Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Desperate and Disturbing Read

Reading is one of my chief pleasures. Joe, too. Because of this we are both very particular when we go shopping for books. We like a variety although we have a real love for Nordic crime fiction and historical novels. We are even more choosy when it comes to choosing gay novels and have a good track record of reading amazing books. Dante and Aristotle Discover The Secrets of the Universe, for example, is simply one of the best books we've ever read, gay or straight. When we travel we try to take enough books with us to 'do' the trip. On our last trip to the Maritimes, we ran out. We hopped immediately over to the bookstore after work and I picked up a book, The Desperates by Greg Kearney. It looked like fun.

It wasn't.

Somewhere in the book something happened. It was a choice the author made that made him too present in my reading of his writing. I began thinking, not of the book, about about the man who wrote the book. On one page, somewhere in the first third of the book, we are told about a young gay man's experience of bullying in school. The stuff that was there was sadly unsurprising but surprisingly well written. However, on the exact same page, the SAME page, the author uses the word "R#tard" for comic effect. Something he does a few times in the book. Later on he uses another disability negative word, again for humour.

I know, I know, I know, people yatter on an me about how sometimes that word is used to tell us something about the character, sometimes the word is used to be authentic to the speech patterns of a particular group, sometimes the author is using the word for literary reasons. I've had that speech, along with the wagging finger many times over. And because of that, it took me a long while to decide to write this. I thought it through. I don't think that's what was going on here, I think the author genuinely thought it was funny. Worse, he wrote with a kind of surity that we'd all find it funny too.

What really shocked me, though, was the R-words appearance ON THE EXACT SAME PAGE, of a passage that existed to let us know how tough gay kids have it in school,  Readers are expected to react with empathy for the gay kid and simply find funny a word which makes school lethal to kids with intellectual disabilities. The same page!!! Only a few lines apart.

Think about it. (Because I sure did.) The R word appears before passages of school bullying, this means that the author must have been gearing up for it, getting ready to writing about school victimization, thinking about all the harm that is done by bullying and in that frame of mind pops out a word that people with intellectual disabilities have stated clearly is HURTFUL and DAMAGING.

Later on in the book when other disability negative words appear, I'm not surprised, numb to them being there. I finished the book because I finish books I start. I could have stopped, but that would have helped the cause how?

Normally when I read, if it's an excellent book, I don't think about the author much. It relate to the story, I get swept along by the narrative and I love the ride. But this time, that decision, to use the R word right before writing about the effect of words on young gay people, brought the author right into my mind. I looked at his picture on the back flap of the book several times. I tried to imagine a conversation with him. I wanted to know why he felt it was acceptable to bemoan the bullying of one while engaging in bullying of another. Why did he make that choice?


He's off my 'too read' list. I feel like I've met him and didn't like him. I feel that if I met him he'd go away and write about fat guys in wheelchairs and get a real laugh out of it. I feel that if I met him, he'd not be interested at all in the effect of disability negative words on my reading experience. These are all assumptions of course, I did try to find way to contact him, I wanted to write him a letter, I wanted to ask him some questions while hiding my fat disabled self behind a computer message. But that wasn't possible.

There are consequences to the things we do and say. It may not be much of a consequence but Mr. Kearney now is filed in my mind as both an author not to read again and as someone who has an egocentric approach to pain - if it hurts me and mine, it's bad; if it hurts you and yours, it's kind of funny.

But the book has been closed for a couple weeks.

Now, with this, the chapter is closed too.


Kris S. said...

I had a similar experience while watching the TV program "Glee" a few weeks ago. A character with Down Syndrome said disparagingly something like "that's so gay." Not funny and not okay, no matter whose mouth that phrase comes out of.

Alex said...

I read primarily gay books, I live with CP and it's a way I can feel connected to a community that isn't really connected to me. Thanks for the heads up this book was on my list. Have you read 'Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club' by the same guy who wrote Dante and Aristotle?

Dave Hingsburger said...

NOTE: A comment was left by the books author, Greg Kearney, and I'm not posting it. It seemed to be a message for me which included his email address. The note was an invitation to talk more about his work and my perception of 'empathetic duplicity' (a term I really, really, like) in his work. I welcome that opportunity and will post the note if he wishes it to be posted. I'm very cautious with people's email addresses.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Alex, I did and I loved it, have you read A Horse Named Sorrow?

Wendy Knowlton said...

As someone who has worked with people of various vulnerabilities, it does not surprise me that someone with so much passion for one group has little empathy for another. Sad, but true.

Princeton Posse said...

Dave, I used to finish the book once I started it but lately, if something doesn't gab me in the first chapter, I move on. There are too many great books to take up my time with something mediocre. I find it is quite liberating.

Greg Kearney said...

Okay. I'm just free associating here...the book was written as a depiction of abjection, ethical myopia, relentless self-sabotage. I didn't render the queer character's plight as any more deserving of sympathy than the small town, intellectually lazy character who, in thinking back to the days where she tried to scrounge up a PFLAG chapter in her hometown, considered a lesbian who "went retarded" after a construction accident. The notion that someone could "go retarded" is, of course, absurd and offensive, so much so that, indeed, I do find it comedic. So are the racist and homophobic epithets uttered by other characters throughout the book.These instances are all but footnoted as satire! I feel bad that you were hurt by the work, but must say that you presume I am able-ist and wrote from a position of privilege, or with a vision plagued with ethical blind spots, which is absolutely not the case. My stuff has always been scatological, base, inelegant. Not that I need to defend the act of running with one's "hottest instincts" during the act of art-making, but I'll say again what I said repeatedly during press promotion of The Desperates: I wrote this novel as a queer, HIV positive person WITH AN INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY. So, all I ask is that I be allowed to do my work, with candor and a deeply ingrained empathy, without a knee-jerk critique based mostly, from the sound of it, on my photograph on the back cover. Greg K.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Mr. Kearney, I wrote the critique because of what I read in the book, I did look at the picture of you on the cover but that had no real bearing on me writing what I wrote. You are right, of course, you did use racist language. The difference for me was that the characters who used that language knew that it was racist, knew that they were speaking words that shouldn't be said. Too, there were black characters in the book who had a chance to react to those words. You may have known that the 'R word' is hurtful but the characters in the book didn't, it was presented simply as speech. Similarly the word 'midget,' also considered deeply offensive, was used casually with the same lack of awareness.

I was going to write to you personally but as you've commented publically here, wanted to answer what you've stated. I wasn't personally hurt by the use of the words but it did hurt my reading experience. That give me room for comment. I also know many self advocates with intellectual disabilities who work hard, very hard, to eliminate the use of the 'R word'. That word, and its history, makes it a sensitive thing for many of us who have joined their movement.

Greg Kearney said...

Dave, all of those words were positioned with great care; had discourse trickled down enough that a blue collar woman in small town Ontario in 1998 would know that the word "nigger" is offensive and inappropriate? Of course. Similarly, would she have been passively apprised by the culture as to the charged nature of the word "retarded"? Possibly, possibly not. Would the meth-ravaged man whose parents, anachronistically, opted to refer to themselves as "midget" -- would he know to qualify the use of that word? Probably, but not emphatically, which is why he stresses that his throwback parents preferred that word.
We could go back and forth.I feel like your were almost skimming the novel for "bad words", context be damned. My work is not aspirational like, say, Holly Near's; it does not reflect a world I long to see. It reflects what I have seen and know, wrong-headed or not, to be an accurate account.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Greg, I understand that the story was set in the late 90's and that people may not have had the awareness regarding the 'r word' that they have now. If the story was written then, well, OK. But it wasn't, it was written now. What do we know now about the lives of people with intellectual disabilities? Let's review a few facts, people with intellectual disabilities are: more likely to be victims of bullying and teasing than any other group (it gets better isn't a campaign that resonates for people with intellectual disabilities because, it doesn't); people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse, less likely to have their day in court, more likely to be victims of other kinds of crimes, less likely to have those crimes taken seriously; more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be given a chance at employment opportunities. As a result over 70 percent of people with intellectual disabilities who live in the community, live in fear of ongoing social violence. Much of this goes into the understanding of the hate that is wadded up and stuffed inside the word 'R#tard." So when that word is going to be used in a book about another time to be read with current awareness, that word should have some connection to the story. It should be used as cautiously and with as great a care as choosing to use racist, sexist or homophobic language. The author would rightly be concerned about the readers reaction to words that have such a powerful emotional charge. I didn't think that the book you wrote benefited artistically from the use of the word, it didn't seem to have purpose in the way that the other charged words in the book did. I wrote about this on a disability blog with readers that are tired closely to the disability community, many I'm guessing, who would have a similar reaction to the word appearing in the book in the manner in which it appeared. Again, I think that this is fair comment. I do appreciate your willingness to discuss and am happy to say that we agree to disagree if you'd like.

Nicole said...

I found Dave's blog after getting a card handed to me at the Pride Parade in Toronto. I think it might add to this discussion,