standing on so flimsy a thing." The narrator recognizes that this vivid repudiation of his leg is not pc. "I am from the country of militant self-esteem," he says, "where negative thoughts are stamped out like small recalcitrant nations, where every quadruple amputee is expected to write a book about how jim-dandy life is."
Because the writers in this anthology do not take such a simple-minded view of their characterís lives, the stories are compelling. They are also too complex to be downers. For example, in Ana Garza Gízís "Rocks and Processes," a young woman who has returned to college with a visual impairment has to deal with the idea that because she cannot see she is in some way a less intellectually capable person, and should not expect to get the kind of job that interests her. This kind of discrimination comes at her from one of her professors, however she is equally exhilarated when her geology TA appeals to her excellent mind and helps her to reawaken intellectual excitement in herself. Other stories tackle themes such as discrimination in the workplace—Stephen Kuusistoís excellent "Plato Again;" real life in a mental hospital—Alison Oatmanís "Hospital Corners," with its riveting, funny depiction of the day-to-day life of a young woman who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia; and deaf communication—Kristen Harmonís "What Lies Ahead," about three teenagers arguing, falling in love, planning for the future and vividly showing the reader that there is not only one way to be deaf.
These are stories that you will read, remember, read again, give to your friends and your students and your families. There is no one right way to be naked and crippled, or to write about disability. These stories donít try to provide simple formulae about how to be disabled, thank God. They do take us into the heart of those who are disabled, have thought about what that means and who write about it with originality, seriousness, and wit.
Title: The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked