Home >> Volume 19 (Spring 2019) >> "Writing the Impossible": Saidiya Hartman and the Archive >> Michelle Rabe on "Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction"

Michelle Rabe on "Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction"

cover art for Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction

Sami Schalk

Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction

Duke University Press, 2018
192 pages

Reviewed by Michelle Rabe
At the start of her debut monograph, Sami Schalk poses a series of questions that comes to guide her critical investigations of embodiment, representation, and speculative fiction—“What might it mean to imagine disability differently? Differently from the stereotypical stories of pity, helplessness, and victimhood, of evil, bitterness, and abjection, of nonsexuality and isolation, of overcoming and supercripts?” Schalk looks to non-realistic representations of disability in black women’s speculative fiction in her dedicated pursuit to answer such questions. She draws the fields of black women’s speculative fiction and disability studies together to highlight how this fiction offers different depictions of and attitudes toward non-normative bodyminds that are usually stigmatized in reality. With this intersection, she shows how the genre can be liberatory to groups from both racist and ableist systems of representation in how it can completely “reimagine the possibilities and meanings of bodyminds, particularly in regard to (dis)ability, race, and gender.”

Schalk leans into the reimagined futurities that black women’s speculative fiction envisions by letting the subject matter dictate her analysis of the texts. She conducts her analysis by “reading within the rules of a reality of a text.” Thus, the language she uses to describe her ideas is generated from the texts themselves, and the frameworks of crip theory and intersectionality that she calls upon derive from her examination of the genre. Since many of the texts she analyzes contain hybrid futuristic minds and bodies that are completely inextricable from one another, she uses the term “bodymind” to reflect such interconnected entities. And, since the speculative fiction works she considers reveal the interdependency of ability on disability, she uses the term “(dis)ability” to refer to the fluid delineations of disability in any given context. Even more so, Schalk respects the words and rules created by the “realities” depicted in the works of speculative fiction that she writes about by refusing to collapse their complexity into a good/bad binary or reduce their sophisticated narratives to characters only. In doing so, Schalk shows the liberatory potential for marginalized bodyminds that black women’s speculative fiction has for representations of race, gender, and disability.

Throughout the book, Schalk focuses on different non-realist representations of disability, race, and gender in speculative fiction, including those in neo-slave narrative, science fiction, and fantasy genres. In the first chapter, Schalk reads disability in Octavia Butler’s neo-slave narrative Kindred both literally (in how the tremendous violence has impaired populations physically) and metaphorically (in how that same violence has disenfranchised them for centuries). Her second chapter focuses on representations of able-mindedness in Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata, and it posits able-mindedness as an elusive myth that is oblivious to the deeply subjective nature of people’s experiences in their unique realities. Schalk’s third chapter returns to Butler’s work with an analysis of her Parable series and what it offers for alternative futuristic imaginations of disability. Instead of eradicating disabilities with technological advancements and cures, Butler’s series presents a hyper-empathy disability and a diverse range of how characters experience reality. Chapter Four then analyzes disabilities in non-human characters of multiple fantasy texts. Across the text, but especially in this final chapter, Schalk shows how non-realist representations of disability, race, and gender in speculative fiction can “defamiliarize” the common assumptions held about such representations and attributes. She explores the mental illnesses in nonhuman subjects and the hybrid biological and identity categories created in non-realistic worlds in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms and Shawntelle Madison’s Coveted series to “force readers to forego their outside knowledge of these real-world categories” of disability and race. Seeing them in a new context, detached from their preassigned social meanings in reality, allows readers to “learn about them anew through the perspective and experience of the protagonist.” With this chapter and throughout her project, she demonstrates how productive it is to think about how different works come to represent the realities they emerge from, how different realities come to represent the different works they emerge from, and how there are distinct benefits to different genres in their abilities to depict intersecting identities.

Bodyminds Reimagined deals heavily with black feminist theory and disability studies and, thus, will be of particular interest to critical race theorists, feminist theorists, and disability theorists. Schalk calls for race and feminist theorists to concentrate on how (dis)ability figures into the systems of privilege and oppression that they research and for (dis)ability scholars to do the same for race, gender, and sexuality. Using feminist, queer, disability, and crip theorists like Alison Kafer, Ellen Samuels, and Julie Minich as models, Schalk’s work integrates a “disability studies perspective” into multiple fields because of how it helps to “reveal the operation of ideologies of ability in texts seemingly not ‘about’ disability at all.” As Schalk underscores, the potency of a disability studies analysis lies not only in texts most obviously dealing with disabled characters or illnesses but more broadly in texts’ ableist, racist, and sexist meanings and representations.

Beyond appealing to scholars, Schalk’s text is remarkably accessible to more casual readers and students. Schalk constantly signposts her argument, methods, and evidence to come in each section of her text; defines all of her terms directly and thoroughly; and draws out the implications of her claims for different audiences explicitly. This attention not only respects the bounds of the non-realist worlds she examines, but it allows Schalk to reimagine the elements of disability, gender, and race present in the bodyminds of black women’s speculative fiction as incisively and carefully as she does. Readers and scholars can look to Schalk’s project as a model to consider when analyzing literary representations of certain identity groups. By thinking about how a book generates its own parameters by which it should be considered, scholars can attend to literary works as the texts that they are rather than by resorting to highly theoretical frameworks by which to evaluate them. This approach respects the realities that literary texts operate upon, create, and come to influence, but it most powerfully shows how these realities can be reimagined.