In ‘The Pretty One,’ Keah Brown Stands Front and Center
The author on her essay collection, bodily acceptance, and putting it all on the page
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In The Pretty One, Keah Brown invites readers on a journey as she comes into her own, not just in who she is and how she sees herself but in the ways she discusses that evolution and the growth still to come. Online and in print, Brown has openly written about having cerebral palsy, being a disability advocate, what she loves—her fondness for cheesecake is legendary—and loathes, and the ways that ableism continues to impact the disabled community and be a consistent part of the conversation on representation.
But these topics are not all that Brown is about. In The Pretty One, Her discussions of pop culture, crushes, rom-coms, and our news cycle emerge in parallel with her own life. With humor and grace and humility, Brown opens up on life and what she sees as being necessary to the broader cultural conversation. Many may know Brown from her online work, including interviews and feature writing, as well as for the viral hashtag #DisabledandCute. Now we’ll know her, rightfully, as The Pretty One.
(The full conversation can be heard on the Minorities in Publishing podcast.)
Jennifer Baker: You mentioned you weren’t really writing about disability when you first started, or maybe you weren’t writing as much about it?
Keah Brown: No.
JB: So when did that trajectory happen for you, where your writing started to get more personal?
KB: I think the first personal essay I ever wrote was for Femsplain in 2015. It was about me being jealous of my sister. I think for me what happened was that when I first started writing about disability it was simply because “I need to get this off my chest. I need to talk about it because if I don’t it’s going to fester.” So it was more a survival thing for me than the need to explore it and see what it means. And so the first bits I wrote about disability were really negative and I was still trying to come to terms with being disabled and being in my body. A lot of it was, “I don’t like myself, hopefully I will one day, maybe I won’t.” So what I do like about my earlier work was that you can kind of parse through it to see how far I’ve come now. A lot of that earlier disability work was just really depressing and really sad, but that’s where I was at; and I think that was important for me to be honest about as well. I felt like if I didn’t start writing about disability, I was not going to be okay. It was for survival. Not for any survival professionally, but survival for my own being.
JB: And do you feel like you got decent guidance from editors in regards to writing those essays?
KB: I think I was very lucky because, especially as a Black woman, I’ve heard horror stories about people having editors—specifically white editors—who don’t understand their experience and sort of try to exploit them for advertising money or clicks. I had the opposite experience. My editors would say, “Are you sure you want to put that specific thing out there? We just want to make sure that you’re not exploiting yourself. We don’t want you to feel like you have to say XYZ thing.” So a lot of times, my editors would pull me back so I wouldn’t give too much. They said, “We want you to be able to feel free to tell your story. But also be aware that this is going out to other people, so once it’s out there you can’t take it back. Once you tell this story, you’ll have to atone for it later on.”
I think with a lot of young writers don’t have that same sort of protection that I had, so I was lucky in that way because it wasn’t like any of my editors were trying to exploit me to get clicks or try to make nothing out of something. I feel really good about that aspect. But I really did luck out because, like I said, I’ve heard so many horror stories.
JB: Or editors don’t understand the work at all and try to make it something it’s not.
KB: Right, trying to find their own entry point and you lose the entire thing in the process.
JB: Yeah. That is very nice to hear this wasn’t your experience.
KB: It’s so rare. I think there’s only been one or two times where something came out and I was like, “This doesn’t feel like me. I can see bits and pieces of myself in it but it’s not me.” And I’ve written a lot between 2015-2016 to 2019. So I feel very lucky that I was able to only have it happen a couple times. It took a lot for me to reach out to those editors and say, “No, this isn’t what I wanted at all, can we rethink this?” Because I think that’s hard too, especially when you’re first coming up and just getting your feet wet. You don’t want to ruffle any feathers. So saying no, “ giving feedback is so hard at that stage in your career because you don’t want to burn that bridge.
JB: Did you have a breaking point?
KB: It was during edits, so the piece hadn’t even come out yet. I messaged the editor and I said, “This isn’t like me at all, this looks completely different from anything that I would ever write, I can’t have it go out like this.” Because I had just started to pick up a bit of an audience and I was so scared to tell the editor that I was unhappy with it, but my best friend was like, “You have to do what’s best for you because at the end of the day, your name is on it, not the editor’s.” And thankfully the editor wasn’t combative or angry about my pushback, they were like “Okay, that’s fine, we can fix it. How would you like it?” And that’s very rare for a lot of people.
JB: And prior to the book, you had the viral hashtag #DisabledandCute, which is prominently on the cover as well along with your beautiful face. Through The Pretty One you show your reality, because one of your first essays was a dark place, like the piece was. And what I thought about your book especially was that Keah is not trying to write inspiration porn. Here she is writing her honest truth.
KB: Yeah, and I was very adamant about that because when I made #DisabledAndCute in 2017, that was the first time that I was genuinely genuinely happy in my body. I felt good about myself, both professionally and personally. I was like “I look cute” and so I wanted the hashtag to celebrate that, but also not just celebrate me you know? That’s how it started. I wanted to kind of memorialise—if that’s the right word—feeling really good in my body, but then I realized this isn’t just about me, this is about a place other disabled people can celebrate themselves and each other and find a place to feel like they can say “I like myself in my body” full stop. So for me it was, “Okay, I feel great, and I want everybody else to feel this way because I don’t want anyone else to feel like I once did when I first started writing professionally.”
Writing this book, I wanted to say “I’m not here to make you feel better about yourself because you’re not disabled. I’m here to tell you that I feel good and that you should too, not because you aren’t me but because we should want to feel good in our bodies. And we should want to feel good and we should want to learn about other people in the world in general.” I hate inspiration porn so much because even well-meaning people send it to me and are like “Look at this, so amazing! This disabled person did XYZ thing!” And it’s great that they did that thing, but it’s under the guise of making you feel good because you don’t live like that. That’s not okay and that’s not helping anything. It’s just further causing us harm because we have to always be seen as the people who make you feel good because you’re not us, while you strip us of our rights and livelihood because you don’t think we deserve it. So yeah, I was very adamant that this wasn’t about making people feel better because they aren’t me, but just giving them a window to a life that they might not know of or just an idea of what it’s like to live in a body that’s not like theirs, but still valuable nonetheless.
JB: Your face on the cover also made me think that it forces you to be reckoned with. As in, “I’m here at the table. You have to reckon with me, I am here, I am present. You can ignore me, you can say I’m not here.” But simply by the existence and presence of your joy emitting from your body, in your full body, it means we have to reckon with that every time you look at the cover, every time you’re reading the inside and you close it and you look at the front. It’s: I have to reckon with who this person, who this writer is, what their experiencing with and maybe that might, in my narrow mindset, conflict with my thinking or how I’m interpreting things.
KB: I agree. I think that it was very intentional for me. I’m on this cover, so people can’t pretend they don’t see me, and people can’t pretend they don’t see my hand. For me that was a really big deal because I spent so long being uncomfortable, being disabled and uncomfortable showing my right hand. For it to be on the cover of this book is revolutionary for me as a person because you don’t often see disabled bodies on book covers.
You just don’t. I just wanted to challenge the idea that disabilities are an eyesore—because I’m not an eyesore, I’m a sight for sore eyes. And not only is she smiling and happy on the cover, but when you get to the back of the book and you see my author photo you’ll see another photo where I’m smiling and joyful and alive. And I think because we see so much in popular culture and in mainstream media in general, disabled people never make it to the end of movies or books. So not only am I making it to the end of the book, but you’ve got me on the front of it too. So you can just always be reminded that I’m there every time you flip a page—every time you close the book like you said—it’s just a reminder that I’m here and I’m not going anywhere whether that makes you uncomfortable or not. Either get on the train or get off. I feel like I spent so much time trying to tuck myself away and not make too much noise or not bring too much attention to myself but now it’s like “No, you’re going to get all of me,” and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.