Unapologetically Human Protagonists, A Review of Sheila Black, Michael Northen and Annabelle Hayse’s The Right Way to Be Crippled & Naked: The Fiction of Disability
Review by Casey Schmauder
It’s not so much that there aren’t books with characters with disabilities, it’s that there aren’t books with characters whose disabilities aren’t the entire plot. Think My Sister’s Keeper. Think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But in The Right Way to Be Crippled & Naked: The Fiction of Disability by Sheila Black, Michael Northen and Annabelle Hayse, characters who just happen to have disabilities struggle with post-marital sex, unfulfilling promiscuity and feeling overshadowed by a friend just like non-disabled novel and short story characters might.
These three editors compiled this collection of disability fiction to fill a perceived gap in literature – that is, a lack of disabled characters in stories so glaring, that when a character is disabled, their disability overshadows their personality or overcoming that disability becomes the central plot associated with that character. In this collection, there are realistic and futuristic short stories, each featuring a disabled character, but the characters are primarily plagued by life and their surroundings and not the way in which their bodies or minds are different.
Laura Hershey opens the story collection with a personal essay, “Getting Comfortable,” which shows us the theme of the compilation, which could be described as disability without sentimentality. Her essay allows readers to watch how much help Hershey needs to get comfortable, having aids adjust pillows and bed settings, before she can write. Her prose lays plainly on the page and intends to be straight-forward and not requesting pity.
Stories in this collection range from Ana Garza G’s “Rocks and Processes,” about a blind woman who begrudgingly takes individual meetings with her Geology lab TA in college to Kristen Harmon’s “What Lay Ahead,” three linked short stories about students from a state deaf school mentally comparing one another’s deaf experiences at a party.
Readers may be surprised the breadth of the pieces includes Nisi Shawl’s “Deep End,” which is a science fiction piece about people on a space ship whose minds are uploaded into empty clones, and pieces “Plato Again” by Stephen Kuusisto and “Comrade Luxemburg and Comrade Gramsci Pass Each Other in the Congress of the Second International on the 10th of March, 1912” by Anne Finger which bring dead historical figures to life to reimagine their experiences.
Stories that stood out included “Twinning,” by Joe Vastano, in which two half siblings try to cope with their lives burdened by mental illness: “She and I have no one else to talk to about our dead father, from whom we inherited bipolar disorder and a tendency to quit on ourselves.” Also Megan Granata’s “The Sitting” in which a portraitist becomes paralyzed when she needs to draw a man and his daughter, but the man is disfigured, and she doesn’t know how to draw him. And finally, Floyd Skloot’s “Alzheimer’s Noir,” in which a man in a nursing home is convinced his wife escaped the home and the aides are lying to him to hide their culpability.
The title story, “The Right Way to Be Crippled & Naked,” by Jonathan Mack, is a letter from a young male to his family and friends in which he explains that he has chosen to become a Jain monk, which is a sect that remains perpetually naked. His decision is based upon a disgust with his own body, which he has tried to block out with sexual episode after sexual episode to make him feel good, yet he has come to find that all that has failed him and only by getting used to his bare, naked body will he be happy.
In the title story, one could infer that Mack’s protagonist is unhappy because he has a disfigured leg, and this deformity drives the plot of becoming a nudist. But the universality of searching for fulfillment and loathing of our bodies lets us see our protagonist as human first and disabled second (or third or fourth or fifth), and this, I believe, is what makes this collection worth reading.
In Michael Northen’s afterword, he says, “Accessibility…is not merely about building concrete ramps where there are now stairs. It is also about putting disability culture into the public eye in a way that frees it from its banishment to the margins.” In other words, he wants this collection to allow disabled writers to access a respectable literary sphere where their work can be viewed for their merits and not as pieces for a niche market of disabled readers.
The Right Way to Be Crippled & Naked: The Fiction of Disability can be purchased here.
About the Author: Casey Schmauder currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She adores her two rescue pups, a sheltie/corgi mix named Lily and a lab/pitbull mix named Ruby. She has previously been published in The Review Review and Pittsburgh Magazine.