Why do we stare? It’s something parents scold their children for doing, something adults remind themselves to abscond from. Brooklyn-based writer Chloé Cooper Jones is exploring her relationship with staring as an act and as an experience in a brand-new piece, titled “Why We Stare,” at Pop-Up Magazine at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next month.
Pop-Up, a live, multimedia storytelling show with a fresh cast of writers accompanied by original orchestrations and animators, is touring four U.S. cities for one night each this spring, with pieces from creatives including photographer Oscar Castillo, director Adrian L. Burrell, author and illustrator Kristen Ratdke, and, of course, Jones.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist with an extensive portfolio of freelance journalism, Jones is certainly no stranger to navigating tricky stories. But, until a few years ago, she had steered clear of writing publicly about disability and the rare congenital condition, sacral agenesis, she was born with.
A responsibility to write about disability
“I have a very visible physical disability that I just never wanted to bring up in front of people,” she said. “I think because a lot of the way in which a lot of people relate to me was always to put that disability first, or to reflect back on the way that they treated me, their own sort of negative bias against disability.”
She avoided bringing up her own disability and dodged conversations about disability writ large when they cropped up in her life. It wasn’t a perfect situation, but it worked.
Her perspective changed one night as she sat at a Brooklyn bar with a couple of friends, she said. The three, all philosophers, were talking about biomedical ethics — and one argued that it was immoral for any parent to knowingly give birth to a disabled child, and said that everyone should have to undergo genetic testing, or test their embryos, in the case of in-vitro fertilization, to make sure their future children wouldn’t be disabled.
It’s not a unique argument in the world of biomedical ethics, Jones said, and not the first time someone had brought it up to her.
But during that conversation, which became the opening story in Jones’ recently-released book “Easy Beauty,” she realized both that she was being forced to defend her own existence and that her previous silence had made her complicit, in a way, in the beliefs other people held about disability. By not speaking up to discuss her own disability and the positive and negative impacts it had had in her life, she felt she had done herself a disservice.
“When I resisted talking about disability, I didn’t realize that I was in a very complicated form of self-erasure,” Jones said. “When you deny the existence of your body, that doesn’t actually affect anyone but me. My own silence, or retreat, or withdrawal, was a form of complicity.”
Just before she sold her book, Jones published a piece titled “Such Perfection,” in Believer Magazine, exploring natural beauty and her relationship with it as someone often seen “outside the realms” of socially acceptable beauty.
The response, an outpouring of support from people who felt seen by the piece, confirmed what she felt about speaking up, and that writing about disability was beneficial for people other than herself.
Bringing a new idea to a dynamic arena at Pop-Up Magazine
“Why We Stare,” the piece Jones is bringing to Pop-Up, draws on a similar experience — being stared at in public. She had read, re-read, and pondered writing a response to “Staring,” a book on the topic by Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.
“When Pop-Up Magazine approached me, I thought, oh, this is great, because I’ll be being stared at because I’ll be on a stage,” she said. “What a cool opportunity to think about this dynamic while I’m actually just physically standing in front of people talking directly to them, rather than allowing them to sort of read it on the subway.”
Staring is rooted in involuntary survival mechanisms, Jones said, and it’s important.
“Staring is the physical manifestation of our mind trying to sort through a problem,” she said. “We stare when we see something that is new to us, or unexpected, as our brain tries to process what it is.”
Broadly, Jones said, the piece explores why we stare, what we learn from staring and the social and cultural connotations of the act. She’s always been fascinated by staring, she said, in part because of her particular relationship with being stared at.
“I will say this, I think the piece is really marking a transformation in my own understanding in what that act can be, and mean,” Jones said. “And an evolution in my own relationship to the act of staring.”
In “Easy Beauty,” which was published in April, Jones writes about how she engages with conversations about disability — whether successfully or not. Sometimes, she still chooses to step away from those discussions.
“Sometimes if it’s a nice Friday night in Brooklyn, and you’ve got a nice dress on, you just want to have a drink and relax and not defend the nature of your very existence,” Jones said. “Or sometimes I want to go to the grocery store and not deal with the public scrutiny and stares that I get from strangers.”
A collaboration and making art that’s worth the struggle
Creating “Why We Stare,” has been a true collaboration between Jones, her editors, and the musicians and visual artists, she said. Every step of the way, her editors have helped her to figure out how to put the audience first. She’s been mindful of — and excited about — the fact that they’re working together with the other contributors to put together a whole show, an experience.
“It’s a completely unusual experience for a writer, you’re just alone in a cave and then things come out,” she joked.
It has also been a test. Jones’ disability affects where she lives and where she can and cannot comfortably go. The Pop-Up team has been actively seeking to make the tour more accessible for her, she said, but there are limits.
“Because I have a pain disorder, all these things I do are really hard,” she said. “There’s just kind of no way of getting around that. People can make spaces very accessible, that doesn’t mean they make them easy, because they can’t be easy.”
Struggle is something that has a lot of value for Jones, she said. Putting work, whether it’s physical or not, into something she’s proud of is worth it.
“When I was writing this piece for Pop-Up Magazine, a lot of the things I was really trying to feel was, like, I want to write a piece that’s going to be worthy of the toll it will take to move my body around the country, and I want to make sure I’m partnered with people who support that work, and I think that’s absolutely what I’ve got.”
See Chloé Cooper Jones and her colleagues at the Pop-Up Magazine Spring Issue at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on Thursday, June 2, at 7:30 pm.