Guest Post: Lesley Smith on Disability in Fiction
I first “met” Lesley Smith a year and a half ago, while looking for beta readers for a short story. Lesley is also an author herself. Her book The Changing of the Sun came out this month, and she’s currently working on a Kickstarter for the second book in the series, The Parting of the Waters.
Her guest post is about disability in fiction, and about her own choices along those lines as a writer.
One of the great maxims told to newbie writers is ‘write what you know’. I’m never sure if that’s true, but it’s a good a place to start as any. To understand my writing, you need to know that I was born with a visual impairment caused from wanting to get into the world at twenty four weeks, rather than the usual forty. Too much oxygen left me with brain damage, Asperger’s and, most obviously, a visual disability. I’m blind in one eye and so short sighted in my left that I’m functionally useless outside without a long cane or my beloved guide dog, Unis.
When I started writing The Changing of the Sun, I’d just finished Camp NaNoWriMo and was itching to write anything but the project I’d put aside at fifty thousand words: an urban scifi about an alien priestess trying to solve a murder while an engineered plague began decimating London’s alien community.
I realised I couldn’t write this story before I’d set up the one which forged my protagonist, or at least her past selves and her civilisation. I knew the basics: an alien world devastated by a solar storm, an order of blind seers who ruled in wisdom and passed the mantle down through centuries, and great adversity tempered by common sense and the desire to survive the impossible. I started writing and the short story became a novella, then a proper novel. Just over a year and a Kickstarter later, I’ve just unleashed that novel on the world.
Key to the universe in which the Changing trilogy is set is disabled characters being more than just set pieces. There might be miracles, but curing disabilities isn’t one of them. Yes, the oracles have lost their vision, but like Odin and Tiresias, they’ve gained something in exchange. However, this doesn’t mean an easy ride. Far from it. Having a disability doesn’t give you an instant pass and the people aren’t there to be inspirational … they’re just trying to get through the day.
For example, the stereotype of a blind person is that they are a) totally blind and b) have heightened senses. This is rubbish. All is means is that most blind people have some useful vision and that we pay more attention; I have better hearing than you simply because I don’t have as much visual noise that prevents me focusing.
Saiara, the POV character, is blinded as part of a ritual gone wrong. She finds herself banished to a shabby tower where the blind oracles are kept locked away, too close to the divine to be allowed near the populace except on the high holy days. The powers don’t want them to be self-reliant or capable of surviving without servants, guards and being beholden to the High Chamberlain’s ‘compassion’. There’s the elderly Eirian, the former ruler of the planet, who is coming to the end of her life, and is just trying to keep their collapsing ordering intact so someone is left to lead even as she goes to her grave. She tries to teach every woman in her care how to go beyond their blindness, to find their way, to use their other senses, to regain power in a place which would rather they be powerless.
Back when I was writing Changing, I read an excellent post on this very blog and it made me decide that if there was one rule I was going to stick to, it was that if you lost a limb, nothing could restore it to you. You might lose your vision and gain the grace of knowledge, but you’d still be blind, still be lost in a world not designed to help you or make allowances for your disability. This makes the idea of an exodus north, though the desert with limited supplies and the thinning ranks of a sacred order of blind women, much more complicated.
One of the biggest scenes involves Jeiana, one of these alien beings incarnated as a Kashinai woman, having her writing hand amputated after a tiny scratch turns septic. She’s borrowed the body of a woman who drowned at the beginning of the book and has been slowly losing her sense of self, almost like a kind of dementia. When she collapses, her lover, the healer Senara, has to make the decision between Jeiana’s life and the infected limb.
The problem is, because Jeiana is slowly forgetting who she is, a side-effect of her corporeal state, she has been trying to write down all the secrets she has brought with her from beyond their little world. Losing her hand means she can’t record the words for posterity, and there comes a point where the fate of an entire planet relies on Senna’s decision. While Jeiana eventually gains an amanuensis, she is never able to write, and the loss of her hand forces her to have to relearn how to walk, how to move and live with a limb which stops just above her elbow, suffering phantom pain from the amputated limb that she doesn’t really remember losing.
I wanted to have empowered characters who accurately reflected my own view of the world. Jeiana, Saiara, Eirian, Lyse and the others are not there to be pitied. They might not always know the answers or have an easy ride but they’re stronger for every trial. They are not there to be tokens or to make up the numbers but to reflect that just as the world is full of people with disabilities, so alien worlds should have their share of differently abled individuals.
October 21, 2014 @ 10:00 pm
an urban scifi about an alien priestess trying to solve a murder while an engineered plague began decimating London’s alien community
Now that sounds like my kind of fiction! 😀
As a deaf person, I can’t say I relate exactly to the things blind folks face (for one thing, some things that make things more accessible for them make things less accessible for me, and vice versa, and I have instinctive sheer panic at the thought of losing my sight too that I have to set aside when doing the “get into a character with different experiences’ head”) but on the other hand, life as a person with a sensory disability is something I wish there was more written about. And less with either zomg tragic! or zomg inspirational! angles. We’re just people, okay.
Anyway, this series sounds really fascinating and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.
October 24, 2014 @ 6:55 pm
I love the idea of this novel and the fact that you’re actually legally blind while writing it. Cultural appropriation principles — like authors consulting real people when writing that which they have not personally experienced — should apply to disability too, but too often authors skip that bit.
Regarding heightened senses: a couple of months ago I started using a cane, not due to deterioration of my eyesight but as a means of reducing accidents and injuries (I am vision impaired; my GP recommends constant access to bruise and burn creams). Now I’m relying more on the cane and less on hyper-vigilance to avoid accidents, I’ve noticed an increase in audio-perception and interpretation. This is quite handy when traffic lights beep ‘you can go’ and I walk in the correct direction. My hearing hasn’t improved: I still struggle to understand people when there’s lots of background noise but my ability to parse auditory signals has increased. I figure I’m wasting less effort on seeing, freeing up my brain to focus on hearing.
As you say, a lot of ‘blind’ people have some degree of useful vision. I’m just vision impaired but a cane reduces the frequency and severity of injuries. And yet, I had a complete stranger come up to me in the street saying, ‘Are you blind? Are you acting? You can see. I can see your eyes moving, looking at me. You can see. Have you been to acting school?’ He went on and on until I said, ‘Piss off before I call the police.’ To the sighted among us, I say: You try walking through a doorway or through Melbourne’s foot-traffic without 3D vision, with poor eyesight, when you’re exhausted (because VISUAL TASKS like study, reading and doing Dark Matter things) so your hyper-vigilance has failed, and see how well you fare. This kind of information — that even blind people often have some degree of useful vision and daily experience of life with a disability — forms an essential foundation for writing disability.
I want to read more disability in SFF. I want to see more disability on TV and in movies. However, authors without disabilities need to consult real people to avoid perpetuating fallacious stereotypes, doing more harm than good.