Activist, educator, and cultural worker Anne Finger has long been prominent in the U.S. disability movement. The author of three volumes of fiction and two memoirs, she has served as President of the Society for Disability Studies, written for Disability Studies Quarterly, and contributed to countless disability anthologies and conferences; at present, she is the board president of AXIS Dance Company, among the first dance companies to welcome disabled performers. In addition to disability-specific work, her career of activism extends from the 1960s peace movement to the Occupy movement: she has marched on the Pentagon and helped to shut down the Port of Oakland.
Finger's first book, the 1988 story collection Basic Skills, contains several disability-themed works, two of them drawing on her childhood experiences of polio. Her 1990 memoir Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and Birth, integrates accounts of her early life, her social activism, and her experiences at the hands of the medical profession, both as a polio survivor and as the mother of a baby in intensive care. In the process it explores the impact of sexist and ableist oppressions on her life and mind, and dramatizes her struggles with them. Her 1994 novel Bone Truth, incorporating a number of autobiographical elements, tells a story of a woman considering motherhood and struggling to frame a narrative explaining her own life and her difficult parents, particularly her abusive father. Among many other things, it is a historical critique of masculinism on the Old and New Left. With 2006's Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio, Finger produced an anti-individualist memoir, one that integrates her own experiences and feelings into a wealth of social and historical contexts. The stories collected in her 2009 Call Me Ahab, like Elegy, aspire to reveal the breadth of disability culture. The volume is a postmodern tour de force that re-envisions the experiences of legendary disabled characters from art, fiction, and history, through a disability-justice perspective.The interview covers a good deal of feminist and activist territory. Here's just a morsel to pique your interest:
JL: Then comes "Abortion" (1985), which contains the line, "'The flight from freedom,' my fingers snapped, 'the rise of the right-wing, the … it's not exactly freedom we're fleeing from … it's a half-way revolution, a quarter turn.'" How it felt in the late Seventies when we weren't getting the revolution we were hoping for.
AF: Right, right. And also that sense of having abortion rights but not having much that went along with it, and not having achieved the revolution in gender relations that we'd hoped for, trying to put that whole stew of things together.
JL: And not having achieved the revolution in class relations which would give abortion rights a context in which—
AF: Yes, and very specifically there, I'm thinking about a lot of the loneliness that people experienced. The lack of connection, and the isolation that people feel, and the lack of a sense of community, and the way that freedom can sometimes feel like more isolation, more being cut off, creating so many choices that you end up alone.
JL: The end of "Abortion" goes through the metafictional analysis that will become one of the glories of Call Me Ahab. It talks about the drama of the story, explains how real-life events were altered to turn it into a work of fiction, and ends with "a slogan, an image, a moral: and with a plea to reimagine our language, to tell and tell our stories again, until we have words to echo our lives." Needing new narratives and cutting through the received narratives. I keep hearing that in connection with what Occupy and other radicals today are trying to do. Can it be done? Can new narratives reach people?
AF: Oh absolutely. I just think we always have to be off-balance. We always have to realize that whatever story we tell, it's never going to be the final story. Until the end of the human race, which I guess will be the final story, but only by happenstance. I think of it in terms of disability studies, that whatever point we come to, we're never going to come to a final understanding, we're never going to come to a final resting point, we're always going to be needing to see that, whatever we've created, it's silenced some people, it's excluded some things. And to just constantly be aware of that exclusion. And I think the same thing in terms of finding that language to speak. It's always going to be partial, there's always going to be a kind of yearning at the edges, a sense that we haven't fully articulated things.
I've been involved in an online forum where somebody was discussing a book and used the term "mental illness," and somebody else fired back, "You know, this is a really offensive term, and people in the mad pride movement or the psych survivor movement don't like this terminology" ;and there's been a very interesting conversation about terminology. The idea that we're going to come up with the perfect term — I understand why people can have a very strong reaction to the term "mental illness," and the dangers of it; and I understand that maybe at times it makes rhetorical sense to deploy that, and that we always have to be aware and we always have to be negotiating those things.
JL: We need words for things, and the dream of a pure language isn't going to happen; and so we'll always have our scare quotes and brackets and strikethroughs and footnotes and the like.
JL: There's a story in Basic Skills called "A Tragedy" — originally published as "Our Tragedy" (1985) — which has the line, "We were no short-haired, thin-lipped Maoists out to offer ourselves up as the vanguard to Providence's working class." But you talk a lot about the asceticism of the radicals and their grandiose self-image.
AF: And I have mixed feelings about that. Because any revolutionary change has to come about by being really unreasonable. It has to come about by people being driven. It has to come about by people being grandiose. And at the same time that grandiosity and that unreasonableness has to be tempered. And the work of tempering that has to happen within movements. And it's hard to live with.
Now go read the complete interview here: http://www.wordgathering.com/issue26/interviews/finger.html.