T.K. Dalton and Eileen Cronin

“Without grievance, how can we describe what we’re going through?” 

An Interview with Eileen Cronin

Eileen Cronin spoke with our Prose Editor, T. K. Dalton, by phone last December. Dalton was in New York, where he posed questions in a near-whisper in order to not wake up his toddlers. Cronin, in Los Angeles, spoke with fewer restrictions. “My husband is changing a lightbulb,” she said as the conversation began, “So if you hear 'Oh shit!', just edit it out.” While this exclamation was not among the cuts made in this piece, the interview has been condensed for space and edited for clarity.

The Deaf Poets Society (DPS): You and I are going to be on a panel together at the upcoming AWP Conference. Part of the panel’s description is a discussion of writing related to disability in “the current climate.” I’m wondering what you think the role of writing fact-based narrative about disability is at the very beginning of what appears to be by any measure an ableist, anti-fact administration?

Eileen Cronin (EC): I don’t see any likelihood of the next administration making disability its pet project. I am hopeful, though, about the possibilities in the broader landscape for the topic, especially for writers with disabilities. I’m hoping that people will get more serious about the press and its importance; it is the only thing that is left to counterbalance a very extreme government. Having a press that is more open-minded and broader might be more of a priority. I don’t think the liberal press has been very welcoming of the topic of disability. It’s great the New York Times has a Disability column. That’s a great step forward. It’d be great if it weren’t a separate section, though there are advantages to that, too.

I wish disability were included typically in mainstream articles or in television. I wrote a piece for TruthDig a few months ago, because I got really angry after seeing one more person shot by a police officer. This was the man in North Carolina who had a traumatic brain injury, Keith Lamont Scott. There’s a clip of his wife saying, “He has a TBI, he has a TBI.” Now, the press only talked about him as an African-American man. There is clearly a problem with police going after African-American men, but my article focused on how many people in these high profile cases are being shot by the police are people with disabilities. In fact, half the shootings are people with disabilities. We don’t have disabled reporters; we don’t have disabled guest experts. I was listening to an interview with Chuck Todd, in which someone referred to the [Democratic National Convention] hosting “a charming dwarf.” And Chuck Todd just let that go. In the liberal press, hosts and guests are friends, and discussions are focused on identity politics, but with disability they are ill-informed and they don’t call each other out, because they think they are expanding the idea of inclusion. But if they were doing that, we'd see more people with disabilities in the media. The charming dwarf was a Hillary friend, but Clinton had no outreach coordinator for disability issues.

DPS: I think that erasure is so systemic and difficult, and in the literary world, I think it’s especially for younger writers. You and I met through a mentorship program, which was a real watershed for me, to work with writer with a pre-ADA experience of disability. In the context of our cultural moment, and given the state of the media, do you have thoughts for writers with disabilities where there is so much ‘single-story’ stuff going on–for example well you couldn’t be Black and disabled. The complexity has to be boiled down to a discussion that can fit between commercials for laundry detergent.

EC: Pundits may feel that by pointing out disability they are distracting from a conversation about race. But in fact it’s hurting the people who are being shot. The suggestion is if you are Black and d/Deaf, Black and have a traumatic brain injury, Black and schizophrenic, you are a serious target. You can be targeted without any knowledge that you’ve become one, just because you can’t hear a siren or respond appropriately to a command. People with TBIs can be erratic; they can threaten violence with no intention of carrying the threat out. Police need much more extensive training than they have. Their training needs to be focused on race and disability. Both are equally important. You should have to work in an emergency service for a month of training on community mental health, interviewing psychologists and social workers, one person after another, and you will get a broad perspective on the problem, especially regarding mental illness and brain injury and developmental disabilities.  I did trainings as a psychologist in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the largest counties in the country, and they send their police force all around the world for responses to emergencies. At the time that I did the training, the force only included a half-day of training for police in terms of mental health. In reality, police are often called to handle situations that involve mental health. If they’re not trained, they can quickly jump to assumptions by assigning to the individual a capacity that they may not have.

DPS: I don’t know if you had a chance to read Jillian Weise’s essay from the Times’ Disability series, “Dawn of the Tryborg.” The line is something like “Erasure is not news to us,” and I think of that as we talk. And actually, she continues: “We have been deleted for centuries, and in the movies, you will often see us go on a long, fruitful journey, only to delete ourselves in the end.” So staying with erasure for another minute, I’m going to shift from Washington to LA, where you’re adapting your memoir Mermaid for the screen. What’s that adaptation been like, given Mermaid’s focus on disability and sexuality, two topics that taken together are hardly present enough to get erased to begin with?

EC: Hollywood is trying, much more than the literary marketplace. Mermaid is still very much in progress. The screenplay needs to get finished, and then I’ll know more. But even though I think there is more disability represented in the publishing industry at large than in Hollywood, a lot of books don’t represent disability in any nuanced fashion. In terms of television, Speechless is a great show about a boy with cerebral palsy, which is getting a lot of interest. The worst of the books about us puts people with disabilities in a weaker position because of the focus on inspirational stories. That makes it impossible if you’re a person with a disability to ever make a request. Your job is to be inspirational, to make other people feel good. That’s what the publishing industry does. Then, the literary folks look down on us because there’s so much bad writing about disability. Did you see The Writer’s Chronicle from a few months back about inclusion? I’d need to go look but I don’t think there was anything about disability. And I was like, really, after all we did to get into AWP. Maybe they felt like, well there are a lot of disability panels. It’s moving forward, but it’s slow.

There is kind of a resistance to looking at disability. I can’t figure it out. I just did a blurb for an anthology of fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Sheila Black, Michael Northern, Annabelle Hayse, eds., Cinco Puntos Press, February 2017). Dagoberto Gilb has a story in there, which I really like. My husband and I wrote an essay for Wordgathering on grief and grievance and Robert Frost and reading Dagoberto Gilb through the lens of Robert Frost. So actually Frost wrote an introduction to A. E. Robinson’s last collection of poems that didn’t acknowledge the author at all. The publisher had to come back to him and say, could you at least mention the writer? It was the 50s and Robinson wrote about the Communist movement and Frost said, that’s not poetry. His essay was about how grievance isn’t the purpose of poetry, but it’s the place for grief.

In the anthology, Dagoberto is writing in this cantankerous way about a character and a stroke he’d had, about how he thought the people in the hospital were racist but, he finds out from his daughter that he was just really out of it because of a stroke. He ends up mentoring a Latina woman who works overnight as a janitor, and she’s having her own problems in life. To me, that story was this combination of grief and grievance. When you’re an outsider you can’t see anything else but grievance, because it’s coming at you all the time. I think that is a much more interesting topic. I think we don’t want to be preaching to the literary community about our grief but there are grievances to be expressed, and there will be, as long as there are people on the outside.

Without grievance, how can we describe what we’re going through? Robert Frost said poetry is a place for grief and politics is a place for grievances. It’s very noble, he’s a wonderful poet, but that view is extraordinarily dismissive and shows his perspective as a white male in New England in the 50s. He wasn’t in contact with enough writers who had an intersection between grief and grievance. I don’t think he understood in some ways that you can have an intersection, where the poet creates work that addresses problems, where there’s a grievance underneath.

DPS: The grievance is rooted in grief, because grievances arise out of injustice and injustice causes, among other things, grief.

EC: Exactly. You can grieve about the loss of somebody, but if you don’t care about social justice, you don’t know why it’s important. For Frost and other white male writers, grievance may not have a place in literature. But for us, if we don’t write about grievance you wouldn’t be able to write another word.

DPS: That brings us full circle, to the question of our work in the contemporary climate. You are going to be a guest editor of the nonfiction in our magazine this coming year. What sort of work do you want to see from writers with disabilities?

EC: I like to see work, not just nonfiction but poetry and fiction, where the disability is an integral part of the story. I like to see writers with disabilities working together to push more to get stories about disabilities in the press. I don’t always want to be writing articles that are critical, say, of Hillary Clinton saying ‘Hello, there are 56 million of us, why don’t you pay attention?’ Your interview for The Common, with Jillian [Weise]--we need to do more work like that, just trying to get heard. It’s working on some level, like the Times features on disability.

DPS: The Times pieces I've read are very focused on personal narratives, and when I think of your work, the personal narrative you write can be very funny. Sometimes I wonder, I don’t get lots of funny stuff, why is that? Is there anything in particular with disability-related nonfiction that you don’t see enough of?

EC: I like seeing work that’s clever, that’s not only about disability but where the disability doesn’t need to be explained, where it’s played out in a dramatic way. Maybe it’s explained but the person’s disability is not the whole focus of the piece. That’s the thing about writing memoir; maybe that’s why I wanted to make it funny, because if it were just about disability I’d be like, “Snoozeville!” There need to be memoirs that tend to be more literary. We need more people on staff of MFA programs so that people are learning disability literature so that reviewers have a sense of what they’re reviewing. Right now they don’t know what they’re reading, they don’t have a schema in their head about that experience, approaching work without understanding it. Jillian’s piece, it’s brilliant, but I don’t know how many people know why. And maybe that’s fine, for them to say that this woman with an artificial leg is so wildly creative, I’ve never read anything like it. But we need more people familiar with the variety of storytelling tools about disability so it isn’t always, “I don’t understand.”

DPS: “You’re not meant to fully understand, you’re meant to go home and think about it. It’s not my job to explain every single thing. There’s a story to do that for you.”

EC: There’s judgment: the story should be inspiring. This person should inspire me. And if that doesn’t happen, the reaction is often, Why doesn’t this make sense to me?

DPS: It’s like, welcome to my world. Welcome to the experience. Be polite.

EC: Nobody’s giving you a tour, you’re invited in, that’s it. When I first read [Rita Mae Brown’s] Rubyfruit Jungle, I didn’t know half the shit she was talking about, but it was a view into that world. Why does our writing have to be an exposé about our life? Leave the explaining to newspapers. Let’s access the mainstream media as the place to explain our lives. Otherwise, let’s be really creative.

read Eileen's biography

return to issue 3: january 2017