“We don’t have a seat at the table”: Reflecting on Disabled Literature with Karl Knights
Society is exclusionary towards disabled people, and that is a known fact. Something that is often ignored, however, is that the literary and publishing industry can be even more strikingly unfair to the disabled people who want to be a part of it. With the UK Disability History Month (18 November- 18 December) fast approaching, The Publishing Post decided to interview Karl Knights on what it means to be a disabled writer today and how much change is needed. Specifically, the theme for this year’s history month is access: how far have we come? How far have we to go?
Karl Knights is a twenty-four-year-old queer autistic journalist, essayist and poet with ADHD and cerebral palsy. He writes about disability in culture and knows better than any abled person that just existing in a disabled body is a political act and it is all-consuming. “In my literary essays, I look at what on Earth the term 'disabled poet' actually means for a practising, active writer, alongside bringing historical disabled voices to light. Dorothea Lange said of her disability 'It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me. I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.' The poetry, in a way, is an attempt to understand 'the force and the power' of disability”.
This force and political nature of disability is inevitably reflected in most disabled writers’ work. Therefore, Karl explains, “so many more barriers exist for a disabled writer. For your average cis, white, heterosexual, abled man, picking up a pen and writing is an almost thoughtless task. [They] don’t have to worry about how their work will be received, they’ll innately know that their work will be judged solely by what’s on the page.” On the other hand, “disabled writers aren’t afforded the privilege of being playful or blasé in their writing. Instead, every move we make, both on and off the page, must be calculated… [We] aren’t allowed to be imaginative, instead we have experiences. The other [non-disabled] writer’s work is seen as fictional, whereas our narratives are always construed as facts, as bald dictation of experience.”
In fact, it seems like disabled writers aren’t allowed to exist outside of or express anything other than their condition of disability. While this could be an advantage in terms of normalising disability, in most occasions it ends up being a double-edged sword, as “if you mention disabled writers to editors, they look back at you as though you’ve described an extinct species… We don’t have a seat at the table at all, and most of the time we can’t even get in the door, as access to literary spaces isn’t thought of in any way whatsoever.”
This lack of access is jarring especially because literature more than anything else should be, in Karl’s words, “an empathy machine” with an enormous transformative power and plenty of room for a variety of experiences. Yet, mainstream literature often merely mirrors society’s existing inequalities. “I’m not sure I feel at ease anywhere as a writer. I’m not only disabled, but I’m queer and working-class. I’ve been in plenty of disabled spaces where casual homophobia or classism were the norm. In the non-disabled world, I fear my work is seen as too disabled, too queer, too council estate, [but] in the disabled community, my work is more than just disabled work.”
This is why Disability History Month is important: it means representation. “For the first twenty years of my life, I didn't even know I had a history. When you lose a history, you lose more than facts, dates and biographies, you lose with them the roots of pride. Disability History Month is only a decade old, so the changes it's bringing about are still fresh!”
So, this and every Disability History Month, publishers, editors and readers must listen and be proactive in the inclusion of disability literature not just in their canon, but in their daily life too. “Of the very few editors that do pay attention to disabled work, they see it as a new movement, but it’s not. Disabled literature is as old as literature itself… Until you’re aware of where this particular literature is coming from, you don’t have the right to criticise it, publish it, reject it.”
“[To editors] I’d say go away and read! Be quiet and really listen to where this literature is coming from and to what disabled writers are saying… Acknowledge that disabled people have no obligation to teach you anything. We’re doing you a favour and providing labour by telling you what you’re doing wrong, and you owe it to yourself and us to appreciate criticism.”
ADVICE FOR WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS ABOUT DISABILITY
“Until you can write disability beyond stereotypes, don’t waste your time. And always hire disabled sensitivity readers and take their feedback as gospel”.
KARL’S BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DISABILITY HISTORY MONTH
Beauty Is a Verb, by Black et al. (eds).
Stairs and Whispers, by Barokka et al. (eds).
QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology by Raymond Luczak (ed.)
Tilling the Hard Soil, by Kobus Moolman (ed.).