I first read So Lucky (2018) by Nicola Griffith not long after it was published. I remembered loving it and laughing out loud several times. Somehow the darkness and creepiness had slipped my mind. Upon rereading it for this Footnote in honor of Disability Pride Month, I experienced all the feels, as the kids say!
Griffith is a fantastic writer with several books of sci-fi and fantasy behind her including Ammonite (1992) and Hild (2013), both of which star strong, dynamic female characters in very different settings—an abandoned Earth-colonized planet on the one hand and seventh-century Britain on the other. I loved them both and look forward to checking out her latest: Spear (2022), a queer Arthurian adventure tale. Hence, So Lucky is a bit of an outlier, as indicated in Griffith’s acknowledgements:
No one—not even me—knew I was going to write this book. You are reading it now only because everyone involved in its publication was able to get over their initial surprise at its existence and swing into action with the kind of speed and precision only possible with a real team. I am delighted and amazed that they cared enough to make it happen so fast.
The horror at the center of So Lucky is brilliantly ambiguous insofar as it comprises both a natural response to a sudden disability and evil ableism that can take the form of micro-aggressions on the one hand and outright murderous crimes on the other. The novel swings between these poles in a hallucinatory rush. We are laughing at Mara’s overreactions one minute and freaking out that she’s probably correctly thinking the worst the next. It’s a compact, engaging, and beautifully written novel that allows Mara and thus the reader, to feel anger and indignation, fear and hopelessness, shock and hilarity in quick succession.
Because it’s Disability Pride Month, and because The New York Times recently published my Opinion piece about ableist language—which got a lot of positive feedback as well as a not-insignificant dose of pushback—I want to talk about the word cripple[i].
Once diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Mara very quickly begins calling herself a cripple. Now this is a rather old-fashioned word with a lot of baggage. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you probably don’t want to call someone else a cripple, especially if you are not a disabled person. But Cripple has a certain piquancy as demonstrated by the Cripple Punk movement. It slaps people out of complacency. When Mara’s ex-wife invites her to tag along on a cozy cruise with her new partner, Mara whips out the “c” word:
“Then why don’t you come with us? No, really. Think about it. Caribbean sunshine, fresh air, good food. You won’t be in the way, if that’s what you’re—”
In the way. “No, I’ll be tucked up neatly in my wheelchair with a blanket over my knees, smiling nicely at the passersby because that’s what cripples are supposed to do: smile and be nice because we’re so dependent on the kindness of strangers. Fuck you.”
She blinked. “You should be so lucky.”
We might recognize this is an important moment as we find the line that gives us the title. It seems to indicate then a state of mind wherein being taken care of is the lucky bit of crippledom.
In a later conversation, the ex balks at Mara’s use of the word: “Cripple is an ugly word to call yourself.”
Mara explains: “’Think of it as reclaiming it.’ Like queer. She hadn’t much liked that, either.”
Proclaiming oneself to be a cripple cuts both ways. That is, it can signify either intense internalized ableism, or a badass defiance. But the experience of crippledom is hoisted upon us so frankly and unashamedly that it can be very useful to hit nondisableds with the actual word every now and again—to remind them that we are here witnessing their bad behavior even as they shy away from the difficult language.
Fighting feels right when you are fed up with being talked about—“does she take sugar?”—and constantly told to sit here or there because that’s where the powers that be have decided to put all disabled people, no matter our specific needs or individual desires. So I leave you with this painful airport scene that occurs fairly early on in the novel, and echoes many such moments I and my disabled friends have experienced–the lack of agency, the cursory inspection deemed harmless, the feeling of invisibility:
That was it? I could have been sitting on a bomb or an Uzi. I imagined the oiled heft of an Uzi; SWAT teams running; my red-splattered corpse on CNN and a witness voiceover sobbing, “She was screaming about being treated like a sack of potatoes.” And then the porter handed me my shoes.
The airport looked different from a wheelchair. We traveled through the bowels of the building, the mysterious world of the passkey and freight elevator. No carpets down here. No neon. All gray, all concrete, with pools of yellow-white light, and deathly quiet, apart from the rattle and squeak of the decrepit chair. The porter did not say a single word. I was just baggage. I wondered if he thought about how helpless I was; how much at his mercy I might be.
I had been in a chair before, of course, when I was first training as a counselor. To see how it felt. Then, I could get up anytime and call a halt. This was different. This was as though the chair had turned me invisible, written me out of the story.
* Happy #DisabilityPrideMonth! This is the fourth in my new series of “Footnotes on Books”—my answer to the book review—because there’s just too much to say about books I love! Check out my previous Footnote on The Plant Hunter HERE.
* PS – Ebooks are accessible books!
[i] I just finished reading Good Kings Bad Kings (2012) by Susan Nussbaum and the word cripple appears in the opening pages, spoken loud and proud by one of the main narrators:
My name is Yessenia Lopez, and before they stuck my butt in this place I went to Herbert Hoover High School in Chicago, Illinois. I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover. They send people with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they’re blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it looks like it will always be because I am in tenth grade and I been in cripple this or cripple that my whole sweet, succulent Puerto Rican life.
Later in the novel we find a shift from cripple to crip that resonates with many disabled people today, as we find it used in the forefront of disability, or crip, culture. Sitting in a board meeting with a bunch of nondisabled people who run the fictional Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC). Joanne Madsen does a bit of internal eye-rolling at their resistance to change, and explains why she prefers “crip” above all:
The meeting begins. Whenever anyone refers to disability, they use the word “handicapped.” Or sometimes they’ll say “handicapped or disabled” together. As if they personally prefer using “handicapped,” but they realize there are some newfangled notions out there about saying “disability,” so they’re covering their bases. I’m a little stunned the ILLC board is still struggling with this one. It confirms my every instinct that these are some of the very last people I would consider for a body that makes decisions about “handicapped or disabled” kids.
I myself prefer “crip,” or variations on “crip,” strictly for personal use. Some crips think using “crip” should be retired for good, because it reveals a deep lack of self-esteem, besides sending the wrong message to the noncrip majority. I disagree. I still find “disabled” pejorative. Why not take back the king of all pejoratives, “cripple,” and re-empower it by giving it the crip imprimatur? All I’m saying.
3 thoughts on “Footnote on ‘So Lucky’ by Nicola Griffith”
I’m delighted you liked the book! Thank you.
I enjoyed your NYT Op-Ed—so you might like my own rant on the subject, “Lame is So Gay.”
Thanks again for the review.
Ah, thanks for visiting and for the kind words! I’m a huge fan, if you can’t tell. I look forward to reading your rant–as soon as this epic Zoom meeting I’m in is finished… Thanks again! Leona
Loved the rant! Can’t wait to share…