In the fourth installment of Writing While Disabled, Kristy Anne Cox interviews Petra Kuppers.
KAC: Hello, readers! I’m sitting down with the fabulous Petra Kuppers today. Petra is an author, an activist, a performance artist, and a scholar! She teaches Disability Studies, Performance Studies, Writing, and more, at both the University of Michigan and Goddard College. Petra uses she/her pronouns.
Petra, how do you fit into the disabled community? Which disabled communities do you identify with?
Petra: Thank you for that question. It shows that you and I are in the same general discourse field because we're talking about communities.
I've been disabled my whole life but only discovered the disabled community as an adult. Growing up in Germany, I felt very isolated and alone. There was no disability culture as we understand it now, and the other disabled people around me were often those injured in the wars, particularly Second World War Veterans like my grandfather, who lived in the house with us.
I come from a perpetrator nation, a nation that killed many—among them, disabled people. My parents' generation, the generation who started the disability rights movement, had been decimated by the Nazis. Growing up in Germany in the 1970s and 80s meant to me a deep ethical engagement with the Nazi and colonial past—and the absence of disability in public life was one facet of that for me.
KAC: Is it different now, being in disabled communities here in the US and in Germany?
Petra: I haven't lived in Germany since I was 24 years old. I left because there I couldn't be who I wanted to be - as a queer disabled woman, artist, and educator. Remember, though, that I left over twenty years ago. There are many strong disability culture activists alive and working in Germany now, and I am connected with them to some extent.
Thanks to the Olimpias, the performance collective that I have led for the last 25 years, my disability community is now a fairly international crowd: my people are in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Wales, and here in the US. And we are a very loose collection—basically, whoever wants to hook up and do fun stuff together.
KAC: Well, we're lucky to have you here in the US!
Can I ask you a little more about the barriers you faced in the writing community or in artistic communities as a multiply marginalized disabled author?
Petra: Long before I wanted to be a writer, my goal was to become a choreographer. To attend choreography school, though, you needed a medical certificate attesting that you had (at least!) four sound limbs, and that was not available to me.
I instead applied to a German university, which was also inaccessible. One time my degree was at risk because I was in a wheelchair and couldn't attend the seminar on the fourth floor of a building. There were no other options, and I didn't even know how to be upset about it. Luckily, this female professor—and they were a rarity in those years—decided to hold the seminar on the ground floor so I could participate and get my degree. I would now call it a crip aesthetic of making do. A lot of my understanding of the disability culture world comes from creative adaptation.
The first artist residency that I ever received was a disabled writer's retreat at Ted Hughes’s estate in the north of England, where he used to live with Sylvia Plath. I was living in Wales at the time, working as a disability dance artist, and writing was part of my dance practice. The Arts Council of Wales had a disabled writer's bursary, so I applied for it, and found myself on this moor up in northern England! Those were the early years for things like disabled artist’s bursaries. There were very few back then.
KAC: Yeah, that makes sense. What about in the science fiction community?
Petra: Well, I applied to that bursary with a fantasy piece, a rewriting of the Lady of the Lake myth. Women swimming deep in a lake together, dark eros, transformation—which is what I'm still writing today.
KAC: That’s great! Can you talk to us about how your disabilities impact and inform your work?
Petra: I live with pain — significant, ongoing pain — and with notable mobility challenges, but I am also a dance artist. Language has always played a part in this complicated mixture of longing and sensibility. When I can't move, I write, and those two things are deeply connected. I love the sound and feel of language in my mouth. It’s why I write poetry, and why I write dark fantasy.
Some of my work has science fiction elements, but I am not interested in a sociological approach, in building a better world in my fiction. I'm fascinated by the intensities and extremes of experience. So in many ways, pain and restriction, together with transformation and interdependence, have shaped what I do in my bodymindspirit and in my writerly imagination.
KAC: I love this idea of disabled artists switching forms or genres as their accommodation needs change. I think that could be useful.
Petra: And it does not feel like accommodation. It's an ongoing undulation of what is possible. Even my movement, of course, is never straight dance work. Usually, it involves rolling around on the floor, strange sensory speculations, trance work, and exploring limit stages.
KAC: Or being in the water.
Petra: Definitely being in the water. I am a total water babe. In the summers, I swim in Michigan lakes, and in the winters, I try to dance in my local hot therapy pool. Closed right now, because of COVID… so many pain crips I know are having a hard time.
KAC: Oh, no!
Petra: Oh, my God, I'm just missing it so much.
KAC: Hopefully, the pandemic will be over soon.
Petra: Yeah, let's hope so. Let's hope that we all survive, and that we can all get into our therapy pools. Many people don't have access to these essential resources—I wish (and work) for much better holistic healthcare and free, imaginative well-being resources in this country.
KAC: Yeah. What is your creative process like?
Petra: Again, it's very much characterized by performance and movement. My creative process often involves being in a particular location, with its Indigenous roots, the layers of colonial encounter and immigration history, and the different violences and dreams that mark US land. But I can't just go for a hike, so often I'm just sitting on my bench or in my wheelchair. I take in the space, ask for access, make myself familiar, and wait.
Eventually, I feel myself being moved—by the wind, by things I hear, by the slight shifts and movements of the plants. I let my senses engage with the land and its non-human inhabitants. We enter a small dance. And then I write. And quickly, I find myself weaving the land into strange intensities: horror moments, gothic strangenesses, weird speculations. I call this kind of interweaving of personal sensation, land, and sociocultural histories an eco soma method of writing: somatic/environmental dances.
This is the process for my movement rehearsals, performance experiences, and travel experiences. It is my creative process—doing, writing, doing, writing, doing, writing, intertwining.
KAC: What tools are you using? Do you write primarily on your phone or on your laptop?
Petra: Primarily on my laptop, but I always have my notebook with me wherever I go, and it’s filled with squiggles and visual graphs, small sketches and mind maps. I do a lot of... like this. I don't know if this is accessible to you.
KAC: Readers, Petra is holding up a notebook with unlined pages that has words and illustrations in different colors of ink.
Petra: I have a lot of fine pens, usually MUJI pens, in multiple different colors. That's what I draw with, and how I do a lot of plotting and jotting down ideas. The actual writing is on my laptop, though.
KAC: And are you sitting up, standing, lying down?
Petra: I am sitting. I don't use the desk—can't have my legs down for that long. I prefer having my legs in a tailor seat, or lying down on softly cushioned surfaces, like I'm doing right now. My legs are on my sofa straight out, and I'm angled towards the laptop, looking at you. That feels like a divan kind of situation.
KAC: Do you have a specific time of day or a space to write in?
Petra: I generate ideas in sites, but when it is about the revising process, i.e., the bulk of my work, that’s usually early in the morning, when no one else is around.
I'm an early morning person. My wife—dancer and poet Stephanie Heit—is bipolar, and she has a very specific rhythm in her day, which usually involves her getting up a bit later than I do and staying up later than I do. This way, we both have private writing times.
KAC: Thank you. What advice would you offer to newer disabled writers about getting their writing done, especially with disabilities similar to yours?
Petra: Write. Just write. I know that every day is not possible for many of us, given our disabilities, but write as much as you can, and revise. There's great potential in both the generation and the deepening of ideas. You don't always have to generate new material, but you can become conscious of what's going on in your writing as you revise it.
Try to figure out how your disability—your particular, wonderful experience—shows up in your writing. Once you're in the flow of writing regularly, ask yourself what your unique voice is, and how it is shaped through your beautiful bodymindspirit—specifically if you write in non-realist genres. Your disability might show up through interesting transformations.
KAC: You know, I think many people are afraid to write their own disabled experiences because they've encountered people in writing groups, or submissions editors, who have said, ‘This character isn’t believable.’ ‘This character isn't disabled enough.’ ‘This character isn't disabled in the right ways.’ I hear this often from people who are saying, “I was writing my own experience. Are they saying I'm not real?”
Have you run into that?
Petra: Yeah. I mean, people have all kinds of weird responses to my surreal stuff, and I'm like, whatever. That's ok. Most things get rejected, for most people.
Slowly the world is waking up to the fact that disability culture has multiple different voices and other forms of expression. Many people now get excited when they see disabled writers who can offer a different perspective.
Some people won't see value in disabled perspectives, but you can’t get around them by covering yourself up. They will find another way of chucking you out, because you're queer, you're a woman, you are of color, you are trans, etc… There isn't much you can do about them. What you can do, if you have the capacity and the time or energy, is apprentice at a journal—that will teach you so much about what is coming in, what is good, and what is not. You can support diverse publications and editors or submit to places that look for your kind of work.
Also, you can learn more about writing. Just because something is part of your experience doesn't mean that you can automatically write about it in an exciting way. That's a skill you'll need to work on, and reading for a journal might be a good way to do it—especially since getting higher education is still hard for many disabled people.
KAC: Right. Do you push against these harmful narratives about disabled people in your work?
Petra: Oh, yeah. Most of my stories have disabled protagonists or main characters. I mean, why would I write about a non-disabled perspective? Many authors do that already, and I know little about non-disabled locomotion, so it doesn't come naturally to me. Most of my characters have some kind of difference, and I try to approach that with respect and with the notion of disability gain—without stereotyped villains and victims.
KAC: Awesome. I want to go back to the community, because you've done a lot with community event organization and performance art in a group setting.
Can you tell us how you got into community event organization?
Petra: Oh, yeah, of course. That's completely connected to my educational journey. I already mentioned that I couldn't go to choreography school, so I went to university instead. As the first person in my immediate family to finish high school, it was quite a big adventure. I didn't know what the hell I was expecting—I came from the flat countryside, and there I was in the big city! But on day two of my visit, I showed up at a feminist queer theater collective, and everything flowed from there.
My interest in community performance developed when I found out that the University of Cologne had a theater where you could pitch productions. They gave me—a young woman who had been there for less than a year—time and space to run a community project. I got all these people involved, some from within the university community, but mostly from outside. Some lived as squatters, one was an architect, and they all came from a wide variety of socioeconomic places and gender expressions.
We worked together for a year, using somatics and bodily experience workshops to put on Frankenstein, such a core piece of feminist horror work—and believe me, we it was a very strange and fun Frankenstein.
KAC: That sounds wonderful.
Petra: Yeah, it was. We were writing the script and creating the scenes as we worked together. It wasn't like I came from a different tradition and then switched to community theater: improvisation and community creation were right there from the beginning.
I am reliant on being interdependent, as I cannot run everything by myself. I really do need my friends— even though sometimes I behave like I might not!
KAC: How can disabled communities like the ones you're describing create and hold space for multiply marginalized disabled folk?
Petra: That's an excellent question. I grew up within a dominantly white German environment influenced by an awareness of genocide, by the heritage and presence of racist violence. There have always been non-white people in the Olimpias, but it still is a white-centered framework. Our axes of difference lay with our experiences regarding psychiatric institutions, incarceration, and class.
The best way of building vital communities is to encourage as many people as possible to write. We can learn from non-disabled people—from Cave Canem, Kundiman, and other identity-based writing organizations. It's so important for disabled people to create spaces like that—for instance, check out Zoeglossia, a disabled writers' community, or Relentless Bodies: a Detroit-based creative disability and healing justice collective.
But while we're living under white supremacy, I think it's hard for truly coalitional work to happen naturally. We need to offer space, money, and the necessary stuff for all people to create groups, instead of only enabling white-led initiatives.
KAC: That makes sense. I feel like industry professionals, like agents and editors, will often put out calls for submissions, specifically inviting disabled authors to apply. Are there things they could do to create more space for disabled authors?
Petra: They can reach out and pay disabled writers to be on the organizing teams. Let them infiltrate the decision-making process. Have disabled authors as readers and editors. If you value that diversity, pay people. Don't expect to get disabled or non-privileged demographics on board by offering unpaid internships, because they can’t afford that.
Of course, many of our genre magazines are teeny-tiny, and no one gets paid. But publications could, for instance, offer something like a slot for an interview, or a writing workshop, or another kind of mentorship.
KAC: I love that idea. Let us infiltrate the selective process. That’s powerful.
When you're going to conventions, writing workshops, or receiving an award at an awards ceremony, accessibility becomes an issue. Safety becomes an issue. What can cons and other writing venues or groups do in terms of accommodation to help Disabled folk attend safely?
Petra: Yeah, the answer is: “Ask Disabled folk.” And not just one. Not always the same one. But ask a variety of disabled people. There are always growth possibilities. Look to other places that have had success and where people feel comfortable. The main convention I go to is WisCon, which I think has learned to do an excellent job.
KAC: Is there anything else you want to share with anyone reading this interview?
Petra: Just write. Be creative. Your expression is important. It's not always about voice—we’ve got to be careful with our metaphors, right? I want to read the expression that you bring to the page.
It's great that there is a larger number of panels by disabled writers at all kinds of cons. We have more complex and intriguing Disabled characters in our narratives, and they’re slowly filtering up into the mainstream. It's going to be a while, but we're seeing progress.
I'm just so delighted that we have enough to support you in writing an interview series about us. We're no longer where we were, say, 50 years ago. We are moving forward, but we can still enlarge our community and make sure that more and more people get access to decision making and writing.
KAC: Thank you.
Readers, You can find Petra’s books at your favorite bookseller, online or local, including foundational texts like Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction. She has a queercrip short story collection, Ice Bar (2018), and her most recent poetry collection, Gut Botany, was on the New York Public Library's "Best Books of 2020." Her most recent performance book, Eco Soma: Pain and Joy in Speculative Performance Encounters, is available as an economically just open book access here. You can find more out about Petra's work at her website, www.petrakuppers.com.