Pow­er­ful prose haunts ex­plo­ration of blind­ness

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Vanessa Warne

ROSE­MARY Ma­honey is no stranger to ad­ven­ture. She is the au­thor of six books, among them her crit­i­cally praised Down the Nile: Alone in a Fish­er­man’s Skiff, an ac­count of her ex­pe­ri­ences with croc­o­diles, bad weather and lo­cal peo­ple wary of an Amer­i­can woman’s am­bi­tion to solo-nav­i­gate the Nile. Her lat­est book is an­other trav­el­ogue, one which maps trav­els in pur­suit of a dif­fer­ent am­bi­tion: to bet­ter un­der­stand blind­ness and blind peo­ple. Ma­honey’s prin­ci­pal des­ti­na­tions are two ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­i­ties for the blind, a school for chil­dren in Ti­bet and a train­ing cen­tre for adults in In­dia. Both fa­cil­i­ties were es­tab­lished by Sabriye Ten­berken, a Ger­man woman work­ing to im­prove ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple with vis­ual dis­abil­i­ties in the de­vel­op­ing world. Ma­honey doesn’t candy-coat her mo­ti­va­tions. She ad­mits she has no ac­quain­tance with blind peo­ple (she is fear­ful of them) and that she has al­ways been fas­ci­nated by blind­ness. Ea­ger to learn what she can about daily life with low or no vi­sion, Ma­honey reads con­tem­po­rary me­moirs by blind au­thors and re­searches the his­tory of fa­mous blind peo­ple. Even­tu­ally, Ma­honey de­cides to sign on to teach in Ten­berken’s In­dian train­ing cen­tre. When Ma­honey sets out on her jour­ney to learn about blind­ness, she does so with a many stereo­types in tow. For in­stance, she openly ad­mits that she ex­pects peo­ple with vis­ual dis­abil­i­ties to be in­ca­pable of the ba­sic tasks of daily life. She is ini­tially sus­pi­cious of Ten­berken, a highly ed­u­cated woman with “healthy-look­ing eyes” and an easy man­ner of mov­ing that prompt Ma­honey to wonder if she is fak­ing blind­ness. Ma­honey’s can­dor proves use­ful when, in the course of the book, she re­jects many of the stereo­types about blind­ness that she voices at the out­set. There are, how­ever, times when the very frank na­ture of Ma­honey’s writ­ing crosses a line be­tween can­dor and in­sen­si­tiv­ity. Of a Ti­betan stu­dent, she writes: “Dolma’s eyes had a slightly eerie as­pect. They put me in mind of a pair of eyes mov­ing furtively be­hind the oval holes of a Hal­loween mask.” Sim­i­larly, of a class­room of stu­dents, she re­marks, “The chil­dren’s eyes re­flected noth­ing of their moods or thoughts but rolled use­lessly, like milky blue mar­bles.” In their han­dling of bod­ily dif­fer­ence, de­scrip­tions of this kind risk fu­elling rather than com­pli­cat­ing widely held prej­u­dices. It’s a prob­lem for par­tic­u­lar pas­sages, but also for the book in gen­eral. By the end of the book, Ma­honey has a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the lim­its of vi­sion. She rec­og­nizes the dam­age done by stereo­types and comes to un­der­stand blind­ness as a com­po­nent of a blind per­son’s be­ing, not as the sole or even the dom­i­nant in­flu­ence on iden­tity. But Ma­honey is a pow­er­ful writer. When she writes of blind peo­ple as a fas­ci­nat­ing but fun­da­men­tally alien race in the open­ing chap­ters, it haunts later sec­tions. She works hard to com­pli­cate the lim­ited no­tions that are her start­ing point, but her ex­pres­sion of fear, if not dis­gust, is at times so strong that it lingers tena­ciously, stamped on the reader’s mind. On a more pos­i­tive note, to its pub­lish­ers’ credit, the book can be pur­chased as a down­load­able au­dio­book, mak­ing it ac­ces­si­ble to read­ers who rely ex­clu­sively on recorded books and who some­times en­counter long waits for recorded ver­sions of print books to be made avail­able. The mixed suc­cess and un­set­tling na­ture of this hon­est, thought-pro­vok­ing and very pow­er­fully writ­ten book is per­haps most suc­cinctly in­di­cated by its sub­ti­tle. Dis­patches From the World of the Blind casts Ma­honey as a sighted trav­eller in the land of blind­ness, a tourist in a dark land of dis­abil­ity. Given this book’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the ex­tent to which cul­ture, eco­nomics, faith and gen­der shape a per­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence of life with a vis­ual dis­abil­ity, one might well ex­pect its au­thor to de­bunk rather than pro­mote the no­tion of there be­ing any such thing as “the World of the Blind.” Vanessa Warne teaches English lit­er­a­ture at

the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.