As strange as it may seem, over a decade into the 21st century, there have been no anthologies of short fiction by writers with disabilities that feature disabled characters. There have been a handful of single-author collections by writers like Ann Finger, Floyd Skloot, and Noria Jablonki that feature some disability content, and some admirable collections like John Lee Clark’s Deaf Lit Extravaganza that highlight one particular disability. Yet no previous collection has provided a survey of the field.
With roughly one in five Americans managing a disabling condition, this is hardly a small group. Since readers and young writers typically follow the cues of academics, and academics are now eschewing repression as fervently as in the 1960s, we need to foster a literary community that is more knowledgeable about this culture. Illness in all its forms is absolutely a universal experience, and to suppress it is a symptom of one’s own obscured vision. Writers with disabilities deserve critics who are informed. Such literature should not have to be relegated to a separate category of review.
Today it seems particularly relevant to sit down with a writer who worked in construction, who built a career of exploring the everyday life of East Angeleno men struggling to build their version of the American Dream, and who now physically struggles to read and write. Ironically, Dagoberto Gilb’s vision of those struggles has intensified after an injury to his brain. On paper, as a writer, it would seem that Dagoberto Gilb has never struggled. He has won the Whiting award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the PEN/Hemingway Award, among others. His short stories have appeared often in The New Yorker and in Harper’s, such as the story included in The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked. Now, at this critical juncture in his writing life, we have the opportunity to hear in his words what, if anything, has changed for him since his injury.
Dagoberto tells me he still cannot use the “S” word to describe his brain injury. I get that. As a writer who has been in two artificial limbs throughout my life, I still cannot use the “A” word about myself. So here is to a healthier future, where these words don’t instantly render a false or dehumanizing identity.
EILEEN CRONIN: Your story in the anthology The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked, which is titled “please, thank you,” strikes me as different from your earlier stories in ways I find exciting. Your protagonist has recently survived a stroke and he is disoriented, making him cantankerous, but he shifts from his own grievances to become a mentor to someone else, an unskilled hospital worker, sharing his insight into the world of misunderstanding and the clash of cultures. I’m wondering if this experience of disability, which some would describe as a voiceless experience, offered you fresh insight into the marginalization of language and cultural differences?
DAGOBERTO GILB: The story is special to me. It’s the first thing I wrote when I “got back,” let’s call it, from my own trouble. And I am proud of it (and very pleased with its publishing success — that Harper’s loved it didn’t feel personal or about me). Proud that I might have captured, fictionally, the experience of a stroke recovery, even visually through the typing style. So yes, it was about a change that I too was going through, represents a break with the subjects I’ve dealt with. And though disability is, as you say, its own culture, I have done nothing but write about marginalized people in a marginalized culture: the Mexican-American one. We, right now, have a president whose “coded” racist attacks — as if the stated issue of “illegal immigration” isn’t only about Mexicans being in this country — focus on people of Mexican- and Central-American descent. In my story, the interaction between Mr. Sanchez, the patient, and Erlinda, the janitor, represents their common mutuality. The low-status work, racism, and powerlessness of Erlinda’s experience causes her to look up to Mr. Sanchez, a US citizen who at least can afford to be a patient in that hospital after a stroke — and he even realizes that. I want it recognized that, in the large sense, disability isn’t only in limbs. Wealth is a super-power, a super-ability. Poverty is crippling, a confinement that creates more. Diabetes and much of heart disease, for example, aren’t genetic, a low grade by God, but are imposed through maintaining ignorance and by pushy, grubby advertising hype.
At first glance your short story, “please, thank you,” is about a Latino man’s grievances, expressed from his hospital bed after his stroke. Then it shifts surprisingly, and it is ultimately about coping and grief. Robert Frost once distinguished between grief and grievance in art. Frost made clear his preference for poetry that deals with grief. He said that grievance was for politicians and activists. How do you balance your art with your sense of social justice?
I’m not comfortable with the word grievance. Too condescending — a department store complaint, a low-ranking employee appealing to superiors in charge. Not what I think of, and, I say, not what good art does. What truly provokes art is awe, and that can be experienced strongly in outrage and pain as in beauty. Some is unjust and caused by uncaring rulers; some is the random chance of birth and life’s circumstance; often the two are one. Art unmasks, reveals the hidden, finds language or image and sound for the ignored, dismissed, the blinded, the muted. My art is fiction, and though I make things up, it, like all storytelling (excusing this Superman grandiosity!), is for the sake of truth. Art and social justice often share the same demand and subject. The awe of poverty, of abused rights, of those who are less powerful fighting back, sometimes with God, sometimes existence with no God, and sometimes against tyranny and racism and cultish economic power. The struggle isn’t just to be understood as an artist, for the art to be understood, but for either to be considered at all, to live to tell.
What role, if any, does disability play in your work today? Many would call disability its own culture. Do you?
There’s more that I can’t talk about here, but my large disability now — I’ve lost, for instance, the use of my right writing hand — plays a constant part of my current life and adjustments, both physically and mentally. Every day I am working here at the computer, typing, struggling with something I used to take for granted — and yet feeling enormously fortunate that I can, that I am allowed to struggle on. I’m so lucky. I learned so much about kindness when I was in recovery, the generosity of people who will help, give — I sincerely didn’t know. I learned much about the courage of others who cope (only what I’d call it, from an advantaged position) with so much more and do with it, achieve. Absolutely it is a culture of its own.
What I love about a lot of your stories is their simplicity. They invite us into the day-to-day conflicts and desires of ordinary people. The storytelling avoids philosophizing and yet the takeaway for me is almost meditative. It makes me curious about your launching point. Do you start with a character in mind, or a conflict?
I give Hollywood the big news stories. I give the “long” story writers (they call theirs “novels”) the big characters and wide, historical themes. You notice that I like simplicity! Thank you. Like poetry. I like the small and to stare myopically at the word, the line, the graph. I like the “unimportant” people. I think I first realized, incidentally, inside a Tolstoy novel that I wasn’t ever going to be one of his characters, coming and going on whims of seasons out there or within — I was not wealthy, not traveling from Moscow to Paris. My people and I watched the master riding in his ornate carriage while we worked in the cherry groves he loved so, as he is telling us on the page his story of high-powered and well-dressed heartache, passing wistfully the landscape we color and craft. Me, I love myth stories, tales of awakenings that are full of mystery in the ordinary acts and interactions of ordinary, historically unseen character’s lives. There is no need to travel far to discover that each of us is born and dies and in between we experience the full spectrum of what life gives all of us, even the not rich, in a space we can’t see the end of.
With a mother from Mexico, your work has been connected with themes of cultural identity. How does that sit with you?
This is not how I’d put it and not how I think it either. It wasn’t just that my mother was from Mexico, but that I was raised in a region and culture that has as much Mexican history and culture in it as American. My father, of German descent, was raised in Boyle Heights — that is, East L.A. — and learned Spanish there and used it especially all his working life (where I knew him). My birth history is a less wealthy, and more messy, version of Frida Kahlo’s. Born here, I write what I am, and my characters are from me, my blood and bone, not “ethnic ideas” I work into themes of identity. I’d probably argue that my unique identity is more my dysfunctionality and responses to it, my obsessions, my clutter of furies, my wonder.
I can see how someone with degrees in philosophy and religious studies would ultimately choose writing as a career. But what enticed you to stay with it?
Really has nothing to do with choice. I mean, if choice were involved, better to have chosen law or architecture or geology. I came into college with deep questions (probably based on deep troubles) and went to find the best answers I could. Then I was driven to write fiction, paying for it as a construction worker for almost two decades, the father of two sons. Obviously not reasonable to want to leave those jobs in order to write a story that maybe, if good, if published, might pay a hundred dollars at best (usually not that big if above zero), so I didn’t. But I never considered the possibility of not being a writer. Kind of like a sickness that comes on and you’re never rid of it. So many times I wish I could quit it, shake it off. It’s not a biz for the poor, as history shows.
Eileen Cronin’s memoir, Mermaid, which was published by Norton in 2014 and translated into three foreign languages, was on O Magazine’s Best Memoirs of 2014.