2014 Contest: An Interview with Nonfiction Winner Landon Houle
Born in Brown County, TX, Landon Houle currently lives in South Carolina and works as an editor at In Fact Books. She is a winner of Permafrost’s Midnight Sun fiction contest and Crab Creek Review‘s fiction contest, and her essay “The Plains We Cross” was listed as a notable in The Best American Essays. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal, Baltimore Review, The Long Story, Natural Bridge, Harpur Palate, River Styx, and elsewhere.
Interview by CONNOR O’NEILL
Black Warrior Review: Among other things, this essay is interested in acknowledging and subverting–or rather pushing past–the conventions of the personal essay and the disability/hero story into more honest places of self-exploration. Who are other writers you admire who do this kind of work?
Landon Houle: Dorothy Allison is one of my favorite authors, and while we generally think of Allison as a fiction writer, her comments about the country’s myth of the poor have become a guidepost for my own work. In “Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories,” Allison makes a distinction between the “good” poor—the clean, honorable hard workers—and the bad poor—the drinkers, the unwed mothers, the unattractive bad seeds. Allison aligns herself with this latter group which she feels is underrepresented in literature and television.
For me, there’s a corollary between Allison’s myth of the poor and what we might call the myth of the disabled. There are the good disabled. That is, those handicapped but morally superior Tiny Tims who serve as holy seraphs of inspiration and cockle-warming for the “normal” masses. And then, to borrow Allison’s dichotomy, there are the bad disabled who don’t gently and gracefully accept their physical and mental differences. Their stories don’t necessarily end in simple modes of victory, be it a miraculous healing or a martyr’s death.
I once had a subscription to a magazine that specialized in topics and news related to neuromuscular disease. I’m glad this magazine existed because, in a time of more limited internet access, it distributed a great deal of information and research to the public. However, the feature pieces—perhaps for good enough reason—often focused on personal stories of noble suffering, juvenile innocence, and ultimate gratitude. After reading this magazine, I often felt alienated and distinctly dishonorable. While, like anyone, I experienced moments of joy and triumph, I was (and still am) frequently frustrated by my physical limitations. I wasn’t glad to have a handicap so that others could appreciate their relative normality. I didn’t always feel like being an example of human perseverance. I was, in other words, a member of the bad disabled, and like Allison, I didn’t see a fair representation of my group and my experience.
Allison has built a brilliant body of work around a reclamation of the derogatory term “trash,” and similarly today, we see a number of writers and scholars participating in a “crip” cultural movement. In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder write that “If disabled people take responsibility for the production of their own images, the social realists reason, images will evolve into more acceptable forms” (24). I interpret “acceptable” as a more authentic, complex examination and representation of the disabled figure and his or her interaction with the world. It is time for the disabled narrator to claim some of what the able-bodied narrator has enjoyed for a while now—the painfully rigorous and sometimes strange but always true exploration of the self. Phillip Lopate says, “There is a certain strictness, or even cruelty at times, in the impulse of the personal essayist to scrape away illusions.” Disability is my particular experience and part of the focus of this particular essay, but any personal essayist worth her readers’ time will do her best to explore the self as deeply and as genuinely as possible. Some of us just have to murder Tiny Tim in the process.
And so there is much to admire in writings about disability and otherwise. With my work at In Fact Books and Creative Nonfiction, I’m learning so much from Lee Gutkind about the potential and the purposes of the essay form. Reading Annie Dillard has taught me valuable lessons about the worth and dimension of individual experience. Speeding into the storm of stereotype and preconceived notions, authors like Thomas Lynch and Mary Roach make me realize that we may not know what we thought we knew after all. And Dinty W. Moore reminds me over and over again that there is more than one way—in fact, there are infinite ways (thank goodness!)—to craft a narrative. The works of these writers and so many more sit behind the desk with me every day, but in writing this piece, I think I was especially focused on moving away from, rather than moving toward a certain model. By distancing myself as a narrator from the disabled hero archetype, I’m first attempting to represent an authentic version of my experiences, and secondly, I’m trying to speak to a larger human experience of understanding and acknowledging all the different, at first seemingly disconnected parts of ourselves.
BWR: And in thinking about conventions or expectations of the reader, I’m wondering who you write to? Who you imagine sitting in the front row of your audience.
LH: When I’m writing the first drafts, I try not to think too much about an audience. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to continue! I concentrate primarily on language and image and precision. Later, I might envision a small number of readers—like my mom—who love me dearly and will tell me I’m doing well no matter what. And still later, when I’m ready to be more critical of the work, I’ll envision a tired but smart, open-minded stranger who is willing to listen if I’m brave enough to speak. And if I hurry up and get to the point.
BWR: It seems like a recent experience–a scene toward the end of the essay (not wanting to give anything away)–allowed you to see or understand a lot of the other experiences you share in the essay. So I’m wondering if there were versions of this essay before that more recent experience occurred and what they looked like. Or was this pivotal in producing the essay in the first place?
LH: I think this is an essay I’ve been writing for a long time without realizing it. That awkward, terribly embarrassing moment you’re referring to proved insightful and ultimately rewarding—just the kind of complex resolution we were talking about earlier. So while I had some versions of the essay brewing on paper and in my mind, that incident as well as Timothy J. Basselin’s book, Flannery O’Connor: Writing a Theology of Disability, were integral to understanding how these seemingly discrete aspects of my life added up to a kind of revelation. That moment forced me into a deep, not always pleasant honesty with which I tried to tell the rest of the story.
BWR: Is this a stand alone piece or part of a collection?
LH: My disability is certainly not the whole of my identity, but it’s an important component of who I am. Not mentioning it, particularly in a personal essay, sometimes feels disingenuous because of the significant ways in which it affects my daily life. The essay, I think, shows my progression in getting more comfortable acknowledging my disability, and as I gain confidence, I feel a certain obligation and freedom to participate in the larger conversation. I want to do my part to reveal the complexities lost in stereotypes and misconceptions. To that end, I’m currently at work on a collection about disability and the ways we represent, acknowledge, and ignore disability in narrative, other mediums, and society more generally.
BWR: After reading this essay I’m ready to take your word on almost anything and since you mention going through a phase of learning all about enigmas, I have to ask: did you come across any bigfoot or Nessie stories you thought had some credence?
LH: Oh my gosh, I think they all have some kind of credence! People miss the mark if they only look for truth in whether or not the creature or the alien or the ghost actually exists. The more compelling truth, I think, is in our desire to see or to believe or, in Human Barbie’s case, to become something. The witness is the real mystery, and if you look at the world this way, a part of you stays young and curious and amazed forever. That’s the kind of essayist I want to be.