Disability Readathon: Own Voices on Disability, Chronic Illness and Pain

Over the past few weeks, I noticed that I’d started reading more work by authors discussing disability and chronic pain/illness through a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I’ve found it eye-opening to learn about the authors’ own experiences and have enjoyed engaging with some beautiful, powerful, heart-breaking, honest, creative and magical writing.

I also realised, however, that a range of representations of disability and chronic pain/illness were definitely missing from my shelf – and that’s something that I wanted to rectify asap. I learned about the Disability Readathon from one of Jen Campbell’s (one of my favourite booktubers!) videos discussing the pile of books she’ll be pulling from to take part in the readathon. It seemed like perfect timing for me to take part in this great challenge and to add more representation to my TBR and shelf.

The Disability Readathon takes place over the entire month of April 2021 and is a fun way to engage with more media that represents people with disabilities. You can decide how you want to approach the readathon – physical books, audio books and e-books are all valid – but as long as you’re reading own voices books about disability then you’re taking part!

Own voices means that you’re reading books that “focus on an identity that matches the author.” So, in this case, the books should feature representation of a disability that’s written about by an author that is disabled (and the same for representations of chronic pain and illness). You can choose to read whichever books you like or you can take part in the specific challenges set over on the website. You can read more about the challenges and how to join in here!

To celebrate the start of the readathon, I wanted to share:

  • books and magazines on my shelf that I would like to recommend
  • my TBR pile of own voices books that I’ll be picking from over April
  • recommendations for a range of books from Twitter

I’ll be sharing my progress with the readathon on my Twitter and Instagram so don’t forget to follow me there too! You can further get involved with the challenge by following the Disability Readathon account on Twitter and posting with the hashtag #DisabilityReadathon.

My recommendations

Cusp by Ache Magazine, Various Authors

I have SO MUCH love for this book. There were points whilst reading it that it genuinely took my breath away. I had to put it down and just process what I had read. Cusp is a stunning collection of feminist writing on bodies, myth and magic.

It brings together women and non-binary authors to discuss how “illness and pain cause estrangement from one’s own body”. Through fiction, poetry and non-fiction writing, Cusp draws on surreal ideas and imagery to explore “what it’s like to live within a body that does not conform to normative standards”. The book features writing from authors including Sharlene Teo, Memoona Zahid, Emma Glass, Rebecca Tamás and more.

Ache Magazine – Volumes 1, 2 and 3

Following on from my love of Cusp, I had to recommend Ache magazine too. I am just completely in awe of the writing, and both the vulnerability and strength expressed in its pages. Ache is an intersectional feminist publisher exploring illness, health, bodies and pain. Founded in 2017, Ache‘s literary and art magazine was created to give space to women, trans and non-binary people to articulate their personal experiences with illness, health and pain.

Each of the magazines feature art, essays, poetry, and interviews from a range of authors exploring their experience within their body and with different disabilities, pain and illness. Each volume has been beautiful, powerful, moving and poignant. It feels incredibly important to hear these stories and to recognise how, all too often, healthcare systems and society are failing people who are disabled or live with pain and illness. I cannot recommend Ache enough.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I have re-read this book so many times. It’s equal parts terrifying and astonishing. Brain on Fire is Susannah’s award-winning memoir about her struggle with a mystery illness that led to her being hospitalised, unable to move or speak, and with no memory of why she was in hospital.

It explores what it’s like to lose control of your mind, body and identity, and the struggle to receive adequate support in the face of an illness that can’t be named. It highlights how important it is to get a diagnosis, but how in some instances, that relies on an element of luck, of being seen by the right person, at the right time: someone who’s aware of the condition, knows what they’re looking at/for, and, ultimately, believes what the person is telling them about their own mind and body.

The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell

As I mentioned above, Jen Campbell is one of my favourite booktubers. Her videos are so calm and cosy, it feels like chatting with a friend about books. The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a short story collection of weird and wonderful modern fairy tales.

If you follow Jen on YouTube, you’ll know that she’s a big fan of magic realism and fairy tales, and she also talks about her own disability and disfigurement. This collection is infused with this sense of magic and space for so-called ‘outsiders,’ with representations of queerness and disability. If you’re into short stories and fairy tales, this is the book for you!

Curses, Curses by Kirstie Millar

As you can probably tell from this list, I am a big fan of Kirstie’s work (she’s the editor behind Cusp and Ache!). When I learned that Kirstie had her own pamphlet published with Takeway Press, it was a no-brainer purchase for me. Curses, Curses is a “multidisciplinary art pamphlet” that explores “women’s identities in folklore, and contemporary ideas of the body and pain.”

The collection is illustrated by Alice Blackstock and is a beautifully written and executed piece which poetically shares experiences of women’s bodies, particularly with a focus on shame and bleeding. Kirstie often writes about Endometriosis, a painful condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places. It can take on average 8 years for someone to be diagnosed with endometriosis, which desperately needs to change.

I loved how subtle and gentle, whilst also incredibly powerful, this short pamphlet is.

My Disability Readathon TBR pile

Disability Visibility by Various Authors, Edited by Alice Wong

Another great recommendation from Jen Campbell’s videos. Disability Visibility is a collection of first-person writing on the “joys and challenges of the modern disability experience.” The book features stories from a wide range of people including activists, lawyers, politicians, artists and more.

I’m looking forward to reading this book as it is an important look at the vast lives of people living with disability, highlighting not only their everyday lives but their “passions and talents.”

Sanatorium by Abi Palmer

A recommendation from Twitter (see more below!) that I immediately had to buy. I read one page and was completely hooked by the form, writing and imagery. Sanatorium is about a young woman who, following a month-long stay at a thermal water-based rehabilitation facility in Budapest, tries to continue her recovery using an £80 inflatable blue bathtub.

Sanatorium uses memoir, poetry and meditations to move through contrasting spaces and explore chronic pain and illness. This book has flown straight to the top of the pile for me: it sounds stunning.

Disturbing the Body by Various Authors, Boudicca Press

As soon as I heard about the campaign for Disturbing the Body, I just knew I had to support it. This anthology is a collection of speculative autobiography centred around experiences of “misbehaving bodies” from women writers. It explores themes ranging from chronic illness and disability to major life changing operations, and puts before the reader moments where women can feel powerless in their own bodies.

I spoke to Verity Holloway, who approached Boudicca Press with the idea for the anthology following a life changing event, about the inspiration behind and importance of Disturbing the Body which you can read here.

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin

This book was added to my TBR pile thanks to a great interview with the author, Karen Havelin in Ache magazine. I was keen to add some fiction reading to my list and after reading a couple of preview pages online, I knew this was the one.

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is a fiction book, told in reverse, which follows the life of Laura Fjellstad, a woman who was diagnosed with endometriosis in her twenties. It “explores relationships, motherhood, sexuality, pain and the limitations of our own bodies.”

Gargoyles by Harriet Mercer

A very exciting proof (due for release on 8th April 2021) that I gratefully received from Dead Ink. Firstly, how striking is that bright orange cover? I love it. Secondly, I cannot wait to read this surreal story.

Gargoyles tells of Harriet’s stay at hospital following being struck by a rare and life-threatening illness. During her time in Critical Care, whenever she tries to sleep, Harriet can only see “soul-sucking gargoyles” and so she stays awake for six whole weeks. The book is a blend of poetic memoir and essays, and explores “the effects of illness, grief, love, and loss.”

Book recommendations from Twitter

I put a call out on Twitter for peoples’ recommendations and this is a list of what came back! Thank you to everyone who responded, there’s a great selection of books including fiction, non-fiction, memoir, YA and graphic novels.

Will you be taking part in the Disability Readathon?

I’d love to hear about the books that you’re planning to read this month, or any recommendations you have for me to pick up.

Reading own voices about a wide range of people and experiences is something I’m passionate about all of the time, so I’m definitely going to continue reading books that include representations of disability. Look out for my reviews on the books on my TBR pile on Twitter/Instagram and this blog!

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