asha dore | disfigure studies
an excerpt & interview
They called themselves background artists. One woman told me, We are like moving props, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t important. If we’re smiling at a funeral, we can really fuck up the scene.
In one show, I filmed a scene in a street after a magical explosion. I laid on the street for three hours while the actors with lines repeated their cuts and men and women with heavy cameras on their shoulders circled our bodies, positioning and repositioning the lenses. In between cuts, the make up artists visited each extra, touching up our lip liner, combing our eyebrows, reshaping our hair, making sure we were beautiful. Beautiful and dead and utterly beside the point, as long as we stayed still.
In a figure study, stillness is both completely impossible and completely necessary. Sometimes, the person leading the class will set a timer. You find a position and lock your limbs. Still, something trembles. The lights are hot. Sweat drips down your forehead and you blink. Your mouth twitches. If you’re standing, your knees start to ache eventually, so you have to go inward. Make lists inside your head. Think about your weekend plans with your family. At some point, you’ll forget that you’re completely naked standing in the middle of a circle of strangers. You’ll forget that they are examining the crack of your ass and the slope of that callous on the side of your right foot and your hands, how they’ve always seemed smaller than they should be. You’ll forget until you hear someone whisper, She moved. Or, Did you notice the way her neck is extended, a kind of slouch? Or, God I love drawing these lips/ these tits/ her belly.
When I was younger, I couldn’t stay still like that. When I was younger and always moving, I met the boy. The boy and I moved to Atlanta where we spent most nights grinding the trucks of our skateboards on worn curbs in dark alleys. Usually, we skated with a group of four or five guys and maybe one other girl. We fell often, our bodies meeting the cement, the blood and skin of us left there on the sidewalk.
Your unique perspective as someone both non-binary and physically disabled really seems integral to the art you create. What are your thoughts on the inclusivity of the writing world? Do you think it is undergoing change or do you feel that there’s still significant resistance to embracing different experiences?
Your question touches on one of my favorite lines of inquiry: how do our labels, or the ways other people perceive us, interact with our lived experiences? And how do we tell those stories in ways that people who don’t have an access point, or an intersection with one of our identities, can receive? Because I’m white, my diagnoses are largely invisible, and because I am into many femme elements of appearance, I have a lot of unearned benefits as a person and as a writer. I’ve also spent the last five years in cities in the Pacific Northwest where amazing lit activists work to create opportunities for women writers, queer and trans writers, and writers of color. Class and disability aren’t a big focus in the larger social conversation at the moment, and I think that’s also true in the lit world, unfortunately. I’d like to believe that current, active writing subcultures, particularly the indie layers, are more inclusive and self-aware than we were ten years ago when I started writing, but my experiences are shaped (and privileged) by my location and the ways my body moves through the world. I think we have a lot of work to do on every level. While big presses seem like they are trying to be more inclusive these days, shelves are still dominated by white male voices. I think some of the resistance to inclusivity from major presses comes from the idea that one person can tell the story of a subculture, race, generation, or even an experience (like having cancer, growing up working poor, or becoming paralyzed). The isolated, “representative” story leaves out most of the world. We need a variety of voices for every population, because every population contains a variety of intersecting and overlapping experiences. Supporting this kind of inclusion and diversity is something like our duty as members of the literary community and, really, as members of humanity.
What are the pros and cons of creating the sort of work that is often categorized as queer literature? How do those kinds of stories get perceived?
I think that the trouble of defining queer lit might be both the danger and the opportunity within the categorization. Does queer lit need to be written by someone who is (out and) queer? Does it also need to have queer characters in it? I’m bi, but if I’m writing a story that doesn’t focus on queerness, writing about my disabled daughter or growing up in Florida or planting my herb garden, is it still queer lit? The labels I accept do have a significant influence in my life, the way I think, and my writing. But who gets to define a piece of writing as queer or not queer? I think the general perception is something like: queer writing is writing with queer people in it doing queer things (whatever that means). I think and hope that the more we support queer voices at every level of publishing, the more nuanced the definition and perception of queer lit might become.
How do you think writing fiction differs from writing nonfiction? In what ways are they the same?
The difference between fiction and nonfiction is process-based, for me, at least during the first few drafts. Fiction starts with a grain and builds; nonfiction starts with a pre-established world and dissolves. Writing fiction is initially about generating, while nonfiction is about paring down. But they both come from my body and my lived experiences. The trick to making both happen on the page is allowing the unexpected connections to emerge between concepts and experiences, truths and images. Our beautiful brains are so skilled at forming these nuanced bridges, as long as we pay attention to the corners of the scenes we build and to the margins of our memories.
What do you think the relationship is between the physical body and queer identity? As a writer, how do you respond to assumptions and discrimination against queer people?
The relationship between our identities and physical bodies is individual and often so fluid. It’s super important to hold up that question, to live inside it, to press it, because that question is likely a site of conflict for many people. A recurring struggle, for me, is my hope to celebrate the feminine, because humans have historically done the opposite, against my incapacity to accept it fully inside of my body. The conflict is amplified by the perceptions of other people and the pervasive belief that anything that is not feminine must be masculine. The relationship between a person’s physical body and their identities should be determined by the person experiencing both, but so often, the perceptions of other people dominate the conversation about that relationship. What a person understands to be true about themselves is much more important (and interesting!) than how their body appears to us, what we think they look like, and how we categorize them based on their clothes and voice and behaviors.
It is so hard to respond to those assumptions and categorizations in a way that is neutral and open, because while the person making the assumptions is usually engaging in an intellectual or rhetorical conversation, when I’m talking about my identity and my body, the way I experience the world is on the table. But I still think that finding a place of emotional stillness is the trick (or one of them). If we can listen, even if what we’re hearing is the kind of enraging discourse that makes us want to, as my good friend Amy Zahm says, light our own hair on fire, and if we can find both the physical and metaphorical points of contact between bodies and experiences, we can find our way to each other. I want to write stories that open up those access points. I’m sure I fail a lot - almost always - but if one story or poem succeeds just once, it’s worth it. It’s never been our bodies, alone, at stake, though of course they are. It’s our whole selves. It is everything we’ve ever understood or held within us.
Asha Dore lives in the Pacific Northwest with her children. Her work has appeared in Volume 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, The Rumpus, and other venues. Asha is a CNF/Hybrid editor at Rabble Lit, where she curates a column about class and social mobility. She is currently working on a lyric encyclopedia of the Gulf Coast. Asha's work can be found at www.ashadore.com.