Able-splaining 101

If you’re disabled you know all about it. The apparently “normal” person who tells you what you need to know is legion. BTW this figure can be anyone. Despite feminism, women can be able-splainers just as often as men. I recall distinctly the associate provost at my university who told me that a software package was “robust” when it comes to accessibility when in fact it was junk. Able-splainers have no shame. All they need is a cocksure belief that the disabled are deficient which means of course we’re dismissible and voila!

But did you know that silence is also a form of able-splaining? When the disabled say something is unusable silence is often the best able-splaining of all. And so economical!
Nothing says “that’s the way it is little dude” better than a good old fashioned round of silence.

The other day I got able-splained in a new way which trust me is a remarkable thing as I’ve pretty much heard or not heard it all. An elderly professor accused me of being antisocial because he saw me scoop my guide dog’s waste into a plastic bag and then gently place the bag in a snow drift.

I was carrying a harness, a briefcase, holding a leash, and having a conversation with another faculty member all at the same time.

And there I was. Busted. Imperfect. A hater of humanity.

What he was really saying was I don’t belong on his campus.

You know, us cripples with our animals, breathing tubes, mechanical devices galore, our irregular invisible needs—how polluting we are.

Ableism likes the world clean.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Greeks, Spears, and Disability in Higher Ed

When Greeks (ancient) went to the theater they knew they were going to see a tragedy. Though comedy was sometimes performed it was rare. One can imagine a good old Greek saying, “I must get my fair share of abuse.”

To be abused was a matter of citizenship. With nuance and scruple one was reminded what being a good Greek (or a bad one) was all about.

In its pantheistic way the Hellenic world was engaged with suffering.

Disabled I’m eternally catching spears thrown by the able bodied. These spears have writing on them. On the arrow head it says, “I’m not like you.” On the shaft: “As God is my witness.” And if the spear has a ribbon it says: “Make them go away.”

Usually I catch the spears but sometimes they pierce me.

Because I remember the Greeks I know there’s no such thing as “me.”

I’m just one of the insistent ones at my university who says the materials distributed by the committee aren’t accessible; the websites and software packages used by the university are not accessible; the provision of equal opportunity for disabled students and staff is not readily apparent.

I catch spears for a living.

The difference between today’s disabled and any ancient Greek is we’re not afflicted by staid and superstitious ideas of fate.

We weren’t misshapen because of the gods.
We aren’t incapable of reason.
We don’t stand for anything other than embodied diversity.
Bodies don’t stand for anything other than the rich tableaux of human kind.
We do not represent the decline of society.
We don’t suggest the erosion of academic competence by our very presence.

Why is this so hard to absorb in higher education?

Jay Dolmage, author of several important books on disability and how we talk about it tells us that colleges and universities have always been built on the exclusion of certain kinds of bodies. In fact the university has functioned throughout history as an exclusionary gate to society. Dolmage writes:

“Disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education. Or, let me put it differently: higher education has needed to create a series of versions of “lower education” to justify its work and to ground its exceptionalism, and the physical gates and steps trace a long history of exclusion.”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” Apple Books.

Creating versions of lower education and lowered expectations is in no small measure what universities have been about. Eugenics, the organized pseudo-science of social Darwinism had a strong foothold in American universities including Stanford, Harvard, and yes, Syracuse. Faculty at Syracuse engaged in a study with the infamous Cold Spring Harbor eugenics institute, a study which sought to prove Syracuse University coeds were deficient as bearers of offspring.

Exclusion and deficiency have long been manufactured by post-secondary education. Small wonder then that almost thirty years after the adoption of the ADA colleges and universities are so far behind when it comes to supporting and celebrating disability inclusion and disability rights.

Jay Dolmage again:

“…the alternative to planning for diversity is pretty dire, leaving access as an afterthought, situating it as something nice to be done out of a spirit of charity, or as something people with disabilities are being unfairly given. Without Universal Design, the alternatives are the “steep steps” that are set out in front of many people with disabilities, or the “retrofits” that might remove barriers or provide access for disabled people, but do so in ways that physically and ideologically locate disability as either deserving exclusion or as an afterthought.”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” Apple Books.

The Greeks understood dire.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Lyric, Crippled Anger

Two nights ago I over drinks and dinner with poets and writers at the University of Cincinnati I let my disability freak flag fly. Sometimes (though I aim to be circumspect and polite, especially with new found friends) I feel the distress of disablement–the peninsula effect of the matter—my people are the last people to be surveyed, especially in academic circles. While some American universities have disability studies programs or courses the majority of colleges do not. Moreover, while diversity gets discussed in neoliberal circles within higher education these discussions usually leave the disabled out. I admitted the following things to the poet Rebecca Lindenberg one of my hosts:

I’m 63 years old and still fighting for disability inclusion everywhere. The fight often seems to be going badly, or backward.

As I age I feel the pull of the soul—really, those roads of the guitar as Lorca might say. I don’t want to die angry. While I don’t expect to vanish tomorrow, I could. I cross the streets with a guide dog. I navigate on faith. The unseen is very present in my daly thoughts.

I’m tired of the academic creative writing industry with its conferences that are often hostile to disabled participants. With academic literature programs that foreground the notion of intersectionality but still leave disability out of discussions of hegemony and oppression.

I told Rebecca how disheartened many of us are in the disability community (which is hardly monolithic) by the steep struggle we still face to be recognized by feminist scholars, LGBTQ scholars, African-American scholars, and so forth.

Such things aren’t on my mind as exercises. This summer at the famous MacDowell Colony for the Arts I heard a famous novelist tell a huge crowd that the MacDowell Colony would no longer be blind and poor when it comes to recognizing comic novels as an art form. He then repeated the phrase because he thought it was so apt. And there I was, sitting on a folding chair with my guide dog. Disability as metaphor is used by artists and progressives all the time. This hurts. No wonder the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference remains indifferent and even rude to disabled writers. Everyone knows there’s something wrong with us beyond the obvious.

I talked about the war on disability that’s underway because of genetic research and the movement to eliminate disabled bodies which comes from both the scientific community—eugenics 2.0—and political persuasions—Iceland has eliminated people with Down syndrome for example. Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” and we’re still imagined that way by the political state, even European states.

I rattled on and on, letting out my frustrations. I talked about academic creative writers who have disabilities and pretend they don’t and how much this disturbs me.
I know I was venting in good company for Rebecca Lindenberg has her own disability and struggles with it hourly.

And there’s the specter of Trumpism, being triggered, feeling a neurological highjacking going on all the time, a fight or flee distress because deviant bodies are under attack.

And so it occurred to me Rebecca snd I might start a very informal back and forth dialogue to which we can invite others here on this blog. What is just anger for writers? How do we build bridges? Or as the poet James Tate once said, “start a fire with our identification papers.?

—Stephen Kuusisto

Rebecca Lindenberg responds:

Thank you so much for sharing the note above with me. I think it captures the breadth of our conversation aptly, though I think it’s worth mentioning (in the spirit of candor) how emotionally charged such conversation can be, though I think of that as a positive thing. Sometimes I wonder how much of the American conversation would be different if we were all a little more willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of someone else, to push our own envelopes more. To wrestle with the difficult. Because for me, part of the defining characteristic of living with chronic disease and disability is learning to persist with difficulty, to muddle through what you cannot get “over” or around, to sit with uncomfortable realities, and also, learn to problem-solve them. Problems, I find, are easier to solve in collaboration than alone, pretty much every time. But you can’t solve a problem that one of your collaborative group does not acknowledge or understand. The bravery to be candid, and also the courage to hear what is candidly spoken, are two kinds of strength that the world requires of us if we’re to make it any better.
I’ve thought about this a great deal. I remember one evening, many years ago, after a sort of semi-official writerly function where my late partner Craig had been (it seemed to me at the time) somewhat bracingly frank with our hosts, I sort of wearily admonished him for acting like kind of a jerk. And I’ll never forget his response, because it was: “Do you want me to be Good, or do you want me to be Nice?” I remember my initial thought was, Why can’t you be both? But years on, I think more and more every day that it is too often difficult to be both. And while I very much want people to like me, as I think most socialized humans do, when push comes to shove, I’d rather be Good. By “good” in this context, I mean just. I mean compassionate and humane, but also unafraid to advocate for myself, for my trans daughter, for my students, and so forth. I also mean fair, and mindful of others, and cognizant of complexities, and insofar as I am able, conscious of my own positions of privilege and my own gaps of knowledge and understanding. As we were talking about together the other night, I do not think candor is opposed to kindness, and I do not think “politeness” is particularly healthy – in fact I think it’s a coercive and often insidious way of keeping people “in line” who might otherwise disrupt the status quo from which the mighty (pretty much singularly) benefit. And politeness insists that those in charge not be made uncomfortable. But if they (or in some cases, we) do not feel uncomfortable, how can they (or we) come to know that something is very, very wrong? And along those lines, I believe that anger is a very important emotion, and a healthy one. (I was joking about this on social media the other day, actually, a beloved friend of mine responded to one of my posts with “Anger is healthy,” and I replied in all caps, “THEN I AM FULL OF HEALTH,” which is especially ironic for me, and for the sources of my anger.) But it’s true – anger is a source of energy, of activity, and of agency. Anger empowers. But anger should never, ever be confused with abuse. Abuse does not empower, it silences, it paralyzes. And it is designed to silence and paralyze. And it can come from any of us, at any time. Anger is interested in getting things going the right way, abuse is only interested in getting its own way. And at almost any cost. But because anger – and I almost feel Blakean about its “infernal energy” – has so much to offer, we do sometimes have to put politeness away in its favor. Because the one thing politeness is designed to avoid, really, is anger. Here’s a joke to show you what I mean:
Two Southern Belles are sitting on a porch, rocking in their rocking chairs, fanning themselves with their fans. Southern Belle #1 turns to Southern Belle #2 and says (you have to imagine your best high-falutin’ Southern drawl here):

Do you see that horse out there? My daddy bought me that horse because he loves me so much.

Southern Belle #2 says: That’s nice.
Southern Belle #1 says: Do you see that grand house over yonder? My daddy bought
me that house because he loves me soooo very much.
Southern Belle #2 says: That’s nice.
Southern Belle #1 says: See that there shiny auto-mobile? My daddy bought me that auto-mobile because he loves me so much.
Southern Belle #2 says: That’s nice.
Southern Belle #1 says: What’s your daddy done for you lately?
Southern Belle #2 says: He sent me to a finishing school in Switzerland.
Southern Belle #1 says: What’s finishing school?

Southern Belle #2 sighs, folds her fan in her lap and says: It’s a boarding school for young ladies, where you learn such things as proper deportment, and elocution, and which spoon to serve with which kind of soup, and how – when you really, really want to say Go Fuck Yourself – you say, ‘That’s Nice’.

It’s funny, that joke, but it kind of gets at the point I’m trying to make, nonetheless. “Politeness” is – by its very design – repressive. And that joke is funny because, as they say, nobody died. But it’s not always so amusing.
Now, to clarify a little, I’m all in favor of being considerate of those around you, their feelings and experiences. I think it was Lucille Clifton who once said (not wrote, she just came out and said it), “Walk into any given room, and every single person in that room is going through something you could not even begin to comprehend.” And I think I try to walk into every room mindful of that truth – a truth I have found bears out again and again and again. But “politeness” as we have socially constructed it (a system of “do’s” and “don’ts” like “never talk about sex, politics, or religion,” a nearly-invisible way of propping up a social hierarchy that rewards conformity and punishes difference) isn’t really about being kind or compassionate to people, actually. It’s about asking people, often the most vulnerable people in any given setting, to suffer their own discomfort for the sake of the comfort of whomever in that setting is perceived to have the power or the authority. A man might make a move on a woman, which might make her uncomfortable. Rather than react appropriately (that is, angrily) she will very often downplay the situation, or try to laugh it off and smooth it over, or feel compelled to “let him down easy” so as to “not make a scene,” but that’s more about preserving his dignity than it is about protecting her own. (I should know, I’ve been there, and beaten myself up about it afterwards.) A person of color might find themselves on the receiving end of a rude, racist remark, and instead of calling out the person who made the remark, they might just ignore it, or change the subject, or find a way to gently excuse themselves from the situation. It might be because to correct someone requires more emotional labor than they wish to do at that moment, but one of the reasons it IS emotional labor in the first place is because they’re trying to respond within a code of conversation and behavior that requires certain niceties be observed and maintained, the offending party not be too embarassed, lest (among other things) they somehow retaliate. The implicit threat in coercive politeness is that the person in a position of privilege or power will escalate the situation, if the more vulnerable party does not tow the line. Therefore, being “polite” in a discomforting situation just reminds the individual striving not to “make a scene” or whatever that we don’t really feel safe. Our safety is as fragile as this pretense, which we are primarily called upon to maintain. And people with disabilities are frequently – no, constantly – coerced by this unspoken, culturally-ubiquitous code of “politeness” and asked to hide, downplay, apologize for, or try to compensate for our disabilities. I’m diabetic and I have some of the unfortunate visual complications of my disease (in part because for so long I had no access to meaningful health care, but that’s a whole other story). I have been diabetic for 30 years, or three-quarters of my life, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sneaked off into bathrooms to test my blood sugar secretly in the stall rather than at a table in a restaurant where I might make someone uncomfortable, or the number of times I’ve apologized for having to interrrupt a conversation or shared experience with someone in order to treat a low blood sugar (a situation which, untreated, can be fatal). At some point I caught myself out. Why, I wondered, am I apologizing to this person for trying to keep myself alive? When for a time I couldn’t drive because of hemorrhaging in my eyes, I found myself being excessively obsequious to my Uber drivers, conscious as I was that without them my mobility around a city with really crappy public transportation was very, very limited. So even when I found myself appalled by an assertion about American politics, or a story about a drunk female passenger, or rudeness offered to me personally, I was meek, ameliorating, polite. And it hurt more than I cared to admit to myself, as I became increasingly aware that I was pandering to people I knew were in the wrong, because I also knew that in that situation, I was somewhat frighteningly dependent upon them. Because I felt vulnerable, I tacitly agreed to stroke the egos and protect the dignities of the people who were making me feel my own vulnerability even more. A wound, the salt.
But beyond that, my real beef with coercive politeness is that it inhibits open, honest conversation. Like this one! Like the ones we got a chance to share in Cincinnati. Open, honest conversation can be bracing – for everyone. But I think of that feeling I get from such a conversation – which is a little like being together in a tiny boat at sea – seems to me to represent the feeling of going-through-something with someone else, its own kind of solidarity. It is for me, too, the feeling of growing as a person and a thinker, of pushing my own envelope a little, placing myself in a scenario that would feel, if not for the good intentions of my interlocutor, precarious. It’s work, for sure. But I’d rather do that work than the work of self-censoring, beating myself up, coping endlessly with feelings of awkwardness and discomfort – my own, or yours.
I would be so interested in hearing your further thoughts on these things, and I would be so, so very interested in hearing the thoughts of others, which I expect might be very different from my own, and I would welcome that. It’s my experience that I have had plenty of occasions in my life to think about the things that make my life very, very hard to live sometimes. I know that someone whose life is made hard to live by a different set of circumstances would almost certainly have a different take on things – perhaps expanding upon this conversation, or problematizing some of what I’ve offered. For me, my obsession with literature stems in no small part from my infinite fascination in hearing from others about experiences and points of view that differ from (and also re-contextualize for me) my own.
I wonder who else we could invite to join our conversation? Should we just reach out an invite people? Run it up the flagpole, as it were?
I look forward to our continued correspondence. And I totally forgot to have you sign your book for me so: Next time?

Very warmly,
Rebecca

**

Dear readers, especially poets and writers (though you needn’t hail from this territory alone) please feel welcome to chime in.

You can send me your thoughts and I will post them.

Stephen Kuusisto

stevekuusisto@gmail.com

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Stop With Your Ableist Lazy Rage

Over the course of the last two years (post election and the year prior) I’ve watched people throw ableist insults. From the right the favored term is “libtard” and from the left one hears “moron” “idiot” and “imbecile” all echoing eugenics both in Germany and the United States when the disabled were marked for elimination.

When disability must be employed to register rage then its nothing more than lazy rage. Rather than call a Trump supporter an imbecile why not say: “there’s a person who doesn’t understand his shadow.” Not so much fun as ableizing him or calling him a pig or weasel.

Lazy rage is fun rage. Even in their discontent Americans like to have fun. Trump knows this. Its perhaps the only thing he knows.

We’re got rape culture to worry about; children in cages; wholesale destruction of the environment at hand; black men in the school to prison pipeline; eroding medical services for veterans and the poor; unending American involvement in ruinous wars; the collapse of public education; big Pharma slinging opioids in every corner of the nation; religious extremism attacking science; an outright war on the Americans with Disabilities Act—I’m just getting started.

And all I see on facebook is callow name calling with an especially able bodied smugness.

As John Lennon might say: here’s another clue for you all. You are as much the problem as the problem.

Read Carl Jung on “the shadow” and know your own deep despairs before saying someone else is “lame” and for god’s sake join a volunteer organization of some kind.

More About Hating Smokey the Bear

I don’t like Smokey the Bear. I’ve already written about it. He’s a slick defier of logic. Children are powerless to prevent forest fires and telling kids they’ve a singular moral responsibility fo forestall contagion is the kind of cartoon horse shit Americans are forced to grow up with.

Meanwhile the forests are being systematically cut down by Weyerhaeuser and fried by acid rain from “clean coal”—a phrase I’m sure Smokey the Bear would approve.

Now you will say: “But Kuusisto, is it Smokey the Bear you don’t like, or is it the fatuous, bloated, running dogs of the bourgeoisie who created him who you dislike?”

Of course I dislike Madison Avenue. But it’s the cartoon Bear I hate. He’s the kind of anthropomorphic dungaree wearing shovel toting ranger hat wearing dingus who will pick your pockets if you’re not careful. He’s out to mess with your conscience. He wants you to feel responsible when bad things happen in nature.

Only you can prevent hurricanes.

Only you can prevent global warming.

He’s anti-democratic and the purveyor of superstition.

Thomas Jefferson would have despised Smokey the Bear.

Why am I “on” about this?

Because when you make a woman who’s survived sexual abuse stand alone before a room fool of smug, pink, hostile men on Capitol Hill, you’re saying, “only you can prevent sexual assault”—the American social lie…the idea that the culture isn’t responsible, only you, only you.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

This is the Smokey the Bear Social Lie Complex.

The corridors of power depend on this.

Why the Able Bodied Don’t Like Disability in the Arts

I was in residence at an arts colony not long ago when I heard a noted American novelist tell a wide audience that they’d never be so blind and poor of judgment again—referring to (wait for it) a broader appreciation of marginalized art forms.

Blindness as metaphor, indeed all disability as metaphor is offensive and “not cool” anymore. That this occurred at a well heeled arts event doesn’t surprise me. It’s still the case that disability isn’t part of inclusivity in the arts even when some of the most amazing creative work in contemporary America comes from the disability community.

Just so the leading national academic conference for creative writing, the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has a long standing problem with disability. They dislike having to provide accommodations at their conferences and they are particularly disdainful to disabled writers.

I’ve come to see this as a matter of resort sales. Years ago I ran training sessions for Sandals and Beaches resorts. The idea was to help beach front hotels become better service providers for the disabled.

One executive said that having disabled people on their property would negatively affect business.

I saw what he meant: all their promotional material featured photos of sleek, gym toned, happy looking people. Some were white, some were from different ethnicities. But the point was everyone was very very attractive.

When you look at the photos featured on the AWP’s website you’ll notice that all the writers look like they’ve just come from the gym.

When you look at the photos from arts colonies you’ll notice that everyone looks like they’ve just come from the very same gym.

That the arts industry (such as it is) has so little awareness (such as it might be) about it’s devotion to normality is telling. Diversity is OK if it’s about race, gender, sexual orientation, but it’s not applicable if you use a walker, a stick, talk with your hands, walk with a guide dog, etc. Everyone knows that disability art isn’t real art. It is something else, isn’t it?

Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Audre Lorde, Stanley Elkin, Robert Lowell, Andre Dubus, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane—all were disabled. Some walked with canes, some stuttered, some used wheelchairs. None looked like they were fresh from the spa.

In the narrow confines of American art, which let’s admit is academic art, it’s still the case that when illness is thought of at all, it’s imagined as something to be overcome. The arts in America are driven by the medical model of embodiment.

Try explaining this to the arts administrators. They’ll say, as indeed someone at the AWP said to a room full of disabled writers, “your time hasn’t come yet.”

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

On the Probable Death of Empathy

Empathy is an engrossing word. While it means the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, its Greek origin suggests entering into the emotions of others. The Greeks thought empatheia was sacred. In dramatic terms its absence was viewed as a tragic flaw. With the advent of literacy (“book learnin’” as Huck Finn called it) empathy was reckoned as the ability to imagine what someone feels, a difference, as the Greeks didn’t fully believe in imagination in these terms instead viewing it as a divine prerogative only available to the best minds.

In the modern world (which for argument’s sake starts with Shakespeare) empathy as imagination has been a responsibility of sorts. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Whitman, George Eliot, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty—a long list—each of these writers shouldered a duty to bring forward the buzz and confusion in the minds of outsiders. Beginning with the Elizabethans literary writing is understood as an obligation to reach beyond the self.

With the altogether exciting rise of singular voices in literary publishing, those who speak from singularities—disability, blackness, Native American experience, LGBTQ lives, Asian-American experiences, regionalisms of all kinds—literary empathy is often recast as “cultural appropriation.” It is asserted that no one “not of your neighborhood” should ever ever imagine your life for you. There’ve been many brouhahas recently about writers who are believed to be transgressors, who willfully seized the interiority of human beings not of their own neighborhoods.

As one who hails from a historically marginalized position I believe this febrile, literary neighborhood watch is both understandable and fatal.

I’m a blind poet and I loathe Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr presents a blind teenager, a girl, as helpless to the point of needing to be bathed by her father. Since Doerr makes her blindness vaguely interesting, allowing some flashes from her point of view many non-disabled readers flipped for the book.

From a disability POV Doerr extends damaging stereotypes—her inability to bathe, her half- prophetic intelligence—are junk. Many in the disability community have cited the book for “cultural appropriation” a position I fully grasp. Doerr uses blindness as a literary device to advance his plot, Within the field of Disability Studies this is called “narrative prosthesis.”

Does the novel really do damage to the blind? Who knows. The blind are 70% unemployed in the United States. We’re imagined as quasi-helpless, burdensome. Doerr plays into this. He does present her as having an inner life. Big whoop! I’m citing him for a failure of empathy. He cannot steal my culture.

This is the crux of the matter: talented writers can enter effectively into the lives of others, even people who aren’t situated precisely next door. For my money one of the most effective portrayals of disability in all of literature was written by Toni Morrison. In her novel Sula she puts readers inside the head of Shadrack, a World War I veteran suffers from PTSD and has been released prematurely from a veterans hospital. He can’t order his mind or control his hands. He’s seen brains flying in the air. She writes at first of his experience in the ward:

“When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful—anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse.

“Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?””

Later, out in the world, alone, without assistance, we see him on a country road:

“Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had left him weak—too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man.

The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town. A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart—a pretty, quietly regulated downtown.

Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do…he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was, and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door…

Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.

By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall, so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided.”

Morrison’s portrayal of Shadrack is pure empathy and is a demonstration of literary writing at its finest. I won’t quibble about a non-disabled writer entering into the thoughts and torments of a wounded veteran. I can’t. The disabled need all the allies they can get. When a novelist as talented as Morrison turns her attention to a man with shell shock, who has no language for his experience, who cannot control his hands, then she is employing art in the service of a greater appreciation of tragedy and difference for every reader. This is empathy at its best. Its stunning.

I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. I think non disabled writers can write brilliantly about disability experience. They need to do their homework—talk to real blind people, true cripples, what have you.

The term cultural appropriation must never detract writers from the brilliant art of literary empathy.

I don’t want to live in the age when empathy died.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

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Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger