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Author’s life a winding path of queerness, art, pride and disability lineage

Fink explores familial exclusion in new book



Jennifer Natalya Fink

When Jennifer Natalya Fink, 55, an English professor and director of the Disabilities Studies program at Georgetown University, was growing up, her grandfather’s house overflowed with his extended family – from aunts to second cousins. 

“Though my gruff grandfather argued with everyone,” Fink, who is queer and Jewish, writes in her new book “All Our Families: Disability Lineage and the Future of Kinship,” “his household included far-flung family members in his ever-expanding mishpacha–Yiddish for family, extended family, and that aunt who’s really just your mother’s best friend.”

Yet one family member wasn’t welcome there, Fink, who is married to a Korean-American, gender nonconforming spouse, told the Blade in an interview. She never saw her first cousin, Cousin XY, (her grandfather’s grandson) at family gatherings.

As a child, Fink knew that she had a cousin who no one mentioned. A geneticist’s daughter, she named her “lost” cousin “Cousin XY.” 

“My grandfather had an expanded idea of family,” Fink said, “But Cousin XY had Down syndrome.”

Fink’s grandfather was a doctor. His mishpacha included vulnerable people who were unable to provide for themselves. But “there wasn’t room for someone with an extra chromosome,” Fink said, “he said my aunt and uncle should ‘give away’ their child with Down Syndrome.”

There was so much shame around disability when Cousin XY was born, Fink said. “It was like how it was for me growing up queer in the 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “No one talked about it then. The stories of queer people were erased.”

Her grandfather’s vision of family had “one limit,” Fink said. “It didn’t include disability.”

After he was born, Cousin XY was taken from his parents. At first, a nurse cared for him. Then, he was institutionalized.

“Cousin XY’s story was erased,” Fink said. “He wasn’t even given a name.” 

The 1970s was the “tail end” of the mass institutionalization of disabled people, Fink said.

Institutionalization of people with disabilities is much less common now. “Yet disabled people are still often being culturally and psychologically delineated from our idea of family,” Fink said.

Nearly one in five people has a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So, it’s not surprising that Fink’s family (like many families) has had more than one disabled person in its history.

Fink’s grandmother Adina was extremely hard of hearing. “Yet, we never talked about her deafness,” Fink said. “She took no pride in her disability.”

Just as, until recently, many families erased the stories of their LGBTQ mother, fathers, husbands, wives, children, grandmas, grandpas – “guncles,” families still erase disabled people from their family history.

Fink, born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. “Growing up, I felt like I was the only queer person in the universe,” Fink said, “being queer wasn’t considered to be ‘normal.’”

Many families have at least one family member who is LGBTQ. Fink’s parents were loving and liberal. But, when she was young, “it was as if there had never ever been a queer person in my family,” Fink said. “It felt like being cut off from my family’s story.”

Now, Fink’s parents are supportive of her sexual orientation.

In this era of LGBTQ pride, being queer is more often seen not as “abnormal” or “traumatic” but as a “normal” part of being human.

This hasn’t been the case for disabled people, Fink said.

The stigma and shame around disability became up close and personal for Fink when her daughter Nadia Sohn Fink, now 15, was two-and-a-half-years old.

Then, Fink learned that Nadia was autistic. Fink was gobsmacked.

Nadia, who is biracial, was an intelligent, playful child. Now Nadia is a bright teen who writes stories and poetry. 

“It felt traumatic to get this paper saying Nadia is autistic,” Fink said, “as if we were being cut off from what is normal.”

Fink, who isn’t disabled, had internalized society’s perceptions of disability. She’d imbibed the ableist Kool Aid: the idea that disability is shameful – that disabled people should be feared, patronized and/or shunned.

To deal with her daughter’s autism diagnosis, Fink leaned into her experience of being queer.

“Because I’m queer, I’m used to being an outsider,” she said, “I drew on what I know of homophobia. On what it’s like to be excluded – to be considered abnormal – not a part of the family.”

Fink is an introvert. “If I weren’t queer, I’d never have gone into a bar,” she joked.

But connecting with other LGBTQ people had made her feel pride in herself. Her queer connection made her feel part of a chosen family and think about her family of origin’s stories.

She and Nadia connected with other autistic people and their families. Fink came to think of being disabled not as something to be ashamed of, but as a normal part of being human.

Fink began to look into her family’s disability history. She found that Rhona (now deceased), another cousin in the United Kingdom, had Down Syndrome. Rhona, Fink discovered, led a happy, fulfilled life.

 “Rhona lived with her family through her childhood,” Fink said, “her mother started a progressive care center where Rhona lived the rest of her life.”

There’s a parallel between families being out and proud about their queer and disability history, Fink said.

“Reclaiming your family’s disability stories will change how you think about disability,” Fink said.

Take her hard-of-hearing grandmother. Fink now looks on her grandmother’s disability with pride. “She didn’t transcend her disability,” Fink said, “but because she was hard-of-hearing, my grandmother had to pay attention. She was a great listener.”

Fink’s daughter Nadia feels pride in her disabled ancestors. “Disability lineage empowers me,” Nadia emailed the Blade, “To know my people were always there. To know I have a people.”

Creativity runs in the Fink family. Like her daughter, Fink is a writer. She was the winner of the Dana Award for the novel and of the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Fiction.

“I write experimental fiction,” said Fink who was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for her 2018 novel “Bhopal Dance.”

“Bhopal Dance” “focuses on disaster, activism, white savior complex, and queer world making,” Corinne Manning wrote in the “Lambda Literary Review. “The book is an astonishing sun-posed magnifying glass on our radical failures and desires.”

In 1988, Fink graduated from Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in a self-designed major in feminist performance art. She earned an M.F.A. in performance from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1990 and a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in 1997.

For a time, Fink was based in New York City, where she supervised art teachers in public schools. She noticed that often there were no books, and that the students were frequently alienated from books.

But “the kids loved to draw, paint, cartoon, etc.,” Fink said, “I learn best through making. So did these kids.”

To promote youth literacy, Fink was one of the founders of the (now defunct) Gorilla Press.

Fink’s life has been a winding path of queerness, art, pride and disability lineage. She wears her grandmother’s ring to honor her disability ancestors.

You can’t help but think that her grandmother would be proud.

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New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list



(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system



(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation



(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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