Nicola Griffith is a Yorkshire-born queer, disabled author now based in Seattle, who has written nine novels, to date. She speaks to Joe Turnbull about her latest book, So Lucky the #CripLit movement which she started and her other work supporting fellow disabled writers.
“I write to find out. I write to change the world, one reader at a time,” enthuses Nicola Griffith. “And I write because it feels so very good. For those who want more, I wrote a Writer’s Manifesto (though some of the language is, ah, NSFW). And for those who want the long, academic version of why and how I write, I wrote my PhD thesis on it: Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia.”
Griffith’s love affair with words predates her days as a novelist. Before that, she was a women’s self-defence teacher and frontwoman of a band, writing and singing lyrics.
“I loved the way people would get wholly absorbed in the story I was singing. It’s a short step from there to writing fiction—and I fell stone in love with it.”
Griffith’s personal story took quite the twist during a fateful trip to the States for a six-week writing workshop, as she explains:
“It changed my life. Firstly, because I met Kelley who is now my wife. Secondly, because I got sick —and when I had to go back to the UK after the workshop I got really sick. I was diagnosed with post-viral syndrome, then ME (though looking back I’m morally certain my doctors knew I had MS but just didn’t tell me because there were no treatments and no cure).”
“Then I moved back to the US to be with Kelley. I couldn’t work because of my visa situation. So I wrote. I sold my first novel, got really sick again, and was diagnosed with MS the same month my first novel was published. It won some awards. A year later I was declared an ‘Alien of Exceptional Ability’, granted a National Interest waiver by the US State Department, and got my permanent residence visa, or Green Card.”
Griffith’s residency battle caused quite the stir amongst conservative circles in the US, with her story appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal with the exception made for her as a queer writer seen as a signifier of the country’s ‘declining moral standards’.
Six novels and 15 years later, Griffith wrote So Lucky, her latest work, as something of a departure from her typical oeuvre. In a nod to her own experience, it follows the story of Mara, a woman living in contemporary Atlanta who in the space of a week is diagnosed with MS, divorced by her wife and loses her job.
“So Lucky is nothing like my previous novels,” says Griffith. “It’s much shorter, faster, harder. It has a single through-line and is designed to be read in a single sitting. This is not settle-in-by-the-fire-for-a-cosy-read fiction. It’s a spear-thrust of a novel.”
“I wanted to read a story of someone like me who wasn’t a poor sad cripple or a tragic example—who isn’t a narrative prosthesis. I wanted a counter-narrative to the ableist über-story, the lies about disability we’ve all been fed since birth. Mara learns to break free from the constraints of the old story so she can build her own. It’s about building community. Because community is hope, community is life. And community is how you keep the monsters at bay.”
“I wanted to tell the story of how it feels to be nondisabled one year, and, by the next, not only be disabled but begin to identify as a crip: how that happens, how it feels, what it takes to break out of that internalised, ableist cage, and what it all means.”
Rewind to two years before the launch of So Lucky and Griffith was on Twitter looking for recommendations for other disabled writers. There was a dearth of information. There wasn’t a hashtag. Ranting to the Twittersphere she dreamed one up. The #CripLit hashtag was born. The very next day, Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility project approached Griffith to see if she was interested in co-hosting a #CripLit Twitter Q&A. And the rest, as they say, is internet history.
“We’ve done 15 chats so far. They cover fiction, nonfiction, Young Adult, speculative fiction, disability literature journals, accessibility in writing programmes, and more. Right from the very first chat, which briefly trended on Twitter, the response has been amazing. All 15 chats are archived on Wakelet. The #CripLit hashtag is now used daily to promote writing of all kinds by disabled writers.”
“I thought we needed to find our people and build our own community. The best people to learn from and with, to offer and draw solace and support, are people who understand. In my daydreams, one day we’ll have a #CripLit non-profit foundation—along the lines of VONA, or Lambda Literary, or Clarion West—where we can offer workshops and scholarships and a really strong network. Right now we’re building the network, but one day the rest will come.”
In conjunction with the #CripLit chats, Griffith also keeps a list of novels for adult readers that pass the Fries Test, that is, books with two or more disabled characters who are not killed or cured or otherwise exist for the profit or education of non-disabled characters. There are about 60 novels on that list, not all by disabled writers. For younger readers, she recommends Disability in Kidlit “it’s absolutely stuffed with recommendations of books with great disability representation for children and young adults by disabled (and some nondisabled) writers.”
#CripLit is just one instance of Griffith’s tireless work on making publishing more diverse and inclusive for multiple voices, including female writers, as well as disabled writers. In 2015, she founded the Literary Prize Data working group whose purpose initially was to assemble data on literary prizes in order to get a picture of how gender bias operates within the trade publishing ecosystem. (The $50,000 Half the World Global Literati Prize was established as a direct result).
As both a successful disabled author and a supporter of others, I asked Griffith what the biggest barriers are in publishing for disabled writers.
“Institutional ableism, and ableist people: writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, review editors, arts producers, journalists, prize foundations, arts journals. Our biggest barriers are both the physical built environment—bookstores with no access, stages with no ramp, events with no ASL or BSL interpretation—and the implicit bias we all (and I mean all; none of us is immune) grow up with and must consciously fight every single day. I wrote an Op-Ed about this for the New York Times, how nothing will change until we overwrite the old disability script in our heads.”
For Griffith, whilst the industry needs to change, she is clear that it’s disabled writers who have to be at the vanguard of that change, or else it will be hollow.
“For me, the first step to vanquishing ableism would be to have more well-published fiction written by disabled authors—then reviewed by disabled critics. Then submitted for prizes, given grants, and turned into popular film and TV. Very little fiction is authored by disabled writers (most disability literature by disabled writers that is published by big trade presses is memoir). Publishers don’t want disability fiction, they say, because no one wants to read it, it’s depressing. Well, they think that because the only fiction they’ve read about crips is the crap written by non-disabled people which is depressing.”
“We need to tell our own stories instead of having them told, and told badly, wrongly, by others. Only once there’s more #OwnVoices disability fiction out there, a lot more, would I like to see more disabled characters in fiction written by nondisabled writers. Having said that, just in the last two months I’ve talked to four well-published non-disabled authors who are, for the first time, writing novels with disabled characters and are eager to get the representation right. They are reaching out, really thinking about this, and most importantly, ready to listen. Things are changing—slowly, yes, but they are changing.”