This is an interview with Belo Cipriani, the editor and publisher of a new anthology featuring coming-of-age stories by disabled writers.
Congratulations on the recent publication of Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities! Tell me about how this book first came about and what sparked your idea for this anthology.
Belo: I write a nationally syndicated column called, “Seeing in the Dark” which looks at the intersectionality of disability and the LGBT community. The column made it possible for me to meet several amazing people who had the shared experience of being the first to do something with their disability, such as playing a sport or to attend their college. These conversations on being firsts prompted the idea for the book.
What was your process finding the authors for this anthology? Describe the process that led you to the eleven contributors featured in Firsts?
Belo: The book took three years to put together and I received a total of 500 submissions from every corner of the world. Sometimes, I spent entire weekends reading through essays. My husband always knew when I was reading the work of an author I liked because he said he had to call my name a few times to snap me out of my reading trance. It took me two years to find the 11 authors, and we edited extensively for a solid year.
What do you enjoy about the editing and being an editor of an anthology? How is it different from writing and what have you learned from this experience?
Belo: While I have edited a few books, editing Firsts gave me the opportunity to learn about other disabilities that are different from my own. I must admit that as a blind writer, I use to primarily read the work of other blind writers. However, editing Firsts broke me out of that habit, and I am now learning so much about storytelling from various disability perspectives.
Young Adult literature is a very popular genre with a growing number disabled characters and writers. Why do you think essays about a first-time memory by disabled people when they were young are important and unique? What is it about the experiences of growing up disabled that you want to share with readers?
Belo: Many people believe that if a person has a disability, their life is less rich. This is so far from the truth. I think that disabled characters in young adult books, that are done well, are able to show people that kids with disabilities are just kids. They have the same adolescent needs and desires, they just happen to navigate the world differently.
What are some of the major themes and topics featured in Firsts? Is there a particular essay that resonated with you personally?
Belo: One of the major themes across all 11 stories is transformation. Something happened in the life of the protagonist and he or she must now adapt. In some cases, the transformation was related to disability, while in others, it was not. Regardless, this massive change framed the story.
There’s a lot of horrible stereotypical disability stories. What are the features of an authentic and ‘good’ disability story in your opinion?
Belo: In my opinion, a good disability story has a character, who in addition to having a physical or mental condition, has a defined role that is bigger than their disability. For example, a new mom in Miami who is a wheelchair user, or a high school English teacher in the Bronx who is dyslexic. It really all goes back to people with disabilities being people first, and disability is second.
You’re the editor of Firsts and you’re also the Founder of the company that published it, Oleb Books, and the Founder/CEO of Oleb Media. What is the mission and purpose of both companies?
Belo: Oleb Books www.olebbooks.com is a press dedicated to publishing the work of writers with disabilities. We want to build a community for writers, and have partnered with nonprofits in the literacy and disability space to fund contests and create content in the form of blogs, videos, and podcasts. We will publish 2 to 3 books a year and create opportunities for writers with disabilities to mingle at our events.
Oleb Media is a consulting firm that helps companies reach and engage the disability community. Our clients range from cosmetic companies to leaders in the software industry. Both companies have my name in reverse and share office space, yet do not interact on any business level.
What do you hope readers gain after reading Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities?
Belo: I learned so much about other disabilities outside my own while editing this book. I hope that readers find a little of themselves in these stories, as well as pick up something new about disability.
What are some other stories about the disability experience you want to see that haven’t been published yet?
Belo: As a reader, I would like to see more characters with disabilities across all genres of literature. As a publisher, I want to see historical fiction that has characters with disabilities.
What is Oleb Books specifically focused on publishing in the future and how can disabled writers find out more about your publishing company?
Belo: Oleb Books is currently accepting manuscript submissions on our website at www.olebbooks.com. We are looking for both fiction and nonfiction and are open to word count and genre. We are simply looking for characters with disabilities in unique situations.
Moreover, we will be announcing a few writing competitions over the next couple of months. Anyone interested should sign up for our email list or follow us on Twitter, FB, or IG.
Belo Cipriani is an award-winning author, prize-winning journalist, and media entrepreneur. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Business Insider, HuffPost, and elsewhere. Cipriani has lectured at Yale University and is a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com and www.olebmedia.com