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The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked

Kaleidoscope

Literature professors often teach their students that fiction written by members of socially marginalized groups serves two beneficial purposes. First, such fiction allows those who identify with the marginalized group represented the catharsis of seeing their experience depicted on the page or screen—and thereby validated by a society saturated by fictional narratives. Second, such fiction allows those who do not identify with the marginalized group the chance to see the common humanity we all share transcend socially determined boundaries. Fiction, in other words, can perform the necessary cultural work that helps establish a just society. To provide a broad illustration, the validation, sensitivity, and social change generated by expansive reading explains why students are asked to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved much more often than they are asked to read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
One might think, then, that there would be several anthologies of short fiction about disability and those who are disabled. Ableism, like racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and classism, depends on the deliberate misunderstanding of a caricaturally portrayed other. Unlike other misunderstood and misrepresented social categories, however, no one can claim immunity from disability. After all, if ableism is a problematic fixation with the “healthy” body, we are all already or going to be disabled. Culturally, we need exposure to narratives about disability written by disabled authors.
After all, people with disabilities—just like other groups— have often been used in fiction and film in ways that may have helped advance an author or director’s theme or plot but did not help readers or viewers gain a more refined understanding. A character’s disability, for example, often serves as heavy-handed imagery suggesting some moral flaw. The most recent high-profile example of this comes in 2017’s Wonder Woman. In a film that is admirable in many respects, viewers meet poison expert Dr. Maru, whose physical disfigurement seems to serve as a misguided “explanation” of her willingness to create genocidal weapons. Disability has also
been used to imply moral purity—perhaps less offensive but equally problematic in terms of helping dispel the myths that undergird ableism—with a famous example of such a depiction coming in Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim.Sadly, however, when it comes to anthologies of short fiction—the best way to introduce recreational readers to unfamiliar but instructive texts and an essential resource for English instructors—there had not been one that focuses on
disability until the publication this year of The Right Way to be Crippled & Naked. As editors Sheila Black, Michael Northen, and Annabelle Hayse point out in their brief introduction, their anthology is the first one containing tales “by writers with disabilities that feature disabled characters.” Apparently, publishers have yet to realize that an audience for these stories exists. Furthermore, as Northen points out in his afterword, The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century Short Story contains explicit discussions of short fiction focusing on issues of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality but does not mention disability (280). On this issue, academics have no room to lecture their corporate colleagues.

It should be clear that Black, Northen, and Hayse’s anthology is important, but it would be fair if potential readers wondered if it was any good. Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes. The scope of The Right Way to be Crippled & Naked is truly impressive, and while it would not be possible to summarize the plots of the twenty-seven stories the anthology contains, a brief structural and thematic overview should illustrate how thoroughly the editors worked. The stories represent a range of genres. Many of the tales are brief memoirs or lightly fictionalized versions of events from their author’s lives, but many of the stories are realistic fiction, with science fiction and detective fiction also represented. Most of the tales are written in the familiar
cadences of contemporary fiction, but occasionally readers will encounter experimental narrators who use language to portray the thought processes of those with cognitive disabilities. The editors also deserve commendation for deftly balancing the “greatest hits imperative” of an academic anthology by including sixteen reprints of well-received stories while at the same time using their collection to promote promising new writers or unpublished stories by established writers, rounding out their volume with eleven never-before-published pieces.
The editors also needed to use their anthology to portray the breadth of the disabled experience, and in this effort they also succeed. While it would be difficult to depict every conceivable disability in a collection that a publisher could afford to produce and promote, the contents of the anthology will not leave readers with a narrow conception of what it means to live with a disability. Instead, by collecting stories depicting individuals who happen to have neuromuscular disorders, polio, cancer, strokes, bone tumors, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, psychosis, hearing impairment, blindness, diabetes, and non-normative bodies, The Right Way to be Crippled & Naked helps readers understand that a disability can be something that one is born with, something that develops over time, or something that results from trauma. Disability is not the fault of the individual, but something that one encounters as part of the human experience. For those teaching advanced high school students and university undergraduates, this anthology does much to establish that disability is not a master status—that a disability in and of itself is not the key to explaining a character who has that disability. The breadth of the individual stories found in The Right Way to be Crippled & Naked allows readers to understand that the disabled also deal with issues surrounding sexuality and relationships, familial dysfunction, class, race, addiction, social and geographical mobility, and other pressing issues that we all struggle with in one way or another. Furthermore, by including brief explanatory after-words written by the authors themselves—or in a few cases, the friends of deceased authors—the editors further enhance their anthology’s ability to argue that disability takes place in the context of recognizable human lives.

Although The Right Way to be Crippled & Naked will be indispensable in the classroom, Black, Northen, and Hayse’s collection will also be of interest to serious readers—both those who identify as disabled and those who do not—outside of the academy. Readers who are not worried about what will be on a quiz, however, will want to know if the stories in the anthology are good reads. This review has already noted the difficulties of paying close attention to each story; it would also be difficult to evaluate fairly each story in terms of readability for a non-academic audience because such an evaluation would ultimately rely on personal tastes and preferences. I would be strongly tempted, for example, to say that Nisi Shawl’s “Deep End” is the best story in the collection because of my personal and academic interest in science fiction or to anoint Floyd Skloot’s “Alzheimer’s Noir” as champion because of my personal and academic interest in detective fiction and because my maternal grandfather had Alzheimer’s. Instead, after observing that Jonathan Mack’s The Right Way to be Crippled & Naked makes a very good choice for a title text because of its playful-yet-serious discussion of disability and body image, I will merely note that all of the stories are well written and well observed. After all, twenty-plus years of teach-ing has made me realize that not all students like the same stories. Those who read for pleasure will find much to be pleased with here, though opinions about individual stories will vary.
Black, Northen, and Hayse should be commended for their promising first anthology of short fiction about disability by those with disabilities. Everyone who teaches literature and is serious about using fiction to explore diversity should own a copy of this book. And while most serious readers should consider purchasing this worthy work, readers of Kaleidoscope should ask themselves why they do not already own a copy.
- January 15, 2018  Visit Website

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