Why Richard III?

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity, writes about why the historical figure seems to be everywhere these days.

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer,” Richard III beams at the start of Shakespeare’s play.

Summer 2022 really was Richard III’s “glorious summer,” with four major productions appearing all at once: Arthur Hughes for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon; Danai Gurira in the role at the Public Theater in New York; Colm Feore at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada; and The Lost King, a feature film starring Sally Hawkins.

Each production brought something new. Hughes was the first disabled actor to play Shakespeare’s most famous disabled character for the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating conversations about the relationships between disabled actors’ and disabled characters’ bodies. Gurira was the first Black woman to play Richard III on a major stage, sparking discussions about disability and intersectionality. Feore opened the Stratford Festival’s new Tom Patterson Theatre, harkening back to the festival’s first ever play—Richard III in 1953. And The Lost King commemorated the tenth anniversary of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton on August 24, 2012, stirring controversy about the representation of academic work in mainstream media.

But why Richard III? Why is he always everywhere?

While mired in details of medieval English history, Shakespeare’s Richard III and its configuration of disability, villainy, and tragedy still speak to us in the twenty-first century with a surprising urgency. “Foremost among the standard-bearers of Disability Studies is Shakespeare’s Richard III,” noted leading disability scholar Tobin Siebers just before his death in 2015. Richard’s body was international front-page news when his skeleton was discovered. He’s in that echelon of Shakespearean characters—Shylock, Falstaff, Hamlet, Othello, Caliban—who have entire books written about them, like mine: Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History.

Richard III was Shakespeare’s second-most popular play in print during his lifetime and the most performed history play in both the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. The four greatest Shakespearean actors of the past four centuries—Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Laurence Olivier—all played Richard before Hamlet.

The first Shakespeare play professionally staged in America? Richard III, in 1749. The first play performed by an African American acting company? Richard III, in 1821. Documentaries are made about the challenge and importance of Richard III, such as Looking for Richard (1996) and NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage (2014). The play inspired the recent Netflix hit House of Cards and drew comparisons to the rise of Donald Trump in the New York Times.

James Siemon, a recent editor of Shakespeare’s play, says that Richard III is Janus-faced, pointing from the early-modern age back to its medieval past but also forward to a modern future, “socially topical both to Shakespeare’s London, and, paradoxically, to subsequent social formations even today.” Disability historian Katherine Schaap Williams similarly notes, “Richard’s double-facing presence in the narrative of disability theory,” the character cited as evidence both for and against the presence of the modern understanding of “disability” in the early-modern age.

There’s always a multi-temporality with Richard. How is Richard III always so historical and so current? Why are issues related to medieval disability so relevant to modern life? Why is Shakespeare’s play so persistent? Why do we care so much about Richard III? What is the significance of his body—not only its meaning in Shakespeare’s text (what it signifies) but also its importance as a cultural touchstone in England and beyond (why it is significant)?

The question about cultural importance is connected to the one about textual meaning. Shakespeare wrote three plays about Richard. In the first, Richard’s enemies say his disability signifies his villainy, calling him a “heap of wrath, foul indigested lump, / As crooked in thy manners as thy shape.” In the second, Richard says his body is not the sign but the cause of his behavior: “Love forswore me in my mother’s womb.” In the third, Richard becomes what Sigmund Freud later called an “exception,” someone who has been slighted by nature, has suffered an unfair disadvantage, something he does not deserve and uses to excuse himself from the ethics that govern civil society. “I am determined to prove a villain,” he says with a giddy smile, but should we hear the “determined” in that line as I have been destined for villainy or as I have resolved myself to villainy?

A certain ambiguity in Shakespeare’s representation of Richard’s disability—which destabilized meaning by dramatizing different meanings being made, deferring meaning to different audiences interpreting disability from different perspectives—has created a flexible conceptual space with a huge gravitational pull: some of our most consequential theories of modern aesthetics, theology, philosophy, ethics, psychology, sociology, historiography, science, medicine, and politics have been brought into attempts to understand Richard’s body.

In a quintessentially Shakespearean exchange, the playwright’s dramatic mode, both tragic and ironic, calls upon some of life’s biggest questions (because it is tragic) but defers answers to the audience (because it is ironic), leaving Richard’s body open to interpretation in different ages embracing different attitudes toward stigma. The changing meaning of disability repeatedly recontextualized through shifting perspectives and circumstances in Shakespeare’s history plays has thus prompted and sustained more than four hundred years of changing interpretations of Richard, his body, his behavior, and his status as either the villain or the victim of Tudor history. The meaning of Richard’s disability changes with time, not only in the course of Shakespeare’s plays but also in the broader cultural history surrounding them.

An interpretation of Richard’s body is never just an interpretation of Richard’s body. When we interpret Richard’s disability, it interprets us in return. It brings us to declare our motives and commitments in our attempts to unfold, explain, condemn, justify, defend, and so forth. It catches something in our core and brings it to the surface through its configuration of abstract questions about reality and issues specific to our bodies. It brings us to consider how we would and should respond when, like Richard, we are born into a world that is totally confusing, deeply unsatisfying, or both.

Examining care injustices

This week in North Philly Notes, Akemi Nishida, author of Just Care, writes about care as an analytical framework to understand the contemporary United States

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to recognize what was at the stake in the political debates on public healthcare programs such as Medicaid, the overstretched nature of the care labor force, and our own vulnerabilities. We also witnessed continuous fights for social justice including Black Lives Matter and Asian Americans against hate crimes, as well as the development of mutual aid networks to survive together.

Just Care suggests care as a lens to understand these phenomena—and incorporates care as not only an object of study but also an analytical framework. The book examines care injustices where people—whether they are situated as care workers, care receivers, or both—deteriorate under the name of care, when care is used as a mechanism to enhance the political economy and neglect the well-being of those situated as care workers and care receivers. It also addresses care justice, or just care, which occurs when people feel cared for affirmatively and when care is used as a foundation for more-just world building.

Just Care is based on research conducted at the request of disability communities to reveal how the public care services they receive are increasingly becoming money-centered, while they demand these services to be human-centered. Also, as a disabled person, my own experiences of receiving and providing care informed my work.

Just Care considers the experiences of care workers and care receivers under the Medicaid long-term care programs, queer disabled people who participate in community-based care collectives to interdependently support each other, and disabled and sick people of color who engage in bed activism to fight for social change from their bedspaces. By being in conversation with and witnessing care routines, the multiplicity of care became particularly noticeable—it is turned into a mechanism of social oppression and control while simultaneously being a tool with which marginalized communities activate, engage in, and sustain social justice fights.

Here are some key points from the book:

  • When scholars and activists work to dismantle injustices surrounding care activities, they often approach them by looking into solely the labor exploitation care workers experience or the lack of adequate care recipients endure. Instead, Just Care engages in relational analysis to think through how these circumstances are intertwined and mutually witnessed and experienced, as care workers and receivers spend the majority of their daily lives side by side.
  • An example of relational analysis is my tracing of the parallels between the histories of welfare programs for single mothers and families in need, (neo)colonialism and labor migration, and public healthcare programs like Medicaid, from the perspectives of critical race, transnational feminist, and disability studies.
  • This analysis shows that in addition to differences in degrees and kinds of care people individually need, intersecting oppressions including racism, neocolonialism, patriarchy, and ableism shape who is currently pressured to take up caring responsibilities and how their own care needs or disabling conditions are quickly neglected. Such oppressions also make us think of disabled people exclusively as recipients of care and rarely acknowledge their caring contributions to society, let alone how the public healthcare services they receive are rarely adequate and can function to surveil them.
  • Care services for disabled people are primarily planned by centering financial benefits for the care industrial complex and budget suppressions for governments and are not based on disabled people’s needs and preferences.
  • This focus on financial benefits means that well-being of care workers and care recipients become secondary concerns. This leads them to experience mutual debilitation, rather than the presumed idea that one group thrives on the back of the other.
  • Some care workers and care recipients under such debilitating public healthcare services develop interdependent relationships to help one another, in the middle of care-based oppression they experience, by transgressing the strict roles given to them.
  • Disabled people have started care collectives to practice interdependence and based on their insistence that everyone needs care and can provide care. Engaging in interdependence in the middle of a society that values individualist independence is destined to be full of challenges. One challenge they faced is material (to physically meet all the care needs emerging within the group), and another is affective (to make sure conflicts within the group will not affect quality of care).
  • Disabled and sick people engage in social change from their bedspaces, or “bed activism.” Bed activism entails critiquing of intersecting oppressions that manifest in bedspaces and offering visions for a more just world by centering the wisdom of sick and disabled people that emerges from their bedspaces.
  • Bed activism can happen actively, for example, when bed dwellers engage in social change by writing a blog post. It also happens in inactive moments, for example, when they rest in their beds while going through depression, pain, or fatigue. Even those moments inform bed activists about their relationships with their bodies and minds or the social conditions that restrict them to their beds.

We all need care and are capable of caring for others in various ways. When we start from this foundational understanding, how can we each engage in just care or more-just world making through care? Just Care points the way to answering this question.

Announcing Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, Volume 9, Issue 1, Spring 2022

This week in North Philly Notes, we present the new issue of our journal, Kalfou.

Special Issue: “In These Uncertain Times, Pittsburgh”

Guest Editors: Leon Ford and Deanna Fracul

FEATURE ARTICLES

Introduction: In These Uncertain Times, Pittsburgh • Deanna Fracul and Leon Ford

Uncertainty, Discourse, and Democracy in John Edgar Wideman’s Writing, 1980s to Today • Leila Kamali

Call-and-Response in the City: Embodied Mercy in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and GoneKathy Glass

Resisting Arrest: Race and Pittsburghers’ Struggles against Police Power from the 1840s through the 1950s • Elaine Frantz

Tomorrow Never Came • Jamaal Scott

Working Together for Health Equity: How a Multidisciplinary, Community-Engaged Partnership Reframed Our Understandings of Pittsburgh’s Maternal-Child Health Crisis • Cathleen J. Appelt, Andrew T. Simpson, Jessica A. Devido, Sarah Greenwald, and Brittany Urban

Pittsburgh, the Realest City: Shit Talk’n’, Storytell’n’, Social Livin’ • Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho

IDEAS, ART, AND ACTIVISM

TALKATIVE ANCESTORS

Derrick Bell on Living in Relation to Others

KEYWORDS

Frankstown Was the World with a Big W: Pittsburgh and Beyond, an Interview with John Edgar Wideman • Leila Kamali

LA MESA POPULAR

Black Lives and the Tree of Life • Emmai Alaquiva and Lauren Apter Bairnsfather

ART AND SOCIAL ACTION

East Pittsburgh: White Supremacy, Radical Relationships, and Chosen Family • Norman Conti

MOBILIZED 4 MOVEMENT

Where Have All the Black Revolutionaries Gone in Steel City? An Interview with Sala Udin • Tony Gaskew

TEACHING AND TRUTH

Redreaming Boundaries and Community Engagement: John Edgar Wideman and the Homewood Reading Series • Esohe Osai and Dan Kubis

Khalifa • Richard Khalifa Diggs, with postscript by Norman Conti

IN MEMORIAM

Memorial Quilt: Patchworked Remembrances of Those Stolen from Us • Mian Laubscher, Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, and Keith David Miles

REVIEW

A City Divided: Race, Fear, and the Law in Police Confrontations, by David A. Harris • Jesse S. G. Wozniak

————————

MOBILIZED 4 MOVEMENT

Scholar Collectives Advocating for Social Justice in Education • Lois A. Yamauchi, Joni B. Acuff, Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Bill Ayers, Margarita Berta-Ávila, Kari Kokka, Kevin Kumashiro, Therese Quinn, Colleen Rost-Banik, and Katherine Schultz

IN MEMORIAM

The People’s Artist: In Loving Memory of Eugene Eda Wade, 1939–2021 • Hannah Jeffery

REVIEW

Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration, by Ashley E. Lucas • Chinua Thelwell

Temple University Press’ Fall 2022 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we announce our forthcoming Fall 2022 titles.

Are All Politics Nationalized?: Evidence from the 2020 Campaigns in Pennsylvania, Edited by Stephen K. Medvic, Matthew M. Schousen, and Berwood A. Yost

Do local concerns still play a significant role in campaigns up and down the ballot?

Beauty and Brutality: Manila and Its Global Discontents, Edited by Martin F. Manalansan IV, Robert Diaz, and Roland B. Tolentino
Diverse perspectives on Manila that suggest the city’s exhilarating sights and sounds broaden how Philippine histories are defined and understood

BLAM! Black Lives Always Mattered!: Hidden African American Philadelphia of the Twentieth Century, by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection

The historic accomplishments of 14 notable Black Philadelphians from the twentieth-century—in graphic novel form

Blue-State Republican: How Larry Hogan Won Where Republicans Lose and Lessons for a Future GOP, by Mileah K. Kromer

What the story of Maryland’s two-term Republican governor can teach us about winning elections

Bringing the Civic Back In: Zane L. Miller and American Urban History, Edited by Larry Bennett, John D. Fairfield, and Patricia Mooney-Melvin

A critical appraisal of the career of Zane L. Miller, one of the founders of the new urban history

Cultures Colliding: American Missionaries, Chinese Resistance, and the Rise of Modern Institutions in China, John R. Haddad

Why American missionaries started building schools, colleges, medical schools, hospitals, and YMCA chapters in China before 1900

Divide & Conquer: Race, Gangs, Identity, and Conflict, by Robert D. Weide

Argues that contemporary identity politics divides gang members and their communities across racial lines

Engaging Place, Engaging Practices: Urban History and Campus-Community Partnerships, Edited by Robin F. Bachin and Amy L. Howard

How public history can be a catalyst for stronger relationships between universities and their communities

An Epidemic among My People: Religion, Politics, and COVID-19 in the United States, Edited by Paul A. Djupe and Amanda Friesen

Did religion make the pandemic worse or help keep it contained?

Gendered Places: The Landscape of Local Gender Norms across the United States, by William J. Scarborough

Reveals how distinct cultural environments shape the patterns of gender inequality

A Good Place to Do Business: The Politics of Downtown Renewal since 1945, by Roger Biles and Mark H. Rose

How six industrial cities in the American Rust Belt reacted to deindustrialization in the years after World War II

Justice Outsourced: The Therapeutic Jurisprudence Implications of Judicial Decision-Making by Nonjudicial Officers, Edited by Michael L. Perlin and Kelly Frailing

Examines the hidden use of nonjudicial officers in the criminal justice system

Memory Passages: Holocaust Memorials in the United States and Germany, by Natasha Goldman

Now in Paperback—Considers Holocaust memorials in the United States and Germany, postwar to the present

The Mouse Who Played Football, Written by Brian Westbrook Sr. and Lesley Van Arsdall; Illustrated by Mr. Tom

Who would ever think that a mouse could play football?

Never Ask “Why”: Football Players’ Fight for Freedom in the NFL, By Ed Garvey; Edited by Chuck Cascio

An inside look at the struggles Ed Garvey faced in bringing true professionalism to football players

The Real Philadelphia Book 2nd Edition, by Jazz Bridge

An anthology of compositions by popular Philadelphia jazz and blues artists accessible for every musician

Reforming Philadelphia, 1682⁠–⁠2022, by Richardson Dilworth

A short but comprehensive political history of the city, from its founding in 1682 to the present day

Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia, by Y-Dang Troeung

Explores key works that have emerged out of the Cambodian refugee archive

A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, by Leth Oun with Joe Samuel Starnes

The remarkable story of Leth Oun, from overcoming tragedy and forced labor in Cambodia to realizing dreams he never could have imagined in America

Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History, by Jeffrey R. Wilson

How is Richard III always both so historical and so current?

The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, by Masumi Izumi

Now in Paperback—Dissecting the complex relationship among race, national security, and civil liberties in “the age of American concentration camps”

The Spires Still Point to Heaven: Cincinnati’s Religious Landscape, 1788–1873, by Matthew Smith 

How nineteenth-century Cincinnati tested the boundaries of nativism, toleration, and freedom

Teaching Fear: How We Learn to Fear Crime and Why It Matters, Nicole E. Rader

How rules about safety and the fear of crime are learned and crystalized into crime myths— especially for women

Toward a Framework for Vietnamese American Studies: History, Community, and Memory, Edited by Linda Ho Peché, Alex-Thai Dinh Vo, and Tuong Vu

A multi-disciplinary examination of Vietnamese American history and experience

Understanding Crime and Place: A Methods Handbook, Edited by Elizabeth R. Groff and Cory P. Haberman

A hands-on introduction to the fundamental techniques and methods used for understanding geography of crime

Celebrating Pride Month

As Pride Month comes to a close North Philly Notes showcases three recent books by LGBTQ authors. You can check out all of our Sexuality Studies series titles here and all of our Sexuality Studies/Sexual Identity titles here.

Charles Upchurch, author of “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain

PRIDE is about continuing, celebrating, and securing the work of past generations that has led to greater LGBTQ equality and inclusion within society. That work is sometimes advanced by those with access to political, economic, and cultural power, but this is of secondary importance to the work done by everyone who lives an authentic life, influencing those around them by their example. I have the privilege of being an academic historian, and my new book, “Beyond the Law,”: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain, documents the first ever political effort to reform the laws that punished sex between men, which occurred in the early nineteenth century in Britain. At its core, it is a story about those who refused to go along with the vilification of individuals for engaging in private consensual acts. It’s a hopeful story, and while theoretically informed, it is also one that is written in accessible language to reach more people with an account of their rich past, perhaps inspiring them as they make a better future for us all. Happy PRIDE.

Martin Manalansan, coeditor of Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America

Q & A: Voices from Queer Asian North America is a forum of vibrant queer voices from Asian North America. At a moment of xenophobic anti-Asian violence and major anti-LGBTQ legislations, the essays, poems, and other creative works in this collection are offering experiences of struggle, exuberance, and survival. Q & A is a testament to the resilience of this  group of scholars, writers, poets and cultural workers whose works are forging hope and viable futures beyond the precarious present.  

Susan Krieger, author of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple

During this Pride month, a great array of alternative identities and lifestyles are honored. The “L” word comes first in the list of LGBTQ+, but it is often an invisible identity, as the title of my book Are You Two Sisters? suggests. Particularly for that reason, I think, this new ethnography makes an important contribution.

Since the publication of Are You Two Sisters?: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, I have been overwhelmed by the appreciation I have felt from readers and potential readers of the book. Studies of lesbian life are rare. As women, much of how we live and feel is invisible to others, and even invisible to ourselves. Aware of that invisibility, lesbian and queer women readers have been especially grateful for this account. I value their praise for the authenticity of the story and for the narrative as a contribution to “our lesbian herstory.”

I am also pleased to have reached a broader audience of Psychology Today online readers. My articles there draw from chapters in the book concerning lesbian invisibility in the larger world and dilemmas of identity within a lesbian couple. I am proud that the insights presented in Are You Two Sisters? may be of value for readers from a range of life experiences.

Following Artists into Orphaned Space

This week in North Philly Notes, Mrill Ingram, author of Loving Orphaned Spacewrites about providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us.

Recently I had the opportunity to launch my new book, Loving Orphaned Space, the art and science of belonging to Earth, at a Madison, Wisconsin based community arts organization called Art + Literature Laboratory. I was really pleased to be able to celebrate the book at a center dedicated to expanding community participation and access to the arts. The book is rooted in research I pursued on art-science collaboration, which revealed to me a new perspective on how we sideline the arts as an optional, even leisure pursuit. I’ve learned how the arts can assist all of us in navigating the everyday and imagining and enacting a better future. It’s also provided a powerful new perspective for my writing on the environment. Because so many of us don’t experience the power art can play, we often don’t recognize what we are missing. Sharing that insight was one of the reasons I wrote my book.

Following artists around is likely to pull a person out of their comfort zone. It certainly has done so for me. For example, in my writing, I am compelled to center emotional impulses and images I might have previously sidelined. The roots of this book lie in what began as a very personal preoccupation with the scattered bits of open space so many of us are surrounded by, much of it dedicated to infrastructure and often abused. Why did I care about these spaces? Why did I want to know more about each one of them? By following artists (literally) as they venture into such spaces, occupying them in a variety of ways, my personal, individual feelings expanded into something more social, that involved feelings of belonging and connectedness, respect, and responsibility, as well as delight and surprise. Wow! All that in a street terrace!

In the book I describe the energy and the politics of keeping infrastructure spaces such as drainages, stormwater basins, abandoned gas stations, right of ways, so policed and “empty.” It is an active process, an “orphaning” that quite literally, disappears space by keeping ecological and social relationships simple. This takes physical effort – I’m talking about fencing, channelizing, lighting, herbiciding, and cementing. Brownfields are orphaned by the toxicity of pollutants they are storing. I want us to think about what this purposeful disciplining of space costs us. I’m also talking about a psychic erasure. We literally do not recognize this space as Earth. Our culture normalizes so much land as a commodity, something anonymous, bought and sold, and with infinite possible futures but no history.

Open space is an enormous amount of territory, representing some 25% to over 40% of land in many cities. This is true around the world, as cities expand, and shrink, at different rates than their populations shift. In the wake of the pandemic, this kind of territory is being increasingly seen as a “solution” to problems like polluted stormwater, flooding, urban heat islands, lack of green space in neighborhoods. But I think there’s more here. I see these as spaces of struggle. Their distribution is deeply influenced by histories of racism and discrimination. Through my work with artists, I came to understand such spaces as portals through which people like me, our privilege revealed by how easily we disappear all this space, can catch a glimpse of important history and relationships and recognize potential for action.

I share stories of artists who’ve helped me to see this disappeared space in new ways, but also present a general framework to help us appreciate the work of art in building new connections and producing new results. I argue that the arts, by engaging with science and technologies of infrastructure in new ways, can transform those processes, shifting the purpose and the outcomes of technical endeavors for new benefits and ends, including ways to address inequities. In the book, I describe discoveries in phytoremediation, a process by which plants help dismantle soil pollutants, produced by a Chicago based artist, and a new model for capturing dirty water running off roofs and parking lots. I also celebrate ways in which artists build unconventional relationships, including with nonhuman beings, that can free us up to realize new projects and to experience and feel in new ways. I write about this kind of expansive and emergent relationship building as artists’ “diplomacy,” a term inspired by Isabelle Stengers.

It took me a while to put many of these pieces together in a way that felt coherent enough to deserve a book. In some ways the process of “loving” orphaned space is just beginning for me. I see them anew every day. In preparing for the talk at the book launch, for example, I looked at an image of open space distribution in St. Paul, Minnesota. For the first time, I put together the lack of open space in what is a very open city, with the I-90 corridor, which, when built in the 1960s, obliterated parts of a thriving predominantly Black neighborhood. Many businesses were lost and 1 in every 8 Black households in Minneapolis lost a home. The neighborhood lives on, still rich, but adjacent to a thundering expressway with the health threats, disconnectedness, and loss of property values that freeways bring.

This kind of recognition is the opening of the orphaned space portal. To venture in, and to occupy, involves many skills I learned from artists. They are certainly not the only ones doing this work, nor should they be. But for me, they’ve enabled me to shift my perspective on the land around me. They’ve provided me with examples of how careful listening, telling stories, and building relationships inside and out, can connect humans to each other and to other beings in new ways that transcend notions of a functioning system and enter the realm of loving.

What Representations of Disability Add to Postcolonial Literature

This week in North Philly Notes, Christopher Krentz, author of Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, writes about the significance and utility of disabled characters in novels from the Global South.

About two decades ago, the scholar Ato Quayson noted that postcolonial literature is full of disabled characters, an intriguing insight that sent me searching for examples. Among those I quickly found:

  • In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart (1958), the Igbo clan’s formidable war medicine is associated with a one-legged woman;
  • A partially deaf, cracking, impaired character narrates Salman Rushdie’s Booker-Prize-winning Midnight’s Children (1981); incredibly, he connects telepathically with other children born in the first hour of India’s independence;
  • Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1983) focuses on a cognitively disabled man of color who traverses through a war-torn South Africa and is beset by hunger;
  • Edwidge Danticat’s story “Caroline’s Wedding,” from her collection Krik? Krak! (1996) tells of a beloved Haitian-American sister in New York City who has a missing forearm;
  • Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting (1999) recounts how an ungainly disabled daughter in small-town India is largely kept out of sight by her upper-middle-class family;
  • In Chris Abani’s short novel Song for Night (2007), the narrator is a boy soldier in a war in Nigeria who has had his vocal cords severed and communicates with others through an improvised sign language;
  • The narrator of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007) is an exuberant boy in India who has a bent spine and goes around on all fours as a result of a chemical plant disaster;
  • The story in Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) is related by an albino woman in Zimbabwe who encounters both intense stigma rooted in traditional metaphysical beliefs and unexpected kindness.

And there are so many more examples! 

The examples made me realize that, far from being incidental, disabled characters are integral to the energy and vitality of literature in English from the Global South. These are great stories, and part of their greatness is how writers repeatedly deploy disability in creative, original ways. Through figures of disability, authors make any number of pressing topics more vivid, including such issues as the effects of colonialism and apartheid, global capitalism, racism and sexism, war, and environmental disaster. 

Furthermore, even at their most fantastic, such representations relate to the more than half a billion disabled people who live in the Global South, often in precarious circumstances. Disabled character can be both realistic and metaphorical.

In 2006, a few years after Quayson’s observation, the United Nations adopted its first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I began to wonder if the prominence of disability in postcolonial literature should be linked to the gradual and global emergence of rights for disabled people—especially since both happened concurrently in the last half century or so. The representation of disabled people in this literature, I concluded, both directed and reflected this change in how disabled people are seen. 

In the last fifteen years, a new interdisciplinary field, the study of human rights and literature, has drawn connections and examined relations between fiction and human rights issues. As Joseph Slaughter puts it in Human Rights Inc., fiction—especially the bildungsroman in his case—is uniquely about rights as it typically serves to portray the relationship of an individual to society. Scholars in the field have used literature to explore the paradoxes surrounding human rights. Most of all, they show that literature can serve as a valuable form of witnessing human rights violations, making such issues more personal to readers in different times and places and compelling them to care. The first step in achieving rights, advocates realized back in the 1960s, is not laws or treaties but rather winning the public’s imagination.

While the study of human rights and literature has frequently dealt with postcolonial literature, it has not had much to say about disability. I hope Elusive Kinship can begin to fill that lacuna, enhancing our appreciation of literature in English from the Global South and nudging us toward making the world more hospitable for everyone.

Blind Author and Publisher Make Are You Two Sisters? Accessible

This week in North Philly Notes, Susan Krieger, author of Are You Two Sisters?, addresses the need for books to be made available in formats for the blind and others with print disabilities.

Because I am blind as well as a writer and a sociologist, each time I have a new book about to be published, I must take steps to make sure that book will be available for others like me, who are blind or have challenges in reading print.

In writing my books and articles, I use a screen reader: a computer program that translates text to speech. It reads aloud to me all the text on the screen, the dialog boxes, and the keystrokes as I type them. I hear my words spoken aloud rather than visually seeing them. As I wrote my latest book, Are You Two Sisters? The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, I listened intently to the words on the page as I typed them, going over and over the text of the book in my mind after hearing it spoken to me, making my revisions as needed.

When I submitted the final book manuscript to Temple University Press for copyediting and subsequent production, I was anxious about how the process would go. Would the copyeditor be responsive to my needs for a different way of entering proposed changes than is usually used for sighted authors? Would the final published book be one that I, a blind author, could easily read and be proud to disseminate to blind and print-disabled readers?

I am happy to say that Temple University Press has been extremely generous in assisting me in enabling the production of accessible versions of Are You Two Sisters? for the blind and print-disabled. The Press has made special efforts on my behalf through each stage of the production process—ensuring that the copyeditor would be sensitive to my needs for alternate ways of entering changes on the manuscript; preparing the typography of the book design in a manner that a person using a screen reader can accurately navigate; assigning a remediation specialist to work with me to produce an accessible ADA compliant PDF version of the book; and facilitating my production of an independent audiobook edition.

As a result, Are You Two Sisters? is now available in several alternate formats for blind and print-disabled readers. An accessible PDF and Word version can be obtained from the publisher or author; a Daisy digital text, Braille ready Format, or an ePub version can be obtained from Bookshare.org; and an independent audiobook version can be enjoyed through Audible.

Blind readers are well aware that the PDFs of books and articles are often hard to navigate. Although they look fine to sighted readers, the hidden codes or choices that have gone into these documents may be poorly executed and nonstandard and may pose overwhelming barriers to reading. Each time I have a new book published, I become painfully aware of those barriers and seek to overcome them.

I strongly believe that all print materials should be as accessible for blind and disabled readers as they are for the sighted. Sadly, in our world of abundant print—both in books and online—the playing field is not level. Most of the print in the world that is available to the sighted is not equally accessible to the blind. This is something that needs to be changed, but that will only happen when requirements for equal access are enforced and when authors and producers of print materials embark on the task of finding new ways of making information accessible. I am grateful to Temple University Press for allowing me to guide the accessibility process, and I hope that readers will enjoy Are You Two Sisters? in one of its several formats!

Caring Beside: Metaphors of Solidarity at the Bedside

This week in North Philly Notes, James Kyung-Jin Lee, author of Pedagogies of Woundedness, writes about “the horizontal ethics of care and politics of resistance” as well as the power that can come from the person lying on the bed.

            

In the epilogue of Pedagogies of Woundedness, I cite the opening scene of Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory,” in which they describe listening to the sounds of a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest taking place outside their apartment, while Hedva was consigned to a bed because of a chronic illness: “Attached to the bed, I rose up my sick woman fist, in solidarity.” They then wonder what role ill/disabled people might play in revolutionary activity: “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” Such a question resonates with a corresponding image that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha conjures in her essay “Crip Superpowers,” that implores her readers and fellow activists to imagine, “We can community-organize flat on our ass in bed—as what the movement needs most.”

The horizontal body in space and time is the prevailing image of the patient consigned to the hospital bed that animates so much of the crucible of experience that animates physician memoirs, the contrast between the standing, able-bodied doctor hovering over, caring, surveilling, and enacting on the prone one in need of care and thus submitting to such diagnostic colonization. It is this asymmetry of power exemplified in bodily position that motivates both Hedva and Piepzna-Samarasinha to see the bedridden Asian American sick woman as nonetheless agentive. Here, I also take to heart Mel Chen’s meditation on Piepzna-Samarasinha’s insistence on a politics enabled “flat on our ass in bed” by their subtle but trenchant critique of the most widely used phrase to demonstrate solidarity with a cause or community or condition: “The grammar of ableist liberatory fervor is succinctly captured, for instance, in the widespread use today of declamatory campaigns that urge one to metaphorically ‘stand with’ various populations or politicians. Such a metaphor is constructed on the figurative imagining of a literal standing. The question becomes what might it mean to ‘stand with’ a figural group, when standing for wheelchair users, or those chronically ill ‘flat on our ass in bed,’ cannot readily invite such ‘politically aligned’ embodied action.” At the time of this writing, my social media feed is filled with posts that stand with the people of Ukraine, stand with LGBTQ+ kids in Florida and trans children in Texas, and of course all through the pandemic we were ostensibly standing with health care workers toiling in the desperate days and weeks of the worst of the COVID pandemic. I suppose that the lack of shortage of people standing with others is a small testament that wounded, vulnerable people receive some modicum of compassion that isn’t tethered to market forces or transactional expectation.

But Chen’s, Hedva’s, and Piepzna-Samarasinha’s insistence on a horizontal ethics of care and politics of resistance have hit home in ways that exceeded my imagination once the final draft of Pedagogies of Woundedness was locked. The following is a story which I have permission to disclose: a year ago, our older teenage daughter attempted suicide and in doing so revealed that she had been suffering from severe mental illness and associated trauma for years, unbeknownst to me and her mom. What followed was a long flight of various treatments, both outpatient and residential, and our family’s baptism into the world of mental health care. There have been and continue to be moments of crisis that punctuate periods of relative mental and emotional stability, and some rare moments of happiness for my daughter, and for the other members of the family. Early on, I clung to a restitution narrative, but we’re late into this story and I recognize now that my daughter is living a different genre. Early on, I stood over her bed desperately wishing she could join me, despairing that the aggressivity of her depression prevented her from even remaining conscious for hours at a time. Over time, I came to understand that standing with my daughter when she couldn’t get out of bed wasn’t all that much different from the physician’s diagnostic colonization of his patient.

So I’ve tried to shift my body and my metaphor to align with where my daughter is on any given day. On really tough days, as she lies in bed, I’ll sometimes lie on the floor and listen to the quiet sounds of her breathing. At moments when she is able to sit at her desk and is willing to let me into her space, I’ll pull up a chair: sometimes we sit face to face and at others side by side, as if we’re facing the world together. Stories of illness and disability, and the politics and ethics that emanate from these stories, the power that can come from the person lying on the bed, have taught me that there is and must be always more room to imagine solidarity with the vulnerable. Nowadays, I will only stand with people, like my daughter, if they want to stand, and if they give me permission to rise with them, if they let me take their hand into mine.

Celebrating Women’s History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Women’s History Month. Use promo code TWHM22 for 30% off all our Women’s Studies titles. Sale ends March 31, 2022.

New Titles

Elaine Black Yoneda: Jewish Immigration, Labor Activism, and Japanese American Exclusion and Incarceration, by Rachel Schreiber, recounts the remarkable story of a Jewish activist who joined her incarcerated Japanese American husband and son in an American concentration camp.

Are You Two Sisters: The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, by Susan Krieger, authored by one of the most respected figures in the field of personal ethnographic narrative, this book serves as both a memoir and a sociological study, telling the story of one lesbian couple’s lifelong journey together.

From our Backlist:

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, by Shirley Jennifer Lim, shows how Anna May Wong’s work shaped racial modernity and made her one of the most significant actresses of the twentieth century.

The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap, by Yasemin Besen-Cassino, traces the origins of the gender wage gap to part-time teenage work, which sets up a dynamic that persists into adulthood.

Feminist Post-Liberalism, by Judith Baer, reconciles liberalism and feminist theory.

Feminist Reflections on Childhood: A History and Call to Action, by Penny A. Weiss, recovers a history of feminist thought and activism that demands greater voice and respect for young people.

Good Reasons to Run: Women and Political Candidacy, edited by Shauna L. Shames, Rachel I. Bernhard, Mirya R. Holman, and Dawn Langan Teele, how and why women run for office.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness: A Notorious Divorce in Early Twentieth-Century America, by Jean Elson, a fascinating story of the troubled marriage and acrimonious divorce of Nina and James Walker elucidates early twentieth-century gender and family mores.

Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, by Leah Ruppanner challenges preconceived notions of the states that support working mothers.

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall, an anthology that celebrates the life and work of a major African American writer.

Their Day in the Sun: Women in the Manhattan Project, by Ruth H. Howes and Caroline C. Herzenberg, tells the hidden story of the contribution of women in the effort to develop the atomic bomb.

Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism, by Barbara Tomlinson, a sustained critique of the ways in which scholars have engaged with and deployed intersectionality.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislature: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, by Anna Mitchell Mahoney, investigates the opportunities, resources, and frames that women utilize to create legislative caucuses.

Women’s Empowerment and Disempowerment in Brazil: The Rise and Fall of President Dilma Rousseff, by Pedro A.G. dos Santos and Farida Jalalzai, explains what the rise and fall of Brazil’s first and only female president can teach us about women’s empowerment.

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