Powerful prose haunts exploration of blindness
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.