Book review

Bodyminds reimagined: (Dis)ability, race, and gender in black women's speculative fiction, by Sami Schalk

Alexis Lothian

University of Maryland College Park, College Park, Maryland, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Black feminism; Fantasy; Intersectionality; Science fiction

Lothian, Alexis. 2019. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction, by Sami Schalk [book review]. In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

Sami Schalk. Bodyminds reimagined: (Dis)ability, race, and gender in black women's speculative fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. Paperback, $23.95 (192p) ISBN 9780822370888.

[1] Bodyminds Reimagined begins with Sami Schalk's confession that she was "not initially a fan of speculative fiction" (1). Her book showcases the insights that emerge when a queer black feminist disability studies scholar becomes a fan of science fiction and fantasy, realizing after her first encounter with Octavia E. Butler that "this genre…was far more diverse, compelling, and politicized than [she] had ever imagined" (1). Discussions of race in science fiction and fantasy fandom have grown in visibility since the events of RaceFail 2009, a series of tough conversations and confrontations on the topic of race in science fiction (TWC Editor 2009). In recent years, questions of disability and ableism have also begun to gain prominence (Vanderhooft 2013). The intersectional feminist lens that Schalk brings to her study of disability in black women's speculative fiction will appeal to participants in these conversations who wish to deepen their knowledge. A major audience for Bodyminds Reimagined is likely to be those who, like Schalk initially, have so far failed to recognize the transformative power of black feminist speculative fiction. Yet the book also has much to offer fans and scholars who seek a deeper understanding of the intersecting operations of race, gender, sexuality, and disability—both in speculative genres and in the world at large.

[2] Unlike most scholarly monographs, Bodyminds Reimagined directs itself as much to audiences outside of academia as to those within it. Schalk elegantly balances rigorous engagement with the scholarly conversations in her fields with a clear and welcoming style that foregrounds the process and experience of writing the book itself. As she states in the introduction, "this book did not write itself" (29). Schalk's analyses are foregrounded as the creations of her own bodymind in community with scholars, activists, friends, and other collaborators. Readers, no matter their entry point, are continually encouraged to join in Schalk's project through her mindful and judicious use of the first person: "I use I and we because I am a fat, black, queer, nondisabled woman who identifies with people with disabilities and who hopes to bring my communities together in conversation with one another through my work. If you, reader, do not yet identify with any part of this we—as part of any of these multiple we's—then I hope that you may begin to as you read this book" (28). This potentially transformative invitation to engage with Schalk's text and with the works it discusses is extended to readers who identify with all, any, or none of the we's Schalk invokes—whether they be students, teachers, fans, or simply interested individuals. Her explanation of the process by which the project developed first as a dissertation and then as a book will be especially useful for graduate students who are developing their own projects in related fields.

[3] Bodyminds Reimagined is a short book, less than 200 pages long. The decision to keep it to this length was doubtless part of Schalk's intention to create an accessible and approachable text. Its expansive introduction is followed by four chapters, each of which elucidates particular aspects of (dis)ability, race, and gender through speculative fiction by Octavia E. Butler, Phyllis Alesia Perry, N. K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Shawntelle Madison, and a conclusion that highlights the book's contributions while reflecting on the pleasures and struggles of the writing process. Each of the chapters can be read separately, though their power is increased when read in combination, emphasizing an overarching argument about the unique significance of black women's speculative fiction to understandings of disability.

[4] Two key concepts are elaborated across the book as a whole: bodyminds and (dis)ability. These form the foundation for Schalk's elucidation of contributions to disability studies that could only be developed through the specificities of black women's speculative fiction. Schalk attributes bodymind, a term that "insists on the inextricability of mind and body," to feminist disability scholar Margaret Price (5). For Schalk, the term is particularly crucial because it can encompass both nonrealist entanglements of mind and body, such as werewolf psychology/physicality or Butler's hyperempathy syndrome, and the impact that oppression makes "mentally, physically, and even on a cellular level" on marginalized people (5). The parentheticals in (dis)ability—the closest Schalk gets to using academic jargon—mark the "wider social system" within which "boundaries between disability and ability" are "shifting, contentious, and contextual" (6). The parentheses provide a tool with which to discuss nonrealist representations of disability, ability, and hyperability, with (dis)ability providing a parallel framework for the ways that race and gender name vectors of power in black feminist theory.

[5] In the first chapter, "Metaphor and Materiality: Disability and Neo-Slave Narratives," Schalk takes on a trope that has been intensely critiqued within disability studies: disability as metaphor, when a character's disability carries symbolic or allegorical meaning. (Speculative genres are full of examples, from embittered supervillains whose impairments stand in for their alienation from society to wise blind advisers who see into protagonists' souls.) Disability metaphors are limiting because they obscure the materiality of disability itself by turning an embodied experience into a disembodied symbol. Through an extended analysis of Butler's 1979 novel Kindred, Schalk demonstrates that this critique cannot account for the ways in which disabled embodiments traffic as both material and metaphorical. In using fiction to reckon with the historical memory and contemporary afterlife of slavery, (dis)ability operates through and alongside systems of racialized and gendered oppression, and the disabilities represented in the text must be understood as both literal and symbolic. This detailed intersectional analysis of disability in one text both grounds the rest of the readings in Bodyminds Reimagined and lays out an approach that may be usefully adapted, as Schalk points out, to "any representation of disability in texts produced by or focused on [people] who…have histories of discourses of (dis)ability being used to justify their oppression" (57).

[6] Chapter two, "Whose Reality Is It Anyway? Deconstructing Able-Mindedness," focuses on Phyllis Alesia Perry's 1999 novel Stigmata, a text less widely read within speculative and science fiction fan communities than any of the others Schalk addresses. Stigmata focuses on a black woman, Lizzie, whose mystical connection to the traumatic experiences of her foremothers leads to her institutionalization in a psychiatric hospital. Schalk uses her reading of Perry's novel to set forth an analysis of the construction of ablemindedness, showing how "deviance from social norms, especially norms of race and gender, has historically been construed as mental disability, with its related material consequences" (64). Lizzie's experience of a reality in which her everyday life converges with the "rememory" of her ancestors is both a material example of mental disability and a metaphor for the everyday trauma that black people experience in being confronted with the ongoing realities of past and present systemic violence whose impact is consistently denied (81).

[7] With chapter three, Bodyminds Reimagined shifts focus from speculative engagements with the past to imagined futures. "The Future of Bodyminds, Bodyminds of the Future" returns to Butler, focusing on the speculative disability of hyperempathy (which leads people to experience the perceived pain or pleasure of others in their own body) created in the Parable series. In addition to analyzing Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), Schalk draws from her extensive archival work with Butler's papers. The chapter, which I find especially effective as a stand-alone analysis of speculative disability, examines the possibilities and limitations of the many scholarly engagements with hyperempathy before settling in to engage with the contradictions and complexities of Butler's imagination. Schalk shows how Butler's work overturns the convention of disability's absence from futuristic genre fiction that Kathryn Allan (2013) and other scholars have critiqued.

[8] Finally, chapter four, "Defamiliarizing (Dis)Ability, Race, Gender, and Sexuality," deals with disability as it pertains to nonhuman characters in recent fantasy fiction: N. K. Jemisin's blind demon in The Broken Kingdoms (2010), Shawntelle Madison's werewolf with OCD from the Coveted series (2012), and Nalo Hopkinson's half-god, half-human formerly conjoined twins from Sister Mine (2013). This chapter engages richly with the possibilities that black women's speculative representations of (dis)ability, race, and gender contain, once again merging the material and the metaphorical through nonrealist envisionings of disability that also decenter the colonial alignment of the human itself with whiteness and masculinity. Schalk's decision to combine the work of three writers, where previous chapters focus more intensely on individual works, allows for a broader scope of analysis but also has some drawbacks. Jemisin and Hopkinson's work could easily sustain full-length engagement on the order of Schalk's analyses of Butler and Perry; to merge them together with Madison's series is potentially reductive of both their diverse engagements with the fantastic and the specifics of paranormal romance. I suspect that Schalk is fully aware of this limitation and made a decision not to expand this chapter in order to keep Bodyminds Reimagined short and timely—a choice with which I can sympathize even as I was keen to see Schalk's incisive and generous analysis applied with greater breadth and depth.

[9] In the conclusion, as well as in concluding meditations within each chapter, Schalk moves from a more abstract critical voice into moments of first-person narrative in order to elucidate the ways that entering into relationships with the texts she analyzes has shaped her self-perception and her worldview—whether through the tools they have offered for navigating life as a queer black woman within white supremacist heteropatriarchy or through the sheer pleasure that reading them has evoked (145). These are some of the moments where Bodyminds Reimagined most closely connects with the concerns of fan studies, especially as the field attends to the production and implications of social difference and to the imbrication of fannish pleasures with oppressive social structures. Schalk shows how attention to disability within a fannish relationship to black women's speculative fiction can become a practice in which bodies, minds, and worlds are reimagined.

[10] That my only quibble with Bodyminds Reimagined has been simply that there was not enough of it should go far to demonstrate how much Schalk's book can itself inspire its own fandom. Indeed, in the few short months since its publication, the book has been received with energetic praise in its academic fields, with a well-attended "Authors Meet Critics" panel at the National Women's Studies Association conference in November 2018. Many scholars and fans in Transformative Works and Cultures' readership might not expect a book about disability in black feminist speculative fiction to be relevant to their areas of interest—but if they take up Schalk's invitation to join her fandom, they may well find themselves surprised.


Allan, Kathryn, ed. 2013. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

TWC Editor. 2009. "Pattern Recognition: A Dialogue on Racism in Fan Communities." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Vanderhooft, JoSelle, ed. 2013. Shattering Ableist Narratives: The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 7. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press.