Monstering

Disabled Women and Nonbinary People Celebrating Monsterhood

Filtering by Category: interviews

Interview with Jill Khoury

CW: Ableism, oppression

 

Conducted by Emily Corwin

Emily Corwin: Rogue Agent is a journal of "embodied poetry and art," a journal that "inhabits the body" in all its viscera, and I wonder what fuels you as an editor. What are you seeking to curate in Rogue Agent

Jill Khoury: At the time I started Rogue Agent, I noticed very few journals that specifically focused on the idea of celebrating marginalized identities. Two journals that did inspire me to do Rogue Agent were Lunch Ticket and MUZZLE. Additionally, in the classroom, on social media, at conferences—I heard the idea percolating: the body is a taboo subject, especially the marginalized body. Or, in [the fallacy of] our post-feminist, post-racial society, haven't we "moved beyond" needing to write about the body? I wanted to give an exclusive platform where poets and artists who worked on issues of identity (which I think is very much lived in the body) could show their work. I wanted to hear the various and myriad answers to the question "what is it like to live in your body?" 

As well as this work being political, it is also personal. When I started Rogue Agent, I felt somewhat alone in submitting my own work focusing on disability and mental illness. Being so vulnerable on the page is a daunting prospect. By putting out a submissions call, I was reaching out to like-minded people to try and form a connection. I'm so proud of the work we've done in less than three years. And with the current US administration which continues to issue decrees and attempt to make policies to punish marginalized bodies, the work has only increased in importance. I'm so grateful to everyone who has the courage to work in this arena of the body, to place themselves front and center and say "I deserve to take up space. You will not erase me."

EC: Your first full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was published last year through Sundress Publications. How was the experience of putting together this manuscript? What helped you shape the voice, order, and form of these poems?

JK: It was really challenging! I'm extremely grateful to my editor at Sundress, Erin Elizabeth Smith, for being so patient and helping me make good editorial choices. Suites has a complicated narrative with two story arcs and five characters. The poems vary quite a bit in style and form, from fairly straightforward narrative, to poems that are much more language driven and in a "lyric-experimental" style. I think the form of the poems varies so much because I'd been working on Suites since 2009, and was still writing poems for the book as late as 2016. That's seven years of my own writing evolution. I tried to match certain poem styles to certain characters (for instance the poems in the voice of the character Annie are often the more narrative ones). Erin helped me tell a difficult story in as straightforward a way as it could be told. 

The voices in the poem are all fictional, but based (even if somewhat loosely) on my own experience 1) as a legally blind woman, existing in this liminal zone between functioning as sighted and functioning as blind 2) as a woman who has spent a long time in the medical-industrial complex, specifically in the mental health milieu, and the women I met there. I wanted to honor their experiences without appropriating their stories, so four of the characters are composites of women whom I crossed paths with, some of whom helped me survive. 

EC: What resources do you find most helpful with regard to disability writing and poetics?

JK: Reading other work by poets and essayists with disabilities! When I first started to publish work related to my identity as a woman with multiple disabilities, the anthology Beauty Is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (edited by Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen), was like my spiritual book. I carried it everywhere. Sometimes I didn't even have to read from it to feel its power; just having it in my bag was enough. The book is so well-executed. Each poet introduces their work with a critical essay on disability and/or poetics. The history of disability poetry is represented as well as current boundary-pushing work. Even though I had already taken some disability studies courses when I was going for my MFA, I learned so much about my lineage as a disability poet from Beauty Is A Verb. Also, the magazine Wordgathering (edited by Michael Northen), which appears quarterly at www.wordgathering.com, has some great essays on disability poetics. The Split This Rock community focuses on all varieties of social justice poetry, including disability. 

Lastly, I follow lots of people on Facebook and Instagram who write essays or blogs focusing on issues of disability. 

EC: As a writer, what does your particular practice look like? What do you need to do your best work?

JK: This is the hardest question for me to answer because my practice is so sporadic lately. When I was taking a class with him, the poet and essayist Stephen Kuusisto said, "writing is a process that involves the whole body." And as my vision, mental health, and chronic pain conditions have changed, I've noticed this more and more. I would like to have a routine, a rhythm—to me it seems like the "professional" thing to do. This is another thing I learned in grad school: it's implied that the pros have an established routine on which to scaffold their writing and revision, and when my health was pretty steady I had that too. But lately circumstances have become more challenging. 

Coincidentally, around the time I started Rogue Agent, I have also been forced to tend to my health as a major priority. Only in the past few months have I regained the ability to incorporate writing, submitting, and working on my second full-length manuscript back into my life routine. I had been getting really down on myself for not being as productive, but recently I wonder if this is internalized ableism. I need to be okay with the fluctuations caused by my health. It's a thing I need to accept, again and again, because it's hard not to feel guilty, like I'm not doing enough.

EC: What vision do you have for the disability community as well as the poetry community? What excites you about the power and potential of these networks?

JK: I would love love love to read more disability poetry that is intersectional. The queer disabled experience, the experiences of people of color with disabilities, for example. I know there are people out there writing it, and some journals already publishing it. I want even more space for them. 

As far as excitement..... because of the current administration, like I mentioned before, it's really hard for me to feel "excitement." Mostly I just feel like we (the disability community, the poetry community, especially of marginalized poets) are just digging in and hanging on. We won't stop doing the work because we can't let Trump's ideologies win. But that is completely a projection of my own feeling-state. I'm sure plenty of people are excited. I feel like our power right now is "we will not go away. We will keep writing, keep risking."

EC: Lastly, what have you been reading, watching, eating, wearing? What are your current obsessions?

JK: I'm just going to stick with "reading," because I've been reading such good stuff lately! Recently I've started an interview series for Rogue Agent because I had drifted away from reading as voraciously, and I wanted to remedy this. So some of the books listed here are by authors we've interviewed or are thinking about soliciting for an interview, and some of them are books I've found while paying attention to what current work is being done and just marveling at the wealth of talent.

  • Blood Sugar Canto, by Ire'ne Lara Silva
  • Bone Confetti, Muriel Leung
  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
  • i be, but i ain't, by Aziza Barnes
  • In Full Velvet, Jenny Johnson
  • On that one-way trip to Mars, by Marlena Chertock
  • Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, by Sonya Huber
  • The Feeder, Jennifer Jackson Berry
  • We are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby

Work I'm looking forward to reading really soon:

  • Crumb-sized, by Marlena Chertock
  • Field Guide to Autobiography, by Melissa Eleftherion-Carr
  • It's Just Nerves, by Kelly Davio
  • Like a Beast, by Carly Joy Miller
  • One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul
  • salt., Nayyirah Waheed
  • Telepathologies, by Cortney Lamar Charleston
  • The Twisted Mouth of the Tulip, Monica Rico
  • Wasp Queen, by Claudia Cortese
 

JILL KHOURY is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and teaches workshops focusing on writing the body. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University, and edits Rogue Agent, a journal of embodied poetry and art. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Copper Nickel, Bone Bouquet, Lunch Ticket, and diode. She has written two chapbooks—Borrowed Bodies (Pudding House, 2009) and Chance Operations (Paper Nautilus, 2016). Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was released in 2016 from Sundress Publications. Find her at jillkhoury.com.

Sick Woman Theory: An Interview

CW: Oppression

Conducted by Brianna Albers

Brianna Albers: History has equated disability (or sickness, in the language of Sick Woman Theory: the absence of wellness) with monstrosity, placing shame, guilt, and self-hatred on the shoulders of those who do not conform to the world's definition of what it means to be human. You speak to this a bit in your essays, in the sense that "de-persons" are othered. They are proved less than, imperfect, inhuman—indeed, they are not allowed to be.

In "In Defence of De-persons," you discuss what "[Sara] Ahmed would call a 'melancholic universalism': 'the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you'." Later, you say that, "it's the throne itself that we must tear down: the throne on which the universal sits. ... [Agency] can only function by constructing against its human, the monster, the monstrosity of the Other." In many ways, this is what Monstering is all about: taking our sicknesses, our disabilities, and embracing the sociocultural "monster" they've made of us. Thus, Monstering is an identity, but it is also a mode of operating. We are monsters. We are monstering—reclaiming—our right to exist.

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to identify with the repudiating universal? What led you to embrace the monstrous other?

Johanna Hedva: When I was younger, I yearned for the universal because I thought it would save me, validate me, include me. But I don't yearn for it anymore. When I started to engage with the thinking and thinkers of Black theory and critical race studies, particularly Afro-Pessimism—I want to name a few: Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Frank B Wilderson III, Jared Sexton, and Fred Moten—I began to understand how the entire concept, history, deployment, and institution of the Human, as such, is insolvent.

The instinct to identify with the universal is a common one because every infrastructure of belonging in our world is pointed toward it as the ultimate and only goal, and relies upon it as the core organizing principle. But I'm starting to realize it's an instinct that can't withstand critical consciousness, by which I mean, once you start to understand how oppression and domination work, you start to understand that the universal is a bankrupt subject position. Not only is it violent, and the instrument that is used by oppression and domination, but it is also a fantasy. The universal promises entry into a sacrosanct humanism, but that is an empty promise toward an empty place.

The mythic norms sutured to the universal human—whiteness, maleness, straight-ness, cis-ness, middle-class-ness, abled-ness, sane-ness, etc.—are constructs. They are just as constructed as what those categories are said not to include. And, perhaps most importantly, they are irrevocably reliant upon each other; they cannot exist without the Others. A human is not a human without the definition, and presence, of a monster.

Of course, just because they are constructs doesn't mean they don't have material effects. These are the very things that make our world. The word "construct" refers to building something, as much as it refers to ideas or concepts. So, the question becomes, how is the idea of "human" made, materially as well as ideologically? What does it require to be built? Or, maybe I should say, who does it require to be built?

BA: Is Monstering a source of power and reclamation, or is there grief in the ritual? Do you ever struggle to identify with the repudiating universal, or is it something that comes easily, if not effortlessly, for you?

JH: I like to describe my experience as one that requires constant vigilance. I like the word "vigilant" because it implies the act of keeping watch in a devoted way, like a vigil. The act is one of listening, paying attention, respecting (as in, to look again), and honoring the history, letting the evidence be seen.

BA: In "Sick Woman Theory," you propose a theory "for those who are faced with their vulnerability and unbearable fragility, every day, and so have to fight for their experience to be not only honored, but first made visible. For those who, in Audre Lorde's words, were never meant to survive: because this world was built against their survival."

Both Monstering and Sick Woman Theory seem to resist the idea that monstrosity, or sickness, is or should be equated to abnormality—that there is power in embracing that which the system deems "different" or "wrong." You write in "In Defence of De-persons" that we are "disordered, messy, incorrigible," and "in relationship to others and interdependent on each other, as much as we are each of us different—and that is fine."

Do you think Monstering and Sick Woman Theory coincide or intersect in some way? Is it possible for the two theories to complement each other, if not support each other?

JH: I can't speak to the goals of your project with monstering. The goal of my work is to interrogate not only how normatives become established as normative, but also how the categories of the abnormal shift, assemble and re-assemble, transform and disintegrate, and occupy different spaces of meaning. I think we have to imag(in)e ourselves as our own authors as much as possible. I don't think it's enough to rely on the ontological categories produced by those in power; I think we have to devote attention to how we might exist beyond, and even without, them.

When I think about how we come to understand ourselves and each other outside of the place of the normative, I get the image of a live wire in a pool of water: fluid, charged, dangerous, and requiring all of our attention to stay alive.

BA: So you're saying there is power to be found in liminality. That is, instead of aligning ourselves with the normative—even if, in the context of Monstering, alignment becomes identification with the monstrous other; "monstrosity" is still considered an ontological category, despite the negativity often associated with it—, we move beyond delineated spaces to craft our own meaning. Is that right?

JH: Partly right. But I think eventually moving beyond the binary of human/monster altogether is what I'm saying. I really dig what you say about crafting our own meaning; I guess I would place a lot of emphasis on what exactly that crafting process relies on to work.

This question made me think of a quote in Eunjung Kim's recent book, Curative Violence: Rehabilitating Disability, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern Korea, where she writes: "...in many ways liminality is not automatically transgressive. Indeed it might instead be instrumental to maintaining boundaries, if the boundaries are not destabilized together."

In other words, I think transgression is always relational and that resistance takes many forms. I think monstering as a mode of resistance can be effective within a certain context and for a certain time, but nothing should be taken for granted as fixed and stable when we're talking about political resistance. There are places and spaces where monstering would not be an option whatsoever, but then there are places and spaces where it could be the only option.

I'm not saying one shouldn't embrace an identity that's been reclaimed from a tradition of monstrosity—I'm saying that it's only the beginning. And I guess I'm saying this because I just got out of another hospitalization, and then had my birthday, so I feel a bit old and tired. I've been participating in activism for 15 years, and now I'm in the mid-30s grind and realizing that it's no longer enough to talk the talk. 

There's a wonderful exhilaration when you embrace yourself in terms of everything "they" told you was wrong, and that exhilaration is important and cathartic, and really helpful in organizing your thoughts and coming to a critical consciousness. But after it comes a lot of hard work toward figuring out how exactly to practice resistance in material terms of struggle and perseverance. This is work that feels mundane and not so exhilarating, because it's about daily life, little things, everyday all-the-time decisions and actions, and it can feel impossible sometimes, and so much easier to rely on old paradigms and strategies—but this is the work we have to do.

BA: You often speak to intersections of identity in your writing, particularly with regards to race and white-passing-ness. How has Sick Woman Theory transformed, or perhaps even recreated, the way you approach these sites?

JH: I wanted you to ask a question about this because it's something that makes me uncomfortable, and I want to talk more about it. The white-passing experience is a weird one. I often feel like an intruder, no matter what kind of place I'm in. There's a lot of confusion in how to identify, which spaces I can inhabit, and I always feel separate and apart from any group. It feels like being a spy in hostile territory when I'm in white spaces. Because I have access to their spaces, I'm like the double agent they don't know is there to take the whole thing down.

In my mind and body, I am a disabled, genderqueer person of Korean heritage. But I pass as white, which is huge and cannot be undervalued, because it bestows upon me white privilege, no matter how I feel or genotypically what I am. Also, at least these days, I'm trying to serve some femme realness, and, for the moment, don't need my chair or cane (my disability is usually invisible). So I'm just passing-passing-passing into all sorts of privileged spaces. This means there's enormous tension that constantly needs to be negotiated, in terms of my perception of myself and my experience as a political being, which is always at odds with how I am read by society and how much privilege I'm afforded.

When I started writing about my experiences of disability, trauma, growing up with a colonial legacy that was not talked about, gender, queerness, etc., it seemed like an opportunity to use this duality, this spy-in-hostile-territory place, and also, personally, to burrow into how uncomfortable it is.

To say it simply: I've been trying to use my white-passing privilege to get white people to listen to me critique whiteness; I'm trying to use my femme-presenting privilege to get cis-het people to listen to me critique cis-heteronormativity; and I'm trying to use my abled-passing privilege to get abled people to listen to me talk about disability justice. But "trying" is the key word here. I hope it's working.

BA: You talk about the need to "imag(in)e ourselves as our own authors as much as possible"—an important concept, to be sure, but an intimidating one as well. Do you have any advice for those interested in making their own meaning? How do we step into liminality, especially when we exist in a world that relies so heavily on constructs?

JH: When I say that we have to imagine ourselves as our own authors as much as we can, I mean the whole range of stories, not just the ones that affirm and embrace, not just the exhilarating moments, not just the stories that are "good" representations of disability. In this way, I really love your project of monstering, because I'm also talking about ugliness, messiness, ambiguity, difficulty, struggle, bearing witness, fucking up, being fucked up, and troubling the categories altogether. It's about resilience, not perfection.

 

A portrait, taken in low light, at night. Centered, in the lower half, is a person in stark shadow, with her head tilted back against a wall. She wears blue lipstick, false eyelashes, and has exaggerated eyebrow makeup. Her black hair is cut in blunt bangs and falls over her shoulders. She wears a gray sweatshirt that says SLYTHERIN in the style of athletic team logos. Above her heart is a small pin with black teeth. Above her head, on the wall, is a calligraphic tag that says, "Art School Dropout."

A portrait, taken in low light, at night. Centered, in the lower half, is a person in stark shadow, with her head tilted back against a wall. She wears blue lipstick, false eyelashes, and has exaggerated eyebrow makeup. Her black hair is cut in blunt bangs and falls over her shoulders. She wears a gray sweatshirt that says SLYTHERIN in the style of athletic team logos. Above her heart is a small pin with black teeth. Above her head, on the wall, is a calligraphic tag that says, "Art School Dropout."

JOHANNA HEDVA is a fourth-generation Los Angelena on her mother's side and, on her father's side, the granddaughter of a woman who escaped from North Korea. She is disabled and genderqueer, and makes a living as a witch. She is the writer/director of The Greek Cycle, a series of feministed and queered Ancient Greek plays that were performed in Los Angeles from 2012-2015, in non-traditional venues, such as a Honda Odyssey minivan for her adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Mask Magazine, GUTS, PANK, Two Serious Ladies, Eleven Eleven, Entropy, DREGINALD, and The Journal Petra. Her novella, On Hell, a surveillance-dystopia sci-fi retelling of the Icarus myth, will be published by Sator Press in 2018.  She is currently working on a book called This Earth, Our Hospital, which includes the essays "Sick Woman Theory" and "In Defense of De-Persons." Since 2016 she has lived in Berlin where she sings, plays guitar, and drags it up in the noise-punk band Important Part.

Interview with Topaz Winters

Conducted by Emily Yin

Emily Yin: To start, can you tell us a bit about your disabilities?

Topaz Winters: Of course. My disabilities are of the mental rather than physical sort—I have depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and hyperacusis.

EY: You mentioned on your blog, Six Impossible Things, that mental illness is more often an "undertone" than the focus of your poems. Even so, does it become manifest in the expression of certain themes or sentiments throughout your work?

TW: It certainly does. I've noticed that even when I don't set out to write about mental illness, it permeates through everything I create—readers with mental disorders have shared with me on multiple occasions that they identify deeply with pieces that, to me, were not at all about mental illness in the first place. It is so intrinsically part of my life at this point, though, that I believe it tends to weave through all that I write as well, even when it does not show up overtly. I'm learning to make peace with that, though it bothered me somewhat in the beginning. Mental illness is such a great part of my life that it deserves the place it has in my work. It deserves to be explored and processed through art.

EY: You shared your own experiences during the "Shattering Stigmas" event to break the silence (and stigma) surrounding mental illness. What would you say to those who wish to open up but have a hard time reconciling themselves with the possibility of judgment?

TW: We speak of our mental illnesses for no one else but ourselves. There is judgement out there always, but I am learning to move past and ignore it. When I open up and share my experiences, it is as much to help myself as it is to educate and inform others. I would say this: if one wishes to share one's experiences but shies away from doing so for fear of prejudice, it is perhaps worthwhile to remind oneself that all of this is, at heart, a method of healing. It has never been for those who judge and scorn, but rather, for the cleansing of our own lovely souls. There will always be the ignorant ones waiting to pounce, but we do not create for them. It is for us and those who endure the same struggles that we do. It is for the ones who understand.

EY: Is your best work usually a spontaneous reaction to an event or moment about which you strongly felt, or is it something which you deliberately set out to write?

TW: To be honest, it is a rare moment when I deliberately set out to write something. Rather, I write because I cannot help but do it. Because to not write is something unfathomable. And so, I think that my best work does tend to be more of a spontaneous thing, flowing from whatever feelings haunt me on a particular day, whatever images and themes and experiences refuse to leave me alone. I try not to force myself to write; I find that if ever I do, the words come out stilted, halting. It is instead, for me, about capturing emotion as truthfully as I can on the page.

EY: What is something that you have always wanted to, but have never been able to write about?

TW: Hmm, nothing seems to come to mind at the moment. Writing is the only way I know how to capture and pin down thoughts and emotions—I can't think of anything that I do not write about. Every soft, visceral, uncertain, beautiful, painful thing I have ever experienced has gone on the page. There is, I must confess, nothing much that I do not write about.

EY: What advice do you have for people who want to write about their "invisible" illness(es)?

TW: I cannot reiterate this enough: though our illnesses may be invisible, they are as real and as stabbing as any other disability. I suppose my greatest advice would be to keep that in mind, no matter how much the world seems bent on proving you otherwise. It does not matter if our illnesses reside only in our heads: they are valid and worth writing about, worth exploring and creating for. Know that the art you make in tribute to or in defiance of your illnesses is a bright, sharp, real thing. Hold that knowledge to your chest. Let it warm you on aching nights. Do not ever let it go.

EY: The resolute tone ("I will turn sorry into/Profanity") of your poem "Story," the fact that it is more apologia than apology, really resonated with me. That said, if one becomes defiant in order to survive, how does one prevent gentleness and empathy from becoming casualties of that fight?

TW: I have to believe that fierceness and softness can coexist. I truly dislike the idea that they are mutually exclusive—and indeed, I think that when one is battling mental illness, it is the endlessly shifting push-and-pull of the two that keeps one alive. The war happens both in gentleness and resoluteness. They are not enemies but rather sisters, holding each other up, fighting the same fight. There is a defiance, a profanity, a revolution in remaining soft. They are endlessly intertwining. There are no casualties in this battle.

EY: Lastly, you talk about monsters, and your desire to "bring [them] to light"—but what, exactly, does monsterhood mean to you?

TW: I am learning to think of monsterhood as something to be proud of rather than to fear. It is a long process, and one that I am nowhere near the end of—but for too long I was ashamed of my mental illnesses, and I am so tired of constantly hiding them. Instead I am learning to hold them up and to honour them. Monsters protect, they shield, they fight for us as much as they terrify us. Healing is a matter of examining them, of understanding them. And of making the choice to embrace them as part of us. I see monsterhood as a badge to wear with pride. A celebration of the ways in which we shed our fears and thrive despite and because of them.

EY: Topaz, thank you so much for speaking with Monstering!

TW: It's been an honour. Thank you so much for the opportunity.


TOPAZ WINTERS is a writer in a raining city. Her poems, essays, and short stories have been published in Wildness, Hypertrophic Literary, Sapphic Swan Zine, and The Best Teen Writing of 2015 anthology, and commended by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Jane Goodall Institute, among others. Her debut poetry chapbook, Heaven or This, has been downloaded over 15,000 times. She resides in Singapore and at topazwinters.com. Mostly she enjoys crystals, coffee, softness, & the sea.