Interview of Hannah Diviney by Freya Bennett
You wouldn’t think a 24-year-old would have enough material to write a memoir but that is certainly not the case for the ever-incredible Hannah Diviney.
Hannah’s book of personal essays, I’ll Let Myself In, is a sharp, thoughtful and wise-beyond-her-years insight into her experience growing up with cerebral palsy. We watch Hannah step into her power as a role-model, so needed in a society that too often shows only a one-dimensional version of what it means to be disabled.
Star of the show Latecomers and the activist behind the campaign to get Lizzo and Beyoncé to change their lyrics (you can read about that here), Hannah has stories to tell and she is using her beautiful and undeniable writing talent to tell them.
I’ll Let Myself In is a coming-of-age book for the current times. A book that will open your eyes and make you want to create a better, more vibrant world for everyone.
I sat down to chat with Hannah about her journey so far.
The book itself is a complex story. I’ve wanted to be writer since I was 4 and I’m now 24 so it’s been a dream for a very long time. It’s been two decades of work. When other kids were going to soccer and ballet, I was learning how to write stories… I always thought that my entry into being a writer and having a book out in the world would be by way of fiction. I always thought I would be creating other peoples worlds and characters first and obviously that’s not what happened.
I finished high school which was a really tumultuous time as you would know from reading the book, and this little voice in the back of my head started saying, ‘Maybe we need to write down what the heck happened, maybe we’re getting to a point where the first stories you need to tell, the first stories you need to own and be comfortable with, are your own.” So, that has been a dialogue in my brain for a number of years now. I fought pretty hard against that because I thought if I ever wrote down my story it would be with decades of distance between me and it. But as I’ve stepped into being an advocate and have seen how the world has unfolded in the last couple of years, it became more obvious that there’s something to be said for writing it down while you’re still in the thick of figuring it out.
The actual process of committing to sit down and write the book took about five months. I started it in earnest in October last year and then finished the first draft in March. In between that, I had Latecomers come out, I was filming a movie and there was all sorts of chaotic personal stuff happening behind the scenes. Life very much didn’t slow down so it was me and my laptop against the world.
That’s impressive doing all of that at once!
It’s one of those things where you just do it and when you’re out of it you look back and you’re like, ‘How did I actually do that?’
Also, I want to be clear – because I know achievements like this can be held up as the pinnacle of productivity culture – I want to explain to people that is not what happened, in doing this, I was still dealing with fatigue and the day to day struggle of Cerebral Palsy. There were plenty of naps and plenty of tears and plenty of ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’ moments.
I want people to know it was something I did manage to do but it was not without it’s struggle and not without the need to take care of myself at the same time.
And for me, I didn’t have to come up with the stories. Once I settled on the fact that I knew it was going to be about me, the structure of the book became clear very quickly.
You write about your birth which is obviously a time you don’t have any memory of, did you have to sit down with your parents for the book or is it a story that you know so well?
I’ve been collecting details about it for as long as I can remember because as soon as I realised I was different, and as soon as I had a name for that difference, I wanted to know everything I could about it. For me, one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around has been that the questions I have, don’t necessarily have answers. And even if they do, those answers aren’t necessarily satisfying.
I loved hearing about your parents encouragement of you filling in the gaps in society that you found growing up, was that a common theme of your childhood?
Yeah, that has been the common refrain of my childhood. Whenever I would bring up something I didn’t like about the world my parents were like, ‘Well you could do it!’
I’ve always been taught that if you see something you’re not happy about or if you see something you think needs changing, it’s probably best not to wait around for someone else to do it, but to just go and do it yourself.
What do you want people to take from your book?
I want people to take from my book whatever they need. That might be a strange answer but if I can create an environment where people feel less alone or they feel less shame, that’s my goal and that’s also why I’ve been quite raw and honest and probably even shared some stuff that even in my own head I was like, ‘Am I really putting this out there for the world to read?’
I think also as well, wanting people to understand the disabled experience. Part of why I felt able to write this book, was because I realised, even though it’s about me, it’s also about the act of chronicling a disabled life and making that visible. If I had made this about me and self importance, there is no way I would have put pen to paper, I would have felt very egotistical and narcissistic and those are not things that I subscribe to.
It occurred to me that the reason I had all these questions as a kid, and the reason I was still very much trying to figure this out is because there was no-one in front of me who had done the work that I wanted to see. We have a few more now, but in terms of disabled history, there was no one I could be like ‘Well that person did it, so I know what a disabled life is meant to look like.’
So it became this exercise that if I write down my story, then maybe other disabled people, even if they don’t have my disability, have something to be like ‘This is a way I could go.’ And I talk about that in the book. The two paths of disability representation I grew up with were, ‘Paralympic success’ or ‘road safety ads’ and neither of those are appealing to me in any sort of way. Not to say that I don’t appreciate and value the Paralympics, of course I do, and I love watching sport, but I’m just not the person who is going to be there training for ten hours a day. It’s not my passion, it’s not my thing and it’s not the way I interact with the world and I really took issue with the fact that as a kid, it was expected to be my world, just because that’s what people knew and that’s all people saw [of disabled folk].
This book has really been about creating visibility and awareness that disabled people can, should and do exist anywhere that people are. And it’s my hope that in the future, I will continue to write more books, that are both fiction and also more essay collections, so I can continually chronicle what it’s like (to be a disabled person).
Thank you so much Hannah, and as much as I just want you to have a nice holiday, I have to ask, what’s next?
For now it’s just watching the book grow, doing all the events, and figuring out what this book can be. And I’ll be continuing to work on Missing Perspectives, the media company I’m so proud to be a part of and hopefully, there’ll be a holiday in there somewhere but we’ll see how we go.
You can grab a copy of Hannah’s book at all good bookstores and catch her discussing all the good things at the Wheeler Centre’s Spring Fling.