Introduction: Writing Disability in Australia


Poet Andy Jackson begins his collection Human Looking with a poem titled ‘Opening.’ This signals not only the opening of his book but an ‘incision’ which begins ‘below the back of the neck / and ends just above the coccyx’ (3). Jackson, who has Marfan syndrome, is referring to one of numerous surgeries conducted on his body which leave ‘a thick scar – a blurred, insistent line. / As each layer of skin dies, it whispers to the next / the form and story of the wound. / This is how I continue, intact.’ The word ‘intact’ suggests that the wound’s ‘form and story’ are sealed. They are stitched up and closed over by medical professionals who deem disabled people broken and in need of fixing. As Jackson ‘strain[s] to lift this too-heavy object, / the long suture ruptures / in my head’ (3). The burdensome narrative of his condition – one which has been imposed upon him – has sprung apart. He then addresses the reader, ‘You might think this visceral confession / only an image of mine. But you are becoming / this unstitching, this sudden opening’ (3). The transition in Jackson’s address from first person to second person, and the shift from a noun (‘image’) to a verb (‘becoming’), directs the attention away from his appearance to the reader, who now has a role to play not in staring at Jackson’s image, but in participating in the construction of what his story can be. It is an invitation to be open to all that disability engenders: not stereotypical stories of deficit, but creativity, ingenuity and possibility.

Inherent in this invitation is a reminder that the relationship between imaginer and imagined, unstitcher and unstitched, writer and reader, is already established and unfolding. You are shaping that relationship through your interpretation of Jackson’s words. Do you consider Jackson’s ‘strain’ to be an act of stretching or filtering? Do you define the ‘too-heavy object’ as his body, his book, or your conceptions of them? Do you understand ‘rupture’ as a site of inevitable estrangement or unrealised unity? Your answers permit some possibilities and omit others.

The invitation is not a surrender of agency on Jackson’s part. Indeed, he adamantly states ‘I continue, intact’, and explains that this is a result of processes within his own skin, including ‘the wound’. And though he exposes his back to you, making himself available for your interpretation, his stance also implies that he has turned away from you, and is poised to leave if necessary. The invitation is a simultaneously graceful and unyielding requirement that you appreciate the effects of your analysis, or your lack of analysis.

While Australian literature has begun the work of engaging with writing by and about minoritised groups such as those who identify as First Nations or as culturally and linguistically diverse, there has been much less engagement with disability. CA Cranston made the earliest currently known forays into this field through her PhD thesis, Deformity as Device in the Twentieth-Century Australian Novel (1991). In 2017, David Brooks and Andy Jackson co-edited a special issue of Southerly on ‘Writing Disability’. This was followed by Westerly journal’s seventh online issue, themed around DisAbility, published in 2019 and edited by Josephine Taylor. In 2020, Volume 9, Number 2 of Australian Poetry Journal, titled ‘DIS—’ and edited by Andy Jackson and Jennifer Harrison, featured new work by more than sixty artists. This special issue continues the much-needed scholarly conversation on writing by disabled Australian authors, and on literary representations of disability in Australian literature.

In Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead, Nicholas Birns notes that disabled characters are ‘deprived of conventional communication’ and ‘used to testify for those generally objectified by conventional, dominant modes of representation.’ Birns makes this observation in relation to Gail Jones’s novel Sorry, which features a ‘deaf and mute’ (138) character, but it is applicable to Australian literature in general. Too often, being impaired in an Australian novel, memoir, poem, or play is not an embodied experience; it is a vehicle for drawing attention to a nondisabled concern. In other words, we know that Johnny in The Harp in the South (Park) has Down syndrome, and that Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (Koch) is short-statured, but only for the purposes of highlighting poverty (Kanake) and stereotyping (Cranston). After these characters have served their purpose, they are killed.

In literary disability studies this is known as narrative prosthesis (Mitchell and Snyder). Such narratives erase crip culture, the complexity of impairment, and the understanding that society is responsible for choosing the extent to which it does or does not disable people. Instead, a character with an obvious physical atypicality symbolises the central question that drives the plot. As such, the character is integral to the story’s architecture, for without them the novel would collapse. Yet, in contrast to the rest of the characters, their humanity is ignored.

Similarly, Australian disabled authors frequently find themselves reduced to a plot point in the nondisabled narrative of disability. ‘Disability doesn’t matter’, this narrative insists, despite no Miles Franklin award winner identifying as disabled, and despite this platitude being as offensive and inaccurate as saying gender does not matter, or race does not matter. ‘Some people don’t like to identify as disabled’, this narrative insists, as if some people not wanting to identify as disabled means that nobody should, and as if some people’s reluctance to identify as disabled is unrelated to the negativity beneath which disabled characters are buried. Consequently, though a person’s impairment is sometimes noted in their biography, it is rarely noted as a profound influence worthy of critical attention (White, J., Tink).

As such, this special issue applies nuanced critical attention to a number of Australian disabled authors, and representations of disabled people, in Australian literature throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Demonstrating the range of genres that even this small survey of this topic reveals, these essays span poetry, memoir, adult, young adult and gothic fiction. Literary studies combined with disability studies, mad studies, deaf studies and crip reading establish a vantage point from which to analyse a range of well-known Australian titles afresh, as well as some yet to be well-known titles. Here memoir not only describes, but creates community, disabled bodies and poetry inhabit each other, and the cracks within stereotypes, and the rich sites beyond them, are explored.

Accompanying this range of genres and methods is a range of terminology. Additionally, within the disabled community, as with most communities, word-choices have specific purposes, such as acknowledging shared history, reclaiming derogatory words, or more accurately defining a group. Therefore, rather than prescribing terms, we have asked contributors to explain their use of disability-related or discipline-specific words.

In keeping with the tenets of Jackson’s poem ‘Opening’, we have selected Jackson’s essay to begin the special issue. In it Jackson illuminates the presence of disability within the caesura, a pause or break in a poetic line. He employs an expansive definition of caesura to mean a rupture not only on, but between, lines, stanzas and pages. Analysing recent poems by Sarah Holland-Batt, Natalie Harkin, Kevin Gillam, Dan Disney and Lindsay Tuggle, Jackson demonstrates how silences are not simply an absence, but a venue for difference.

Next, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan explores disability as a component of two Australian series for young adults – Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Tribe sequence, and Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn chronicles. Being series, they each construct not only narratives but worlds in which, similar to ours, different impairments are assigned different cultural interpretations. Kavanagh-Ryan employs crip reading – an analysis that centralises disabled knowledge and culture – to describe these interpretations and their implications. She finds that interdependence, which is central to disabled culture, is also a key ingredient in a thriving world.

Discovering similar themes of interdependence and community, Jessica White analyses Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Haxby’s Circus (1930). She argues that, rather than relying on narrative prosthesis, Prichard portrays Billy Rocca, the short-statured circus performer, with thoughtfulness. Additionally, when fellow circus performer Gina Haxby has an accident and also becomes impaired, Rocca is the only person who can model for her how to survive in an ableist world.

The Gothic is a rich seam in Australian settler literature, but its intersection with disability has rarely been considered. Comparing and contrasting three Australian novels, Liz Shek-Noble discusses the role of disabled characters in Australian Gothic fiction. She argues that while the Gothic has frequently utilised disabled characters as narrative prostheses, The Well (Jolley 1986), Sing Fox to Me (Kanake 2016), and Lilian’s Story (Grenville 1985) disrupt this tradition. To varying degrees, these novels allow for disabled characters to subvert societal rules that apply to their impairments and other personal characteristics.

Anna Jacobson then explores interactive digital story-telling, and the potential that it offers to disabled and chronically ill people to reclaim their agency from the medical system, and to medical professionals to develop empathy for their patients. Through disability studies and mad studies she examines survivor memoirs, the types of knowledge they impart, and the effect of reader involvement in narrative creation. The texts she discusses are Dakoda Barker’s threesixfive (2015), drawing from Barker’s experiences with chronic illness, and her own memoir How to Knit a Human (2022), drawing on her experiences of memory loss from psychosis and electroconvulsive therapy.

Two authors each analyse the work of a single poet. Amy Lin first considers Francis Webb’s Ward Two sequence, written while he was institutionalised in the 1960s. She describes each poem, demonstrating how Webb’s embodied experience of both schizophrenia and managing institutionalisation contributed to his linguistic range. Consequently, she argues, his positionality affords him the ability to portray his experience, and those of his fellow patients, with subtlety and humanity.

Amanda Tink then analyses Les Murray’s poem ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’, regarding his autistic son. As Murray was also autistic, Tink argues that this poem is a record of the autistic characteristics that Murray and his son shared, as well as the strength and depth of their relationship. She also outlines the autistic poetic techniques that ensure the poem not only discusses, but embodies, autism.

The final three essays were all the result of work exploring the archives of Australian literature. As Sara White notes in ‘Crippling the Archives’, countries such as America have ‘made strides in documenting racial and ethnic minorities. Yet, with a few exceptions, people with disability have been largely overlooked’ (124). In Australia, the situation is similar. Scholars such as Breda Carty have conducted critical archival work, for example, into the Australian Deaf community in the 1920s and 30s, but generally the field remains poorly researched. Carty and co-writer Michael Uniacke present the work of previously little-known 1930s and 1940s deaf author John Patrick Bourke. Bourke’s writing exhibits a range of literary influences, thought to be uncommon for deaf Australians of that time, and an awareness of the similarities between deaf people and other marginalised groups. His work also provides insight into the lives of deaf Australians in the early twentieth century, whose choices were severely constrained by welfare organisations that were managed by hearing people.

Katerina Bryant then describes the role of archived knowledge in her memoir Hysteria: A Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History, and Jessica White’s memoir Hearing Maud. Bryant posits that reviewing archives is in part an act of imagination, to which disabled people bring unique insights to disabled subjects. Additionally, she demonstrates how archives offer disabled people knowledge about their heritage that is often denied them by standard academic history, thereby creating a sense of disabled history and community.

Archivists can assist in this process by understanding disability ‘as an experience and not simply as a medical problem or a social barrier’ (White, S. 123). The final essay in this special issue demonstrates this through a discussion of the editing of Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings (1977). Alice Grundy illustrates how Park developed into an author who represented impairment and disablement with sensitivity and complexity. Additionally, she reveals the ableist attitudes at every level of publishing that resist complex representations of disabled people, and how Park advocated to preserve this complexity in her short-statured character Jackie Hanna.

Grundy’s work shows the historical bias against writing about disability in the Australian literary industry. After all, the knowledge that iconic Australian writers such as Judith Wright, Henry Lawson and Les Murray were disabled, and that their impairments shaped their writing in profound ways, is still met with astonishment. Clearly, the work of redressing the pervasive dismissal of disability in Australian literature remains ongoing, and the essays in this special issue continue this important cultural work. They highlight discriminatory stereotypes; combat the reduction of impairment to symbol or plot at the expense of depicting rich, embodied lives; reveal the historical roots of ablism in Australian literature; and illuminate the creative possibilities of writing with and about disability.

We are proud to have brought together this community of scholars, and commend their thoughtful contributions to you. This special issue materialised thanks to the enthusiastic support of editors Julieanne Lamond and Tanya Dalziell and their editorial team. We also gratefully acknowledge the time and expertise of the anonymous peer reviewers. We hope that this collection will inspire or provoke other readers and researchers to contemplate disability in their own research and writing practices, and to participate in the work of expanding the conversation about disability in Australian literature.

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia.

Cite as: Tink, Amanda and Jessica White. ‘Introduction: Writing Disability in Australia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.a92fd0cc48.