Rod Michalko is a blind disability studies theorist who has recently retired from teaching at the University of Toronto. His books and essays are known internationally. He has now moved into the realm of short story writing, and Things are Different Here is his first collection. He lives in Toronto.
In his guest blog below, Rod shares his story of the inspirations behind his writing and the man who guided him along the way.
Comfort food, that’s what they called it, comfort food. We sat in that Queen St. East restaurant, five of us, dining on comfort food. The servers didn’t bring our food already individually plated. Instead, they brought bowls, bowls of food – potatoes, chicken, string beans – all in bowls. We helped ourselves; “Pass the string beans,” someone said; “Chicken, please,” said another, and we sat, comfortably passing bowls of comfort food to one another.
I began telling people just how much I was enjoying this comfort food. No one, including servers, felt obliged to tell me where on the plate my food was located. No one said your chicken is at three O’clock or your string beans are at six O’clock. There were none of these awkward moments, moments when sighted people felt a responsibility, a duty even, to let someone like me, someone who is blind, know where to find food on our plate. No one connected time and food. People merely asked me if I wanted chicken or potatoes. I then said, “Yes, and put the potatoes right here,” indicating a spot on my plate with my finger, “Just put them right here.”
It was a wonderful evening almost six years ago now — good friends, lots of fun and I had the pleasure, not to mention the honor, of talking to Austin Clarke who was seated right next to me. We spoke of many things but our conversation settled on my experience as a blind person. About to retire from university teaching, I remember telling Austin I was thinking of the possibility of writing short stories, stories that featured blind characters. Blindness and disability in general had been the focus of my academic writing. Now, I was telling Austin I think a change is due. Bringing blindness alive in fiction might be a worthwhile pursuit.
We then spoke of Austin’s work, his books of short stories, his many novels and his poetry, and we spoke of the poem he was currently working on, Where the Sun Shines Best. I told him how much I admired his writing, especially how he so vividly depicted the lives of Caribbean people as they settled in Toronto. I talked about one of his characters, my favorite, Boysie. We spoke of how Austin developed Boysie in his novels and how he used humor to do this. And yet, there was something sad, even tragic, in the way Austin portrayed Caribbean people in Toronto. We spoke of this too.
At many points during our conversation that evening, others wondered what Austin and I were talking about and tried their best to join in. A couple of them teased us saying that we were just a couple of old guys commiserating. They teased us, too, about our sticks – mine a white cane and Austin’s a solid walking stick. One of us, I think it was me, teased back saying that Austin and I would walk down the street to the Grand Hotel, he guiding me and I providing him with some balance. We would make quite the spectacle, I remember Austin saying.
Our conversation soon returned to writing. Austin asked me what I had experienced as very pointed questions. Will I have more than one blind character in each story? Would these characters be totally blind, or have a little sight? And, then, the most pointed one: Will I, Austin wanted to know, describe things, people, scenes, buildings, and so on. This question never occurred to me before, at least in the sense that describing requires seeing. Could there be another way to describe? More interesting still, was that I had included a couple of short stories in my academic books and hadn’t described anything in these stories, at least not in the conventional sense.
Austin latched on to this. He wanted to know whether this “no description,” as he called it, was already a depiction of blindness. Did I have a readership in mind and did I imagine this readership as sighted? Does “no description,” Austin wanted to know, bring readers into the experience of blindness, at least a little? No reader would have any sense of what the characters and scenes in my stories looked like. They would have to, Austin stressed this word, imagine. They would have to imagine what people and things looked like and do so through the narration and the dialogue of the characters. Did I think this began to capture the life of blindness? Austin asked.
On that evening some six years ago, in an unnerving kind of way, the most comforting thing was that Austin said, “I will teach you; you will be my student.” From this came countless hours of working with Austin, learning how to write dialogue, and trying to understand my own blindness to bring it alive in the characters of my short stories.
As I write, my blindness is right up front, but not necessarily as a topic or a theme even though this does happen. It is up front because it almost forces me to imagine, over and over again, both what it’s like to be blind and what it means. It is as though I go blind again in the creation of each of my characters. More than anything else, I think my writing invents and reinvents blindness. This inventing and reinventing has culminated in the publication of my first book of short stories, Things are Different Here. I am now pursing the writing of a novel, something I promised Austin and my blindness.
RIP Austin Clarke.
Rod Michalko visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Mariam Pirbhai, Canisia Lubrin, Mayank Bhatt, and special guest speaker Cassandra Rodgers.