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  • Troubling AcademeDisability, Borders, and Boundaries
  • Shahd Alshammari (bio)

There is a crude distinction between activism and academe, between academe and creative writing, and between academic and disabled academic. I am an Arab woman, a disabled academic, a creative writer who has found embodied activism in academe. To work from within and without the body is to find alternative ways of navigation. To consider the shamed body is to unveil the social constructions of ableism. Writing and teaching, then, become tools of activism, and it is a slow and painful rebirth to creep out of the once shamed female body. Identity politics has countlessly urged us to reconsider minority discourses but there remains an incessant fear of articulating this “self”—the self that allows itself to be exposed, whether through writing, teaching, or claiming an identity.

Tobin Siebers (2008, 36), in Disability Theory, tells us that “it is wrong to study what you are. This allegation is familiar after more than thirty years of attack against black studies and women’s studies.” I was not exposed to disability studies until I was working on my PhD in England. I began incorporating my own understanding of a gendered, racialized, and disabled body into my academic research. There were many illness narratives that had not found a home in academic discourse. Throughout my academic career, I was labeled a women’s studies scholar, specifically interested in Arab women and postcolonial literature. I found myself aspiring to be identified as a disability studies scholar, yet there was a fear of being ridiculed, of being labeled a narcissist. How could I find common ground between “writing up research” and “creative writing”? How could I rid myself of a shamed body yet be captured in a shamed academic self, one that writes from a very corporeal lens, and accept an exposure of this intimate self ? Siebers contends that [End Page 458] “suffering and disability have been inappropriately linked to the psychology of narcissism” and that “the accusation of narcissism is one of the strongest weapons used against people with disabilities” (37). As such, among other academics, I struggled to explain the significance of my research, of illness narratives that bore a striking resemblance to my own experiences with disability. Elspeth Probyn’s (2010, 72) “Writing Shame” exemplifies this idea of coming out of the closet of shame: “Of course shame is a painful thing to write about: an exposure of the intimacies of selves in public. . . . There is a shame in being highly interested in something and unable to convey it to others, to evoke the same degree of interest in them and to convince them that it is warranted.” In the same vein, I was constantly negotiating this feeling of betraying academe, of turning my own experiences into research and a meta-narrative while remaining a serious scholar.

In a sense, I have troubled academe. Is my work credible? Am I to write both creatively and critically, remain both inside and outside academic scholarship, loyal to scholarly discourse, and simultaneously have an affair with experimental writings? When I found Nancy Mairs’s work on her disability, multiple sclerosis (MS), I was elated. I had found another English literature scholar who struggled with MS. Mairs (1996) provided an alternative to my reality, that is, a space that included women academics with disabilities. Even more so, invisible disability was always already on the margins, outside the able-bodied and not inside the disabled sphere. I was caught in an uncanny experience, a body that refused to choose sides on a normative/nonnormative spectrum. Here was a body that failed at times to perform its duties and to reside in the “normative” sphere while also clinging to a “healthy” academic self. I could teach. I could write. And I could maneuver among able-bodied academics and perform according to academic and social expectations. I had to make sense of an academic identity that encompassed all my fluid states of being. First, I had to rid myself of shame within academe. I am still calling for my work to be considered academic research, as I am interested in the way that bodies interact with other bodies, selves with...