Ethics in Publishing: Our Bodies, and Whose Gazes?

To be examined and to be understood are two very different things. I wondered if an examination gives way to understanding upon learning one of the recipients of the 2018 O. Henry Award was Lara Vapnyar, for her semi-autobiographical fiction piece about her family friend who falls in love with a Deaf-Blind individual (“Deaf and Blind”, published in The New Yorker). I discovered Vapnyar’s story right after my exhilaration at finding John Lee Clark, a Deaf-Blind poet, published in POETRY MAGAZINE. “Deaf and Blind” winning an O. Henry Award was disappointing because unlike Clark’s poetry, the short story continues the long-running tradition of recognizing a disabled person in relationship to an able-bodied person, rather than recognizing the disabled person as their own person. As a Deaf bibliophile, I want to see more of my community’s experiences from those who live them, rather than reading an able-bodied person’s look upon my experiences, and literary magazines should prioritize accounts of disabled persons’ experiences over able-bodied writers’ perspectives of disabled people to avoid misrepresentation of a large, wide-ranging community.

Thankfully, I know I am not alone in my concerns about misrepresentations of disabled people in literature. Sara Nović, author of the novel Girl at War, writes in her article “Between the Lines: Disability Invisibility in Literature” at Signature Reads:

While we writers say it’s the job of literature to make people think, to cultivate empathy, generations of readers have been shown time and again that their experiences are not worth space on the page. While hearing and able-bodied children are encouraged to dream big, deaf and disabled children are conditioned to strive for invisibility, aspire to normalcy.

Nović’s words about a certain kind of experience not being given space is potent truth. Nuanced explorations of being disabled in America, by those who live it, often do not find space in literary journals or become realized as poetry collections or fictional/nonfictional books. This lack of firsthand experiences about being disabled means that disabled people are more likely to be marginalized and misunderstood. People like the aforementioned Clark and Nović are rare, as they make the deliberate choice to talk about being disabled, to write about being a part of a society that stares down their nose at disabled people. A purpose of writing and reading literature is about speaking one’s truth and realizing different perceptions. Able-bodied people being recognized for their gaze upon disabled people goes against that purpose, because an able-bodied person is unable to fathom what a disabled person goes through daily. Often, an able-bodied person paints disabled people with a broad, ineffective brush and appropriates a social identity for his or her own moral purposes—effectively rendering disabled people as invisible.

Nović’s role as the fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine fights against that invisibility. Blunderbuss is a print and online magazine that wants “to splash in the mud of lived experience, to battle for a radical empathy, and to provide a megaphone to howling assertions of human subjectivity.” What is gratifying about Blunderbuss is that it doesn’t make Nović, a Deaf novelist, a scapegoat of diversity, while still encapsulating what other magazines strive for: a masthead with a varied set of perspectives, allowing a varied set of writers space at the table. It allows a more ethical relationship between editor and writer, as there are writings that come from marginalized communities and underrecognized perspectives that deserve recognition. A diverse panel of editors on any given magazine makes this recognition happen. Moreover, a variety of perspectives editing a magazine reassures readers that there is work in the magazine that accurately represents America from multiple viewpoints. If there is representation on the masthead, then community members feel encouraged to submit to a magazine that seeks to represent them from the top down. As a reader, I want to read Blunderbuss because I want to know what fiction Sara Nović, a Deaf writer like myself, is interested in. With Blunderbuss, Sara Nović contributes her perspective and ensures that those Deaf/disabled writers who submit be treated just like any other writer. Nović can ask for quality in submitters’ portrayals of disabled people and push for a more nuanced perspective about disability, simply by having the power to critique and choose.

Other literary presses take a stricter approach to prioritizing disabled people in their print and online pages. Wordgathering is an online literary journal of creative work that centers around disabled people and their experiences. Wordgathering, which was founded in 2007, follows a strict ethical process in accepting work about disabled people. In their submission guidelines, the magazine states:

Writers interested in submitting essays should first send a query to the editors at describing the proposed essay. Essays are generally between 1,000 and 2,000 words and should in some way contribute to the development of the genre of disability either theoretically or through personal experience as a writer with a disability. The editors strongly recommend that potential contributors read past essays.

These guidelines extend to fiction as well, as “inquiries should briefly explain how their story is related to disability.” For poetry, Wordgathering asks that potential submitters be able to confirm they have a disability. For those able-bodied submitters, they must submit work that relates to disability in some way. Wordgathering is being transparent about what kind of magazine it is. It is about the disabled community, by the disabled community. With its demands and restrictions, the magazine is asking for a higher ethical standard not only of itself but of the people who want to be a part of its platform. These practices cultivate a nuanced, insightful portrait of disability and build relationships with disabled writers who might struggle otherwise to find outlets that seek their experiences.

In its guidelines for book reviews, Wordgathering also discourages reviews of work that has a primary goal of being uplifting or inspirational; the magazine wants to sidestep that familiar arc to talk about the reality of being disabled, rather than fostering false, comfortable, and harmful narratives about disabled people. Disabled people often grow up hearing how inspirational they are, and Wordgathering seeks the kernel of truth behind that façade of inspirational affects. Instead of being served inspiration and given an able-bodied perception, a reader can go to Wordgathering to read about a disabled person’s experience and learn from their perspective of their experiences and disability. As a reader, this excites me because I get to learn about different parts of the Deaf/disabled community that I may not learn about otherwise. This kind of insight is valuable because it allows any reader the opportunity to learn about disability from a personal, empathetic lens rather than a faraway, detached gaze.

In an interview with Wordgathering, Sarah Katz talks about her own experiences as a Deaf poet:

I think most disabled writers will tell you that the metaphors that have become part of our everyday speech, and that refer to bodily experiences in denigrating ways, are extremely harmful… we disabled folks are very much alive and our experience of life is not frightening by any means. Our lives are very ordinary, in fact. People have a hard time accepting ‘ordinary’ and ‘disabled body’ in the same sentence—they want the maudlin, the sad, the grotesque.

Katz pushes for the treatment of disability as a character trait, something that is a part of someone, rather than a plot point or a recurring choice of vocabulary. In this interview, Katz says that disabled people are ordinary. Able-bodied people’s perceptions sensationalize and invalidate disabled people within narratives and within real-life settings as well. As a Deaf reader, I grow more interested and invested in characters who are disabled and complicated, with those traits living side-by-side; I find it difficult to invest in characters who become complicated because they are disabled. Katz has found that able-bodied people want to create a spectacle of disabled people and to invoke pity upon them. But to create a disabled person simply for pity is to rob them of their humanity and their individuality, and to address disability in a piece without realizing the broad spectrum of those disabilities is to confound the story and its intent.

Katz is the poetry editor of the online literary journal The Deaf Poets Society, which looks for “narratives about the D/deaf and/or disabled experience that complicate or altogether undo the dominant and typically marginalizing rhetoric about deafness or disability [and] investigates the complexity of the experience across identities.” The kind of marginalizing rhetoric that disabled people face is the objectification and the monstering of their own bodies. They face harmful ideas against their own independence and their own ability to explore the society around them. What Deaf Poets Society does is ask for work not just about the disabled experience, but work that also dismantles the stereotypes of disabled folks. To ask for accounts from disabled people of living disabled in America is notable in itself, but to ask for work that actively undermines disabled stereotypes is a mission statement that is rare to find in a magazine. This dismantling of stereotypes is something that should be considered by all literary magazines, not just disability-oriented ones. As Katz says, there needs to be work that focuses on disabled people as people, that further reframes those disabled people as normal, ordinary people. As a reader, this call to the disabled community is exciting because disabled writers and artists get to fight back against the gazes that push them down to become second-class citizens. This kind of focus is a specific one, but the specification of this focus from the very beginning builds a transparent relationship between the writer and the editors. The kind of art Deaf Poets Society seeks becomes an act of defiance, one that is strongly needed by both writers and readers alike. The art chosen unites against the ableism still inherent in our American society. The editors of Deaf Poets Society promise readers a specific aesthetic in dismantling those stereotypes that able-bodied people use to craft disabled characters, and to make it clear that any work that supports those stereotypes will be rejected.

To be able to engage with the disabled community takes more than prompts or themed issues. To have a conversation around disability, the community must be a part of it. Including those voices requires magazines to have relatable editors, like Blunderbuss’ Nović. Magazines require transparency with those submitting work, to start new conversations and dismantle stereotypes rather than perpetuating the same old ideas. Katz says, “Our lives are very ordinary,” and we deserve to show our ordinariness ourselves.

Ross Showalter is a BFA in creative writing student at Portland State University. His work has been published in Hematopoiesis Press. You can find him on Twitter @thisross.