Eli Clare on Examining Disability Justice and Writing Cross-Genre
Author: Kay Ulanday Barrett
April 29, 2018
The literary contributions of Queer and Transgender work are mighty and resplendent, in online journals, zines, performance, and poetry collections. The new Transgender Poetry category of the Lammys reflects this; emerging and established Transgender poets are making an unquestionable mark on the prescribed notions of poetry. The phrase “body of work” becomes less redundant, but pivoted; the body extends beyond the monochromatic milieu of poetry. Transgender and non-binary poets like Eli Clare are re-inventing poetry as we know it.
Today, the body isn’t simply a concept but a constant a target, whether via invasive racism, ableism, and cissexism, our current U.S. administration has made it abundantly clear that multiple communities are besieged in violence, and at risk of living sustainable lives. At the same time, you cannot find a website or click bait without sound bytes of “healing” and “cures” for whatever might ail you. Much of which is corporatized or circulated with the goals of able-bodied exceptionalism deeply out of touch with the realistic systemic impacts of ableism and the isolation that follows it. We are in a world of disaster and able-bodied society wants little to do with many of us who experience chronic pain, disability, mental disabilities, and neuro–diversity. Some questions: How have you been impacted by the concepts of cure and healing in society? How does that affect queer, non-binary, and transgender people and the climates we inhabit?
This inevitably brings us to the masterful work of hybrid writer, Eli Clare. A long-time Disability Justice writer and advocate, his work is a mainstay in Disability Studies canon and circles nationally. Crips have sought Clare’s words for unlearning the idea that disability equals deficit. Instead, Clare’s work expands writing with a myriad approach, part memoir, part cultural theory, part poetry, part community organizing strategy. Commitments to anti-racism and misogyny are only summarizations that don’t encompass the breadth of concepts and writing style that Clare seamlessly tackles. There’s grit in his work, especially in his latest, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. The non-fiction savvy grapples, untangles, and navigates the relationship to diagnosis, cure, and ideas of “perfection.” He critically addresses ableist colonialism and how cure and diagnosis are tactical weapons against disabled and temporarily abled community alike. How brilliant indeed it is to read a writer who engages in a nuanced and complex relationship to the idea of cure.
Brilliant Imperfection is structured in ten essays with vignettes of poetry and memoir, and introduces a discourse that examines military industrial complex’s harmful toxicity, Intersex folks who reject the surgeries and treatments the medical industrial complex insists will “fix” us, the resistance and evolving relationship with cochlear implants by deaf community. Topics such as disability stereotypes to weight loss surgery, gender transition to skin lightening cream are tactfully investigated and written with an effort that aims to put people and experiences first and foremost at the center, as they should be.
Name: Eli Clare
Titles, Identities, Occupations, etc: Writer/poet/activist; white, genderqueer, disabled
Your first works, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (1999) and a collection of poetry, The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion (2007) are monumental texts that have undoubtedly helped shape perspectives on Disability Justice conversations and broader discussions of how to write on disability. How does your latest work, Brilliant Imperfection, differ from these previous efforts?
Brilliant Imperfection extends, nuances, and complicates some of the disability politics I articulate in Exile and Pride. In that earlier book, I declare: “Rather than a medical cure, we [disabled people] want civil rights, equal access, gainful employment, the opportunity to live independently, good and respectful health care, unsegregated education…. Needless to say, a cure is not high on our list of goals.” After the publication of that book, a number of disability activists called me out on my fierce anti-cure politics, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was not speaking for them. Their call outs prompted me to reexamine what I felt, knew, and understood about cure, eventually leading to the combination of memoir, history, political thinking, and polemic that became Brilliant Imperfection. Through my writing I found the messy middle between the anti-cure politics I first learned in the disability rights movement and the dominant cultural belief that cure is an inherent and absolute good. Additionally this book stretched me to think even more deeply about how ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and classism are intrinsically locked together.
Let’s start with some terminology used in your book, Brilliant Imperfection. Can you share the relationship of the body-mind (as you put it) and the ways writing from this context impacts art making and writing processes? How does this investigate the tropes of being an accomplished and productive writer?
The writing in Brilliant Imperfection starts not with politics or answers but with questions and visceral experiences. I endeavored to ground the art and polemic of the book in the material and emotional realities of my body-mind—flesh and blood, skin and neuron, tremor and tension, shame and acceptance. In using the phrase body-mind, I followed the lead of many communities and spiritual traditions that recognize body and mind not as two entities but as one, resisting the dualism built into white Western culture. I wanted to recognize the inextricable relationships between our bodies and our minds and the ways in which the ideology of cure operates as if the two are distinct—the mind superior to the body, the mind defining personhood, the mind separating humans from nonhumans.
In Brilliant Imperfection, with finesse and tenacity, you grapple in eloquent ways to examine the concepts of “cure” and “healing”. Can you share more about how “At the center of cure lies eradication”? How does this concept limit the complexities and nuance of disabled and sick people? Queer people? Working class and poor people?
Once I started looking for cure, not only as a medical process but also as a cultural ideology, I found it everywhere. I uncovered it in obvious places: the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s fundraising appeals, the rhetoric of actor and wheelchair user Christopher Reeve as he lobbied for stem cell research and searched for a way to walk again. But it also kept appearing in less obvious places: ex-gay conversion therapy, weight loss surgery, and skin lightening creams marketed to dark-skinned women of color. I heard its echoes in ads for products claiming to remove women’s facial hair and felt its reverberations in the medical technology some transgender people use to reshape our gendered and sexed body-minds. I saw it embedded in understandings of normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural, in stereotypes about disabled and chronically ill people, in the ways racism casts Black, Indigenous, and other people of color as defective. Cure functions in so many ways: it saves lives; it manipulates lives; it prioritizes some lives over others; it makes profits; it justifies violence; it promises resolution to body-mind loss. Cure is a knot of contradictions impacting so many of us in so many ways.
This book is a dynamic stunning achievement, particularly in the ways you incorporate an almost fluid and hybrid sense of writing genre. Page to page, the readers are encapsulated in versatile forms of writing in Brilliant Imperfection. The book is a captivating read as you engage in personal testimony via essay in addition to analytical approaches to disability. You deliberately harmonize poetry, a sense of memoir, a theoretical framework, and testimony. Why write this way and how does this form color your equally wide-ranging content?
As a poet who came to prose after 15 years of writing poems, I’m always paying attention to words, to sound and rhythm, to images and metaphors, as well as ideas and arguments. Sometimes what I’m writing needs a snippet of personal story grounded in specific details and other times a broader sweep of history; sometimes I’m drawn to the spareness of poetry and the ways line breaks can insert ambiguity and complexity into a train of thought and other times I need the sprawling room that an essay provides.
I came of age as a poet and an activist in the mid-1980s reading and studying lesbian feminist writers—Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, Beth Brant, Cherríe Moraga, Judy Grahn, Paula Gunn Allen, and Pat Parker to name a few—who combined genres with abandon, insisted on the personal and the political, and knew race, class, gender, sexuality, imperialism, and capitalism to be deeply intertwined. Their work resisted so many constraints and borders. My work is indebted to these writers, many of them women of color.
It would be easy to link my genre-crossing writing to my life as a genderqueer who spent years being called ma’am on one street corner and sir on the next, who grew up a tomboy girl and is now read as a white guy in the world. Easy to make an analogy between gender-crossing and genre-crossing. But I suspect my hard-to-categorize writing has less to do with who I am and more to do with the nature of categories, which, whether they be gendered boxes, genre designations, or the scientific classification of species, can be useful in countless ways. But for every category there is a story, an idea, a person, a community hanging out on the borders.
Lastly, tremendous congratulations on this book and all the gifts/time/collaboration you forged for it to exist. As a person who acquired disabilities as a young adult, I basically grew up reading your words as salve, as foundation, as psalm, as rally, as reclamation, as protest, and as outlet. Brilliant Imperfections continues to be the book I share with friends and chosen family any chance possible. So much of the writing on disability and chronic pain today stems from your vibrant and vital efforts! How do you feel this new work has been received? How do you celebrate a new publication?
As I travel around the country with the book, I am encountering people from many communities who are eager to grapple with cure, to reach into a deep, complex, contradictory body-mind politics. I find this heartening because in order to create liberation, we need a body-mind politics that is as messy as our actual lived flesh-and-blood realities.
Do you have any advice for a disabled and/or sick queer person who is beginning to write and perhaps may choose this gift as a career and/or lifelong commitment?
Keep writing. Keep putting words on paper or your computer screen or your phone. Keep telling stories—not just one but two, not just two but three, and let them contradict each other. Read widely. Dream. Imagine. Do not ignore your body-mind. Resist all the forces that want us silent and compliant.
Lastly, where can people purchase your stunning book?
You can buy Brilliant Imperfection directly from Duke University Press.