If you download the podcast, rather than stream it, you will get to hear an additional short interview in which I recommended my favourite novels that feature people with learning disabilities. This extra interview comes at 43 minutes and 20 seconds into the programme.
I began this segment by talking about William Faulkner’s 1929 modernist classic, The Sound and the Fury. The first person narrator of the novel’s opening, Benjy, has profound and complex learning disabilities. His capacity to feel the full spectrum of emotion is revealed through his limited yet ingenious means of expression. Benjy’s narration is far more than literary acrobatics. It serves the purposes of a nuanced and complex characterisation that is discernible in the text even if unacknowledged or disowned by its author himself, who later claimed that, ‘You can’t feel anything for Benjy because he doesn’t feel anything’.
Over eighty years later, Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson employs a similarly inventive first person narrator. Full of humour, passion and verve, Grace Williams Says It Loud upturns stereotypes of disability. The eponymous heroine can only utter sentences of two syllables, yet the richness and creativity of her life shine through. It is an ambitious, experimental novel and yet it somehow manages to retain its heart and be immensely readable too.
Finally, I squeezed in a mention for Skallagrigg by William Horwood, a book that has meant so much to me – and it has cult status in the disability community. My parents thrust Skallagrigg into the hands of their friends, and I could tell that here was a book that had moved them both in a way that was unusual and profound. It tells the history of disability from the 1920s to the 1980s and is as unflinching in its portrayal of abuse as it is uplifting in its depiction of redemptive love.
Skallagrigg is sadly out of print, but it is available to purchase second-hand. Better still, why not take Woman’s Hour presenter, Nikki Bedi, up on her suggestion to campaign for a reprint? If we all post on its Amazon page and send tweets to @PenguinUKBooks about this, perhaps we can get this remarkable book back in print…