1.) Ballerina, Ballerina, by the Slovenian author Marko Sosič, is breathless at 97 pages. It tells the coming of age story of Ballerina. Ballerina has, “the cognitive faculties of a very young child, yet manages to see the world in a way that is both straightforward and sophisticated.” For anyone with friends or family that might fit this description (people with autism or Downs syndrome), the novella is heart breaking and familiar.
2.) Ballerina lives with her mother, father, and brother in a small village in 1960’s Yugoslavia. She earns her nickname from a compulsive tendency to stand on tiptoes when distressed. Each morning her mother helps her out of bed, washes her, and prepares her for the day. When Ballerina is anxious she breaks plates, and her Mama sings with her to calm her down.
3.) Sosič nails the degree to which vulnerable people rely on their caretakers, but also drives home the ways all people are vulnerable and interdependent. “ I hear Mama, she’s also singing in the yard… She always says that she’s old and she’ll have to go to heaven when the time comes and that I’ll go to heaven, too, because Ballerinas like me, Mama says, don’t live very long after their Mama dies. I watch her sing. I listen to her. I stand on tiptoe and sing with Mama.” Caring for Ballerina is the force that keeps her aging Mama going.
4.) The novella touches upon Ballerina’s narrow world experience. She knows very few people, and judges everyone as those who have been inside her kitchen and those who have not. This echoes the way people that live with disability are so frequently cornered into insularity, heightened by the insularity that can be so essential to the autistic experience. The very hiddenness of Ballerina highlights our very limited cultural capacity for living with difference in social settings.
5.) Sosič shows a society that has become reliant on rigorous pharmacology to make people conform to very normative standards. And without passing harsh judgment, he shows the effect this has. When Ballerina begins breaking plates, her Mama gives her the drops. “I see Mama quickly go to the pantry. I know she’ll give me the drops. I pick up the plate that Josipina was given as a present and throw it at the door.” In 2015, compulsive action is still frequently tamped down with drugging, and adults living with disability are forced into a very sad paradox, unable to “behave.”
6.) This tension also highlights the sad and persistent way our society infantilizes adults that are unable to socialize in the realm of normative adulthood. Ballerina’s very name speaks to this. Her family baby talks her. The townspeople slip her candy. This tension is real today and can be challenging when interacting with loved ones. Our culture has little patience for adults that communicate outside of a very specific “Mad Men” ideal. If you look to film and television, there is basically no example of masculinity, femininity, or even adulthood for people with disability. And because there is no prevalent cultural understanding of what it looks like to treat these people with dignity, it can sometimes feel like every person is forced to encounter this tension at a personal level. It’s hard to know how to do the right thing when you want your loved one to be happy.
7.) Sosič avoids pathologizing, refusing to give Ballerina’s condition a name. And in doing so he manages to highlight a classic double bind for people with disability: refusing to acknowledge disability allows popular culture to pretend it doesn’t exist, and therefore continue discriminating. Sosič shows the discrimination, but he also shows the ambivalence, confusion, frustration, and goodwill that comes from challenging discrimination.
The novella is far more expansive than its page count, and is well worth a read.