The following morning, the week began in earnest. The hotel meeting room, be-decked with flags from the Central American countries, held a congregation of quiet, serious women who sat alert but somehow detached. Their eyes looked curiously at me and although they were scrupulously polite, there was a reserve in them I felt but could not understand. They sat, on chairs or in wheelchairs, hands in their laps, faces concerned and rigid, straining to grasp the concepts of the presenters. On and on talked these speakers and the women gazed at them - intellectually curious, separate and remote.
Watching them, I felt my heart sink. If this was their reaction to Spanish-speaking keynotes, what on earth would happen when I stepped in front of them to deliver my paper on coediting a book? I wouldn't even be speaking their language. My hands were sweating when my interpreter whispered that we would be presenting soon and was I ready? I glanced over at a woman from Nicaragua. She sat tall in her wheelchair, with a grace and pride of bearing that were striking. Her face, as she gazed impassively back at me, was stone. No! I most certainly was not ready. What was I doing here?
As if in a dream, I moved, on cue, to the front of the room and looked numbly out over the cool faces. I began to talk. My paper was about the experience of coediting an international anthology of writings by women with disabilities. I had originally planned to focus on the mechanics and technical aspects of going about such a project and bringing to fruition a manuscript made up of many diverse pieces. But suddenly my path became lit by some strange intuition. I switched routes and began to explain why my coeditor and I believed in the importance of the project. I spoke about the importance of disabled women telling their messages to the world, the inherent significance of the stories each woman had to tell and the power of writing in this process.
And that's when a spark jumped live and bright into the room and caught itself in the dry brush of a dispassionate group worn out with living in worlds that, so often, looked right through them. The spark, in an instant, blazed into a fire that ran roaring around the room. The women who had written in our book were women just like them! Their own stories were as powerful, as important and as interesting as those in the book which would be read by the world who would hear their songs, share their thoughts, feel their passions. How these women shone, transformed by the dawning of these realizations!
By the time I reached the end of my presentation and began to speak about the difficulties we encountered in finding a publisher for our anthology, the women were shouting from their seats. I explained that although we had, only the week before, reached an agreement with a press, several editors had turned away the project saying that the stories of individual disabled women simply were not "political enough". "We must be heard!" called the voices in the room. 'We will write for the world," they cried.
Once these women realized that I was interested in them as individuals, that I wanted to ask questions as well as answer them, they surged around me. From them, I learned of their stories, of life in their societies; from me they learned of my experiences. And as they listened to each other speak, their faces filled with understanding and recognition. A magic started. It wove itself around their midst and their passionate discourses. Whispered confidences and wild laughter went on into the night. Most of these women had come to the seminar filled with such a sense of loneliness and isolation. "I am so alone at home in my village," said one, "and I didn't think that women from such different countries would understand anything about my life. But we share so many experiences! So many feelings!"
With the exchange of stories came an almost desperate need for information. How do disabled people organize themselves in Canada? Why is Maria's leg brace of such lighter weight than mine? What technical aids do you have in Costa Rica for taking baths? Are you married? My husband left me. We were fighting for the guerrillas in Nicaragua when a bomb backfired.