There's strength in numbers

Tuesday, August 22, 2017
By: 
Andy Jackson

A photograph of Andy Jackson
Andy Jackson

Each person has a particular insight and way of seeing the world, says Write-ability tutor Andy Jackson, and all people – particularly non-disabled – need to listen carefully. Andy presented ‘Myths, Realities and Elephants’ to the Write-ability Writers Group in Ballarat, Andy will visit the Bendigo group and spoke to us about some of the myths and challenges facing writers with disability.

What are some of the myths around disability, and what is ‘the elephant in the room’?

There are many, but what comes to mind first is that disabled people would much rather have different bodies than the ones they have, and that disabled people are all the same. For me, the ‘elephant’ is any bodily thing that makes someone stand out and be presumed to be not normal or healthy.

Anglo discretion means that it’s usually only the exceptionally bold or audaciously intrusive who ask ‘what’s wrong with you?’, unaware the question could just as easily be asked of them.

Part of my writing is that I want the power to come up with my own words for my bodily experience, so that people are reminded of how much they know and don’t know about the lives of others.

You’ve said that “Disability is not only a topic, but a way of seeing.” How does this apply to disabled and non-disabled people?

I think Rosemarie Garland Thomson is right when she writes about disabled people being ‘misfits’, by which she means it’s hard for us to move seamlessly through the world. The reasons why vary tremendously from person to person. We see things from where we are, and what’s been done to us. Which means, yes, I have things in common with other misfits, and we can work together. But it’s important also to keep in mind that each person has their particular insight, their way of seeing. We all, non-disabled people in particular, need to listen carefully.

As awareness of Own Voices grows, what effect is this having on writers with disability?

It really feels to me that in the last few years disability has become increasingly visible in the broader culture, and it’s more on our terms. Own Voices is one of many strands to this ‘deinstitutionalisation’ going on in literature, theatre, music, etc.

It’s a long road, but it’s encouraging to know there are plenty of other fellow travellers, people to remind me just how many different ingenious ways of being human there are, and how that can reshape – or brilliantly deform – culture. And as the cliché goes, there’s strength in numbers.

Last year you co-edited an edition of Southerly Journal titled ‘Writing Disability’, and noted that some submissions didn’t reach you due to the writers’ isolation, suffering or lack of economic or psychological space. What steps can be taken to help these voices be heard?

A hugely important question I wish I knew the answers to. Partly, the struggle is always on a broader front – political, social, economic, education – so that people have more agency in their own lives and have genuine community. As these things improve, we’ll see more and more diversity in publishing. In the meantime, publishers and editors could be more proactive and look for new voices beyond the usual places – as proud as I am of that Southerly, I know I could have done more.

As a mentor of new and emerging poets, is there any advice you can give writers who are new to the form?

Poetry, I think, is the most intimate kind of writing, where your own unique way of being, thinking and feeling can be expressed and expanded. So my advice is to find and develop your intuition, which means you have to keep writing, taking risks, failing, reading other poets that intrigue you, finding people who can give you honest and wise feedback on your work, and keep living with your eyes and heart open. Submit your work to journals you admire, and if they’re rejected, try somewhere else. Persist. Become yourself. 

About Andy Jackson

Andy Jackson is a poet who has featured at literary events in Australia, India, the USA and Ireland. He was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry for ‘Among the Regulars’ (Papertiger 2010), and won the 2013 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize for ‘The Thin Bridge’. His latest collection, ‘Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold’ (Hunter Publishers 2017), consists of portrait poems of other people with Marfan Syndrome. Andy is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide.

Andy will present Myths, Realities and Elephants to the Ballarat Write-ability Writers Group in September.

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