Tuesday, April 27, 2010

First Person Singular and Blogging against Disablism

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010

Note: I apologize that these words aren't as smoothed out as they should be; I keep coming back to make corrections. Pain creates cognitive difficulties for me.

To what extent are Frida Kahlo's paintings self portrait and to what extent are they a mirror? I invite others to view her work for a moment as a mirror, whether or not you are female or Mexican or disabled. Her eyes reflect yours, challenge yours. Do you typically see her as entirely separate or do you connect her with parts of yourself? A purely objective, nonmirrored standpoint positions her as Other; an entirely subjective viewpoint can either obliterate her uniqueness, her life story, or it can obliterate our own so that we do not connect with her. Ideally we balance or oscillate between the two, seeing her and ourselves both.

"God created man because He loves stories," Elie Wiesel once wrote. And for most of us, stories make us tick, connect us, move us to action, speak to our hearts, make us feel less alone or more bold. Stories change our deep-seated opinions, educate us, perhaps most importantly teach us empathy for other viewpoints or experiences we have not had. They make us better people. They humanize us. Frida's life story, for example, teaches me and makes me feel less alone.

I believe in the power of life stories, of autobiography, of poetry, and nonfiction narrative to change lives. To me, stories connect to stories connect to stories. It's why the best writers craft strongly intertextual work, integrating other stories with their own--William Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Lucy Brock-Broido are all masters of literary allusion. They knew (or know) their stories are strongest when they are connected with other stories. After all, "no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" (John Donne). (And "no woman."). Often the complaint among writing teachers is that many creative writing students don't want to be readers. They want to be poets or novelists. But they don't want to read others' stories, they don't want to understand their genre or literary history or their place among other voices that have come before them or who write contemporaneous to them. They just want to be a poet, to be famous, out of context, alone, without a sense of others. This is what's missing in some published disability narratives--a lack of connectedness to other disabled people, in its place a traditional Western American frontier sense of conquering the enemy (in this case, an illness or disability) alone and rising above it. The overcoming myth isn't unique to disability at all. It's almost a given in American literature. And historically this myth excludes voices--voices that don't overcome or can't overcome.

If we can overcome, or better, succeed with rather than in spite of a disability, we don't "rise above" by ourselves, though certainly self-motivation is an important part of reaching one's full potential. Success, where disability is concerned, hinges upon ramps and accessible buildings and laws first--all put in place by or with others, disabled or not. Just as, for others, exercising one's rights was predicated on the Voting Rights Act and Topeka v. Brown Board of Education. And, for others, the 19th Amendment, Title vii and Title ix. The Western myth of a hero overcoming hardship is a white male, heterosexual, economically privileged myth.

But what softens hardened hearts that discriminate, sways them from not seeing "the other"? Knowing others and hearing their stories, told formally or informally, whether real or constructed fictionally to represent a collective voice. History and literature and autobiography may have more influence to convince and change than political science.

And what makes the heart survive during the most difficult times of discrimination and hardship? Here, too, others' stories, told formally or informally, real or constructed fictionally. Many women wrote to Betty Friedan after she published The Feminine Mystique, letting her know that they had no idea they were not alone--and to Ladies' Home Journal for an article that I believed spurred the book.

Women, ethnic minorities, disabled people are often told to cut the "I" out, cautioned against writing autobiographically. It's a choice between career suicide and metaphysical suicide, this cutting the "I" out. Charlotte Perkins Gilman once wrote an autobiographical story about her experience with the rest cure and being forbidden to write--"The Yellow Wallpaper"--about a woman trapped in a room by her physician husband. It's a compelling story that makes one rethink mental illness (it can be caused by constraints put on one, or one can be called mentally ill for not fitting proper womanly or disabled roles). And apparently the story changed the mind of S. Weir Mitchell, the inventor of the rest cure, as well, about the appropriateness of such torment. And for those of us who sit in our yellow (yes!) room day after day, imprisoned by physical disability, we can connect with Gilman as well as blogger friends in the same situation. Reading others' writing can help us survive. Yes, survive. How should we react to those who ask us to eliminate our "I" or to communicate in superficial ways rather than discuss the gritty reality of our lives?

Certainly we should not devalue others' stories by implying that our own situation is so much worse than another's. It's not a competition. But we can (should?) share. Like Wheelie Catholic, who wrote yesterday that she must read others' blogs before writing her own, I too cannot write my own story without reading others'. Even when I don't refer to others' stories, your stories are in my head, in my heart, and underlie what I write. And not just my disabled friends'--my other friends', too. I want to know if someone else has experienced something similar when someone tells me how to "cure" myself, yells at me in public, implies that I am lesser. Let me know that I'm not alone. I believe in conversation, in friendships that aren't one way. I don't mind when Elizabeth or my friend with back pain and scoliosis share what they're going through that's similar; while there may be a difference of degrees among us, I don't want to listen to my own voice echoing into silence. There's a commonality in dealing with pain and going to doctors, in writing by ourselves for long hours alone. We're not writing first-person singular in the sense that singular means exceptional or weird; we're singular in the sense that we are individual voices coming together, meeting one another.

That's my perspective, at least. I hope that I am not writing in a vacuum, my experiences unconnected to anyone else's, but that's the danger I worry about when writing autobiographically, informally. The power of writing lies primarily in its ability to connect--again to impart empathy or to make us less alone in stories we do share--to teach and delight (Horace) or to create epiphanies (James Joyce). But each story, each voice, has to be connected to other stories.

How do we change disablism? Read. Write. Speak. Or sign. Learn stories and tell them. Teach others how to tell them. Edit them. Publish them. Retell others' stories.

The power is yours. The power is through words.

The past two years of blogging I feel most connected to others' stories on Blogging against Disablism Day--this year it will also take place on March 1 over at Diary of a Goldfish. For days I revel in the richness of so many voices describing what so many of us experience or witness in so many forms: disablism. You do not have to be disabled to post, but please spread the word--our stories and ideas also need to be heard beyond the disabled community, to mesh with other minority and mainstream writing.


SharonMV said...

Hi Frida,
You might like to see some of the pieces I've done the last couple of months. I've put them up on my webshots page in the Paper Arts 2010 album.


Terri said...

I love this. And I agree story fills in the missing pieces. I had never seen that Elie Wiesel quote before. Wonderful!

FridaWrites said...

Sharon, I love these! Thanks for sharing--you have true creative talent, and Frida Kahlo looks beautiful in pastels. Her work is such an inspiration to those of us disabled.

Thank you so much, Terri. When I first learned about Frida Kahlo's art, I learned about her self-portraits only, but not about her disability! I definitely connected with her art that much more when I learned of life story.

SharonMV said...

thank you Frida. I saw a very good documentary on Frida kahlos' life on PBS a few years ago. It was the first time I learned about her injuries, subsequent disability and her story. I feel connected to her because of her art, & because I'm ill & disabled, Latina & also was unable to have children. She is an iconic figure, but one can also have a more personal connection.