- Experience, Research, and WritingOctavia E. Butler as an Author of Disability Literature
In a journal entry on November 12, 1973, Octavia E. Butler writes: "I should stay healthy! The bother and worry of being sick and not being able to afford to do anything but complain about the pain and hope it goes away is Not conducive to good (or prolific) writing."1 At this time, at the age of twenty-six, Butler had not yet sold her first novel. She was just on the cusp of what would be an incredible writing career, starting with her first novel, Patternmaster, published a mere three years later. But in 1973, Butler was an essentially unknown and struggling writer who regularly battled poverty, health, and her own harsh inner critic. From the outset of her career, Butler's texts have been lauded, critiqued, and read again and again in relationship to race, gender, and sexuality. Only recently, however, has her work been taken up in respect to disability.2 Therí A. Pickens argues,"Situating disability at or near the center of Butler's work (alongside race and gender) lays bare how attention to these categories of analysis shifts the conversation about the content of Butler's work."3 Building upon Pickens and other recent work on Butler and disability, I seek to change conversations about Butler's work among feminist, race, and genre studies scholars while also encouraging more attention to Butler by disability studies scholars. In this article, I use evidence from Butler's personal papers, public interviews, and publications to position Butler as an author of disability literature due to her lived experiences, her research, and her writing.
Disability studies is an interdisciplinary field that understands disability and ability as socially constructed concepts that vary by time, location, and culture. Within disability studies, literary critics have begun to shape an informal canon [End Page 153] of disability literature.4 By canon I mean that certain texts appear regularly in literary disability studies scholarship and postsecondary courses. While these texts range in publication dates and author gender identities, they are overwhelminginly white, British, and American in terms of author identity and content. Although the whiteness of disability studies has been critiqued5 and there has been increased attention to work by writers of color, there is still much work to be done. More scholarship on writers of color in literary disability studies will both expand and complicate our knowledge and expectations of disability literature.
Within this generally white informal canon of disability literature, some common texts include Richard III, Jane Eyre, The Sound and the Fury, and Of Mice and Men. These texts are considered part of disability literature because of the presence of major disabled characters and the texts' existing place in other more established canons. More contemporary books representing disability, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Call Me Ahab, and Exile and Pride, have become staples of literary disability studies because of their mainstream popularity and/or the fact that the text was written by a disabled person about living with a disability.
No disability studies scholar has attempted to officially define or delimit disability literature, let alone its canon. However, the much-discussed nature of some of the texts mentioned above certainly suggests two key parameters for understanding what constitutes disability literature today: the representation of a character, ideally a major character, with a disability, and an author who has a disability or who has some particular knowledge of disability rights, culture, and experiences. This is reflected in the "About Us" section for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature that describes the journal as:
[A]n online quarterly journal of disability poetry, literature and art dedicated to providing a venue where the new work of writers with disabilities can be found and to building up a corpus of work for those interested in disability literature. While it gives preference to the work of writers with disability, it seeks the well-crafted work of any writer that makes a contribution of the field.6
Wordgathering's statement here represents the...