In Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw (Legacy Lit, Aug.), Ndopu, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, recalls navigating Oxford University as a wheelchair-using graduate student.
How did you settle on a time frame for this memoir?
The fairy-tale ending would have been me getting into Oxford. I wanted to start the day after the fairy tale, what happens after you’ve achieved your wildest dreams. I think the reality is that the more barriers disabled people tear down, the more barriers are on the other side, and I wanted to be honest about how my accomplishments have not inoculated me against that. Oxford was a snapshot that included everything I wanted to say.
In the book, you advocate for “living dangerously.” Can you expand on what you mean by that, and how it’s shaped the way you live?
I think dangerous living is really self-advocacy, even at the risk of being labeled unreasonable or entitled. Either I live the life I really want to live, or I live a life that is “easier.” I actually think it’s the harder life; it comes at the expense of authenticity. I don’t judge any disabled person who chooses not to live dangerously, though. The onus should never be on disabled people. The onus should be on society and the systemic inequalities we navigate every day.
What was the easiest part of this book to write? The most difficult?
The hardest parts dealt with my own acquiescence to mistreatment. How, in some ways, I was actively participating in my own struggle, because that’s what we do sometimes to get along. I have this reputation for being a fierce and determined advocate, but behind closed doors, I began to question whether this life is worth it. The easy parts were about the advocates I’ve met along the way. I take great pleasure in being able to tell people how I feel about them.
Where did the title come from?
I think “sipping Dom Pérignon through a straw” perfectly encapsulates resisting ableism and wanting a larger, more extraordinary life. I’m not just interested in access to the building using a ramp. I’ve come for the whole building, and I think the title articulates the kind of freedom I’m looking for.
What do you hope people will take away from your story?
What I really hope people understand is that ableism includes all of us, whether you have a disability or not. Ableism doesn’t just dehumanize disabled people—it strips nondisabled people of their own humanity, because it is about dictating a very narrow conception of what it means to be a productive, valuable human being. I hope people don’t just categorize this as a disability memoir. It’s a memoir about liberation, about asking us to reimagine our institutions so they validate all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from.