‘Notes on the Flesh’: Shahd Alshammari on Writing the Disabled Body

Author and scholar Shahd Alshammari on charting the literary territory of the disabled body:

By Shahd Alshammari

As a scholar of English Literature and Disability Studies, I have been interested in the representation of female protagonists in literary texts. Critical Disability Studies aims to explore how disability functions in different cultures and within multiple disciplines. Unfortunately I struggled to find illness narratives that come from the Arab world that center around a female protagonist.

Disabled heroines tend to remain in the shadows, in the margins of the chapters, always tragically succumbing to their fate as both women and ‘ill.’ My favorite Arab women authors had done so much with gender oppression and gender politics, but disability politics remained an unchartered territory. Disability was either a curse or a blessing. As a literary critic and a writer with a disability, I found myself unable to remain silenced about the lack of representation of female diverse bodies. The body remains a taboo subject in Arabic literature and as such the disabled body is far too unpalatable.

As I delved into the study of disability and literature I also began writing my collection of stories in English. Notes on the Flesh is an Arab, Kuwaiti, illness narrative that touches upon the overwhelming overlapping of love, identity, and disability. My own struggle with disability had been the starting point of this critical endeavor but I later found that love, traditions, and gender politics were equally at play. My stories are written on the body, from the body, from the very point of resistance and simultaneous vulnerability of women who love, women who struggle with disability, men who feel lacking in their disability, and a society that excludes and marginalizes these voices.  The characters presented are at war with tradition, modernity, and disability. The book is divided into two chapters: the first is what I call a mythography, and the second is “Voices of Lovers.” Each story is a telling a re-telling of a particular moment, a feeling, a loss of bodily function, a failed love, an almost that is always lacking. It also moves between the borders of fiction and memoir.

Notes on the Flesh has participated at the Emirates Literature Festival 2018 and the Malta Book Festival in 2017. Published by Faraxa in 2017, it is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

An Excerpt from Notes on the Flesh:


I wrote this short story collection, part-memoir, part-illness narrative, part confused, part confusing, partially fabricated, partially the truth, and here it is. There are a mix of stories, of voices, but mainly, it is about women. Women who love, women who are too weak to love, women who marry for society, women who never forget their first love, women who are afraid of men, women who fight against men, women who leave their lovers, women who fight for education, and women who can’t help but struggle to belong. These women tell their stories and sometimes the men tell theirs. Set in Kuwait, these are the unvoiced traumas, the repressed pleasures, and the tainted small, personal histories, of the very private acts of love. Every act, or lack thereof, is a small revolution. Love presents itself as a theme throughout, and the way it clashes with identity, society, and religion.

So here is a collection of moments, of reflections. The stories tend to flow in no order at all. There are moments when I am your unreliable narrator. There are moments when I recall the events as they happened, and yet there are times where I have tried to fill the gaps and inconsistencies. My memory fails me, as my body has failed me, and this is but an attempt at reconstructing the experience of love, loss, meaning, and purpose. (Alshammari).

Dr. Shahd Alshammari (@shahdalshammari) is Assistant Professor of English Literature. She currently teaches in Kuwait. Her research interests include madness, women’s studies, disability studies, and Postcolonial Studies. Notes on the Flesh is her first collection of short stories.