Our theme in Others is how words in the hands of writers can show us the world as others see it. If you’ve followed these updates, you’ll know that we’re looking at otherness in a whole variety of its facets: the dividing lines of politics, the strangeness of the medical encounter, the anonymising power of city life, and endless battles that should have been won by now around social inequality. We are all the others, of course, and our contributors will be asking how the magic of literature can show us something of the strangeness of our own selves.
One way in which human beings are pretty good at othering relates to mental health and neurodiversity. This week, I’m excited to announce a new contributor who will be tackling these themes head-on, the poet and author Joanne Limburg. An Eric Gregory prize-winner, Joanne was shortlisted for the 2000 Forward Prize Best First Collection for her book Femenismo. Her memoir about the death of her brother, Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations, explores grief and mourning in the context of her Jewish identity. Joanne has also published a memoir about her own obsessive-compulsive disorder, The Woman Who Thought Too Much. Joanne’s latest poetry collection, The Autistic Alice, has twin themes: the devastating effects of a family suicide, and an account of growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s. An essay published recently in Poetry Review is the most striking piece about the experience of autism that I have read.
I’ve been thinking about the word ‘others’ and about where we tend to find it, which is on the wrong side of ellipses: ‘... and others’, ‘… among others’. The others are the things and ideas and people considered too unimportant to name, that merit the opposite of special treatment, that must accept that the world will get round to you if and when – and only if and when – it has time. To be one of the others is to live at the end of the queue, and to understand that you belong there. Most of us will find ourselves there at some point, and so we know what a demoralising place it is.
When I was in junior school, I spent a lot of the time at the end of a literal queue, waiting for my lunch. The school had a rule that pupils had to go to lunch in pairs, and if a child arrived at the front of the queue by herself, she would have to go to the back – and keep returning to it – until someone agreed to partner her. As my one consistent friend was often ill and away from school, I was more often than not without a partner, and kept being sent to the back. In the end, I got so tired of the humiliation – not to mention the hunger – that I took to eating my sandwiches behind one of the temporary classes, was caught, and got punished.
Looking back, I see a child who could not get what she needed by legitimate means, got desperate, and had to resort to illegitimate ones. At the back of the queue, where resources are scarce, illegitimate means are often all that’s left. If you can’t buy food, and the food bank’s closed, you’ll steal; if you can’t get to a place of safety through passport control, you’ll try to evade it; if you can’t get a work permit, you’ll work without one.
And if you can’t get a word in edgeways, you’ll speak out of turn. It’s always a shame that it should come to that. No-one should have to wait their whole lives to speak; no-one should have to stand forever in a queue; no-one should be ordained the other.
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