In 2016, frustrated by the lack of deaf and disabled writers represented in New Zealand writing, Trish Harris and Robyn Hunt founded ‘Crip the Lit‘. Sassy and bold, Crip the Lit is unashamedly remedial in purpose. “We want,” say Harris and Hunt, “to tell our stories our way”. I first encountered Crip the Lit through their presence at Wellington’s annual Lit Crawl festival. In the 2018 festival, for example, the Crip the Lit panel debated the moot that “there is no such thing as a disabled writer. We are all just writers.”
Crip the Lit’s newest venture is the publication of a ‘pocket book’ (available in multiple formats to suit many kinds of pockets): Here We Are, Read Us: Women, Disability and Writing.
Here We Are is like a portable mini-gallery. It profiles eight New Zealand women writers, all of whom identify as disabled. Seven are practising contemporary writers; the eighth is journalist, poet and novelist Robyn Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) who lived from 1906-1939. Each writer is introduced by a framed portrait drawn by illustrator Adele Jackson. Each frame is decorated by a symbol chosen by the writer to represent herself – a wild dog, a dinosaur skull, a butterfly, a shallot, a crane, a magnolia flower, clouds, a slowly opening door. And then each writer explains why she chose that symbol, each in her own words scratching thoughtfully at that often complicated and always unique itch which is the relationship between disability and writerhood.
The eight writers in Here We Are are a diverse bunch in terms of both work and disability. They write poetry, novels, essays, plays, memoirs and blogs. They live with visible and invisible disabilities, as do an estimated one in five of us. They speak frankly about the difficulties of being an ‘out’ disabled person in a world which would often prefer to deny or ignore that reality.
Poet and memoirist Trish Harris was warned not to explore disability in her writing. She writes that it was “as if my visible disability was so loud that to write about it as well would obliterate all other aspects of me.” Poet Te Awhina Arahanga writes of her former embarrassment about being legally classified as insane. For poet Tusiata Avia, writing has been a way to acknowledge the reality of living with epilepsy. Poet and playwright Charlotte Simmonds writes of authenticity: “The implicit autism and neurodiversity I write about is more real and lived than any explicitly autistic character by a non-autistic author.”
Paranormal and fantasy writer Steff Green notes that disabled characters in fiction are usually “portrayed narrowly as either a victim or a villain”, and describes her determination to create nuanced disabled characters in her work. Multi-genre writer Helen Vivienne Fletcher, who blogs as Little Miss Autoimmune, talks of how writing “taught me the perserverance to keep going in a body that doesn’t always work.” Former New Zealand poet laureate Michele Leggott is visually impaired and writes “as a witness for others in the same situation who can’t speak about it.”
The authors are generous in sharing their experiences, thoughts and insights. Many of their stories offer a challenge to societal pre-conceptions about ability and disablity. The writers are vocal about the barriers (physical, emotional and social) that can prevent a disabled person from accessing their full potential. They are passionate about the way that the craft of writing is both a great leveller and a strong platform for otherwise under-represented voices. There is nothing dis-abled about these eight “spinners of stories, holders of mirrors and openers of doors”.
Disability is a reality of human experience (even, eventually, for those currently non-disabled). Here We Are, Read Us is a powerful publication, casting light on the realities and possibilities of that experience.
The book is free and available in multiple formats: as a pocket book, a large print book, in Braille and in Daisy. To order a copy, visit cripthelit (Braille and Daisy formats available on loan from the Blind Foundation).
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.