Translated Books by Disabled Authors
By Niina Bailey and Toby Smollett
Following Pride Month we are now in July, the lesser known month for disability pride. As such, we felt an appropriate tribute was to share some of our favourite books in translation written by disabled authors. We hope you enjoy and are encouraged to add more books by disabled authors to your bookshelf.
Rowing without Oars by Ulla-Carin Lindquist. Translated by Margaret Myers. Published by Penguin in 2007
The first memoir on this list and not the last, Rowing without Oars tells the story of a diagnosis late in life. Ulla-Carin Lindquist is fifty when she is diagnosed with ALS and is told she has less than a year to live. Her reaction is to write; to write freely and frankly about those days she lived aware of an approaching end.
It is, without doubt, the language used that makes this book as incredible as it is. It would be easy to go overboard with language, one would imagine, but Ulla-Carin Lindquist is an expert – even the quotidian becomes full of meaning, of inference and implication. This book is ultimately one of those artistic endeavours that asks the question of death and its existence, how it feels on your skin, and is able to address those questions with elegance and insight. This is not necessarily the most uplifting book you will ever read, but it is one that leaves you an existentialist afterwards – “Every second is a life.”
The Idiot by Fyódor Dostoevsky. Translated by David McDuff. Published by Penguin in 2004
This one is perhaps less of a necessary recommendation – it is extremely likely, after all, that you’re already well aware of Dostoevsky and The Idiot as well as other novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. It is, however, less widely known that Fyódor Dostoevsky was disabled – he was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1849 and recorded 102 epileptic seizures between 1861 and 1881, the year of his death.
One of the novels that Dostoevsky wrote during those twenty years was The Idiot, which follows the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, who is blessed with intelligence and kindness, yet his kind-heartedness is often mistaken for idiocy (hence the name of the novel). Myshkin, much like Dostoevsky, has been diagnosed with epilepsy. This is not the only parallel between the main character and the author – Myshkin is also subject to a mock execution. This is a deeply personal story, and a long one at that, but well worth the read. It is a novel that shows how our ideals can be crushed by the weight of everything.
I Live a Life Like Yours by Jan Grue. Translated by B.L. Crook. Published by Macmillan in 2021
I Live a Life Like Yours is a memoir of Jan Grue’s life. He was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was three. Grue writes about the different stages of his life from his childhood, to his studies, to his life now as a professor and father. Mixed in with the recollections of his own life, Grue reflects on the world and what it means to be human. In addition, he blends other stories among his own, writing about art and other writers. Ultimately, I Live a Life Like Yours is about accepting yourself and your limitations.
I Live a Life Like Yours was originally published in Norwegian in 2018 as Jeg lever et liv som ligner deres. It won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and was nominated for The Nordic Council Literature Prize. In addition, the translation was longlisted for the 2021 Barbellion Prize, a literary prize awarding the best representations of chronic illness and/or disability.
The Year of Being Twenty-One by Shi Tiesheng. Translated by Dave Haysom. Published by Asymptote Journal in 2014
The Year of Being Twenty-One is a short story about Shi Tiesheng’s (1951–2010) twenty-first year, which he spent in a hospital trying to recover from a spinal injury. He had sustained the injury by carrying forty kilograms worth of weight from one side of a mountain to the other. This was as part of the 'Down to the Countryside' movement in China in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where educated youth from cities were sent to the countryside to learn from the people there.
Shi writes about how he was determined to walk again; so determined that he thought his only other option was death. You can feel his desperation and how badly he wants to walk out of the hospital. He writes about the people he met there and how they affected him. In the end, the injury left Shi paraplegic and he left the hospital carried by his friends, which was something he had not imagined. The story is available to read here.