Nicola Griffith Doesn’t Want to Inspire You: Breaking Out of Ableist Narratives

June 8, 2018 | 3 books mentioned 6 min read

Whatever you do, don’t call Nicola Griffith’s new novel “inspiring.”

Though Mara Tagarelli, the protagonist of So Lucky (MCD x FSG Originals, May 2018), has multiple sclerosis, the book refuses to stoop to “inspiration porn.” Mara—the hot-tempered head of an HIV/AIDS organization—doesn’t do pity. In the wake of her MS diagnosis, she takes action, erects defenses, branches, and lashes out. Mara may even survive her own story, which would make her something of an anomaly among disabled characters in fiction.

Hardly any novels pass the Fries Test, which asks three questions:

  • Does the book have more than one disabled character?
  • Do the characters have their own narrative purposes?
  • Do they make it to the end of the book without being cured or killed?

So Lucky checks at least two of these three boxes. It bucks expectations, a tight page-turner on a shelf full of long, weepy struggles to overcome. Griffith, a former self-defense instructor, writes like a bunch of dopes have dozed off in her class. Her message lands like a chop to the throat.

We spoke on the phone about the book’s long-simmering genesis, the pervasiveness of ableist lies, and the #MeToo allegations that have rocked the literary community.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

The Millions: How did this book come about? You’ve said that it was “a complete surprise to everyone.”

Nicola Griffith: Twenty years ago, not long after I was diagnosed with MS, I heard a news story about a guy in a wheelchair who was tortured to death. It made me so angry and it made me feel so vulnerable that I had to sit down and write a story about it. I wrote this novella and I placed it with a publisher, and I got what to me was an enormous sum of money at the time. I think it was a thousand dollars.

But the more I thought about it, the more what I had written didn’t feel right. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and I just bought it back from the publisher. It just wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. So I stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it—except of course I never forgot about it. I kept coming back to it and thinking, “What is wrong with this thing?”

Then, two years ago, when I was writing a blog post called “Coming Out as a Cripple”—where I was looking at MS from a disability perspective, from a social model rather than a medical model—I started to read medical studies. I came across this notion by two people called David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder about the narrative prosthesis, which is a literary or visual narrative that uses disabled people as a metaphorical opportunity. I realized that’s what I had done with that novella 20 years ago: that my main character had this epiphany at the end which made everything OK. And that just was such bullshit.

coverSo last year I was writing the sequel to Hild, and then I decided to do a Ph.D., and in the middle of this Ph.D. I decide to write a completely different story. I had a three-week break and no pressing deadlines. I thought it was going to be a short story, just a glimmer of the novella I had written 20 years prior. But I sat down and this stuff came gushing out, pouring out, just roaring out. It was like sticking a knife in a water balloon. Two weeks later I had the first draft of So Lucky.

When I finished my Ph.D., I had lunch with [FSG editor] Sean McDonald, and he said he was going to publish it. I told him I wanted it to be published really fast because I wrote it really fast and the story feels urgent to me.

TM: Why does it feel urgent to you?

NG: I wanted to get it in front of people because we need to break out of the ableist narrative. This is the first book I’ve ever written that’s about an issue. None of my other books are. They’re always queer protagonists, but they’re not about being queer. This is about disability. It’s about this sense of internalized ableism. About not feeling less. If I had to pick one thing, that’s what the book’s about. It’s about figuring out that you’ve believed a pack of lies all your life.

We’re all fed this ableist narrative, and we mostly absorb it, especially if we’re not born disabled. You’ve got no defenses against it. You don’t even know you’re being fed these lies. And then when you find that you are disabled, or becoming disabled, you have to struggle with this clash. You know you’re a real person, but everyone around you and all the stories you’ve heard tell you that you’re no longer a real person.

That’s what’s the story’s about. But I have to say that if I read that description of the book, I probably wouldn’t pick it up. It doesn’t sound exciting.

TM: It makes the book sound preachy, but really it’s a thriller. Though that was lost on at least one critic, who described it as an “affecting autobiographical novel.”

NG: It’s really interesting. My first and second novels both had lesbian protagonists, so the reviews said that they were queer lit or even lesbian propaganda. I thought, Really? I don’t even mention being queer in there one time. Two women have sex, but I don’t explicitly mention the fact that it’s queer. But people read the book that they’ve been trained to read. People are used to seeing certain kinds of fiction, and so that’s what they see. They’re in a box, in a way. They’ve got the blinders on.

I had a chat before this was published with the marketing team, and I told them, “Everyone is going to say this is autobiographical.” And they said, “Well it is, isn’t it?” I said, “No.” [Laughs.] Really, no. It’s not me at all.

The further you are from the perceived “norm”—straight, white, non-disabled, and male—the more easily you are just slotted into those autobiographical categories.

TM: How many books do you know of that pass the Fries Test?

NG: Fifty-two. The Fries Test is such a low bar. It’s lower than the Bechdel Test. I mean, the disabled people don’t even have to talk to each other. They don’t even have to have names; there just has to be more than one. When you think that there are perhaps five million novels in English, and when you consider that disabled people are 20 percent of the population, there should be one million novels that pass the Fries Test. And there are 52. [Laughs.] That is just… Yeah, it makes me mad.

coverA lot of fiction with disabled characters is basically pity porn, or inspiration porn. That’s guaranteed to crank my blood pressure up. Disability fiction is in the place where I think queer fiction was 70 years ago or maybe even 100 years ago. The kinds of books with disabled characters that get published are like The Well of Loneliness. You know, people sacrifice themselves at the end. I did not want to write a book like that, and I wanted to get a book that was not like that in front of people. Mara is no one’s object of pity or inspiration.

TM: Before we hang up, do you have any comment on the #MeToo allegations that women have leveled against writers like Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie?

NG: That’s a difficult question. I can’t speak to the men involved at all. But the thing that surprises me is how many people have had this experience. I know some of these women, slightly I guess, and I didn’t know this had happened to them. It blows me away that so many men—mostly men—feel as though they can operate like this with impunity. Apparently they can.

I’ve just been lucky. I don’t think that I’ve ever been sexually harassed that way—actually that’s not true! I am remembering a time. It’s not traumatic for me, but some guy at a convention—oh, this was a very long time ago. Not long after I first moved to this country [in 1988]. He put his hands on my hip, close to my ass. Without even thinking I put him in a wristlock and said, “Don’t ever fucking touch me again.”

Wristlocks come very easily to me.

is a writer from Virginia whose work has appeared in McSweeney's, Paste, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Toast, The Billfold, and New York magazine's Science of Us. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.

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