‘A Crack in Everything’ – Piet Devos

© Michiel Devijver

Op 17 september gaven twee ambassadeurs van #elkverhaaltelt de aftrap voor de conferentie. Een van hen was Piet Devos, schrijver, literatuurwetenschapper en vertaler. Hij schreef in opdracht van de organisatoren de tekst  ‘A Crack in Everything’.

Meer info over Piet en zijn werk vind je op zijn website www.pietdevos.be.

A Crack in everything

Mental and physical diversity in literature

“As Leonard Cohen once sang: ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’ These beautiful lines remind us of the fragility of the human condition. By this fragility, I am not only referring to the approximately 15 per cent of the population in society who, like me, live with a permanent disability. No, everything cracks, which implies that, sooner or later, everyone goes through periods of temporary disability or protracted illness – no matter whether that is the result of an accident or simply of aging. Is this innate fragility of ours sad news? Not necessarily, but then we do need to recognize, just as Leonard Cohen did, that our cracks are a potential source of light and creativity.


In mainstream media, disability is often reduced to a medical problem, something in need of correction. But in fact, living with a disability is a mode of being, which comes with its own ways of perceiving the world. Fortunately, art, and particularly literature, enables us to enter the complex life-worlds of people with disabilities. Take, for example, the autobiographical works of the blind novelist Vincent Bijlo. With his typical humor, the Dutch author and comedian describes how, as a youngster, he rebelled against the traditional school for the blind to which he was sent, and later on managed to become a university student in Amsterdam.


Books may also denounce the inaccessible or even hostile environment people with disabilities encounter. Hagar Peeters’ prize-winning debut Malva may serve as an eloquent example. In this novel, we hear the voice of Pablo Neruda’s forgotten daughter Malva, who was both mentally and physically disabled. This little girl, who died at the age of eight, was taken care of by her mother alone, since her celebrated father had disowned his only child and would always keep silent about her existence. In Peeters’ novel, Malva is finally given a chance to speak up in a very poetic monologue, demanding an explanation not only from her father but from an entire society obsessed with the illusion of bodily perfection.


We will have to read similar literary works very attentively , if we want to render the whole book industry more inclusive in terms of physical and mental diversity. That is, first of all, a matter of practical accessibility. Libraries for people with reading disabilities, such as Luisterpunt in Flanders and Passend Lezen in The Netherlands, do a wonderful job. But inclusion should go further than providing special services. How many book stores do you know have been equipped with ramps for wheelchair users? Have you ever seen sign language interpreters at our book fairs and poetry festivals, so that deaf visitors can also enjoy such events? These are the kinds of questions we will have to ask ourselves and find practical answers to.


But, on a collective level, it is high time we regarded mental and physical difference as a fundamental aspect of our complex and fluid identities. This brings to mind the great American author Audre Lorde, who famously presented herself as ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’. In the early 1980s, Lorde was also one of the first to write very openly about her experiences with breast cancer, thus breaking a painful taboo on this illness. This courageous woman, who did not shy away from the ‘cracks’ within her own identity, will never cease to be a real ‘burst of light’. Thank you.”


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