Michael Northen


While Anne Finger opened the door for the possibility of disability short fiction with the publication of Basic Skills in 1985 and Andre Dubus catapulted a character with disabilities into mainstream literature, two other writers, Floyd Skloot and Tom Jones were at work, too. Like Dubus, both writers acquired disabilities as adults and came from an unabashed male perspective.

Though Skloot had been a successful essayist on science topics, he entered the arena of disability writing after experiencing permanent physical disabilities and loss of memory as a result of sudden brain infection in 1988. Over the next decade Skloot wrote not only essays, but poetry as well. Like pioneers such as Vassar Miller, the references to his own disability in his poetry were infrequent and often oblique. However, In the Shadow of Memory, his best selling collection of autobiographical essays appeared in 2003, describing in poetic detail his experiences with disability and memory loss. Finally, in 2011 he published his short story collection, Cream of Kohlrabi.

By contrast Thom Jones sprung upon the literary scene to immediate acclaim in 1993 with the publication of The Pugilist at Rest, whose title story won that year's O. Henry Award. After a hiatus of 12 years, he also published Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine. A number of parallels can be drawn between the short stories Skloot and Jones. They both reflect the writers' blue collar backgrounds and are preoccupied with the effects of war on the men who participated in it (WW2 for Skloot, Vietnam War for Jones). Both write about sports (baseball for Skloot, boxing for Jones) and, perhaps most importantly for disabilities literature, both write from an individualist's perspective. As a result of this last characteristic, unlike O'Connor, Finger and Dubus, there has been has been almost no scholarship done on their work by disabilities studies scholars, nor do their names appear on syllabi for disability literature courses. These parallels aside, the two writers could not be more different.

Skloot's stories are populated by characters well past mid-life, many of whom live in a nursing home and most come from a Jewish background. Few have had an easy time of it in life; some are tormented by having survived. Skloot uses his own experiences with memory loss to illuminate the situations of his characters, as in "Alzheimer's Noir."

It was about ten at night when I saw her walk out the door. Now they're telling me that's now what happened, she wasn't even here. I don't buy it. The room was dark, the night was darker, but Dorothy was there. We were in bed and her curved back was against my chest…. They tell me I'm confused. What else is new? I'm also tired…And don't sleep worth a damn, which is why I saw what I saw in the night. Confused, maybe, but the fact is that Dorothy is gone.

Skloot is particularly skillful at portraying Jewish holocaust survivors who now relive their experiences in Alzheimer's, a group that does not receive much focus in the disability studies community. The stories in Cream of Kohlrabi portray Parkinson's, deafness, neurological impairments and the loss of ability to walk. If many of the characters seem to be kvetchers, they are also redeemable and Skloot takes a sympathetic — but never condescending — view of them. None of them are about to organize disability rights marches, but they do seem to be able to find value in the community of others.

Jones' narrators provide a sharp contrast to Skloot's. Intelligent and anti (anti-authoritarian, anti-academic), they bath in American testosterone. They see middle class values as a sham and the world as a place that values nothing but physical force. Jones portrayal of women makes Hemingway look like a suffragette. Two disability-related topics/populations that Jones repeatedly returns to are the post traumatic stress of war and head injuries in boxers. While Skloot looks at old men whose slipping memories and Alzheimer's bring the experiences of war and even the guilt of having survived war back to them, Jones traces the effects of war forward from the actual battle to the coping after return home.

In his story "The Pugilist at Rest" from the book of the same title, Jones' narrator tries to come to grips with epilepsy brought on by blows to the head from boxing. In the course of the describing the effects of epilepsy, the narrator reflects upon the situations of St. Paul, Joan of Arc, and, especially Dostoyevski, whose aura's have been connected with spiritual experiences.

….in the aura, which is in fact officially a part of his attack — Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine. It was the experience of satori. Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme. He said that he wouldn't trade ten years of life for his feeling, and I who have had it too, would have to agree. I can't explain it, I don't understand it — it becomes slippery an delusive when it gets any distance on you — but I have felt this down to the core of my being. Yes, God exits! But then it slides away and I lose it. I become a doubter.

In addition to this experience of satori, however, Jones' character also has excruciating headaches that make him feel as though he is being hit with a ball peen hammer, feelings of terror, inability to breathe and depression. He is offered the chance to be relieved of all this pain and the need to be on constant medication through a cingulotomy, the effect of which will be to erase the spiritual experience along with the pain. It's a theme rarely raised in disability literature. Perhaps only Mark Saltzman's Lying Awake and, perhaps, Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark are comparable. Jones' Kierkegaardian radicalism is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor.

One other figure whose relationship to disability fiction cannot be ignored is Alice Walker; her celebrity status among the writers discussed so far in this essay is second only to O'Connor's. In her 1983 essay "Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self," Walker describes the loss of her eye at eight years old as a result of being shot by her brother's BB gun. This gves her in an interesting point of view between writers like Finger who have lived with physical disability their entire life and the male writers discussed here who came to disability as an adult. As an African-African woman with a disability, Walker hits the discrimination trifecta and, unfortunately for disability studies, Walker's inclusion of disability as a subject of fiction take a back seat. Only one story, the well-traveled "Everyday Use," published in 1973, takes on the subject and, like Skloot, her portrayal is of disability at the end of life rather than of a character with which she could invest her own childhood experience. Nevertheless, as an African American writer, her perspective adds to a field that has so far been the province of white writers.

Anne Finger, who got the disability fiction ball rolling shortly after Walker's essay with the publication of Basic Skills in 1985, branched out into novel and memoir but also continued to write short stories. In 2009 her short story collection Call Me Ahab appeared. As the title suggests, Finger's project is to interrogate representatives of disability in literature and history, and to subvert these representations. In order to do that she also searches for new narrative tools for telling her stories. It is in this respect that Finger makes another important contribution to disability literature, not just setting the record straight but arguing that fiction writers with a disability have a real contribution to make to literature in general, just as they have done in poetry.

Finger frequently lets the reader know right in the opening sentences of the story that she is up to more than just a straight narrative with beginning like, "I am not Charlotte Bronte and this is not a nineteenth century novel" in "Our Ned" or "The blindness in this story is not a metaphor" in "The Blind Marksman." Finger takes characters like Ahab and the Biblical Goliath and narrrates the (not so) familiar story from their points of view. She transports figures like Rosa Luxemburg, Vincent Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo whose disabilities are well known into new contexts. It is a tribute to Finger that "Helen and Frida" one of the short stories that appears in Call Me Ahab is the first (and as of this date, only) piece of fiction to appear in the Lennard Davis' Disability Studies Reader, the near classic anthology of disability studies writing.

Notwithstanding the twenty-eight years that have passed since the publication of Basic Skills few collections of short stories by writers with disabilities have been published beyond those of Finger, Jablonski, Skloot, and Jones. A home library shelf that included Basic Skills, Human Odditities, Cream of Kohlrabi, The Pugilist at Rest, Call Me Ahab and the collected stories of O'connor with, perhaps, Dancing After Hours thrown in would essentially house the entire repository of published short story collections by writers with disabilities. A few writers are moving in from other genres of literature to try their influence in the short story market. Poet Jillian Weise whose The Amputee's Guide to Sex was successful, moved to novel form in her satirical The Colony and has written "Raymond Carver's Cathedral" in which she answers Carver's famous story about a blind man from the point of view of the third character in the story. Weise accomplishes two things. First, she recovers a story from a non-disabled writer which is generally held up in literature books as an example of inclusion. Acknowledging the excellence of Carver's craft, she challenges some of the story's perceptions. In doing so, Weise demonstrates that a character with a disability can be among several characters without having to be the narrator. While Finger transitions from first person narration in her early stories to a postmodern style in Call Me Ahab, Weise, like Dubus, tells a story in a realistic tradition narrated by an able-bodied writer, illustrating that a story can be free of stereotypes without having to be from the point of view of a character with a disability.

In addition to Weise, other writers who have tried moving into short fiction include poet and Deaf Echo editor Christopher Heuer, Breath and Shadow editor Chris Kuell and Stephen Kuusisto the amazingly versatile writer who seems comfortable in almost every genre. Unfortunately, most of the work being done in short fiction disability writing is still only available in small literary magazine formats and not in the eye of the common reader. Frequently, the most common venues are periodicals like Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow and Wordgathering whose audiences are relatively small.

Only a year and a half ago, along with co-editors Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett, I was fortunate to be able to see the publication of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. It was the first time in over twenty-five years that an anthology was able to dedicate itself completely to the work of poets with disabilities, and Cinco Puntos Press deserves credit for taking the chance to show that not only can it be done but that such a book will sell. Short story writers, who rarely have the opportunity to see their work published in chapbooks as poets do, are even more in need of a comparable anthology. The lack of availability of these writers' work is ironic since, frankly, the average book store browser or recreational reader is much more likely to pick up up a book of short stories than poetry. The fact that most literature or disability studies class represent short story writing with O' Connor's "Good Country People," Carver's "Cathedral," Dubus' "Dancing After Hours" or Alice Walker's "Everyday Use,", all now venerable works, underscores just how much room there is for new disability short fiction. An anthology that offers the work of disability short fiction to interested readers is overdue. Let's hope it is not long until some pubisher rises to the occasion.


Michael Northen is an editor of Wordgathering and one of the editors of Beauty is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.