|Photo of Katharine Quarmby |
Credit to Tom Green
You are well-known for
your disability advocacy. How did you come to advocate for disabled
There are a number of reasons - as I will
say in my speech, I have had chronic migraines myself since I was a teenager,
so have quite an intimate knowledge of pain. We also have a rich history of
disability within our own family. When one family member suffered (and I use
the word consciously) a traumatic brain injury, it become clear during the
recovery period that our relative was treated very differently after the
injury. I became much more aware of how some people in society view disabled
people. That led on to my work on disability hate crime - along with particular
cases of that crime where I felt justice was not done. I then wrote my book, Scapegoat:
why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011). I also became a
co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and have served, or continue
to serve, on a number of expert committees related to disability.
What are your favourite
books on disability as a topic, theme, written by disabled writers, or starring
I think there are some particularly good
ones but of course it depends on how one views disability. Do we, for instance,
count writers who experienced mental distress? In that case, I would single out
Virginia Woolf as one of my favourites. She wrote about war-time traumatic
stress, famously, in Mrs Dalloway, for instance. But, crucially, I think she
wrote well about the experience of difference in all sorts of ways - sexuality
and gender, in Orlando and of course being a woman in many of her books.
For me one of the key tests is can you make your writing about difference
universal? Does it break down walls? Then there is much of Audre Lorde, who
again writes so brilliantly about all forms of difference. Susan Sontag is
another key writer, for me. Then there's Hugh Gregory Gallagher, whose books on
both the only disabled US President, and then on how disabled people were
murdered during the Holocaust, are key texts. But there are so many it's hard
You are giving the Keynote
Address at The Nottingham Festival of Literature (which runs from the 8th of
November through the 13th). How did it come about?
I was asked to do it and gladly agreed as I
think this is a crucial time for writers to address certain themes -
difference, universality and cultural appropriation.
Your Keynote (on the 11th
of November) is going to focus on portrayals of disability in literature,
spanning from the ancient Greeks to modern writers like Jojo Moyes.
That's quite a large amount of time. How did you decide what writers and trends
I drew on some of the research in my first
book, Scapegoat, as I think it's important to give a sense of the
historical and cultural context in which disability representation sits. I also
wanted to look at some modern (and controversial) texts as I think it's
important to address current concerns.
You are also talking about
appropriation of disabled culture. Do you think able-bodied/neurotypical
people see disability as its own culture? Why or why not? Has the
attitude shifted in the past two decades?
I welcome the fact that more writers are
including disabled characters in their works. I think it's always important,
however, for writers to do their research and be respectful. I think attitudes
have shifted - and mostly in a good way, with more disabled people writing, for
a start, and some non-disabled writers wanting to write about key themes in
disability current affairs.
What trends do you see
happening in CripLit? Are they positive?
I welcome CripLit as I feel it asks some
very searching questions of both writers and publishers. However, it's
important that non-disabled writers do not get the impression that writing
about disability is off-limits. Some 83% of people acquire their disability
during their lifetime, rather than being born with a disability. Most of us
will die, impaired, in one way or another. For me disability, and writing about
it, is about humanity itself at a very deep level.
In what ways does the
publishing industry fail disabled people/writers, in your opinion? Are there
ways it is getting things right?
I'm not a publisher so it's hard to say,
but it's important that all new writers are encouraged to find
ways to the
marketplace. The test should be whether the writing is good, however.
Lately, at least in some
countries, there has been a push to include disabled writers in retreats,
conferences, etc. What do you attribute to this push?
I suspect there is a growing awareness that
disabled writers are bringing great richness to the mix of diverse voices.
What role do
able-bodied/neurotypical advocates have in the careers of disabled writers?
I think any alliances are good as long as
there is respect on either side.
Biography: Katharine Quarmby is a writer, journalist and film-maker specialising in social affairs, education, foreign affairs and politics, with an investigative and campaigning edge. She has spent most of her working life as a journalist and has made many films for the BBC, as well as working as a correspondent for The Economist, contributing to British broadsheets, including the Guardian, Sunday Times and the Telegraph. She also freelances regularly for other papers, including a stint providing roving political analysis for The Economist, where she has worked as a Britain correspondent.
Her first book for adults, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello Press, 2011), won a prestigious international award, the Ability Media Literature award, in 2011. In 2012 Katharine was shortlisted for the Paul Foot award for campaigning journalism, by the Guardian and Private Eye magazine, for her five years of campaigning against disability hate. Katharine and her fellow volunteer co-ordinators of the Disability Hate Crime Network, were honoured with Radar's Human Rights People of the Year award, for their work on disability hate crime in 2010.
A Description of the Keynote Speech:
A MESSAGE FROM OVER THE WALL - KATHARINE QUARMBY
FRIDAY 11 NOV 7-8.30PM
NOTTINGHAM ARTS THEATRE / NG1 3BE
American author and disability advocate Hugh Gregory Gallagher wrote eloquently of the “land of the ‘crippled”, adding, “a great wall surrounds this place, and most of what goes within this wall is unknown to those outside it. What follows is a message from over the wall.” In this address, Katharine Quarmby will explore the canon of literature to look at the characterization of disability, as a message within both mainstream literature and emerging disability literature. For writing about disability – invisible and visible – is a message about humanity itself, and the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human, and to live with impairment.
NOTTSFOL.CO.UK WARNING: The website to the festival has a lot of red. Be aware epileptics, migraine sufferers, etc.