Octavia Butler's work is both popular and provocative, but as Sami Schalk acknowledges, Butler's popularity, and that of speculative fiction in general, tends to undermine the genre in academic contexts because it "is often considered too easy, too fun, and therefore too pleasurable to be serious or political" (145). Despite this common assumption about speculative fiction's value, Butler's work and the speculative fiction writing of other black women often address key issues related to race, gender, and (dis)ability, which is the premise of Schalk's excellent first monograph, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction (2018).
Bodyminds Reimagined is a highly accessible text for both academic and non-academic readers, as Schalk's monograph is clear in its purpose, definitions, and outlines. She describes the book as "a loving, critical intervention into black feminist theory and disability studies" that uses the latter theoretical approach in conjunction with feminism and critical race theory to explore the intersections of (dis)ability, race, and gender in Butler's Kindred and Parable series, Alesia Perry's Stigmata, N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms, Shawntelle Madison's Coveted series, and Nalo Hopkinson's Sister Mine (3). In the introduction, Schalk lays the groundwork for a comprehensive understanding of her book by providing basic information about disability studies as a field as well as the terms she chooses to use. For academics familiar with disability studies, overviews of the field and theoretical concepts such as intersectionality and crip theory may not be useful, but Schalk's efforts to clearly define and explain her terms is beneficial to both academic and non-academic readers alike.
Although phrases such as "bodymind" have become increasingly common in disability studies, Schalk's use of "(dis)ability" is not immediately legible. As she explains the term though, "(dis)ability" helps to differentiate between social norms and physical conditions; Schalk "use[s] (dis)ability when referencing the wider social system and [she uses] disability or ability when referring to those specific parts of the (dis)ability system," a distinction I have maintained in this review (6). The clarity of the text's terms and goals is highly admirable and is a trait Schalk carries through the rest of her work. Each subsequent chapter's argument is well articulated and the book as a whole makes a significant contribution to the fields of disability studies and black feminist theory by showing how black women's speculative fiction can defamiliarize (dis)ability, race, and gender and encourage us to critically examine how we might change society's thinking about these identities.
The first two chapters in Bodyminds Reimagined focus on making disability material as well as metaphorical in literature through examinations of the neo-slave narratives Kindred (Butler) and Stigmata (Perry). The initial divide that Schalk introduces when she discusses physical disability in the Kindred chapter and mental disability in the Stigmata section is confusing given the prominence of the term "bodymind" in the book, but Schalk clears up this confusion when she gestures toward how mental disabilities can affect the ways individuals with these conditions are treated, especially if they are black. Both her readings of Kindred and Stigmata are strong and emphasize how neo-slave narratives do work that traditional slave narratives cannot because the former "do not have the same pragmatic, discursive, or editorial limits and are therefore able to represent disability … as a central aspect of an individual's lived bodymind experience" in addition to using disability as a metaphor (38). This materiality is important to consider because (dis)ability labels continue to affect minority populations (57).
Historically, (dis)ability designations were used in an attempt to dehumanize people of color, women, non-gender conforming individuals, and LGBTQ+ populations, but even today "the discourses used to discount and disbelieve both black people and mentally disabled people are based in ableism" (82). At the end of chapter two, Schalk poignantly discusses how the intersections of mental disability, race, and gender have material effects, especially for minority populations because "the discourses of able-mindedness are used to discount disabled, racialized, gendered experiences of the world" which, in turn, can make individuals such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown appear dangerous in certain white contexts (79). The concept of "bodymind" suggests there is no division between the body and mind, but the split in Schalk's chapters painfully reminds us that though the body and mind are interconnected, different material effects may emerge depending upon how people's physical, and especially mental, disabilities interact with their other identities.
Bodyminds Reimagined touches on the importance of context in the first two chapters, but more fully explores the context specificity of (dis)ability through Butler's Parable series and the condition of hyperempathy in chapter three. Hyperempathy is a fictional genetic condition in the Parable duet that forces hyperempaths to partake in the pleasure and pain of humans around them. Complicating the condition is the fact that hyperempathy is a side effect of having an ancestor who took the fictional drug Paracetco, a "smart pill" designed to treat Alzheimer's, but abused in a manner similar to our world's Adderall. The protagonist of the Parable books, Lauren Olamina, has hyperempathy, which can be both useful and problematic for her depending upon context.
Hyperempathy has the characteristics of a disability in our world, but Butler uses Lauren to explore all sides of a "non-normative" lived experience and its many complications. For instance, when surrounded by others in pain or being abused by someone who enjoys inflicting injuries – an all-too-common occurrence in Butler's dystopian series – Lauren's hyperempathy functions as an impairment, as she either experiences chronic pain or has a negative bodily reaction, such as vomiting, to the pleasure of her abusers (97-98). However, when the character is engaging in consensual sex or is surrounded by others who are happy, Lauren's pleasure is heightened (107-08). Her hyperempathy has both positives and negatives associated with it, combatting larger societal assumptions about disability equating a burden. Lauren's (dis)ability, like those outside the world of the novel, functions differently depending on context. The condition's origins also usefully point to how, in spite of speculative fiction's tendency to erase disability, changing contexts can produce new ones. Paracetco was not supposed to create a new condition, but rather solve an old one, and, similarly, we cannot predict the side effects of new or current drugs in the long term. This chapter is thus exceptionally useful for not only complicating traditional notions of disability, but also pointing to the unknowability of what context(s) will produce (dis)ability in the future.
While the first three chapters of Bodyminds Reimagined make significant contributions to disability studies and black feminist theory by highlighting the materiality of disability, its effects, and its ties to context and other social identities, Schalk's final chapter misses its mark. An ambitious examination of five fantasy fiction novels – Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms, Madison's Coveted series, and Hopkinson's Sister Mine – Schalk's fourth chapter on the non-human and (dis)ability does not fully take into account how assumptions about non-humanness function in relation to race, gender, and (dis)ability. Instead, the focus is on how literary representations of interspecies humans, such as half-gods and werewolves, can disrupt traditional notions about social identities. Yet, as Lennard J. Davis has acknowledged, "[t]o have a disability is to be an animal, to be part of the Other" and leaving the animal, or at least the non-human, out of the analysis of these novels' relationships to (dis)ability seems unusual, especially in Schalk's evaluation of the Coveted series, wherein a werewolf woman has OCD and is unable to take "normal" human medications because they adversely affect her werewolf side (Davis 9). Ultimately, while Schalk uses the idea of "interspecies" in her arguments about defamiliarization, there is a lost opportunity to discuss how embodying an interspecies identity can contribute to intersectional (dis)ability theorization.
Bodyminds Reimagined also partially misses out on highlighting some of the unique aspects of black women's speculative fiction. In each chapter, Schalk argues how this genre does something unusual with its employment of (dis)ability, race, and gender, but never explicitly says why black women's speculative fiction is special. Briefly comparing this fiction with even black men's speculative writing in at least one or two chapters could have helped highlight what truly makes black women's work in this genre unique, which is especially important if readers are unfamiliar with the genre and looking to learn more. Schalk partially shows how black women's speculative writing is special through the analyses of the various novels, but in a monograph so dedicated to clarity and reader understanding, not providing a comparison point for black women's speculative fiction seems odd.
In spite of some issues with the final chapter and the lack of inter- or intragenre comparisons, Bodyminds Reimagined is a joy to read. The argumentation is abundantly clear and not only provides provocative readings of black women's speculative fiction, but useful histories about (dis)ability, race, and gender while pointing to ways these histories remain relevant and troubling today. As the first book to examine black women's speculative fiction in the context of (dis)ability, Bodyminds Reimagined represents a significant step forward for the disability studies field, not only because it brings disability analysis to bear on non-white subjects, but it also brings a new genre into the disability studies fold. Through her careful analyses and thoughtful connections of speculative fiction and the material world, Schalk has shown how this genre productively engages with disability, race, and gender politics both in worlds we recognize and ones we do not. As we move into the future, (dis)ability, race, and gender promise to move with us and Bodyminds Reimagined gives its readers much to think about in terms of how we can not only better understand where our fields are going, but how we may even productively reconceptualize long-standing social identities along the way.
- Davis, Lennard J. "Introduction: Normality, Power, and Culture." The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 5th ed., Routledge, 2017, pp. 1-14.
- Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction. Duke UP, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822371830