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Accessing the Future: Petra Kuppers' "Ice Bar" explores disability culture via speculative fiction
Themes of women, water, and power intertwine in delightful ways in Petra Kuppers’ latest book, Ice Bar, which features post-apocalyptic science fiction and psychedelic fantasy short stories where many of the characters are disabled in some way or another.
"They might use a wheelchair or have family members in psych wards or they themselves have been institutionalized," said Kuppers, a University of Michigan professor. "Normally in [these genres], disability is either erased or the person is made the bad guy. I wondered what would happen if I used a disability perspective to write my own stories in which [disability] is neither horrific nor celebratory but rather part of human life.”
Some of Kuppers' stories look at ancient myths, set in watery realms and under pressure in a changing world. In one instance, Kuppers reexamines The Little Mermaid “and looked at it in terms of physical differences … and how voice is gained.” "The Wheelchair Ramp" was inspired by an installation Kuppers saw at Art Prize in Grand Rapids. "The Nursing Home" falls into the sea and the people with disabilities visit the ghosts.
“Water [as a theme] emerged because during the writing of the stories I saw much media coverage about the [Enbridge Line 5] oil pipeline and the water protectors … awesome women protesting and protecting the water," Kuppers said.
Ice Bar's titular story is set in Oslo and was inspired by Kuppers' residency in Norway. “My partner and I were walking through the streets and saw a performance artist one evening. I took a good look around at who was in the audience -- who were these people who go to these sorts of things, what the atmosphere was … and that became the 'Ice Bar.' I made my ice bar a place where all kinds of people -- including those with disabilities -- could hang out and enjoy a party.”
But it's not just a party: “Climate justice is a big part of [the story],” Kuppers said. “The ice bar has found a way to put human comfort into a machine … as the people are in a symbiotic relationship with the air conditioning system.”
Kuppers is also a poet -- PearlStitch (2016), Cripple Poetics (2008) -- and has written academic books about disability in the arts, but Ice Bar helped her move into a new circle. “I feel like I’m part of a community of people who write as a disabled person in speculative fiction,” she said.
One of Kuppers’ stories was included in the disability-themed speculative fiction anthology Accessing the Future by Future Fire. The publishers, she said, “put this together because it is so rare to see disabled people as part of the science fiction universe … they specifically wanted to see how disability culture would look.”
Kupper also praises publications such as The Drunken Boat, Anomaly, and The Deaf Poets Society for embracing social justice issues and writings by people of color, people who transgender and people with disabilities and speculative fiction. “I like the intensity of the horror and sci-fi genres and how can we reimagine this kind of work for women who are queer, who are disabled, who don’t just want to see themselves dying.
“It’s not that everyone in my stories is disabled but rather that there is something anyone can learn from disability culture and how to live a good life in an inaccessible world.”
Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.
Petra Kuppers will read and discuss "Ice Bar" at the Common Language, 317 Braun Court, Ann Arbor, on Thursday, June 21 at 7 pm. If weather permits, the event will be held in the courtyard in front of the store. Related: "Poems Provoke: U-M's Institute for Research on Women and Gender discussed Petra Kuppers’ 'PearlStitch'" [Pulp, 12/5/17].