26 August 2007
Kaite O'Reilly reviews an engaging and irreverent take on the world of a VIP
On his 18th birthday, Ryan Knighton was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a congenital, progressive disease marked by night-blindness and tunnel vision, leading eventually to a complete loss of sight. Cockeyed tells the story of his denial, rejection and eventual truce with his new identity as a blind man, but with an irreverence and self-deprecating sneer appropriate to his teenage persona - a gimpy Sid Vicious.
“In my time I have argued with empty bar stools, talked to pillars, knocked down waitresses, bounced off bouncers, pissed between urinals, drunk other peoples' beer and hit on shadows” he writes. “…Confusion and disorientation ruled the… [Canadian punk rock scene] …and that pretty much described my sober self…I loved to slam. What blind person doesn't?”
This edgy, high-speed memoir careens from droll humour to meditations on culture, language, love and identity. Knighton writes candidly and without censorship about his initial resistance to accepting his impairment, passing as sighted when picking up girls in bars or driving a forklift - an astonishing deceit pushed to breaking point when working as a sighted teacher in South Korea.
But this is not an impairment-hating tale full of pity and longing for a previous, non-disabled self. With Knighton's changing sensory perception comes a radical shift in consciousness. He writes with piercing acuity about fear and imagination; presence and absence - how the altered body impacts on relationships, the sense of self and its place in the world. As he has embodied knowledge of both sensory experiences, he writes well on the human condition, his ruminations revealing the visually impaired and sighted worlds in all their absurd and wonderful peculiarities.
“Where I live is a state of mind, quite literally” he writes, describing the making of mental maps, memorising his neighbourhood in excruciating detail. “It's a matter of defiance, even delusion. Memory keeps me from being as thoroughly blind as I am. When you can't see, nothing seems to exist in a city or landscape if it isn't in mind already”. When, on a rare excursion off his known patch, he encounters muggers who change their mind when they see his white cane, he is bitter about the experience. He describes it as a loss of dignity, for “discrimination feels like discrimination, even when it's for the best”.
He claims that with bodies "collectively so idiosyncratic and uncooperative", blind and visually impaired people are anarchic, as “we have an incomparable ability to throw a wrench in bureaucracy, whether we mean to or not”, which must be a comfort to the former rebel. Daily experience entails being accosted by things that hurt - chairs, half-open doors, dogs mistaking his cane for a stick: “…the bodies of the blind grow more and more conditioned. We rebound from the world, suck up the sting and push ahead”. And Knighton does so with a mordant wit, quoting a friend's response to a particularly beaten-up day: “Well, kid - you ain't pretty, but you're sure hard to kill”.
He is particularly good on the impact visual impairment has on language, spatial awareness and everyday interactions. He describes disappearing into the words others around him use - "this, that, here, there" - vanishing in a space that is unknown and unspecified. Where is "just over there"? What is "this"? Who is "you"? The use of this pronoun assumes the addressee will recognise themselves in language, but Knighton maintains visual impairment reduces the powers of identification. He jokes about a conversation with blind friends as sounding like a rehearsal for the film Taxi Driver: “You talking to me? You talking to me?” Unless addressed specifically by name, the blind or visually impaired individual vanishes in company.
It is a similar situation when being talked about in the patronising and distancing third person: “The feeling is one of deliberate dissociation, becoming him all the time. My excavation is performed with the basic tool of a pronoun. In "him" I'm disappeared, instead of being brought into definition. "He" is not here, either, like "you". Like "me" he says.
But this memoir will ensure Knighton's visibility in the publishing world. Already garlanded with praise in his native Canada and the US, Cockeyed is set to make Ryan Knighton a poster boy for inclusivity, geared for mainstream consumption, but with a provocative crip humour and perspective informed by his experience of impairment.
The journey in this memoir is exhilarating and reflective - a road trip to disability consciousness, riding shotgun with a philosopher, phenomenologist, poet and punk.