|What would you hate most about blindness? For author Ryan Knighton, the question is a strange one, as the answer is obviously everything.
"I think it has to do with a visual culture," says Knighton. "Its easier to imagine losing sight, rather than the other senses."
His new memoir, Cockeyed (Penguin Canada, 263 pp.), details his 15-year progression into blindness, caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a process where the retina "scars" itself, leading, eventually, to total blindness. Interspersed with details of his travails (crashed cars and other accidents), he takes readers into a world where even the simplest activities like finding a bathroom become a challenge.
Our ability to move through the world with ease is due in part to our language, something that Knighton has had to reinterpret over time. Particularly, the use of indexicals words and phrases like "this," "that," "there," "over here" that depend on our ability to see. "Im surprised at how much we use them," says Knighton. "How much we dont want to use language short-cuts of pointing, gesturing," he says. For him, descriptions are accumulated word by word.
There are also particular aspects of blindness that affect Knighton, things that the sighted wouldnt notice. "Not knowing what I look like as I grow older," he says. "I hate not having that closure."
Many have asked Knighton why his memoir is so humorous. Its a comment he finds distressing, as people dealing with their own struggles with vision look towards the book for answers, and perhaps a reassertion of their own despair. "You wish you could give them something you cant," he says. "Its like youve shown up empty-handed. Still, Im really amazed that my worst fear wasnt confirmed that Id be lumped into the disease category. People are treating me like a writer rather than a blind guy not waiting until I poke my ears out, so I can write another story."
He doesnt get upset at the common mishaps and discomfort of the public, choosing to see it in a cultural context, as many people dont know how to react when they meet a blind person.
"80s identity politics taught us more self-policing," he says. "If I dwelled on this as an existential crisis well, thats a great amount of narcissism on my part. Its absurdly funny, in a way."
Still, one thing bothers him. "When I bump into someone on the street, they give that knee-jerk reaction of annoyance that theyd give to anyone," he says. "Then, when they notice Im blind, they change their tune so quickly. It goes to show how capable we are of doing that. Its part of living in the city as John Cage said, Thats the problem of the future friction."
Knighton teaches English at Capilano College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Its a job that presents its own set of unique difficulties. "Im not a close reader," he says. "The thing that saved me was new criticism just talk about the cultural context of the book. I destroy them with a civilized anarchy. Over time, Ive developed an enviable memory, and the students feel that theyre propping me up disarmed by the fact that I dont use the chalkboard. Its an economy of trust and they deliver it back."
Knighton also mentions his reluctance to take part in new technologies that may offer him a degree of vision, particularly new advances in a microchip retina. In a recent Globe and Mail review, the reviewer (who, it was noted, is deaf and uses a cochlear implant) focused on this in detail, disturbed at what she saw as an unnecessary loss. "I think she had a particular axe to grind," he says. "It went right into what I was talking about. I think it was out of kindness, but she misread that I was advocating a certain stance. Its just not where I am mentally right now. Waiting for a cure thatll kill you." Also, Knighton has a small sliver of sight left in his left eye. "Im not at the point where Im willing to lose that by tinkering with it."
When asked if he plans to continue exploring any issues raised in Cockeyed, Knighton mentions plans for a series of anti-sightseeing travel stories the first, a documentary on his trip to Germany, to hear the recital of John Cages "As Slow as Possible." "Its ironic that the further from home I am, the more concentrated I become in my body," he says.
The next Single Onion reading is tonight, Thursday, May 18 at 8 p.m. at the Triangle Gallery. This "poetry orgy" will feature readings from Natalie Walschots, Ian Kinney, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Hopkins, Yvonne Wekman, Colin Martin and Kirk Ramdath.
At McNally Robinson, tonight, Thursday, May 18 at 7 p.m., author Clare Allan reads from her debut, Poppy Shakespeare, a satiric look into life at a psychiatric hospital. On Wednesday, May 24 at 7 p.m., the ImaginAsian Writers Showcase presents another series of readings, with Paul Yee, Dale Lee Kwong, Rajinderpal S. Pal, Anila Umar and Saren Azer. On Thursday, May 25 at 7 p.m., the Calgary International Spoken Wordfest hosts the next (fourth) Poetry Slam.
At Pages on Kensington, on Tuesday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m., Montreal poet Oana Avasilichioaei reads from her debut collection, Abandon.
The University of Calgarys Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme hosts a free reading with Alberta author Curtis Gillespie (Playing Through, The Progress of an Object in Motion) on Wednesday, May 24 at 7:30 p.m., in the Rozsa Centre.
The 2006 Alberta Book Awards were announced this past Saturday, May 13. Winners include Marie Jakober, for her novel Sons of Liberty; Laura J. Cutler, for her short-story collection This Side of Bonkers; sheri-D Wilson, for her poetry collection Re:Zoom; Ted Bishop, for his non-fiction memoir Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books; and playwright Sharon Pollock, for her Collected Works, Volume 1.
In more award news, the Grant MacEwan Authors Award went to Red Deer author Birk Sproxton for his collection of Flin Flon-inspired tales, Phantom Lake: North of 54.