Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Plural Singularities: The Disability Community in Life-Writing Texts

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Plural Singularities: The Disability Community in Life-Writing Texts

Article excerpt

The article explores the potential for the singular voice of the life-writing text to create an emancipatory disability group identity by featuring stories of disabled people and groups. While disabled others have been studied in the past for how they relate to the autobiographical subject, their depiction is itself a form of disability representation that can contribute to the positive construction of the disability community and amplify the autobiographer's call to action by corroborating her experiences, thereby giving her voice greater social and political significance. Disability communities are identified in texts by Mary Grimley Mason, Eli Clare, and Nancy Mairs and are shown to be central to Simi Linton's My Body Politic. Linton's narrative of her entrance into the disability community functions as a metanarrative about autobiography that challenges notions about the singular, isolated voice often associated with the genre. The multifaceted and vibrant disability communities featured in Linton's and other disability autobiographies reinforce the efficacy of disability life writing as a tool to shape social and political ideologies about the body and identity.

Introduction

In "Writing Disabled Lives: Beyond the Singular," Anne Finger asks an important question about disability life writing: "How can we as creative writers move from the story of our life to the story of our lives?" (613). Autobiography has long been thought to be a genre of self-definition. In disability life writing, a critical focus has been on how the writer reconstructs herself against ableist attitudes about embodiment. However, in this reconstruction process, the singular nature of the autobiographical voice unintentionally reinforces a pejorative notion about disability_specifically that the experience of disability is an isolated one and that the issues addressed are personal problems that do not require social and political action. Finger asks how the power of autobiography to create an emancipatory conception of an individual life can be harnessed and used in the service of creating an emancipatory group identity for disabled people, one which reconstructs disability on both a personal and socio-political level.

In this article, I explore one answer to Finger's question. I argue that the singular voice of a disability autobiography can create a disability community by featuring the stories of disabled people. While these communities may have been present in disability autobiography, we have not yet fully recognized them because our critical emphasis has been on the construction of the autobiographical self. In fact, even when we acknowledge the presence of others in the life-writing text, we tend to examine these others for what they say about the autobiographer's self-construction, an interpretive angle that maintains a focus on the singular autobiographical subject. By refocusing the critical lens from the construction of the self to the construction of these others, we can locate communities of disabled people in the life-writing text.

To be sure, these others carry out the expected role of giving the autobiographical voice definition and dimension. However, they also perform other previously unacknowledged functions. The construction of a disability community in the disability narrative is a potent act of resymbolization:1 the emphasis on communities of disabled people as interactive, supportive, and engaged in enjoyable activities counters conventional thinking about disability as an isolated, lonely state. Their presence in the text also sends the message that there are multiple, positive experiences of disability, that the seemingly solitary voice of the disability autobiographer is, in fact, part of a chorus of many voices that accompany her in the reconstruction of disability. These others are often a heterogeneous mix of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability alignments; the representation of their lives chronicles the complex interaction of disability with other cultural identities and celebrates both the community and the individuality of the disabled experience. …

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