21 August 2012

an incident in the life of a woman with disabilities

experimental writing for my novel:

We walk into a shoe store. Although I am her daughter, she insists on calling me "Mama." People look surprised, as she pronounces "Mama" in a loud yet childish voice. She drags her right foot. Her right arm is bent at an angle, fingers curled into a soft half a fist. She sees a shoe and points to it - "tis, tis." I take it in my hands and show it to her. She studies it, especially the front part, to see if it's broad enough for her tightly-curled toes on her right foot. "Ne, ne, ne." I put the shoe back. Using her body, she tries to explain something to me. She points at another shoe and starts talking in a language no one can understand. Loudly. I get some words, "good, pain, three hundred, pretty, give me." I try to make structured sentences from the words and her body. These might be good. If they're not good, they will cause pain to my foot. They cost three hundred. They are pretty. Let me try them on. But then, I don't always succeed in building logical sentences of her fragmented speech. When I fail, she gets upset. Loses patience. Her voice becomes louder, and she reprimands me, saying "Mama" in an even louder voice. People look now again - we've become a freak show.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes, we find a shoe that may be suitable. I look around for the saleswoman. She stands with her back to us. "Excuse me, can we have this one in size 37 please?" She looks at my mother with a frown. We're really annoying and making the place less pleasant for the other customers. She tells me with her eyes that we are not really wanted here. That we better hurry up and get out of the store.

While she goes to the back room to get the shoes, my mom sits down and I bend over to help her take off her shoes. She squirms as I take off the right shoe and try to straighten her toes. "Ouch! Mama! Pain! Ne ne ne!" I tell her I'm sorry and massage her toes while we wait for the saleswoman. When she comes with the shoes in the box, she takes out the left shoe. I ask for the right one, explaining to her that my mom needs to try on the right one. She frowns, but hands me the other shoe. I unlace the shoelaces, and the struggle starts. I try to push mom's foot into the shoe. It's not easy with the way her toes curls downwards. "Ouch!! Ne, ne, ne. Pain. Wait!" I wait until the pain passes and try again. The shoe isn't cooperating, and the saleswoman is standing over me; she doesn't like the way I'm handling the shoe. Another attempt. "Ne ne ne!!! Mama!!! Pain!" It's not working. I can't get the foot into the shoe. I feel beads of sweat tickling my back. I sit on the floor and look at mom. "No?" I ask in a resigned tone. She has tears in her eyes, but she doesn't look at me. She looks down and to the side. Disappointed. I give the shoe back to the saleswoman and thank her. Then the struggle to put mom's shoe back on.

As we walk out of the store, I see the saleswoman letting out a breath. “The freaks are out of here.” She sees me look at her, and she gives me a look that is liquid with pity.

We walk out of the store, silently. She has tears in her eyes and her lips quiver. I feel sadness.

Yes, it is always like this. Instead of treating us with patience for being a bit different, we are treated like freaks.

12 August 2012

Writing women with disabilities into literature – the absence of literary characters with disabilities

As I wrote recently in two of my posts, Women with Disabilities – Thoughts, and Women with Disabilities – more Thoughts, I’ve been pondering about writing on this issue. And now, with my second novel being in its initial stages, this has trickled into my fiction.

But what bothers me is the fact that I only now realized that throughout my years of reading and studying literature, I cannot remember one character with any kind of physical disability. Mental, yes. One character stands out: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, with Lionel who suffers from Tourrette Syndrome. Other than that, of course we have all the mad women in the attic during the nineteenth century, but these are by no means disabled women, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper being the most prominent of these. So, essentially, having a Master’s degree in literature, I’m quite familiar with classical, modern and contemporary literature. But try as I might, I cannot remember any other disabled characters.

Throughout my literature studies, we touched upon different issues – race, identity, sexuality, gender roles, economy, politics, geography, slavery, madness, religion, wars, mythology, technology, industrialization, culture, social issues, health, and what not. But again, I cannot remember any lecture or any discussion on disabilities. Women’s mental instability? Sure. Lots of that. But where are all the women and men with disabilities? How come there are no deaf main characters? No main characters on wheelchairs? No main characters with aphasia (impairment of language ability)?

I think this is really outrageous! Not only do we as society not include individuals with disability in the public spaces, we deliberately exclude them from literature as well. And doesn’t literature in fact reflect reality? We exclude them from literature because they are not perfect. They are the “other.” They taint our “beautiful” art. They pose challenges to the narrative. Everything is slower because of them, and we need to go out of our way because of their disability. The artist has to make extra effort to make room for these characters in her/his writing.

To me, literature is not merely a form of the “higher arts.” It is, in addition, a vessel for political and social massages; a means – if used correctly and consciously – to initiate public discourse, to criticize, and to bring public attention to crucial issues society should engage in. All this, of course, through providing deep analysis and a critical perspective. No, I’m not talking about academic articles. I am talking about quality literary fiction.

And so the absence of round characters with disabilities is all the more striking, taken into consideration the role of literature. The degree to which characters with disabilities can enrich and inform literature is invaluable. It has the potential to enrich multiple layers: on the literary side, it has the potential to enrich the complexity of narrative, depth of characters, the range of issues the novel deals with, and the style of writing and structure, among others. Alongside this, it has the power to effect change among readers, thus impacting society. It has the power to bring the social, political and economic participation of people with disabilities in public life to the forefront of public discourse. It has the power to bring the voices and needs of individuals with disabilities from the margins to the center, thereby, contributing to making them equal partners and participants in society.

Dealing with disabilities in writing for me is a conscious effort. A direct result of coming face to face with my own prejudices and preconceptions. But I have admitted my ignorance and am moving forward with processing and learning. I am making a space for characters with disabilities to enter my writing – consciously. Yes, it is challenging both intellectually as well as creatively. The narrative isn’t flowing as with a character without a disability. But this doesn’t pose a barrier. It is a challenge I am working through.

7 August 2012

Suhad at the checkpoint

still exploring my new characters. only raw writing for now. no criticism at this stage please. If you wish to comment, I'd rather want to know how the text made you FEEL. Not your opinion or intellectualization, only how it made you FEEL. EMOTIONS.

There you are again. With that self-centered, self-assured walk. Like the world belongs to you. That jumpiness when you walk tells it all. The way you carry the kanun – bare, without a cover to protect it. But I can tell you have great respect for it, though you try to be casual about it. Again, you’re unshaven today. The same jeans, with that imprint of a thick wallet on the left back pocket. And you’re always either rolling a cigarette or smoking one. You must smell like an ashtray. But I see you take care of your body. In that white tank top o can clearly see the well-defined muscles of your dark shoulders and arms. Full of contradictions, aren’t you?

Oh yes, I see the way you look at me, like a hungry animal lurking for prey. And I don’t like it. you want to devour me in one piece.

At the same time, you probably think I’m too much of an intellectual for you. Or too proud to even talk to someone like you. Or too sophisticated with my leather briefcase.

Mother always told me I need to marry someone who would challenge me intellectually and let me grow. And I listened to her. Married a real intellectual. Dr. of Political Science, no less. Head of the department. And oh did he challenge me. Heated discussions into the night about the nature of the nation-state, the political identity of a people, what defines a nation, why democracy has failed, and what not.

I don’t deny it, they were indeed very challenging discussions. Intriguing even. I learned from him, and he even enriched my thought. Often, I found his ideas spilling into the lectures I was preparing, reflected in a different way in class discussions with my students.

Sometimes I miss these talks of ours. He was a good friend. A close one, even. There was mutual respect between us. We cared for each other deeply. When my migraines would completely disable me for several days, he always made sure the blinds were drawn all day long, and even kept my father away with his loud chatter. He made me shai three times a day and brought me my favorite fruit in the summer – khokh abu wabar.

Yes, we lived like good friends. We shared household chores, spent relaxed evenings in the garden reading through each other’s notes for the upcoming lectures, giving feedback and constructive comments.

I could tell from the way he was settling comfortably into this life that he was happy. Content that he reached his destination – the final end point.

But not me. I wanted more. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I weren’t selfish for wanting more than that for myself – for us.

But still, I wanted more. Oh yes, much more. My insides were burning, my throat dry, thirsty. I was yearning for something greater. But I didn’t know yet what it was I was in search of.

I wanted the ground to be swept from underneath me. I wanted to experience something so intense it would leave me filled with so much energy enough to set me on fire. Leave an eternal mark on me like a hot iron sizzling on the skin.

I wanted to be set on fire and burn like the phoenix. To die an intense death and be reborn all fresh and new all over.

I thought at first there must be something wrong with me for wanting this fire intensity.

But there was something in me craving to experience the utter opposite of intellectuality. Raw, unhinged savageness.

At that time, I was immersed in teaching a course on the erotic works of D. H. Lawrence.

to be continued...

4 August 2012

Shai at the Checkpoint - what is it about her

Don’t know your name yet, but it doesn’t matter. We’re not close friends yet. Your name will reveal itself to me in due time.

You’re a vague image. Tall, lean, nicely built. But you carry your body bent forward in an arch, like a stooped tree. Maybe it’s because you’re so tall, and you try to diminish your appearance. But don’t you know it has the opposite effect?

You’re wearing faded jeans. Too long for your legs. They’re fraying at the bottom. The back pocket has an imprint of your wallet on it, and a small hole in the bottom left corner.

You have a jumpy walk. It’s the left foot that kind of skips and bounces – first the toes, then the heel touching the ground. The right foot drags behind, surrendering to the beat.

It’s a walk you’ve mastered – maybe unconsciously – during the years of making music. It’s that complete detachment of the left foot from the rest of your body when music is played.

Yes, you’re edgy when you know you will move from one world to another. In this world, you’re doped on hasheesh more hours than there are in a day.

Your bed is occupied by two women on alternate days. And then there are those who find their way into your bed after a performance and are gone the next morning, never to be seen again. Shamed.

But the one your soul yearns for is unattainable for you. Out of reach. Not from your social standing. A real intellectual. It’s not her beauty that draws you to her. There’s nothing unique about that. The usual stuff – dark olive skin, dark brown eyes, hair black as the night. In nice long and think curls down her back. No. it’s something else you can’t describe in any essential way.

It’s in the way she sits on the ground, like she becomes part of the earth. It’s in the way she sips her shai – as if it were the single most important task in front of her. It’s in the way she cocks her head to the left when Um Maysara speaks. It’s in her smile – her body takes on a different form when a smile touches her lips. It’s in the way she smoothes away the curls blown by the naseem into her face. It’s in the way she holds her body relaxed when faced with armed kids at the checkpoint. It’s in the way she walks into that other world – full of confidence and freshness.

And it’s in the way she acknowledges your presence with the softest of smiles and a barely visible nod of the head. And with that smile, you cringe and almost stumble backwards. You, with your bouncy left foot full of self-confidence, lose it all.

Now can you put in words what it is about her that draws you like a mad animal that just smelled the fresh blood of prey?