NWU Author Interview: Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille

Nothing Without Us is an own-voices, multi-genre collection of short stories where the protagonists identify as disabled, Deaf, neurodiverse, Spoonie, and/or manage mental illness.

Co-editor Cait Gordon interviews eight-time Prix Aurora Awards winner Derek Newman-Stille, author of Charity™, which will appear in the Nothing Without Us anthology this fall.

Story summary: It’s fundraiser time, when all the disabled folks are on display, hoping to entice the ever-so curious able-bodied donors to cough up some cash. After all, money from the Normies is all they have to live on, now that there are no other financial assistance programs. The better the inspiration, the higher the donation. Except . . . not every Crip wants to play the game.


Tell us about yourself! Also, maybe clarify the rumours that you’re planning on building an “Iron Throne” out of Prix Aurora Awards.

I am a Disabled, Queer writer, activist, artist, and academic. I teach at Trent University, and my main research is on representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. I run a few digital humanities sites like Speculating Canada , where I explore Canadian Spec Fic and Dis(Abled) Embodiment, where I explore disability and things of interest to disabled folks.

Speculating Canada has won me . . . a few Prix Aurora Awards for Canadian Spec Fic, for which I thank the community of brilliant people who have followed the site and continue to be interested in my ramblings about Canadian Spec Fic. But alas, they switched the awards from deadly sharp metal to deadly sharp glass a couple of years ago, so only half of my awards would really forge well into an Aurora Throne. I will just have to keep them by my door on my “to read” shelf as potential weapons (and reminders that I need to get reading).

You have dedicated your career to boosting marginalized voices, particularly the intersections with disability. What are the topics you find yourself educating others about the most?

As a Disabled and Queer person, I have tasted a lot of oppression and yet in both communities (Disabled and Queer), I have also found a powerful sense of belonging. Those communities have meant so much to me and have taught me so much, and I wanted to do as much as I could to support my fellow Disabled and Queer people, but also to support other marginalized people in their movements and to learn from them because we have so much work to do together to create a better world.

Because I teach at a University, I tend to do a lot of formal teaching and, as much as possible, I like to bring disability and Queerness into my courses by having topics and readings around those areas. I have taught courses directly on Disability Studies, but I also like to make sure that people know that disability and queerness and race should not only be explored in courses that feature those names, but should be recognized in all of our courses since disabled, queer, and racialized people’s lives aren’t limited to one area, but suffuse our society. We have created so many social issues by erasing the perspectives of marginalized people, so I think that we need to constantly make sure that marginalized voices are represented and suffuse our discussions.

But I also like to educate outside the classroom and I feel like because I have experience teaching, I can do a lot of the teaching labour that others shouldn’t have to constantly do. So many of us are put into positions where we have to educate on a daily basis. We are asked by abled people to explain our bodies and needs to them. We are harassed by them until we educate about our bodies. So, I feel that I can do a lot of that education for others to make sure that others (hopefully) won’t have to do as much. I find that I HAVE to educate anyway because so many abled people require it of me to get basic rights and access. I have, like many disabled people, also experienced abled people yelling questions about my body to me, or following me for blocks down the street asking me what is “wrong with” my body, or have decided that they should tell me that I don’t really need my accessibility devices, and if I were to just try yoga, crystals, gluten-free diets, giving up tomatoes, eating more fish, etc., I would suddenly have my spine knit itself back together and be magically cured.

But it isn’t all just street-level education. I also try to give talks and organize panels around disability and other marginalized identities because I think that those conversations need to keep happening—and not just for abled people, but for folks in our own community too. So often our talks tend to assume an abled audience because those are the people most often demanding that we explain our bodies, but there are so many disabled people out there who need to raise questions with other disabled people, and we can learn so much from each other.

Talia and I wanted you to be our guest of honour for Nothing Without Us because of your dedicated activism and advocacy. Then we received your story, Charity™. (And OHMYGOSH, folks!) What prompted you to write this work?

Thank you again for your kind words!! It really means a lot. I was incredibly excited when I found out that the two of you were editing a collection of fiction by people in the disabled community. It is something that I had craved throughout my life, always wanting more representation and generally encountering disappointment as yet another disabled character was written by an abled person and ended up being a hollow trope. It means so much for me to not only get the chance to read Nothing Without Us, but to also have a story in this collection and get a chance to share pages with so many brilliant people in our community telling the stories that we need to hear.

I wanted to write a story that spoke back to some of the dominant images of disability. The public view of disability has been strongly shaped by the Charity Model, which is as complex and entrenched as it is problematic. The Charity Model has portrayed disability as something that is tragic, unfortunate, and defined by suffering. This has been partially shaped by charities in the past and present where people have used tragic images of us in order to raise money. Generally, charity money is dedicated toward a search for a “cure” for us or genetic research to prevent us from developing, so its mission is largely to eradicate us rather than to provide us with the accessibility devices and supports that we need to live in this world. Charities perceive our bodies as problems rather than perceiving our ableist world as a problem. The Charity Model also assumes that the best interests of disabled people are served by able bodied people who want to “give” to us only when they feel guilty. It isn’t interested in long-term supports or in disabled needs being covered by policy, but would rather shape us as needy people who should be grateful for handouts. Even the word “Handicap” that has been used for disabled people frequently literally has its meaning in begging and receiving charity. It literally means “cap in hand”, that is, holding out one’s cap for charity.

So, I felt the need to speak back to the Charity Model, to bring critical attention to the problems of “charity” and the way that it seeks to make us passive and dependent instead of seeking to change society so that we can be participants in all parts of our world. I wanted people to see the potential dangers of a Charity Model and the ways that this could do damage to us as disabled people, and I hoped to raise critical questions amongst our disabled community about how to change the dialogue around charity to make for more radical types of change.

Your protagonist and I would probably be best friends. In real life, there is a Twitter hashtag called #DisabledSnark (created by Nicole G. Cowie). I feel your main character embodies disabled snark. Was it important for you to craft them that way in their world?

Nicely said. Yes, #DisabledSnark definitely defines this character! I get so frustrated with works that only portray us as happy, peaceful, passive folks. I wanted someone who was angry at the system and who embodied the disability activist chant “Piss On Pity.” But, I think more than that, the character sort of grew with the story, demanding a voice that was loud, disruptive, and contrary to the dominant messages of society. I wanted someone who was just so tired of the way things are and finally said “enough with this. I’m done!” I wanted to show that we can definitely be angry crips and that there is value in being angry.

Why did you use Crip as a descriptor that your main character proudly identifies with? What is it about the reclamation of words that were used to harm disabled folks?

Not everyone identifies with the term “Crip,” but I have felt strong resonances with the term. I sort of had my coming of age during a period in time where Queer Nationalism was a significant movement for those of us in the Queer community, and part of the idea of Queer Nationalism was not being passive or cowing to heteropatriarchy, so we reclaimed the word “Queer” as part of that. It was a word that had been used to oppress us and we wanted to take the power out of it and turn it into OUR word. It meant a lot for me to reclaim it since it had been used to attack me all of my life up to that point and often precipitated homophobic violence.

So, when I read about other disabled people reclaiming the word “Crip” (short for cripple), I realized the potential that it could mean for our community and started using it to describe myself. It has the power to disrupt the idea that disabled people should just be invisible or passive or people who are reacted to, and instead, using “Crip” evokes a reaction from abled people. It makes them step back for a moment, because they are used to hearing us described that way by other abled people, but not by us. It makes them wonder and reflect and calls into question how the word has been used in the past. I think there is a lot of power in that moment of pause and reflection. There’s also just a beauty to saying the word “Crip”. It has a delightful power in it. So, I wanted my main character to reflect the power of that word. I wanted the reader to feel the word “Crip” on their tongue, to feel the potential of it, and to take a step back and ponder.

Charity models tend to make me gag, most often because they are put together by abled people. What were you most trying to underscore in Charity™?

I really wanted my story to be a resistance text, a story of resistance to the multiple texts that are imposed on our bodies as disabled people. We crips are textual beings. We are written over by doctor’s diagnoses, which claim to have authenticity over our own stories. Indeed, we often need these diagnoses as “proof” of our disability to get access. We are shaped by and written over by policies that are made by politicians about our identities that shape how we are able to be in our world. We have to use accommodation reports to access classrooms and gain the supports we need. There are so many texts that seek to shape us, and they are generally written about us and often supersede our own tales about ourselves. I wanted Charity™ to speak back to some of those other texts and give us a voice. I wanted to show how policy texts overwrite us, how our lives are scripted and to play with the idea that we often have to perform our expected role in order to get access. So, Charity™ is also a story about the way that stories shape us, the way that they make us have to perform, and the way that we lose ourselves in the stories that are told about us. I wanted this to be a story where someone says, “No, I won’t perform for you”.

As an educator, do you feel stories such as these in Nothing Without Us could provoke important discussions among students, whether they are disabled or not?

Honestly, I have been searching for a collection like Nothing Without Us for forever. I have wanted to have a ready collection of short fiction that my students could read to get a diverse understanding of disability and the disabled imaginary, because so often we are subject to the imaginings of abled people.

Many people don’t realize how much the public and social imagination shapes policy, but ideas are what shape what we think is important, what we focus on, and how we approach our decisions. If we can imagine something in a new way, it opens up possibilities for us to change the existing structure. Abled people pretend that our world is “naturally” inaccessible, but that simply isn’t the case. Our world is inaccessible because we have made it so, and we have made it so because people don’t imagine that the world needs to be accessible—because they don’t think of disabled people or care that disabled people exist. Even our policies for inclusion don’t get enforced because people don’t think that they are really needed or important. They imagine that disabled people aren’t worth their time or energy to accommodate. So, switching that message and providing new imaginary spaces—new stories—are essential to re-mapping disability and creating new types of access. I think that message is an important one for my students, but also for our public overall. I hope that people will pick up Nothing Without Us and participate with the writers in asking critical questions and opening up new possibilities.

Where can people follow you online, so they can learn all about your awesome?

A few ways that folks can connect with me are through my websites, Speculating Canada and Dis(Abled Embodiment. For folks that are interested in art, you can check out my art website.

I also have a presence on Twitter as @DNewmanStille

Please support our Kickstarter (April 1–April 30, 2019!)

Check out the rewards you can get for pledging this anthology! We thank you for your support!

Nothing Without Us book cover
Book cover ID: Old russet brick wall with peeling spray-painted colours in aqua, yellow, white, beige, and reds. Stencilled boldly in black: Nothing Without Us. (The list of editors and authors appears underneath.)

Editors: Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson

With stories by: Myriad Augustine, Carolyn Charron, Joanna Marsh, Elliott Dunstan, Jennifer Lee Rossman, Raymond Luczak, Nicole Zelnicker, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Jamieson Wolf, J. Ivanel Johnson, Tom Johnson, Tonya Liburd, Shannon Barnsley, Madonna Skaff, Maverick Smith, George Zancola, Diane Koerner, Laurie Stewart, Tasha Fierce, Nathan Caro Frechette, Emily Gillespie, Derek Newman-Stille

Publisher: Renaissance

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