A review of Tyrell Johnson’s “Feathers for Tray” in OnSpec Vol 25 No. 2, Summer 2013
By Derek Newman-Stille
In his Feathers for Tray, Tyrell Johnson explores the ghettoisation of people with disabilities. Disabilities in our own society are often treated like something that should be hidden, moved out of sight. People with disabilities are often put into homes and hidden from the sight of the able-bodied.
Writing about disability can be transformative, and Johnson’s story is imbued with ideas of transformation and change, both bodily and societal. In the society that Johnson creates, people with disabilities are put into a walled in enclosure called “Confine”, and the only open space that is not gated is a cliff face. This becomes a place of escape for many of the residents, jumping off of the cliff to their death to escape ghettoisation. Johnson’s story explores the social equivocation of disability with death and the notion embedded in our society that the death is a “way out” for people with disabilities and examines the social construction of disability as a form of “end of life”.
The society of Johnson’s world separates people with disabilities from their biological families and friendship networks when they attain any form of bodily difference (whether through genetics or circumstances) and they are placed in this enclosed space, assigned a new family unit, and expected to remain out of sight of the able-bodied. Disability is socially constructed as a problem, a danger. It is made invisible by the change in place… and yet, within the enclosure, disability is highly visible. Everyone is expected to show their bodily difference and that bodily difference becomes a subject of regular discussion.
When a girl named Tray arrives and appears to have no visible disability, she is met with speculation, uncertainty, and, eventually, fear. She is seen as hiding something, keeping the feature that makes her belong in this space a secret. This is a community that is both policed by external forces (the guards and gates) and within, by the community members who have bought into this bodily surveillance and policing of difference. They can’t fit Tray into a category that they understand, can’t slot her into a pre-defined body type, so she becomes constructed as a threat and they decide that she needs to be murdered for her perceived dishonesty about her body.
Johnson brings attention to the way that society regulates bodily difference and ascribes systems of control onto those whose bodies don’t fit with socially constructed norms and assumptions.
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