Monday, November 7, 2016

Q&A With Katharine Quarmby (Nottingham Festival of Literature)

Photo of Katharine Quarmby
Credit to Tom Green
You are well-known for your disability advocacy.  How did you come to advocate for disabled people?

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 disabled protagonists?

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 to choose. 

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 to include?

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:

FRIDAY 11 NOV 7-8.30PM

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. 

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