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I’m a writer. To my bones.
A journey begun in childhood, the spark lit by my father when he taught me to read before I went to school. I’m still a writer, and on the cover of my recently published memoir, First in the World Somewhere (FitWS), the subtitle reads, “The true adventures of a scribbler, siren, saucepot and pioneer”. My publisher Unbound came up with those words. They make me blush but I acknowledge they do reflect me, and I’m eternally thankful that there was never any pressure to include one particular word.
In the book I’m reading now, Denton Welch’s A Voice Through A Cloud, I’m up to page 205. Maurice is lying in a hospital bed. Enervated in extremis from a traffic accident and on the journey to discover what remains of him after the loss of the physical functioning that he has so far taken for granted, which of course we all do.
This work is a thinly disguised autobiography, much loved by writers such as William Burroughs and Alan Bennett. Drenched in a heavy existentialism, it is a tour de force that examines sudden illness and impairment, the jagged transition from one life to another and the psychological fallout this brings, including raw, immersive descriptions of the minutiae of hospital life.
Up to this point it’s been a difficult read for me, and so far I am not sure if I like it. Maybe it’s not a work where the term “like” can be lightly applied. I can say it goes against so much embedded in me – my beliefs, my activism, my identity – as it represents a way of thinking that I left behind in adolescence. Welch can’t help the accident of his birth being outside more enlightened times, where self-determination is key in current debates about models defining disability. Yet his experiences seem to underpin how destructive and defeatist those old definitions were – and to some extent continue to be.
In FitWS, I approached the writing with a conviction to tell my truth, my kaleidoscope of experience, and to refuse the expected stereotyping held within the word ‘disabled’.
Not an easy process.
As a diary keeper, one longstanding influence on my early writing is the still-controversial Anaïs Nin. Famous for her poetic erotica (Delta of Venus, Little Birds, et al) and her obsessive diary writing, it is worth noting that her diaries did earn the caustic renaming ‘liaries’.
Like Anais, I’ve kept diaries for almost 40 years – raggedy, sombre, silly, and startling things in turn. One entry in 1979 is about Russia invading Afghanistan. The teenage me thought the third world war was imminent, and the next entry is me moaning about the brick-like structure of my homemade nut roast.
Having such a resource has been a help and a hindrance in writing my memoir. I can look up what I did in January 1980, for instance, but if I try to follow a thread about Margaret Thatcher coming back into power in June 1987, my youthful thoughts turn elsewhere quickly. The young me rants and raves that people “are so stupid!!!!”, but to the frustration of the current me, I’m more interested in writing about a dress I bought from the charity shop a day later.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. I was a young, punky peacock with dreams of moving to the big city. The humdrum reality for me as a disabled person back then was the fact that my mother was my carer; there was no support for me to leave the house for weeks, often months, on end. I rarely detail this life in my diaries, preferring instead to rail against my “days of endless incarceration” and declare love for my favourite books and music.
In 1984 (a bumper year for my diary keeping) I declare I read an interview with Morrissey and he mentions Proust. A bookish girl on a rural council estate, I had no way to further my education other than to read. I ordered Proust from the library, like ordering shoes from a Marshall Ward mail order catalogue. There was, after all, no internet.
Proust – to whom Denton Welch has been compared – is Proust. My poor mum went into the library and said: my daughter wants Proust. Swann in Love duly appeared, and I was rather disappointed, possibly too unprepared for it. Many years passed before I realised Proust too had spent some time stuck indoors, often as a “bed-ridden invalid” with extreme asthma. It was also sometime before one painful truth of Anaïs’ work hit me. With the publication of Henry and June, an unexpurgated section of the journals describing her relationship with Henry Miller and his wife, I went into shocked disappointment. She was bankrolled through all her marvellous, feminist adventures by a rich and indulgent husband. Like many others, I felt a sense of betrayal, though these days it feeds my curiosity about her – and her flaws – and I retain an affection for what she brought me during those formative years of my life.
There was also the sex in Henry and June. Of which there was a lot. The previously published journals had removed Anaïs’ husbands (she was a bigamist) and all but the lightest intimations of sex. And although I shivered over the deliciousness of her erotica collections, I had a vague unease that somehow it didn’t add up in the journals, and this disquiet is noted in my diaries whenever I returned to browse through hers.
Sex was – and remains – taboo when linked to disability. It’s thawing slowly, but while disabled people remain categorised as Less and Other, the taboo will keep its chill. Anaïs’ influence stayed with me as my writer’s identity evolved and found a home in the rebellion of punk, fanzines and feminism. My 2003 erotica collection Desires – and the 2012 ebook revision Desires Reborn – grew from the idea of explicit stories told through a rarely explored perspective. With Anaïs, she aimed to bring a woman’s voice to erotica, to bring poetry to sex. I wanted to alert society to the reality that disabled people had sexual desires and a right to sexual expression. Equally as important was to give a sense of permission to disabled people; to emphasize that they also had this right, despite the catastrophic weight of prejudice and misconception from the medical profession all the way to popular culture. One of my stories is called ‘Girls Wank Too’. A couple of teenage disabled girls discover masturbation. Even now, 15 years on, the title makes people twitchy. Because nice ladies still don’t, do they? Especially if they are disabled.
In my memoir I worked to keep this honesty. My early diaries reveal the younger me, almost impersonating Anaïs with outpourings of coy purple prose. I didn’t say “cock”, I said “the male sex”! I revealed losing my virginity in minute – often hilarious – detail, with great flowery tracts, where I was “longingly, feelingly, wonderfully” excited. Welch loves adjectives of this kind, but when I came to put this experience into the memoir, I did an effective translation. I went short and sparse, true to my feeling captured on the diary page – but nothing “feelingly”.
I’ve read my share of memoirs including those couched within novels, such as Jeanette Winterson’s taboo-shattering Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Earlier influences on my work include D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which fired me to begin a novel in part based on my early life in rural Buckinghamshire: “The Twisted Rainbow”. A few excerpts made it to anthologies in the 90s, including ‘Mustn’t Grumble’ published by The Women’s Press. This ploughed a groove I was soon at home in – ‘Prue Shows Her Knickers’, an extract showing a young disabled girl on the threshold of adolescence. Sadly, my frustration at fusty publishers’ refusal of any work daring to use the word ‘disability’ in those days, saw me destroy the manuscript long ago.
As FitWS is still new and making its journey through readings at festivals and garnering reviews, I can at least be pleased that Unbound allowed and celebrated its birth. A subtle fight continues. Mention disability and a work is often consigned to the categories of Health and Sociology; the antithesis of what I am, and what I write. As with any writer in the unwilling camp of the Other, I am doomed to be “a disabled writer”. A disabled woman writer. An exasperating example of this is discovering one library has positioned my memoir – stories of punk, music, rebellion and more – under the category of Social Welfare.
There is an annoying legacy of memoir and autobiography by disabled people, who I see as victims of uber-traditional publishers wanting a quick sensationalised seller. I’ve come across stories of survival in an iron lung, of a mermaid on wheels, of patient-doctor romances and strained autobiographies of Paralympians.
Such books make me wince. They position medical conditions as central. In these stories, disability is concerned with overcoming, moving from tragedy to triumph, of individuals courageously beating circumstances that in the eyes of society makes them otherwise monstrous, weak or invalid. There’s often a spouse, or a god-like medic, steeped in sentiment and platitude, saving them, if not curing them. Cures happen in Heidi to Clara in the mountains but rarely in real life. This is about the placement of narrow stories onto disabled people, reflecting a common view of our existence that even the most observant of us cannot resist. We are trapped by the ideology of the single story – and it is not reflective of who we really are.
The only work that stood out for me which could fit into a genuine ‘disability memoir’ category is My Left Foot, by Christie Brown, which went on to be filmed with non-disabled actor Daniel Day Lewis, “crippling up” to win an Oscar. Brown’s work is rich and human; he was compared to James Joyce by critics and went on to write several novels and poetry collections. However, if anyone remembers Christie Brown it is usually in connection to the movie, and, for disabled activists at least, the “spastic mimicry” given to us by Day Lewis.
I sweated to not write a memoir about A Medical Condition. In part because I am a writer first, a storyteller, and my life has seen me travel through many unexpected adventures that have little to do with my medical condition. I made an LP called Spiral Sky. I had interesting connections through letter writing, including music icons Robert Wyatt and Morrissey. I had two husbands. I Won an erotic Oscar and posed naked for artists.
But I resisted writing a memoir while my profile grew as a writer and a spoken word poet. I was afraid, and maybe I still am. As Jeanette Winterson says about Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in a Guardian Live event: “it immediately went into the Marmalades and Preserves and section of bookshops everywhere and gradually found its way out [ . . . ] by word of mouth”. I hope this happens to me – after all, some have consigned FitWS to Social Welfare . . .
Let’s return to Denton Welch. Another few pages on and Maurice is at last in a wheelchair and contemplating the natural world around him, in moments akin to a glint of satori. Maybe it’s the morphine, it does that. But he’s already sensing there’s more to him than his uncooperative legs, and I’m increasingly in love with the descriptions of hospital life; presenting a cold and unsentimental view. If his experience seems to prop up ideas I find abhorrent from my years as an activist, does this negate his portrayal? No, but it confirms for me the reason why we must ensure the current buzz around diversity remains more than a trend, and that it includes a multitude of genuine perspectives from disabled creatives, resulting in new and counter-balancing voices being published, in memoir as well as within literature generally. We are not one story imposed on us by the view of another. Our multiplicity of stories are not told – and they must be.