Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"One of Us": Identity and Community in Contemporary Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"One of Us": Identity and Community in Contemporary Fiction

Article excerpt

The essay examines the short stories of Noria Jablonski, a writer who recycles disability representations, evacuating their symbolic or metaphoric narrative functions, while retaining an awareness of those functions in order to reprise, revise, and contribute to a larger tradition of disability representation. This larger tradition includes representations of performers in the American freak shows and more recent images of disability-like that of the conjoined twin-that fascinate the American imagination. Anchored in the tradition of circulating narratives about individuals with exceptional physicalities, Jablonski's collection, Human Oddities, explores both how and what stories about 'freaks' mean-especially to the individuals who, by virtue of their exceptional physicalities, identify with 'freaks.' Jablonski is one of a new group of authors who recoup disability imagery and produce important work questioning and complicating dominant understandings of disability.

I relish the knowledge that there have been people who have taken advantage of white people's and nondisabled people's urge to gawk. I love that disabled people at one time were paid to flaunt and exaggerate their disabilities. At the same time I hate how the freak show reinforced the damaging lies about disabled people and nondisabled people of color Are there kinds of freakdom that we need to bear witness to rather than incorporate into our pride?

Eli Clare, Exile and Pride

The above epigraph, from Eli Clare's Exile and Pride, articulates one author's complex response to the history of the freak show. A transgendered poet, essayist, and activist who has cerebral palsy, Clare's identification with individuals who worked in sideshows motivates hir desire to recover accounts of these individuals' experiences.1 Grappling with the lack of self-writing by or accurate information about these individuals, Clare explains, "I want to hear the stories, but like the stories of other marginalized people, they were most often never told, but rather eaten up, thrown away, lost in the daily grind of survival" (78). In response to this absence, Clare recounts recorded information about events in performer lives-for example, Charles Stratton's audience with the Queen of England-supplementing official narratives with hir own speculations about their unknown, internal lives (75). Clare's imaginative reconstruction is an attempt to further understand these individuals without relying on the uncritical acceptance of the stories circulated about them in handbills produced by managers and owners. Underpinning Clare's desire to have the "stories" that have been lost is a recognition of the significance of stories for building community as well as for understanding the self; the performers' narratives become the archive that Clare consults in order to better understand hir own personal history.

Clare's project of complicating and thickening the sideshow's history participates in a larger critical discourse surrounding the recovery and reevaluation of the tradition of displaying exceptional bodies. In their analyses of the freak show's cultural work and cultural significance, scholars such as Robert Bogdan, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Rachel Adams have attended to the discrepancy between the performer and the performance. In Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and for Profit, Bogdan asserts that "'Freak' shows can teach us not to confuse the role a person plays with who that person really is" (10); in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, Garland-Thomson points out that what is assumed to be a "freak of nature" is really a "freak of culture" (10). Underscoring the importance of recognizing and analyzing the tradition and history of disability representation, these writers draw attention to the ways in which the disabled body is contextually constructed; additionally, each of these authors focuses on the stories and histories that have often been ignored, sanitized, and concealed. …

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