International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is the anniversary of the very first performance of my long-ago band, Janes Plane. Every struggle must be balanced by moments of joy and that what music, for me, was about. Here’s how I framed that story in my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Music below (plus bonus tracks written by me and Jane the guitarist after the band broke up, recorded on a boombox, so not exactly high quality) plus a video (edited by Lou, the bass player).

JANES PLANE

One January day in 1981—actually a kind of glimmering twilight in the north of England, at that time of year—staring at the stains on the bathroom wall as I washed my hands with stone cold water, I realised that this was my life. It wasn’t just a break from reality, or a mistake, or a holiday. It was real. I had no money, no job, no skills; no electricity, no phone, no tv; no respect; not even the coins to make a phone call or feed the machines in a laundromat. This was it, the sum total of my life so far: nothing.

It was a very ugly feeling. Something would have to change.

Carol got a job as the warden and unofficial liaison officer for the Springbank Community Centre. I got a temporary job, as something Hull City Council called a tree technician but which was essentially labouring. In a hard hat and steel capped and sheathed boots I dug trenches and surveyed trees in parks and graveyards. Back to the shovel and pickaxe life of the archaelogical dig, except it was in the freezing rain and mud: me, a supervisor called Maggie, and five men. We moved from green space to green space, cataloguing trees and planting shrubs, saplings and hedges. I got flirted at a lot by gum-snapping schoolgirls. In my hard hat and rain gear, they thought I was a beardless youth. “Give us a kiss,” they’d say. “Okay,” I’d say, and take my hat off. Then they’d swallow their gum. I’d grin.

In some ways, it was a grim job: the brutal physical work, the cold, the nasty porn-hung huts (and I mean nasty porn, the kind that makes you turn green and want to wash your brain). In other ways, I was deliriously happy. I loved digging, the cut of steel through dirt. I loved trees. I loved helping things grow. And the conversation as we dug was mind-bending: sex, religion, politics, life, philosophy. Serious conversation, thoughtful and deep, though not steeped in formal learning. These men were as fascinated by having a woman work beside them as I was about living in their world. And, wow, I got paid.

Every now and again I got a telegram from Leeds about some family emergency and I’d have to leap on a train and go home. Helena ran away to London, with her girlfriend Haydee, where they set up house in a Brixton squat with a bunch of drug users. I went down to see if I could get her back. In Hull, I was living in paradise compared to her situation. Gaping holes in the floor, no electricity at all. Cooking and heating with raw flame from a tapped city gas line. Surprisingly good food—because they stole it. Lots of drugs (mostly meth and heroin). I walked with Helena through the Brixton streets, and she was a stranger to me. Our conversation wasn’t much helped by the armoured troop carriers stuffed with testosterone-pumped Special Patrol Group officers cruising the streets—twice we were thrown bodily against the wall. Brixton was fulminating. It was only about two months later—by the time Helena was safely back in Leeds—that the place went up in riots.

Carolyn tried to kill herself again. She was dying. I took the train to Leeds. She recovered. I went back to Hull. Helena tried to kill herself; I went back to Leeds, then back to Hull.

Carolyn tried again. Dad also did something horrible to his back. They were in separate wards of the same hospital. The doctors deemed it unwise for either to know the other was ill. I’d be by one bedside, chatting in that bright desperate way one uses in sick rooms, then say, “Gosh, just nipping out for coffee and a cigarette,” and zip off to the other bedside.

They both recovered. Back to Hull.

I memorised the train timetable, and kept a packed bag with a change of clothes and enough money for a return ticket by the door. Whenever a telegram came I’d check my watch, judge whether there was time for a cup of tea, and be at the station before the next train to Leeds.

Carol and I moved into a different shared house. Part of our rent was to help remodel and decorate the place. One of the owners had (supposedly) been Marianne Faithful’s lover, an ex-heroin user who seemed to be independently wealthy. One of our housemates was a psychiatric nurse and so was her sweetie. Real people with real lives and real jobs. It was possible, I realised. Beginning with them, I began to build lasting links to the women’s community: about two hundred women living at close quarters along Spring Bank and Princes Avenue, a tiny pool of lesbian nationhood in a violently homophobic city, county, and country. Like any ghetto facing extreme stress, the community was full of bickering, poverty, solidarity, and political action. We had sex with each other (non-monogamy was de riguer) and knew each other’s business. Those in funds bought the others drugs or food because they we sooner or later the wheel would turn—lesbians got fired all the time—and we’d need help. Later, as we got the hang of community, we built an overlapping framework of formal and semi-formal support networks: Lesbian Line, the Women’s Centre, the lesbian disco, a party circuit, and so on. We raised funds for a variety of non-lesbian political funds, too: anti-apartheid, national abortion league, Rape Crisis. Some of these community networks, counselling organisations and political action groups still survive. More were ephemeral: we raised the money, we spent it on what the community needed, we moved on to the next thing.

Me and Carol, really wasted on mushrooms, 1981. Photo by Anita Corbin.

Carol and I went to the very first National Lesbian Conference in 1981, in London. After the plenary session (plenary, an addition to my vocabulary—though in the following years I would become fluent in organisational-speak), we got stoned; then, just for good measure, dropped two dozen mushrooms each. A thousand pumped and righteous dykes were working themselves into a political frenzy, which at the time involved shouting matches about who was more oppressed than whom. Carol started freaking out. I took her to one side, sheltered her in my arms, and a woman came up and started talking. I got concerned, then I got cross, then she took our photo: somehow Carol looks happy and carefree while I was worrying myself to a nub. (Later she asked for our permission to use the photo in a book, and then exhibit, which became Visible Girls.1 I’m very glad I said yes.)

Back in Hull, I got sick again: inexplicable dizziness and breathlessness and muscle aches. The doctor told me I was having a nervous breakdown. I knew I wasn’t, but I didn’t know what the matter was.2 But whatever it was made it impossible to do the physical work of planting trees; I had to leave my job. As soon as I wasn’t working, I felt better. Perhaps I was allergic to work—that was the community opinion, and I wasn’t sure they were wrong.

I heard that some women were thinking of starting a band. “You should do that,” Carol said.

“Perhaps I should,” I said.

At the audition (at the women’s centre, a rickety little house bought and repainted by the community), I picked up the microphone. “How long is the lead?” I said.

“Twenty feet.”

I tapped it. Miraculously, that day the electricity was working. “Great. I’ll be next door.” I walked into the next room, and shouted, “Ready anytime.” I felt ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as if I’d tried to sing with them looking at me.3 They played something. From my own special room I sang along, improvising. They liked it. I was in. (And that was the last time I sang hidden from sight.) Carol was also in, as a percussionist—which meant whanging on whatever was to hand with a spare drum stick, and pogoing up and down in exuberance. (Listen to “Reclaim the Night” for an example of the difference her work made.)

The drummer was called Jane. She was an art student, a drumming novice, but she owned her own kit so she was in. The lead guitarist was also called Jane. She’d been in a band before. Her girlfriend was Heidi, a drama student. Carol and I and Jane and Heidi became very good friends. The bassist, Lou—mother of a two-year-old, Christa—was currently in another successful indie band. There was a rhythm guitarist to begin with, too, but I forget her name; she left not long after I joined.

Carol and I moved again, this time to a nice house on Albany Street with central heating (and a phone, and a TV) and real curtains on the windows, and light switches that worked. It was owned by four women, three of whom had moved to Leeds. One, Jan, still lived there.

Jane the guitarist also moved in. Jane the drummer set her kit up in the dining room, which became the rehearsal room. I bought my own microphone (a big commitment at the time). We improvised the melodies, I’d go off and write lyrics, and then we hammered out the songs.

I began to brim with words. (It wasn’t until recently I realised just how much my writing owed and still owes to music. My early lyrics were clearly influenced by very early Pink Floyd, and that my own first lyrics echo the central concerns of my novels. Listen to Pink Floyd’s Grantchester Meadows and Vondel Park, then read just about any novel of mine and tell me they’re not connected.)

We set up our first gig: the International Women’s Day celebration at Springbank Community Centre. We were to open for a more established women’s band from York.

We were all tense. We would be debuting in front of three hundred of our friends and peers on the biggest day of the community year. Do or die.

Stress and sex seemed to go together in the Hull women’s community. In the month or two before the gig Heidi had sex with Carol (that night, Jane and I got companionably stoned). Then Helena, on one of her visits, met Heidi, and they took up with each other. Jane seduced Lou. I had sex with a sweet young drama student and the Polish woman next door and a few other people.

For our Janes Plane Saturday night debut, and also to see Heidi, Helena came to Hull. She arrived on Friday, bearing some Nepalese Temple Ball to soothe my nerves.4

On the night of the International Women’s Day celebration, we climbed on stage—I was past the stage of being pushed—Jane shouted, “Two, three, four!” and brought down her sticks—and my life changed, again.

Between one heartbeat and the next, my performance anxiety changed to performance exhilaration. I could smell it, literally, smell them, the crowd, the pheremonal explosion waiting to happen—and then I pushed them over the edge.

This was what I’d been aiming for when I banged the dustbin lids together at dawn when I was four years old. This is why at fifteen I’d dressed up like a dog’s dinner and stood on stage pretending to be a Japanese schoolgirl.

I opened my mouth and sang and felt that I was lighting the sky, creating the universe, challenging the gods. It was at least as good as sex. The crowd went insane. The band went insane. I knew what it might feel like to own the world.

I decided that night that I would never stop performing. And I haven’t. It’s a version of this feedback that I ride every time I stand up in a bookshop to read to an audience.

You can listen to three Janes Plane tracks below, plus a couple of bonus tracks Jane and I recorded on a boombox that we wrote together after the band broke up. The tracks don’t suck but we were better live, when we offered our hearts and the audience offered theirs back.

Two of the songs are from the earliest days and were played that first night: “Bare Hands” and “Reclaim the Night.”

“Bare Hands” is all about Hull. In the late seventies and early eighties, the inner city was the urban equivalent of a blasted heath. The good people always left; only the hopeless stayed. I knew it could be a decent place if people would allow themselves to imagine the possibility.

“Reclaim the Night” was our anthem. Writing it taught me of the perils of point-of-view. Lots and lots of women hated the beginning of that song, because it delves into the mind of a potential rapist and we see the target as just that, a target, a victim, and not as a human being. It was politically naïve. I hadn’t realised how powerfully a perspective change could influence an audience’s attitude—could alter the emotional meaning. I never made that kind of writing mistake again.

“Vondel Park” comes from my experience in Amsterdam. In Vondel Park, after smoking that Red Lebanese (a different kind of hash) for hours on a two-days-empty stomach, I hallucinated herds of wild horses, and a fifty-foot tall Mr Bertie (an advertising icon made of a candy called Liquorice Allsorts) striding across the fields. It was lovely. And then all the pretty pictures eeled away and I was in the park, with a bunch of hippies playing guitar, saying “Wow,” and feeling mellow.

On the tape you hear that I flubbed some of the lyrics. I was always doing this, always forgetting the words. I always have been crap at memorising things…


1 If you happen to be in the north of England at the beginning of July I’ll be in Hull for the grand opening of an exhibition featuring that photo and others from the Visible Girls series as part of Hull International City of Culture events. So save the date: July 6th. There’s a party…
2 Eventually I was diagnosed with MS, but not before terms like hysteric, skiver, layabout, hypochondriac etc. were lobbed in my general direction.
3 Singing in front of people became an issue for me when I was eleven. I talk about it earlier in the memoir.
4 Nepalese Temple Ball is very strong hash. Probably the equivalent of dabbing today.

Some thoughts on Crip Futurism

The Storify of the most recent #CripLit Twitter chat on Futurism is up. As you can see it was very busy and there were many levels of experience and expertise on offer. If you are writing or are planning to write any speculative fiction with disabled characters, you would find the conversation illuminating.

If you only want to read what I had to say on the matter, there’s a Storify of that, too.

For those who find Tweets mystifying, or are too lazy to click through, here’s a version of what I said rendered in paragraph form.


I’m Nicola Griffith, your co-host. I write fiction—novels and stories—in different genres. Only one of my published short stories so far has crip characters: “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese,” set in a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is now physically impaired with the equivalent of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I’m not sure that renders them all crips, though, because I follow the social model of disability which holds that disability is about more a problem of the built environment (physical and cultural) than of impairment. I’ve just written a novella with a crip protagonist but it still needs polishing. My novel Slow River, near-future SF, has secondary crip characs, most notably a man whose four prostheses are (more or less) invisible; the main character, Lore, is very badly injured and for a while reliant on others’ help.

All my short fiction is SFF but not all my novels. SFF means I can posit one What If—post-apocalypse everyone’s a crip, or shape-changing is real—and see what happens. SFF gives great freedom to make the metaphor concrete. So I can make multiple sclerosis a literal monster. I also write historical fiction—which involves world-building and What If but your mileage may vary about whether it is speculative fiction. (I can tell you that nothing in the novel contravenes what is known to be known.)

I find horror limiting because horror, to me, is fiction without ultimate hope (it’s like noir that way). Dark fantasy is a great genre for pondering disability. You can create monsters, examine your worst fears, but still find hope. SF is particularly good because you can build a heterotopia (other place) in which BEING A CRIP DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THE STORY.

In terms of worldbuilding, I start with a What If. What if MS were a monster? What if prosthetics were almost unnoticeable? Then go deeper. Whatever world I build—far- or near-future, here-and-now, the past—it obey its own rules and follow its own logic; it must be consistent.

Miles Vorkosigan is a well-rounded crip character—and problematic because he’s Special. It would be great to encounter ordinary crips in the future. I’ve just started reading SF anthology Accessing the Future, edited by Kathryn Allan & Djibril al-Ayad. Good so far. But, oh, there are many bad disability tropes and characters in SFF! Until recently there was a LOT of eugenicist, edit-us-out-of-existence crap. So much of the imaginary future is ‘perfect’ because crips don’t exist. The message is physical perfection = utopia. All physical ills have been techno/magically cured.

Tyrion in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is a good example of how to write a crip character. But Tyrion is also a privileged straight white boy asshole, so… (But, hey, it’s nice to not see an Evil Crip or a Saintly Self-Sacrificing Maryr Crip—nice to see a crip who isn’t a Type.) One of many fantasy tropes that piss me off is that being a crip means having Special Powers. Or being crip automatically makes a character an object of pity. I want ordinary people!

Crip characters in 21st century fiction often read like queer characters in the 20th century. Being a crip should not be a signifier of anything. Being a crip should not equal being Special or having Special Powers. Crips should not automatically die tragically. Crips should not sacrifice themselves for others to be happy. A utopia should not be a place where no one is physically impaired or neurologically different. Plots should not be solved by being magically cured—by a spell or hand-wavy technology.

There’s how it crip futurism could interrogate our discourse and there’s how it actually does—or mostly doesn’t. A good SFF story or novel with brilliantly delineated characters could not only show how ableism works but how/where/when it began; it could explore not only current ableist discourse but its origins. Mostly it doesn’t. Mostly it fails.

Pro tip: people are never One Giant Trait. We all have multiple identities. These identities influence each other. Crips can be queer or straight. POC or white. Good or Evil, smart or stupid, old or young and everything in between—especially the in-between. We’re just people. That’s what people are: all different stuff mixed up together, good and bad. Let’s get rid of these fucking binaries, all this either/or.

SFF is the most versatile of genres; it can do anything. It can create heterotopias wherein we can explore how it might be to operate in a realistic world that excludes oppression based on membership of maligned groups. If we can imagine how life could be, we can work towards it happening. Tattoo this on your forehead: well-written fiction creates narrative empathy for the Other. It can norm the Other. We all need to see ourselves in story’s mirror. We need to hear our own stories, know we’re not alone. SFF with beautifully and interestingly delineated crip characters who are just ordinary people can change the world.

Technology will alter physical traits. It might also allow some of us who might have died to live. The net result is that I doubt there’ll be fewer physical impairments and/or neuro. diversity in the future. But as disability for me is about how the non-disabled treat/accommodate those of us who are impaired, what I want to change is attitude. For that, we don’t need magic or technology, we need to change people, one reader at a time. To do that we must norm the Other. To do that we have to write #ownvoices stories!

Crip Futurism!

If you’ve been reading this blog you know that I’ve just written a fantasy novella narrated by a crip, and that the novella has been (still is?) problematic. I’m still wrestling with aspects of crip fictional representation. So for me this is perfect timing and squarely in my wheelhouse: a Twitter chat on disability, SFF, and futurism.

This will,  I think, be a lively chat. So do join us, even if it’s just to lurk. We’ll be talking about non-fiction and academic articles as well as fiction. We’ll get a Storify of the whole thing up within 24 hours, so if you have to miss the chat you can catch up. (See previous chats on Storify, starting with the three most recent.) Meanwhile, check out some of those links at the end to get an idea of where crip futurism stands today.


criplit-futurism-feb-19

#CripLit Twitter Chat
 Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Crip Futurism
Sunday, February 19, 2017
4 pmPacific/ 7 pm Eastern

If you write speculative fiction (e.g., mythology, horror, historical fiction, graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy) or non-fiction about technology, science, and futurism, this is the chat for you! All disabled writers are welcome to participate—just note we’ll be focusing on these genres.

You are invited to the sixth #CripLit chat co-hosted by novelist Nicola Griffith and Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project™. For this Twitter chat we are delighted to have guest hosts writer Sam de Leve and The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal that publishes art and literature by D/deaf and disabled people.

The impetus for this chat is an upcoming issue of The Deaf Poets Society, “Crips in Space,” guest edited by Sam de Leve and Alice Wong. Here are the submission guidelines.

How to Participate

Follow @DisVisibility @nicolaz @thedeafpoets @ChaiKovsky on Twitter for updates

When it’s time, search #CripLit on Twitter for the series of live tweets under the ‘Latest’ tab for the full conversation.

If you might be overwhelmed by the volume of tweets and only want to see the chat’s questions so you can respond to them, check @DisVisibility’s account. Each question will tweeted 6-8 minutes apart.

Check out this explanation of how to participate in a twitter chat by Ruti Regan: https://storify.com/RutiRegan/examplechat

Check out this captioned #ASL explanation of how to participate in a chat by @behearddc

https://www.facebook.com/HEARDDC/videos/1181213075257528/

Introductory Tweets and Questions for 2/19 Chat

Welcome to the #CripLit chat on speculative fiction & crip futurism. This chat is co-hosted by @nicolaz & @disvisibility.

We also have guest hosts @thedeafpoets @ChaiKovsky joining us today. Please remember to use the #CripLit hashtag when you tweet.

If you respond to a question such as Q1, your tweet should follow this format: “A1 [your message] #CripLit”

Speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, and any fiction not of what we think of as ‘the real world’ #CripLit

Here’s a nice explanation of speculative fiction by @AnnieNeugebauer #CripLit: http://annieneugebauer.com/2014/03/24/what-is-speculative-fiction/

We’ll focus on science fiction and fantasy but feel free to tweet about other genres of speculative fiction during this chat. #CripLit

Q1 Roll call! Please introduce yourself, tell us about your writing, and any links you’d like to share about your work or self! #CripLit

Q2 Which genres in speculative fiction do you write in? What draws you to speculative fiction compared to other types of fiction? #CripLit

Q3 Do you find writing within a given genre’s literary conventions (ex: horror, mythology) limiting or liberating? Something else? #CripLit

Q4 What is your approach to world-building in the speculative fiction that you write? How do you start? #CripLit

Q5 What are some great disabled characters or storylines in sci fi? What are some problematic ones? #CripLit

Q6 What are some great disabled characters or storylines in fantasy? What are some problematic ones? #CripLit

Q7 What are some harmful #disability metaphors and tropes used in sci fi/fantasy that should be avoided by all writers? #CripLit

Very often science fiction (and other speculative fiction) critiques our current social conditions & attitudes. #CripLit

Q8 How does sci fi highlight and interrogate the way we think of disabled bodies, #disability culture, difference & neurodivergence? #CripLit

Q9 How does sci fi & fantasy expand the ideas of queerness, gender, race, morality, ethics, in addition to disability? #CripLit

Q10 What does crip futurism mean to you? What is valuable about disabled perspectives on the future of society? #CripLit

Q11 With transformations in tech (ex: genetic editing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality), how will ‘disability’ evolve? #CripLit

 

Thank you for joining our #CripLit chat. Please continue the conversation! Many thanks to guest hosts @thedeafpoets @ChaiKovsky.

A Storify will be up tomorrow, check the #CripLit hashtag. Feel free to contact @DisVisibility @nicolaz with any ideas/feedback 😀

Additional Links

Disability Metaphors in Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Corinne Duyvis (March 15, 2016, DisabilityInKidLit.com).

Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction. Edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad (2015 Futurefire.net).

Why Representation In YA Matters – A Guest Post by Elsa Henry. Elsa S. Henry (February 6, 2017, BooksByIntisar.com)

Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF [pdf]. Kathryn Allan (2010).

Disability in Science Fiction: Representation of Technology as Cure. Kathryn Allan (Aug 15, 2013, Tor.com).

For the Love of Miles Vorkosigan. Elsa S. Henry (January 3, 2014, Feminist Sonar).

“the menagerie”: introducing the original space crips. (March 21, 2012, Space Crip blog).

Writing Disabilities in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Marieke Nijkamp (September 25, 2015, DiversityinYA.com).

Disability and Imperfect People in Fantasy. Leo Elijah Cristea (April 24, 2012, FantasyFaction.com).

Gregory Bernard Banks on Disability in Fantasy and Science Fiction. K. Tempest Bradford (Fantasy-Magazine.com)

Devices and desires: science fiction, fantasy and disability in literature for young people. Jane Stemp (Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1, Disability Studies Quarterly).

 

Libby Thomas’s Chemistry Set

On a whim I’ve decided to post one of my old short stories, Libby Thomas’s Chemistry Set. It’s short. It’s odd. It was previously published (in slightly different form) in Realms of Fantasy, in 2000.

Enjoy.

Pick up the fucking phone

We are in a constitutional crisis. If you are a citizen of the USA you must do something. Not convinced? Look at this list of “actions taken or proclamations made by the government of the United States of America and its states from the day before DT’s inauguration, as well as reactions to those actions and proclamations by the People of the United States of America, recorded by Suzan Eraslan.” As of Sunday the list runs to nearly 40 pages.

Not all of us are in a position to donate money or time or put our bodies on the line in public protest. But if you are a US citizen, the odds are that you can spare half an hour once a week to phone those who represent you in Congress and urge them to action.

Don’t know what to say, or where to begin? Look up the contact info for your Senators and find your Representative. Then read this, which explains why you should use the following format:

Hello, my name is [Jo Bloggs].
I’m a constituent of [Metropolis], zip code [12345].
I don’t need a response.
I’m opposed to [any ban on—/nomination of — for the post of —] and encourage the [Representative to oppose such a ban/Senator to vote against this nomination].
Thank you for [taking this call/doing the work/answering the phone].

Keep it short and sweet. Play nicely. The people on the phone are working very, very hard.

It’s difficult to get the TTY numbers for those Senators and Representatives. (I managed to find the TTY for my Representative, Pramila Jayapal (202-225-1904), but not for Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. I’ve asked them to provide those numbers for both local and Congressional offices.) But here’s the TTY number for the Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3091.

Calling is what works best to influence elected officials. If every citizen in the country phoned once a week (even just once, full stop) it would move the world. You might have worked yourself to bone on these issues already, but do this. You might not have bothered to vote because you hate politics, but do this. You might have lost your mind and voted for Trump, but do this. It’s not too late to redeem yourself.

Pick up the fucking phone and call. And then do it again next week.

 

New novella—and writing from identity

I’ve been off social media for nearly two weeks in order to write a novella, working title So Lucky.1 I finished a draft at the weekend. In terms of genre it lives somewhere between crime fiction, dark fantasy, and rage. The draft weighs in at 28,000 words: 100 manuscript pages exactly. I suspect I’ll lose a good chunk of that in the rewrite. This draft was mostly about figuring out where I was going. It was not easy.

Thinking with my fingers is something I’ve done a lot with short fiction; I have a vague notion, or a starting image, and am happy to follow it and see where it leads. After all, a short story is, well, short. How lost can you get in a few thousand words? So when I start a piece of short fiction I expect to meander; I look forward to it. Oddly, though, this rarely happens. My short pieces tend to come out in one clean take, needing only a bit of tidying up before publication. Novels don’t work that way. They’re too long and complicated to blunder about without knowing where I’m going. I never start a novel until I know how it ends.

This novella was unusual in several ways. First, and most obviously, it’s something I had drafted before, many years ago. I actually sold it (under the title Season of Change), then pulled it from publication because it wasn’t right; it didn’t ring true. It took me a while to figure out that the problem was the ending; it was basically a narrative prosthesis.2 Over the years I’ve revisited it many times, but I could never get the ending to change; the final image just wouldn’t budge.

Second, there’s no lyricism, no nature writing. (The closest I’ve been to that before is “It Takes Two.”) It’s all plot and dialogue, with some internal processing thrown in.

Third, it would be easy to read the protagonist as me. It’s set in a city, Atlanta, where I lived for five years; it’s contemporary; and it’s about a queer woman being diagnosed with MS. However, while it uses many autobiographical details it is not autobiography.3

I often use parts of my experience in my fiction. Slow River is set in a city where I lived for ten years, and the essential question embedded in the narrative revolves around a question I asked myself then—but it’s also set in the future, and the protagonist is a rich kid. The Blue Place is about a woman who largely grew up in the north of England; Stay uses my experience of grief; and a big chunk of Always concerns teaching women’s self-defence—but the Aud novels are about a 6-foot tall, über competent, well-connected Norwegian woman. And Hild, well, while Hild is positively stuffed with autobiographical details it’s also about an aristocratic woman who lived 1400 years ago. All these novels are written from the perspective of a queer woman. None of them, though, is about being a queer woman.

The autobiographical elements in this novella are not what made it so hard to write. What made it hard was that it’s about disability. I don’t mean it revolves around a disabled character, I mean it’s about disability. This is a first for me. Not in terms of writing characters with disabilities (see Slow River and Always) but writing fiction about how being disabled makes you Other.

I’ve spent my entire writing life creating protagonists who are queer women. But I’ve never made any of the stories—short fiction or novels—about being a woman or about being queer.4 I’m generally not a fan, as Kelley would say, of eating from the theme tray. I didn’t want to do that with this one, either. But it kept dragging me in that direction.

I have some theories about why that should be.

I’ve known I was a dyke since, well, I knew I was a girl and that my name was Nicola. It seemed perfectly natural to me, as natural as breathing or climbing a tree or eating when hungry. It took me a bit longer to understand that there were labels for those who were attracted to one, or the other, or both, or neither. With that understanding came the realisation that some labels were considered Good and others Bad. But for some reason my first understanding did not allow of the second: I simply didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. I knew I was amazing. And if I fancied girls then fancying girls was amazing.

I didn’t really start to write until I was in my early 20s. I’ve been female and queer my whole life. It still took a while to learn how to write from that identity but not about that identity. My first few attempts were heavy on irony and satire. After a handful of stories I didn’t like very much I realised writing about being a dyke did not interest me; for me it was an old story, settled.

This is not true for being a crip. I was diagnosed with MS in 1993 (the same month my first novel came out). Illness came first, physical impairment later (I was still doing aikido in 1998). I did not start to use a cane until 1999. For many years even though I walked with a limp and used a cane I apparently did not match others’ perceptions of Disabled. Strangers would say, Was it a climbing accident? (Seriously, that was the number one assumption: rock climbing, mountain climbing, free climbing. Any kind of climbing. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea.) And when I said, I have MS, they would looked puzzled and say, But you’re so strong!

Strong and Cripple do not fit together in their heads. It did not fit together in my head. My community was not other crips; it was writers, women, queers. They were as ableist as anyone else—as ableist as me. It took me a long time to unlearn some attitudes (and I’m not convinced I have unlearned them entirely; we are products of our culture, and our culture is aggressively ableist).

It takes years to learn to write properly from one’s identity. Just because I had written a lot before, just because I had chosen/accepted my identity as a crip did not mean I was ready to write from it. It’s taking me a while to wrap my head around the whole thing.

So when I first wrote the novella the narrator (whose name keeps changing, so I won’t use it here) I thought that the ending, in which Our Woman Has an Epiphany, seemed okay. Gradually, though, I realised that was ableist crap: the problem isn’t personal attitude, it’s cultural attitude. It’s them, not us. One snag: I could not get that ending image to change. No matter what I did, it just sat there with its arms folded and refused to move.

Then a couple of weeks ago, after the most recent #CripLit chat, I realised: I don’t have to change the ending, I just have to change the meaning of the ending. At that point I was ready to rock and roll. I kept getting a bit didactic, a bit unsubtle, but I wrote it anyway. Sometimes the only way past a phase is through it. I needed to say this stuff so I said it.

That what’s what I’ve been doing while I’ve been away. Fixing the draft won’t take half as much time and attention. So: I’m back.


1 Working titles almost always change.
2 For more on this, see Disability: Art, Scholarship, and Activism.
3 I get so tired of having to say that. But I’ve found that the further an author is perceived to be from the Norm—straight, white, male, able-bodied, middle-class, etc.—the more likely she to be deemed to be writing from her experience. If a straight white male college professor writes about a straight white male professor having an affair with a young student then, hey, it’s art! But if a queer woman writes about a queer woman then, hey, she must be writing her life story! After all, she couldn’t possibly be making this up. Because, hey, women aren’t very inventive.
4 I’m writing a long nonfiction piece about why this is so. But I’m not ready to share that. Yet.

#CripLit: Editor Roundtable, Sunday 1/15, 7 pm Eastern

criplit-jan-14-1

For our fifth #Criplit chat for disabled writers we’re trying a slightly different format. We’ve invited editors and staff from some of the leading disability-focused publications to come and chat for an hour about what they’re looking for—everything from style and format to length and tone. This is a chance for writers to learn about some of the venues that would welcome their work, and to ask their own questions of specific editors.

This is a great opportunity for disabled writers. I hope you’ll drop by and take part. Read on for more details.


#CripLit Twitter Chat: Editor Roundtable
Sunday, January 15, 2017, 4 pm Pacific/ 7 pm Eastern

Co-Hosts: Nicola Griffith @Nicolaz and Alice Wong @DisVisibility

Guests: Editors and staff from Autonomous Press, Barking Sycamores, Breath & Shadow, Deaf Poets Society, Intima, Monstering Magazine, Wordgathering, and more

Co-partners of #CripLit, novelist Nicola Griffith and Disability Visibility Project’s Alice Wong, are proud to host the fifth #CripLit Twitter chat for disabled writers.

This is the long-promised editor roundtable in which we talk to the staff and editors of some of the leading disability-focused publications. The format will be slightly different from previous chats. It is designed to get basic information from each of our editors that we think would be useful to writers, and to allow writers to then ask their own follow-up questions.

We will divide the hour into six segments. We have prepared a question for the editors to lead off each segment, which should provide some time for writers to ask their own follow-up questions. Editors will answer as many as they can. Editors may also have questions for writers. And writers may have questions or suggestions for each other.

All disabled writers are welcome to participate in the chat including (but not limited to) reporters, storytellers, essayists, poets, cartoonists, bloggers, freelancers, unpublished or published. We want to hear from all of you! Check the #CripLit hashtag on Twitter for announcements of future chats that will focus on different genres or topics.

How to Participate

Follow @nicolaz and @DisVisibility on Twitter.

Follow guest hosts: @monsteringmag @thedeafpoets @AutPress @BarkingSycamore @The_Intima @wordgathering @AbilityMaine   

Use the hashtag #CripLit when you tweet. The questions will be timed several minutes apart. Note: this week’s questions are aimed specifically at the editors and staff of disability-related journals and magazines.

Check out this explanation of how to participate in a chat by Ruti Regan: https://storify.com/RutiRegan/examplechat

If you don’t use Twitter and want to follow along in real-time, check out the live-stream: http://twubs.com/CripLit  

#CripLit Tweets for 1/15 chat

Welcome to our 5th #CripLit chat. This is the editor roundtable featuring staff & editors of some of the leading disability-focused pubs.

The format for this #CripLit chat: Our chat’s questions are for the editors & after they respond you all can ask them follow-up Qs  

We want to give you all the chance to talk with editors directly with our questions as a way to start the convo #CripLit

If you respond to a question such as Q1, your tweet should follow this format: “A1 [your message] #CripLit”

Q1 Please introduce yourself and your publication, including any links to Submission Guidelines or other useful info. #CripLit

Q2 What is the mission of your journal? (Has that changed since the election?) Who are your readers? #CripLit

Q3 Describe your role with writers. How hands-on is your process? Do you give feedback on submissions? #CripLit

Q4 What do you pay your writers? What other rewards can a writer expect from publication in your journal: Peer recognition? More? #CripLit

Q5 What advice do you have for writers? Any actions or strategies you can suggest? #CripLit

Q6 How would you like to see publications by and for disabled people change? #CripLit

This concludes our 4th #CripLit chat! Please keep the convo going.

Be sure to tweet co-hosts @nicolaz @DisVisibility questions, comments, and ideas for the next #CripLit chat

Additional Links

Autonomous Press: Access First
Barking Sycamores: Neurodivergent literature and its craft
Breath and Shadow: A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Deaf Poets Society: an online journal of deaf and disabled literature & art
Monstering: Disabled Women and Nonbinary People Celebrating Monsterhood
The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine
Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature

About

Nicola Griffith is a British novelist, now dual US/UK citizen. She was diagnosed with MS the same month her first novel Ammonite was published. Her other novels are Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always and Hild. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in an assortment of academic texts and a variety of journals, including Nature, New Scientist, Los Angeles Review of Books and Out. Among other honours her work has won the Washington State Book Award, the Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, the Premio Italia, and six Lambda Literary Awards. She is married to writer Kelley Eskridge and lives in Seattle where she emerges occasionally from work on her seventh novel to drink just the right amount of beer and take enormous delight in everything.
Twitter: @nicolaz
Website: https://nicolagriffith.com/blog/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nicolagriffith
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/amm0nit3/playlists

Alice Wong is a San Francisco-based disability advocate, freelance journalist, television watcher, cat lover, and coffee drinker. Alice is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. Currently she is a co-partner with Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan for #CripTheVote, a non-partisan online campaign encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities.  
Twitter: @SFdirewolf
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/356870067786565/
Website: http://DisabilityVisibilityProject.com