The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked

The Fiction of Disability: An Anthology

By: Annabelle Hayse / Michael Northen / Sheila Black
Welcome to the worlds of the disabled. The physically disabled. The mentally disabled. The emotionally disabled. What does that word “disabled” mean anyway? Is there a right way to be crippled?
Categories: Adult | All Books | Fiction


Welcome to the worlds of the disabled. The physically disabled. The mentally disabled. The emotionally disabled. What does that word "disabled" mean anyway? Is there a right way to be crippled?

Editors Sheila Black and Michael Northen (co-editors of the highly praised anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability) join newcomer Annabelle Hayse to present short stories by Dagoberto Gilb, Anne Finger, Stephen Kuusisto, Thom Jones, Lisa Gill, Floyd Skloot, and others. These authors — all who experience the "disability" they write about — crack open the cage of our culture's stereotypes. We look inside, and, through these people we thought broken, we uncover new ways of seeing and knowing. 

"I remember I believed all my problems would be solved, if only I were beautiful. Then I was beautiful."—Jonathan Mack, from his story "The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked."

Read Sheila Black's NYT Essay: "Passing My Disability On to My Children"

Awards and Accomodations

Firecracker Awards Finalist

3 reviews for The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked

  1. Publishers Weekly
    This powerful anthology attempts to—and succeeds at—intimately showing…disability through the lenses of poetry…What emerges from the book as a whole is a stunningly diverse array of conceptions of self and other.

  2. 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.

  3. Foreword Reviews
    Many readers and writers are focused now on how Americans can heal divides between us, and about the role that literature can play in doing so. It is also clear that hunger for unity does not mean a hunger for uniformity. Rather the opposite. Readers and writers have been pushing for diversity and may be now more so than ever.

    John Byrd, marketing director and CFO at Cinco Puntos Press, recognized this moment long before November 8. “Readership is not declining,” Bird said. “Readership for books that have this sameness is declining. If you look beyond that, there is room to reach new readers who are on the lookout for a new literature that reflects the America we live in.” With that in mind, the family-owned, Texas-based Cinco Puntos Press has sought authors and projects that might not normally be picked up by the mainstream, New York presses.

    One of Cinco Puntos Press’s upcoming releases, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability: An Anthology fills a void that Byrd and co-editors Sheila Black, Annabelle Hayse, and Michael Northen recognized—an anthology of finely crafted short fiction that represents the experiences of writers with disabilities.

    “The need for The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked would seem obvious: that America’s largest and most permeable minority should receive representation on the bookshelves of the country,” writes Northen in the Afterword. “The stereotypes and negative attitudes towards disability that have accreted through our literary history and helped to form public perceptions can only be authentically transformed by moving marginalized voices to the center.”

    Importantly, the “voices” and “experiences” represented here are plural. The perspectives of writers with disabilities are not monolithic, nor is there one way to write from those perspectives. The collection provides a counter to “the Trump mentality,” which “tries to reduce people in all of their complex variety to labels so that they can be easily dismissed or ridiculed,” as Northen puts it. “Our anthology is extremely diverse. The contributors wouldn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye,” says Northen.

    For example, the editors note that writers and readers might have divergent views about the title of the collection, which comes from a story by Jonathan Mack. The protagonist, who describes himself as a “white, American, middle-aged, homosexual, crippled, promiscuous [person] whose life has been rife with the sort of regrettable incident,” explains his “recent decision to become a Jain monk of the Digambara (or “sky-clad”) sect.”

    “It’s not that everything you write is going to be about that, but everything you write is going to be imbued with that experience,” said co-editor Sheila Black, a poet who has written about her own experiences of living with disabilities (including recently in a column for the New York Times). “Some [writers] are interested in the narrative of disability and directly address it in their work. Some are not.”

    Disability is a Spectrum

    Black also emphasizes that the ways people experience disability are very different. “Disability is like sexuality. It’s a spectrum,” she says. This diversity of experience is reflected in the stories, which include characters who have Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and diabetes.

    What the writers in this collection have in common is that they are committed to their art. The stories represent a wide range of what writers of modern fiction can do. Following each is a brief afterword in which the author describes their inspiration and approach to the piece. The afterwords themselves represent a wide range of styles and perspectives, but some themes do emerge from the collection. For one, although is not prescriptive or didactic, “The literature is corrective,” says Northen, in that it diverges from the “Tiny Tim” narrative and other clichés.

    Noria Jablonski writes that her story, “Solo in the Spotlight,” is “an imagined version of [a quadriplegic woman’s] childhood told from her point of view—a story of an ordinary girl with ordinary longings—a kind of antidote to the so-called ‘true life’ pamphlets that sensationalized the lives of people with extraordinary bodies.” In Robert Fagan’s meta-narrative, “Census,” writerly craftsmanship is both subject and mode. His narrator calls up Borges and Joyce, stumbling around a “labyrinthine” studio. “Fall, what a fearful metaphorical use of an already frightening verb,” the narrator muses, “Falling, not having to parade words into meaning, world into shape, myself into self, but swirling among the forgotten or the dead.”

    “A lot of the writers in this anthology are in their stories trying to say something about how a person with disability’s identity is constructed,” says Black. In Stephen Kuusisto’s “Plato, Again,” a woman goes from being a valued employee to an office pariah when she returns to work after having a mastectomy. “The protagonist never has a chance because her humanity is stigmatized as a matter of course,” writes Kuusisto in his afterword. The forces of ableism, sexism, and racism are in some ways are stronger than any one of the characters in the story, Black observes.

    Yet these forces must be reckoned with, and the stories in this anthology are inviting and insightful opportunities to begin that work. “[One can] look at disability as an experience that gives you different insights that are unique and valuable,” says Black. “I think it’s especially valuable right now. We’re living in in a time with tremendous amounts of division and a lot of that is about value judgments that people make about other people.”

    Hope for Younger Readers

    We’re also suffering from the judgments that we make against ourselves. Among the editors’ biggest hopes for the book is that it will reach younger audiences. Northen points out that it could be a great tool for teachers and professors who are looking to diversify their students’ reading lists. “More exposure to disability thought could really teach people that experience has its own integrity and value. We sort of know that instinctively but we don’t have much social practice in our society that affirms that, especially [for] young people,” says Black.

    One takeaway from the anthology is how much of the nation’s collective pain may be self-inflicted, because of our failure to see the beauty of diverse experiences.

    Jonathan Mack’s protagonist says in the title story, “I remember I believed all my problems would be solved, if only I were beautiful. Then I was beautiful. Sorry you missed it. Actually, I sort of missed it, too.”

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