Representations of dis/ability run through the literature of every era, as Clare Barker, who teaches English Literature with a focus on Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds, explains. At the same time, Barker notes that such representations are often not registered or discussed. Yet dis/ability seems to be a particularly useful narrative device for writers who address colonial contexts and their consequences. At the same time, this allows them to question the social and potentially colonial construction of dis/ability. I’m thinking of Hagos in Sulaiman Addonia’s novel Silence is My Mother Tongue whose speech disability can be read as a symbol of the unsaid in relation to political power games and their effects on people’s everyday lives. I’m thinking of Simon from Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People, who suffers many scars due to abuse and is beaten by Joe, his foster father, until he loses his hearing for a time, and how he thus stands for a critique of the New Zealand health and care systems. Nyasha from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions comes to mind, whose eating disorder in colonial Rhodesia can only be interpreted as the problematic influence of England, according to her mother, when Nyasha is actually rebelling against patriarchal structures. These are stories that address “damage”, inequality, and power and its abuses in the postcolonial world via a character’s body.
In relation to people, such literary representations pose questions about being human, about ‘norms’ and ‘deviation’ or being ‘different’. In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga presents a colonial world that is starkly patriarchal. Nyasha is an intelligent young girl who reads a lot and questions everything – including the authority of her father, who has a leading position in a school run by white missionaries. Her father punishes her and forbids her to talk back, which actually means that she is forbidden to think for herself and have an opinion. Nyasha is expected to conform to the norms within the colonial state, which are a mixture of European Christian values and locally practised patriarchy. As a daughter, she is at the mercy of her father and in her powerlessness, she turns against her own body. Her family thinks she has gone mad. As a reader, I am shocked and angered by the injustice of the system. The ‘problem’ is not Nyasha developing a mental illness: The problem lies with a constructed normality that makes her a problem.
Another character experiences mental illness alongside Nyasha: the mother of her cousin Tambudzai. The mother lives in abject poverty, her husband squanders what little money they have, one of her children dies in adolescence. These circumstances permanently impair her participation in social life. It goes so far that Lucia, the mother’s sister, has to intervene and force her to wash, eat and participate minimally in life at all. Barker explains that postcolonial literature often presents a cultural understanding of dis/ability, which seems particularly plausible to me because it allows certain contexts to be critically examined. A cultural understanding of dis/ability focuses on the experiences of all members of a society. Dis/ability then refers to what ‘normality’ actually means and how it has been constructed. A historical view is valuable here, because it helps in understanding what has led to processes of stigmatisation and exclusion, and how barriers have come to exist.
Representations of dis/ability and illness in postcolonial literature show how closely material bodies are connected to postcolonial politics. Thus, in Dangarembga’s novel, dis/ability stands for what has infected the entire nation and its institutions. The condition of the people – in this case in colonial Rhodesia – is a direct result of colonial oppression. Nervous Conditions specifically addresses violence, poverty and malnutrition, which have physical and psychological consequences for people. In addition, institutions, behaviours and world views that have emerged from colonial relations play a significant role. The troubled conditions of individual bodies and national institutions can be understood through dis/ability: the colonial context disables.
Clare Barker stresses the importance of being aware of dis/ability when reading postcolonial literature, simply because dis/ability is present in so many postcolonial texts. This type of literature depicts realities that many people (at least in Germany or Europe) shy away from, which becomes evident when you consider that some people fear to say something offending or stigmatising simply by using the word “disability” (“Behinderung”).
Poet and artist Khairani Barokka points out that colonialism shifted norms and notions of dis/ability in colonised territories. By portraying dis/abled characters postcolonial literature has the potential, to question the processes that serve to establish norms, in a variety of geographical and historical contexts. In this way, it can unmask the violence inherent in a narrow, inflexible understandings of normality, whatever its variation.