Writing Excuses 17.42: Eight Embodied Episodes About Disability
Key Points: How do you work with disabled characters in multiple genres, across age ranges and media, and incorporate them smoothly into your fiction? Bodies, augmentation, body horror, second person narrative choices. Be aware of disability as a part of existence. Disability is not something to overcome. The medical model says anything can be fixed, and is embarrassed by chronic conditions. What kind of story do you want to tell, one about a disabled character in the everyday world, or in a world where disability is perceived differently? The social model locates disability in how society is constructed around it. Consider a two-armed person in Barsoomian society, with every door requiring four arms. Try to speak to disabled readers and readers who are not disabled, and let people understand what being seen really means. It’s a knotty problem.
[Season 17, Episode 42]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[Howard] Eight Embodied Episodes About Disability.
[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.
[Fran] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Will] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea.
[Fran] I’m Fran.
[Will] And I’m Will.
[Mary Robinette] You might notice that we have three special guests with us this week. We are going to be exploring eight episodes with… Led by Fran Wilde about working in multiple genres, across age ranges and media, with disabled characters and how to incorporate that smoothly into your fiction. So, I’d like to start by having our guests introduce themselves. I’m going to start with Fran.
[Fran] Hi, everybody. Thanks to writing excuses for having me on. I’m Fran Wilde. My pronouns are she/her. I write fiction for adults, children, and teenagers. I write nonfiction for all of those same groups as well. My novels have won some Nebulas and been best of NPR, as well as short stories have been nominated for a bunch of things. I teach at Western Colorado University’s MFA for Genre Fiction, and Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program for writing for children and young adults.
[Mary Robinette] Chelsea?
[Chelsea] Hi. I’m Chelsea. I publish books and self pub, generally a fantasy novelist. My first book won the World Fantasy Award for best novel, and my [Dav?] book starts a trilogy that is maybe but probably not Hugo finalist for best series. I have four books published. And I’m [part Indian?]
[Mary Robinette] Okay. And Will?
[Will] Hello. I am William Alexander. I write unrealisms for kids. Best known for Goblin Secrets, my first novel which won the National Book Award. Mostly when I write about disability, I use metaphors. But on two notable occasions, I didn’t. That was the anthology… A story I have in the anthology Unbroken, which is YA, and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. My contribution to that was later read by LeVar Burton, which is clearly the pinnacle of my career.
[Mary Robinette] Well, we will all just enjoy a moment of jealousy about that. Hah. Okay.
[Mary Robinette] Now that that’s done, Fran, why don’t you tell us a little bit about why you pitched this idea to us, and what you think is like… If people are only going to listen to this brief moment in time, like, what’s the thing you want people to know? Then we’re going to dive in and unpack all of it.
[Fran] Sure. Well, I was talking with Dan Wells about possible topics and this one hit… It’s very close to home. I’ve been talking about and very publicly writing about disability for almost a decade now, and existing in the publishing world while disabled, as well as putting disabled characters on the page in ways that allow them to be protagonists and allow them agency. So this is something that’s near and dear to me. Will mentioned disabled people destroy science fiction, but I really think that there’s been a lot of work done in the industry and in publishing to bring the narrative of disability to the fore. Nicola Griffith has talked about how disability on the page is sort of behind the curve and bringing… Making things more visible. Making… Talking about bodies in all different kinds of ways and all different points of access is very, very important. So I’m really pleased that so many people could be on this call and on this conversation. I think that what we’re going to do is talk about working in multiple genres and bringing disability on the page in all of those genres and age groups. We’re going to talk about bodies. Why are they, how do you depict them, how you work with them in… As a creative. We’re also going to talk about augmentation in various forms. How that can help depict characterization. How that can get in the way. We’re going to talk a little bit about body horror and what that means in the disability community, and we’re probably going to get into a conversation about second person narrative choices. I say probably because I’m definitely going to be steering it that direction.
[Fran] We’re going to talk a little bit about linguistics and then get back to bodies, why, as far as what happens when your character isn’t… Doesn’t have the typical character set up, but is a different kind of character in the books. I think I talk about why dragons are sometimes preferable. Then the last episode is right now going to be a Q & A among all of us. But we’ve also got some homework for everyone and some different books to read every week. So I hope you stick around because I think this is going to be a very good conversation and a very important conversation. I’m so glad Writing Excuses is having it.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] That was a syllabus, not an introduction. But I love it.
[Fran] Thank you. I prepared it so specifically for that purpose.
[Mary Robinette] Fran does teach things.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I wanted to start to think about is… I want us to start with the kind of baseline that this is important. So we’re not going to really dive in immediately to why it’s important, we’re just going to take it is assumed for the moment that it is important. So when we talk about disability representation in different age ranges, why… Like, what differences do you find when you try it? Are there differences in how you approach that in different age ranges?
[Fran] I think that’s a really good question. There have been a couple of recent articles including in the School Library Journal about representation in picture books and how to center a disabled character in a picture book rather than using them for didactic or educational reasons. That is part of the discussion that has been happening in YA and children’s literature for a very long time. But it’s also a question for… That has been going on in adult speculative fiction, especially. So I was on a panel a couple of years ago that was called Unexpected Heroes, and the topic… Question came up, how do you make a character unexpectedly heroic? Someone, I have no idea who said this, but what they said was memorable. “Well, you just give them a disability.” I pretty much flipped the table upside down and origamied it into a shape that was pointed right at the speaker and said, “No, that’s not what we do here.” But I think that’s an interesting door, because that idea of disability as a tool rather than a part of existence is something that is important across the board to disrupt and to look at how we depict being human in a world where people are vastly different and have different experiences and how we open the door to more of those experiences and more of those discussions on what is good representation and what is damaging representation.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Will, it looked like you had a thought there?
[Will] I did have a thought. Mostly it’s about how writing with different ages, especially very young ages, there are dangers of compounded infantilizations that you just see all the time. Here’s a place where language breaks down for us, because… I mean, what does the word infantilization even mean with, in the case of picture books, as Fran brought out, we’re talking about actual infants. So there’s… The word juvenile, the word infantilize. They’re pejorative. But we’re also talking about actual juveniles who, in particularly juvenile readers are… Don’t like being condescended to and will not stand for it. So there are… There are many, many layered ways to condescend all at once when talking about disability for young readers, and an ethic of respect that has to be the first step when writing anything whatsoever for a literally juvenile audience.
[Howard] I think, based on what Fran said a moment ago, the speaker who says, “Oh, give the main character disability.” It’s probably appropriate to say you can make the main character seem heroic by giving them something difficult to overcome, but that’s not the same as give them a disability.
[Fran] Yeah. [Garbled – honestly?] I wish that is what they had said.
[Howard] Oh, yeah. I’m not suggesting that’s what they meant. I’m not suggesting that’s what they meant. What I’m saying here though is that in our heads, and I confess to a large measure of able-ism because that’s the world I grew up in. In our heads, we often conflate disability with challenge. As writers, we need to recognize that words are tools that allow us to be really specific and avoid certain kinds of problems from the word go. As you were saying, Will, about compounded infantilization. We need to choose our words carefully early on so that we don’t alienate the audience, so that we don’t cause injury where none was intended.
[Will] There’s much to unpack in the word overcome there, too.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Will] Where the narrative arc of disability from an ablest point of view is to with pluck and grit transcend and walk again through sheer… And rather than living with a disability. Okay. Superfast. I think it’s worthwhile defining the social and medical models of disability. Like, the quick 10 second version is that… The medical model is that anything can be fixed. Yeah, it is appropriate sometimes. I mean, you break your leg. The medical model of addressing this injury is to then repair your leg. But if you have some sort of chronic condition that medicine cannot fix with a quick pill or a quick surgery, that is in anyway ongoing or permanent, then from the medical model, you’re an embarrassment, you’re unfixable, you’re permanently broken and that’s a horrible place to be. Whereas… Fran, you want to take the social model?
[Fran] I do want to address the social model. I also want to see if Chelsea has a jump in thought because we’re…
[Howard?] Ooo, yes.
[Fran] Running away with the floor.
[Chelsea] A little bit. I was just thinking about how… Maybe this is a little bit too much of a technicality, but when you’re writing a story about a disabled character, one of the things that I’m always thinking about is the environment that the disabled character is in. Because it depends on what it is that you want to tell the story about, whether it’s about them being a disabled character in the world that we all kind of contend with or if you want to visualize a world in which disability is [cheered?] or perceived very differently. I think that comes from interrogating the medical model of disability and social model of disability, which I think probably we need to explain right now.
[Mary Robinette] Let us actually explained that after we pause for the book of the week, because…
[Mary Robinette] We’re going to let this episode run long because it’s our first one for this. But I do want to make sure that we get our book of the week in and I know that is soon as we define these two things, we will have so much more to talk about. So… So… The book of the week is Invisible, which is a series of anthologies edited by Jim C. Hines and Mary Anne Mohanraj. There’s actually a boxed set of it. This e-book explores various types of invisible states. A lot of it is disabilities, but it’s not just disabilities. It has wonderful representation. It’s lots and lots of own voices fiction. The proceeds from it also benefit the Carl Brandon Society. So book… As I said, it’s a three book series. There is a boxed set. They’re short stories. So it’s a very low buy-in. It’s got essays, it’s got poetry. So we are highly recommending that you pick up a copy of at least one of the Invisible series about representations of all sorts and kind of read along as we go through the next several weeks.
[Mary Robinette] Now I’ll let you do your definitions.
[Fran] Will, can you drop the social model on us and we’ll go from there.
[Will] Sure. That is… The social model locates disability more in how society is constructed around it. The best metaphor I have for that for just very quickly explaining what that means and how it might be lived is a science fictional one that I read in a blog probably 20 years ago by someone who blogged under the name of Kamikaze Wheelchair. It was… I have no idea who they are out in the world, and the blog has disappeared. But if you’re listening, it was a great blog. The metaphor is imagine that you’re on Mars. Specifically a Barsoomian sort of Mars. So everybody there has four arms. Every door to every building in that place requires four arms to open and close. You, as you are, are fine. There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing broken about you. But the world around you was not designed for you to move through it, and it will only reluctantly accommodate you. You get stuck in every doorway because you don’t have four arms. So that tiny science-fiction example gives you a sense of the social model of disability. There’s nothing wrong with you. But the world was not made for you, and would prefer not to notice you as you try to move through it.
[Fran] Thank you. That is a really, really good example. It also speaks to something that I think we’re going to be addressing shortly, which is sort of what aspects of disability are considered acceptable right now to discuss and what are not. How you interact with the world and how that is impacted by your allergies, your mobility, your ability to hear or see, in all sorts of ways, are things to consider when you are talking about disability, when you are writing a disabled character. This is not necessarily to be confused with either plot or character motivation. I think that goes back to the sort of the medical model of disability. One of the things that seems to happen in a lot of disability stories is the magical cure, or this character overcomes something, instead of just existing and going about their protag-y ways with protagonist impulses in ways that carry them through the story and address their current motivations as who they are. Rather than applying a disabled character goes here label to them, I really want to advocate for that. One of the things that… When I wrote a very angry disability story a couple of years ago, and Nalo Hopkinson just let me know that she’s teaching it once again in her fiction class this year…
[Mary Robinette] Nice.
[Fran] Which astounds me. But it is… It’s called Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand. It was… I have written disabled characters into every story, every genre, but you don’t necessarily notice that they’re there. Because they’re busy protagging, they’re busy doing things for the story. But Clearly Lettered was narrated by a very angry CG mermaid in a cabinet of curiosities that is mostly drawn from a medical facility that I was in as a child when they were trying to figure out how to fix me. That was braces and all sorts of other things. They didn’t ever look at the whole of me. They just looked at the pieces of me and fixed each broken piece. I think that that in some ways is how some of the representation that I see in fiction when someone tries to write a disabled character, they just write this piece of the person, and say, “Look, there is the character.” I really wanted to talk about that experience of writing Clearly Lettered and the pushback. People who are like, “Wow, that was really angry. I didn’t expect to hear that from you.” Or “I’m so uncomfortable that you wrote that as a direct address with all of these second person commands to it.” When I was writing a disabled… A disability narrative for disabled people. The people who read that and said, “That was my experience. I hear you. I’m so used to being told what to do and pushed around and told who I am. And you put that on the page in a way that let me feel seen.” When I got that, I started thinking about how if we do this correctly, we can be speaking to readers who are disabled and we can also be speaking to readers who are not disabled and combine that experience in a way that lets people understand what being seen really means rather than being cured or being… I… Being seen in itself is an abilified term, but being heard, being seen, is how we talk about characters and experiences in fiction. So I’m just… I’m throwing that out there in a safe this is a very knotty problem. It’s not something that is easily solved with a tweet. But it’s something that is solved over time with lots of different experiences brought to it. So…
[Mary Robinette] That is something that we are hoping to do over the course of the next several episodes is give you the tools to unknot these knotty questions. So that brings us to our homework. For the homework this week, what I want you to think about is I want you to think about this Barsoomian model. I want you to think about something that is completely normal to you, but a situation in which your normal becomes a disability because of the way society is structured. For instance, everyone on this podcast is wearing glasses. That is not a disability in today’s society. But if you drop us… Drop any of us nearsighted people a thousand years ago, our degree of vision becomes a problem. So, what is something about yourself that in one society is not a problem, and in another society becomes an absolute problem? Think about the social model of disability. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.