Breath and Shadow is a literary journal of disability culture, written and edited exclusively by disabled people. In this collection, editor Chris Kuell presents the best writing from the magazine’s first 12 years including essays, poems and short stories. This review by Erin M. Kelly was originally published by Word Gathering and reproduced with permission. We have kept the author’s use of: ‘people with disabilities’ rather than our preferred term ‘disabled people’ in recognition of the American ‘people first’ understanding of disability politics.
In the literary world, a well-crafted body of work is the mark of a true visionary—particularly in the realm of poetry and literature. It is the product of well-calculated time, effort, and dedication on the part of the individual who sets out to create something possibly bigger than themselves, in the hope of contributing to the good of humanity.
Dozen: The Best of Breath and Shadow is a prime example of that dedication. The anthology, edited by Chris Kuell, offers the “cream of the crop” of poems and essays from the publication’s first twelve years, written by writers with disabilities. Since its launch in January 2004, the publication itself stands as the oldest of its kind to be edited by disabled writers, as well as to exclusively publish work by individuals with disabilities.
Kuell, who took the reigns as Editor of Breath and Shadow—when former Editor Sharon Wachsler made the life-changing decision to resign due to health issues in late 2007—made it his personal mission to continue Wachsler’s and her business partner Norm Meldrum’s tireless work. They wanted to not only provide those with disabilities a platform for their voices to be heard, but also to inspire readers to open themselves up to broader way of thinking. In the foreword of the anthology, Kuell writes:
In the ensuing years I’ve read thousands of submissions, and along with the Breath and Shadow editorial team, have shared hundreds of poems, essays, and short stories with the public. Pieces that embrace living, inspiration, expiration, mystery, darkness, and imagination. Work that may or may not be about disability, but that is informed by the author’s experience of disability.
It is against this backdrop that the works offered in this book are celebrated and measured. These poems and essays are indeed about disabilities and the uniquely complex challenges that come with having them. However, they also call attention to human existence as a whole while strong statements about society and humanity, in a way that arguably every reader will be able to relate to in some way. These literary offerings bring forth a robust sense of life, and what it truly means to be comfortable—or not so comfortable in one’s own skin.
In this process of exploration, each writer whose words are featured arrives at a place in which they do feel comfortable. Whether that happened during the writing process or somewhere inside the writer physically, it challenges the reader to ask themselves big questions which we all must ask ourselves at some point.
Questions like, “Who am I, really?” and “What is my purpose in life?” are on full display—and are answered in each contributor’s own unique style and voice. In the poem, “Woeful Wheelchair” by Amit Parmessur, the opening stanza addresses what pain is, through the eyes of the writer:
She could not look into the twisted eyes
of the blind beggar I’d become.
She muttered good evening
to my white sleeve.
This brings the loneliness of pain to the forefront while subtly asking the question, “Am I wanted?” Perhaps more important than that, it asks a question of love. Parmessur beautifully reminds the readers that these—and all emotions—are not exclusive. They are free for everyone, belong to everyone, and are felt by everyone. It also lends itself to a universal feeling of inclusiveness—the hope and need to want to have a connection with someone or something. That’s as human as it gets, and in the trying times this country is currently facing, it’s imperative, even vital, to utilize the human voice and experience in a positive manner.
This reflects the idea that the need for creative expression is more important than ever—to act as the spark that brings humanity together. Disability, as well as the experiences that it harbors, are two contributing factors of that creative power. Moreover, these two things can teach the world how to harness that power until it becomes something magical. Perhaps one of the most enduring examples of this, which the anthology offers readers, can be found in Rick Blum’s essay, “On the Healing Circuit”:
We’re a motley mélange of middle-aged mortals gathered together on a sunny fall afternoon in a dimly lit suburban hotel ballroom, which has never been used for a ball-or a dance of any kind for that matter.
Blum perfectly sums up the collective concept of inclusiveness that Kuell, Wachsler, and Meldrum had envisioned over a decade ago. It reinforces the notion that everyone—regardless of shape, size, age, gender, or disability—plays a role in shaping the fabric of society. The process may be messy at times, but as Blum’s words also suggest, every individual has the ability to contribute to a larger idea or purpose—even if it seems small.
Dozen: The Best of Breath and Shadow doesn’t just put good, quality writing on display. Nor does it simply highlight the best work from a group of creative individuals who deserve to be heard. This anthology is part of a social movement—a movement in which people are listening more closely, taking action, and allowing everyone to be involved in the creative process.
When a body of work is viewed in these terms—particularly this body of work, it’s not outlandish or obscure to say could it serves as a movement itself. The words I’ve written here may not do it enough justice, but those of Sharon Wachsler herself do:
There are countless ways in which circumstances by our physical or mental conditions can leave their imprint on the shape, subject, or form of our writing. This is part of the emerging disability aesthetic—and instead of dismissing or discounting these differences, Breath and Shadow embraces them.
Dozen: The Best of Breath and Shadow is available from Amazon, with the e-book also available from Smashwords. 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this anthology will go back into Breath and Shadow, allowing them to increase contributor payments and reach a wider and more diverse audience.