Eli Clare and Travis Chi Wing Lau

Brilliant Imperfection: A Conversation Between Eli Clare (EC) and Travis Chi Wing Lau (TCL)

First, my sincerest thanks to Eli for generously offering to answer my questions about his work, which has been so fundamental to my formation as a scholar learning and working in disability studies. It means a lot to not only learn from Eli after reading his work, but also to be able to share our exchange with The Deaf Poets Society readership. My thanks as well to Laura Sell at Duke University Press for connecting us and helping make this conversation possible.

Eli Clare is a white, disabled, genderqueer poet, essayist, and activist who has spoken all over the US and Canada at conferences, community events, and colleges about disability, queer and trans identity, and social justice. He has published widely, including two books of creative non-fiction, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure (2017) and Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (1999), and a collection of poetry, The Marrow's Telling: Words in Motion (2007).

TCL: As a method for the book, you describe it as a "mosaic, this grappling with cure" to inhabit the contradictions, tensions, and potentially unresolvable aspects of disability and cure. What was the process of working through the "knot of contradictions" to conceptualize the book? What kind of payoffs (unexpected or otherwise) did you leave with? What remains knotted?

EC: Cure saves lives; cure manipulates lives; cure prioritizes some lives over others; cure makes profits; cure justifies violence; cure promises a resolution to body-mind loss. When I started writing about cure in 2004, I believed I would find places where all these contradictory functions and meanings simply and matter-of-factly coexisted. What I didn’t know then—and I only discovered through the 12 years it took me to write Brilliant Imperfection as I piled story upon story, analysis upon analysis—is just how intractable these contradictions are; there is no easy coexistence. In the end, all I could do was name and hold the knots and tensions.

TCL: I want to think for a moment about Brilliant Imperfection's form. Part of what makes Brilliant Imperfection so compelling is the way that it engages both personal and theoretical approaches to disability. Personal anecdote, theoretical essay, manifesto, and lyrical poetry coexist. How does Brilliant Imperfection's form help to shape the book's argument? Can we think of it as a different way of disability thinking?

EC: Because of the knots and tensions, I couldn’t tell any single story or think through any particular question without being interrupted by a dozen other stories and questions. These interruptions gave rise to a mix of memoir, analysis, poetry, and manifesto, broken up into short sections. I found no other way to grapple with the complexities and contradictions inside of cure.

I came of age both as a poet and an activist in the early- and mid-1980s reading feminists of color, many of them lesbians—Audre Lorde, Merle Woo, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Chrystos, and Beth Brant, among others. Through their writing I learned about the power of wildly mixing genres; I learned how the private and political, personal and public intermingle; I learned about the necessity of weaving race, class, gender, and sexuality together. Those lessons rang through me yet again as I wrote Brilliant Imperfection. I consider my mixed genre, fragmented form not so much a kind of disability thinking but rather an attempt by a poet turned essayist to hold layer upon layer of complexity.

TCL: Given the current political climate, particularly the Trump administration's investment in depriving many people of healthcare through the AHCA, the lives of those with disabilities seem increasingly more precarious. What is at stake then in considering the ideology of cure when the curative is being withheld? How might Brilliant Imperfection modulate our contemporary discussions about health care?

EC: I’m thinking about your question in the week after the Senate narrowly defeated several bills that would have repealed and/or replaced the ACA and decimated Medicaid. We have grassroots activism—particularly the unrelenting fierceness of the disability organization ADAPT—to thank for this victory. If ever Medicaid is slashed and the ACA rolled back, many poor people, disabled people, and chronically ill people will undoubtedly die.

Cure is paradoxical; it insists that what is culturally and/or medically deemed broken or troubled must be fixed and that the need for repair is intuitively obvious. This ideology is brought to bear on a wide range of body-mind conditions—from breast cancer to same gender sexual orientation (think of ex-gay reparative therapy), muscular dystrophy to fatness (think of dieting and weight loss surgery), autism to being a dark skinned woman of color (think of skin lightening creams). Those of us targeted for cure are often considered somehow defective. Sometimes cure technologies are foisted—chosen or not—onto us; our defectiveness must be repaired at all cost. Other times we are denied access to these technologies, often through sub-standard health care or lack of health insurance; as defective, we’re burdensome and disposable. In need of repair or disposable—these two responses seem paradoxical. But in actuality this paradox is simply another of the contradictions embedded in cure. Cure saves lives until cure technologies no longer make profits, at which point they are withdrawn. Cure provides comfort until social control becomes more important, at which point comfort is no longer valued. Cure repairs what is deemed defective until defectiveness is considered too burdensome, at which point we become disposable. These contradictions reveal that the current struggle over health insurance isn’t really about health and well-being, but rather about profit and greed, about the naming of whole groups of people as unworthy and burdensome, and about the desire and willingness to shape policy around that naming.

TCL: Since Exile and Pride, you've embraced an intersectional approach to disability. Brilliant Imperfection importantly puts disability studies in conversation with questions of environmental justice and racial equality. What prompted these shifts in your thinking, and how have they changed your understanding of disability since your first book?

EC: As a white, queer, trans, disabled writer and activist, I’ve long insisted on the ways in which disability, race, class, gender, and sexuality are intertwined. At the same time my understanding of how systems of domination—racism, ableism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, transphobia, imperialism, environmental destruction— are literally locked together has been sharpened in the last 15 years. The growing framework of disability justice, shaped and led significantly by disabled people of color and queer/trans disabled people, has contributed immensely to this sharpening, as has my activist work in coalition with non-disabled queer/trans people of color-led organizations. I continue to yearn for the day when non-disabled progressive activists have integrated ableism into their political analysis and disability issues into their political agendas and when disability right organizations have embraced a broad-based, multi-issue politics. In Exile and Pride, I articulate a fierce anti-cure politics. After the book’s publication, I had a number of intense and important conversations about cure with disabled people. In several of these conversations, I was called out on my anti-cure politics. Brilliant Imperfection was inspired in part by these call-outs. I came to understand that I needed neither a wholehearted acceptance nor an outright rejection of cure, but rather a broad-based grappling. I needed to find the messy middle.

TCL: One of the most moving passages of the book was your encounter with the history of Carrie Buck. I was particularly struck by your grappling with the fact that disabled lives far too often get "reduced to case files." Tell us more about your experience in the archive. Is there a disability theory of the archive? How do we begin to recover such lives and do justice to people like Carrie?

I haven’t worked much in archives. As a poet and essayist, rather than a historian, I rely primarily on other people’s archival research. In writing about Carrie Buck—the poor white woman from Virginia around whom the infamous Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell was constructed, a case which ultimately declared involuntary sterilization laws constitutional in 1927—I combed other writers’ accounts of her life to collect the details I used. That said, I also frequently write from and about photos and media representations—both current and in the past. As a community-based writer not trained in archival research, I know that “the archive” is inaccessible in many, many ways. I locate my sources in idiosyncratic ways, committed to finding, imagining, staying connected to histories and legacies forgotten and made invisible.

TCL: You ask, at one point, what might happen if we were to accept, claim, embrace our brokenness? I think immediately of the political reclamation of "queer" as deviant and non-normative. Is this your call for a similar reclamation of crip identity as broken? After engaging with and writing about the messiness of cure, how do you think about crip politics and crip futurity?

EC: The ways marginalized peoples reclaim language is largely organic and arises through community. In the circles I’m part of crip strongly implies an uppity scorn for normality. At the same time in those same circles, our relationships to brokenness range widely. Rather than a call for reclamation, I’m asking disability communities not to discard brokenness out of hand. In general I’m pushing disabled, mad, deaf, and chronically ill people in all our differences and across all the ways we’re both marginalized and privileged to create a body-mind politics that is as messy and contradictory as our actual body-minds. Without that politics, we will never find liberation.

Eli’s writing exemplifies what María Puig de la Bellacasa has described as “thinking with care,” a kind of relational, community building thought-work that “gives credit for many of the ideas, notions or affects nourishing [his] thinking to fellow researchers and students, but also friends, human and non-human, affinity/activist groups, whether inside or outside academic or ‘intellectual’ realms.” Throughout his responses, Eli makes nods to his own intersectional formation as an activist, poet, scholar, essayist. In this sense, Eli’s work is democratizing in that it refuses to put any one contribution over another, or, as he phrases it, it allows for a “broad-based grappling” that “hold[s] layer upon layer of complexity.” Academic writing too often aspires to argumentative finality, but I believe disability writing like Eli’s smartly resists this artificial closure to leave open the possibilities that exist in the “knots and tensions” that characterize the complex experience of our bodyminds. To inhabit a “messy middle” without the impulse to resolve is an affectively difficult task, but Brilliant Imperfection does this with nuance and self-reflexivity. All of the contributors to Eli’s work, while in tension, occupy a generative space together, a kind of solidarity within the writing itself.

What struck me most about our exchange was Eli’s own awareness of his development from the first book, Exile and Pride, to Brilliant Imperfection, which responds to members of the disability community “calling out” the limitations of his anti-cure politics. What do we do in the face of critique, especially by members of our own community? To think of one’s work as an ongoing conversation not only with the self but with others is provocative as a method of writing. Eli’s openness to these critiques instead of a resistance provides an important model for us in the disability community. His call for a “body-mind politics that is as messy and contradictory as our actual body-minds” is a timely and important one at a moment when disability lives are precariously at stake. This is a grounded politics that is not only theory but praxis.