It is rare to read theory that is as accessible as Eli Clare’s Pride and Exile. His ideas and re-imaginings of queer and disabled identity wrap around personal experience and reflection.
Clare is comfortable enough in his own body and character to offer up the most intimate moments of his life onto the printed page. Growing up, “a girl not convinced of her girlness”, early on, Clare makes evident his path from tomboy to butch-dyke to transgender. He also makes clear his relationship to his disabled body. Cerebral palsy has given him an unsteady right foot to balance on during endless hiking escapades. Clare writes passages describing the satisfaction of ending a long run, muscles aching, and bones strong.
Read and studied in disability studies programs this books full title Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation distinguishes the text as belonging to the realm of academia. Its words, however, cross the boundaries of theory, memoir and poetry. Bodily descriptions are linked to a history of medical observations of disabled bodies and medical uses of disabled children.
The pride that leaps from each page highlights a disconnect between Clare’s image of himself and the commonly held view that a disabled body is one that wants to and needs to be fixed. This is where shame comes in. Shame has its part to play and is locked into pride; a dance ensues and continues throughout life.
In a fairly short book, Clare’s essays connect class, race and gender politics using poetic description to do this. The book is fluid, addressing ableist ideologies including obsessions with ‘supercrip’ stories; “ a guy with one leg runs across Canada,” “an adolescent girl with downs syndrome learns how to drive.” The focus on these stories, Clare says, overtakes the importance of recognizing difficulties created when social and physical conditions do not consider those with disabilities.
The most absorbing chapter of the text is Freaks and Queers in which he reconciles his place in the history of the freak show. Instead of predictably dismissing this historical trend, which in a more nuanced way still exists, Clare speaks of ways to address ‘the gawker.’ He continues to describe the dynamic that existed within freak-show communities where despite continued exploitation, once off stage, there existed a certain level of equality and care not found elsewhere in that point in history (mid-1800s to mid-1900s).
Reading this book I got the sense that poetry is as natural as breathing for Clare and that there is no other way in which this book should be written. His emotional acuity connected me to experiences that could never be my own. Until now I have never read a book that combines political conviction with such succulent and graceful language. If it were practical to do so I would quote the entire book. Memorable quotes include a passage in which Clare describes his favorite t-shirt slogan; PISS ON PITY, another is when the author points out the power of language saying that instead of ‘able-bodied’ he describes those without disabilities as ‘enabled’. After much contemplation and vacillation I will end with one of Clare’s most succinct paragraphs, speaking to the overall concept of Exile and Pride.
“Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race . . . everything finally piling into a single human body. To write about any aspect of identity, any aspect of the body means writing about this entire maze.”