What We Talk About When We Talk About D/deaf and Disability Literature
The conversation about literature’s serious diversity issue intensifies every year, as it should. Literature’s whiteness and overall homogeneity has destructive consequences: books will become irrelevant if they don’t reflect the everyday experiences of individuals who identify as LGBTQ; Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC); Asian American; and/or D/deaf and/or disabled. That simple fact is one of the reasons why I, a Deaf poet, helped cofound The Deaf Poets Society, a bimonthly online journal of D/deaf and disabled literature & art.
But, that being said, it’s important to be clear about how a journal for D/deaf and disabled writers and artists should function. As a heterosexual, white, cisgender, Deaf woman working alongside a team of seven other staff members with various disabilities and identities, I (and we) have a bigger responsibility than merely publishing fellow D/deaf and/or disabled writers and artists. No—if we’re going to truly present D/deaf and disability literature, then we also need to think about the ways in which each of our experiences of oppression and privilege influence the soliciting and editing process. After all, people who are D/deaf and/or have disabilities make up the most ethnically diverse of all minority groups.
Let me rewind for a moment to recount a couple of the many literary fracases of the last two years. Six months ago, the Antioch Review published an essay called “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate,” in which the author, Daniel Harris, sharply criticized transgender people who undergo gender transition surgery. Two months earlier, Calvin Trillin’s racist poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces,” was published in the New Yorker. Six months before that publication, in September 2015, Sherman Alexie decided to include a poem by white poet Michael Derrick Hudson—who had submitted his work under the Chinese-sounding pseudonym, Yi-Fen Chou—in Best American Poetry, which sparked a huge debate about what true editorial inclusion looks like.
These events sparked an outpouring of articles, essays, and poems from the LGBTQ, Asian American, and BIPOC communities, advancing the ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation, “delusions of whiteness,” and publishing in general. As a white Deaf person who has experienced the absence of Deaf and disabled writers and characters in mainstream literature and media (except as a prop, device, or tragic character)—the ableism of pretty much every existing industry—these conversations have been a source of rage and healing. But I can’t deny that I benefit from white privilege everyday, even as a Deaf person, especially given that what Deaf and/or disability literature exists in the mainstream is mostly white and heteronormative. Which begs the question: Why are so many of us D/deaf and disabled white heteronormative writers and editors ignoring the needs of our readers? Why aren’t we doing more to ensure that a truly inclusive literature (and art) by D/deaf and disabled people is finding a spotlight? (This isn’t to discredit those who are—such as Deaf poet Raymond Luczak, with the incredible Queer Disability Anthology, or Nicola Griffith, with #CripLit chats on Twitter.)
We white writers, editors, and artists need to be the ones who answer those questions about how and why we use our unchecked power of whiteness to excuse our behavior, and then act accordingly. As Claudia Rankine recently told the Los Angeles Times, to put those questions to the test, we need to apply “pressure on the language that makes apparent white supremacy and white dominance.” For me, that looks like examining every thought I have about a work submitted to The Deaf Poets Society in collaboration with other editors of different ethnic backgrounds. It means deeply studying and seeking out work by people of color and/or people who identify as LGBTQ. It means owning up to my mistakes and holding myself accountable for all of them.
There’s an endgame here, of course: putting side our fragile egos as white editors, writers, and artists to set a better standard for the D/deaf and disabled community that we all have a part in creating helps us all of us thrive. When we white D/deaf and disabled folks don’t deny that we don’t experience prejudice in the same way that our LGBTQ, BIPOC, and/or Asian American D/deaf and disabled counterparts do, then we’ll start enriching the relationship between literature and its readers, art and its viewers—with D/deaf and disability literature and art that truly includes everyone.
Sarah Katz writes poetry, essays, and book reviews. Her work appears or is forthcoming in MiPOesias, Public Pool, Redivider, RHINO Poetry, Rogue Agent, and The Rumpus. She earned an M.F.A. in poetry from American University, where she received the Myra Sklarew Award for her thesis. She has also been awarded the 2015 District Lit Prize and a residency at Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry manuscript, Country of Glass, was named a finalist by Robert Pinsky for Tupelo Press’s 2016 Dorset Prize. Sarah lives with her husband, Jonathan, in Fairfax, Virginia, where she works as the Publications Assistant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. She is Poetry Editor at The Deaf Poets Society. www.deafpoetssociety.com