Discussion #8: Intersectionality and Disability

For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Based on a suggestion from s.e. smith, we asked:

Why is it that diversity in young adult, middle grade, and children’s literature is often represented as an either/or, without intersectionality? Characters can either be autistic or gay, for example, or a wheelchair user or Black, but rarely both. Why do you think we see so few characters who are marginalized in more than one way?

Our contributors sent the following responses:

Marieke Nijkamp: Oh my goodness, I would love to read more queer, disabled characters. And I would love to see more intersectionality, period. Of course the queer, disabled experience is different than the queer experience or the disabled experience, but that only makes me wonder if there is such a thing as THE queer experience… or THE disabled experience. Because I have yet to find it.

It is always going to be a matter of research, trial and error. And if you feel characters have to have a reason to be multi-dimensional, multi-diverse? I’d love to see an equally legitimate reason for characters to be white AND straight AND able-bodied AND middle class AND AND AND. We are no checklists.

S. Jae-Jones: I think children’s literature, more than adult, is still stuck on a mainstream idea of “relatable”. The protagonist must be flawed—but not too flawed! The protagonist must have an “issue to overcome” (a phrase I loathe)—but nothing “too trying” or “too unusual” or worst of all, “too far from the physical ideal”. Invisible disabilities seem to have glamour (mental illness—providing it’s “quirky”, or a cosmetically appealing scars), but heaven forbid a protagonist have NOTICEABLE signs of a disability. In my opinion, it all comes back to this mainstream idea of a “default”. The “default” is relatable. Stray too far from it, and it won’t sell.

The other obstacle facing intersectionality in kidlit is the fear of tokenism. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at authors who’ve tried to include diverse characters, especially characters who are diverse in more ways than one. (E.g. “Why is this character bi, Black, and Jewish? It’s not realistic!” or worse, “The author is so lazy s/he can’t be bothered to come up with more characters.”) I think that we, as a society, are conditioned to thinking people should be put in boxes, and one box at a time, at that. It’s ingrained in the way our society—or at least American society—seems to function. I grew up in Los Angeles, which has a large multiracial population, and filling out the ethnicity portion on census forms often confused myself and my classmates—”Do I have to pick just one?” If you were Black and Hispanic, or Asian and White, you either had to choose, or were stuck with picking “Other”. And the word “other” is a powerful thing.

Corinne Duyvis: It’s such a multi-faceted problem: first there’s the fact that most people don’t even see the need for these characters–as though people like me aren’t just as real and valid as the cishet-white-abled people who are often written about, and as though we don’t need representation just as much or more. Then there’s the assumption that every “minority trait” is tacked onto a character, and thus requires justification in a way that, for example, whiteness and straightness don’t. Once writers get past those notions and do want to write these characters, there’s the joint fears over doing it wrong and over “trying too hard.” I understand and often share those fears. I’ve heard these same remarks about my debut novel: trying too hard, what’s the reason for these characters, etc. But it’s not as though writing a character facing multiple oppressions is some kind of performance or outrageous deed. I think it’s better to try too hard than to not try at all.

Even when writers overcome these hurdles, do their research, and successfully write intersectional characters … they need to find publishing professionals who are on the same wavelength. And that’s a challenge, too.

On a different-but-related note, as Andrea Shettle often and expertly points out, characters rarely have multiple disabilities. Many of my disabled friends have more than one disability, as do I. Many disabilities have high comorbidity rates. Plus, someone who requires a wheelchair is just as likely to also get migraines as an able-bodied person; being autistic makes you just as susceptible to mental illness. Perhaps even more, thanks to both personal and societal pressures.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: We’ve never had anything close to proportional representation of people of color in children’s and YA books, and the mismatch is more glaring now because the demographics in our society have changed but the presence of main characters of color in books has not changed since the 1980s. So I’m not surprised to see so few characters of color who also have disabilities.

s.e. smith: Agh this is such a cause of frustration to me! Sometimes it feels to me like authors are trying to hit diversity bingo — okay, I’ve got my Latino character, and my Lesbian character, and my Disabled character, now give me a prize! The fact is that many people have intersectional identities. Minority teens rarely get to see themselves in text at all, and those who experience multiple oppressions find it even harder to locate books that tell their stories.

Part of the problem here may be that authors find it scary to imagine tackling multiple aspects of marginalisation in the same character: the Black and gay experience is different that the Black or gay experience, for example, just like the disabled and queer experience is different than either of those identities together. But these are problems that aren’t going to go away by not writing those characters — you have to plunge into them, and you have to do your research, and you have to commit to depicting a world where the true spectrum of diversity is shown.

Kody Keplinger: I think there’s a lot of fear. I think many authors (myself included) have a deep fear of “doing it wrong.” It’s scary enough to write about disability, but when you introduce another element, you double your chances of being offensive or problematic. Should that fear hold authors back? No. It should push them to do research, to approach with care, but not to avoid intersectionality all together.

Natalie Monroe: I personally think it’s because writers believe once a diverse element is added (ex: queer, ethnicity…), it’s done. Their book is now ‘diverse’ and ‘realistic’. But real life isn’t just one ball in a column, it’s a whole jumble of multicolored spheres across rows of columns. I’m Asian and am in a wheelchair. I know someone who is autistic, Asian, and in a wheelchair. I know a Filipino who is autistic. Diversity means exactly what it means, so stop treating it as a kind of ‘rules of requirement’ thing and mix it up.

Do you have any input, readers?

Discussion #7: Warning Flags and Turn-Offs

For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Today, we asked:

What kinds of words, phrases, or situations used in book or character descriptions send up warning flags for you? We’re thinking of clichés, ableist language–anything related to disability that may be a turn-off.

Our contributors sent the following responses:

Natalie Monroe: What I hate is when books try to ‘beautify’ disabilities. For example, the character has a limp, but we don’t know the ugly and gritty, like maybe his/her one hip is higher than the other; or he/she lurches forward with every step; or he/she walks bowlegged or duck-footed. It may be that to make the character seem attractive (I have never read a book in which the character in a wheelchair doesn’t have a nice, straight back. My back is as curved as a waterslide), but the point is to make the character’s personality eclipse their physical appearance.

Tyrion from A Song of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin is a good example: he’s described as hideous in text, but fans still go wild over him because they find him funny, clever and honorable.

Sara Polsky: I get frustrated by any reference to a character “overcoming” disability or anything that sets a character with a disability up as an inspiration.

s.e. smith: Well, magical cure narratives, obviously. But if I’m casually looking at jacket copy, things I tend to look out for are ‘despite her disability’ or ‘overcoming adversity’ or ‘brilliant but [disabled]’ or something along those lines, where characters are separated out from their disabilities. I’m also leery of anything that talks about disabled characters as inspirational, courageous, or amazing just because they’re disabled. Language like ‘wheelchair bound’ also makes me very uncomfortable, as it suggests the publisher isn’t in tune with disabled people, and that the target market for the book is nondisabled people, not people like me.

I think this is one area where authors are really in a bind, because many don’t have control over their cover copy, and the flap copy may have nothing to do with the book. Those who are in a position to advocate definitely should, both to send a message to the publishing community and to ensure that their books get to people who need to read them. If I was buying a book for a recently-disabled teen, for example, I wouldn’t get something with a cover that described people like her as ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘overcoming adversity,’ because that’s not language she needs to hear ever, but especially in the early stages of adapting to disability.

Marieke Nijkamp: I’m seconding that completely; the adversity narrative makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It’s so inherently othering–people with disabilities may be lesser, but look at what they can still achieve! Aw, yay! /sarcasm

Closely related are those instances when books and/or blurbs talk about disabilities in terms of inspiring other characters. We’ve talked about inspiration porn before, so I will not say too much about it, but I’d like to think it’s not my only purpose in life to be an inspiration to able-bodied people.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: I think the protagonist with Asperger’s who solves a mystery a la Sherlock Holmes is overdone. It feeds into the same kind of compensatory superpower cliché that has characters with hearing impairments read lips perfectly from across the room. You don’t do justice to a person with a disability by portraying characters with disabilities as superhuman, because most of us aren’t superhuman and are doing the best we can. I understand that the cliché is well meaning in that it acknowledges that persons with disabilities can and do make contributions to society.

And my own character with Asperger’s, Kiara, dreams of being one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In fact, though, she helps not by being extraordinary, but by being present.

Corinne Duyvis: In addition to the excellent examples already listed, I tend to get turned off “autism books” when the flap copy references the character’s “unique worldview” or starts out listing all the character’s peculiarities. I’d rather know what actually happens in the book. Something like this is usually a good indicator that the MC is seen as quirky and special and otherworldly and, well, is written with a neurotypical audience in mind. Also: “doesn’t let disability define him/her.” Gag.

Oh, and plots about how difficult it is having a disabled sibling or parent. While it may be true in many cases, it’s an overwhelmingly common narrative, and it contributes to a really problematic idea of disability.

Kody Keplinger: The “inspirational” thing is an immediate turn off for me, too. Blindness specific, though, any time a character is introduced in a way that shows us how advanced their other senses are (this is a myth, people. When one sense is cut off the others don’t get better, you just get better at using them).

Furthermore, whenever a blind character is introduced who needs help with the most mundane of things (cutting vegetables, for instance) and they spend a lot of time bemoaning how difficult it is to do things when you can’t see. I’ll shut a book pretty fast for those offenses.

Any additions, beloved readers? Share them in the comments!

Natalie Monroe reviews THE COLLECTOR

Natalie MonroeNatalie Monroe is currently studying for a B.A in English for the oldest reason in the book: she loves to read. When not fangirling over various books, she can be found watching cartoons, bugging cats who want to be left alone and spreading sarcasm. She also writes YA with fantastical elements because she believes we all need a touch of magic in our lives.

You can find her on Twitter and Goodreads.

The CollectorThe Collector is sort of a hit-or-miss book. You’re either going to love it and worship Victoria Scott to the high heavens or you’re going to hate it and burn the pieces. I am proud to say that I belong to the former and am now officially Team Dante Walker Victoria.

It has a fantastic protagonist (I’ll talk more about Dante later), plenty of snark and best of all, a disabled heroine.

A lot of readers ask for more diversity in YA, such as PoC or queer characters and I completely agree with that. But I hardly ever see people complaining about handicapped characters, or the lack thereof, in YA. And I’m not talking your issue-driven contemporaries where the whole plot is focused on his or her disability. I’m talking facing down fey armies, battling evil wizards or saving the world — and I want them to do it from a wheelchair or with another disability.

I am disabled. I suffer from a nifty little thing called Myopathy and I limped (and tripped) around for three years until my doctors suggested I use a wheelchair to prevent a self-induced concussion.

I get that it’s hard for authors because there are a lot of limitations if your characters are disabled. You can’t have them charge screaming down the steps to battle vampires. You have to build them a ramp or have them shuffle slowly downstairs, preferably with someone else holding onto that heavy sword. They might even refuse to show up for battle altogether because they’re uncomfortable around large groups of people or because their broccoli touched their carrots again.

So when I saw that a paranormal romance (or urban fantasy) featured a disabled heroine, I flipped out. I was excited, proud, yet terrified that Victoria Scott would butcher Charlie and her limp.

And my verdict?

Give yourself a hand, Victoria, because you did a fantastic job. Charlie is never defined by her disability and is instead, portrayed as an adorkable and good-hearted person. She does charity work, hangs out with her friends and makes out with Dante. Her limp is completely overshadowed by day-to-day normalcy (as normal as it can get anyway, with Dante under your roof), but there are subtle hints throughout the book reminding us. In short, Charlie Cooper is your average, down-to-earth girl—who happens to be disabled.

But occasionally, this normalcy backfires. Like this scene for instance:

[Charlie] keeps walking, pumping her short little legs to outpace mine. Seriously? I’ve got half a foot on this girl.

Um…yeah, that’s not really possible. A person with a limp cannot walk that fast. Seriously, I limp and I have friends who limp. We move like shuffling zombies with an iron ball attached to our ankles. There is no way Charlie can walk faster than Dante. And there’s this scene where Charlie jumps on the bed with Dante, which is really cute and all, but illogical too. Charlie has a bad hip. She can maybe bounce up and down a few times if she’s lucky, but then her leg’s going to give out and if this were a manga/anime…yeah, we all know what’s going to go down.

Another thing that irked me was how Charlie’s limp was used as a plot point. She fulfills the soul contract by wishing away her limp. My bone wasn’t with how her limp ‘magically disappears’ (Marieke Nijkamp has a marvelous post on this issue). It was with the sad truth that the author hadn’t set out to create a disability for the heroine just for the heck of it, but as a means to advance the plot. It’s like the issue-driven thing all over again. I don’t want a reason for a disability, I just want it to be.

But those are minor things and Charlie is a super sweet and competent heroine, so I’ll let it go.

Plus, we all know who the star of the show is—one Dante Walker.

“I came as Awesome Sauce,” I say. “You probably wouldn’t recognize it.”

I can tell you right now if you don’t like Dante, you’re not going to like this book. The guy is cocky, selfish and an all-round jackass in the beginning. And he admits it.

But there are times when his badass exterior slips and you see he’s actually a nice guy underneath. And as the story goes on, you see more and more of these moments, like Dante helping Charlie’s grandma and that scene with him comforting a little girl on the airplane. Plus, he actually sounds like an authentic guy and comes with his own, personal brand of sarcastic, witty banter. And I love me some snark.

The part I didn’t like about Dante was him calling Charlie “baby”. I hate guys who call girls “baby”, even as an endearment. It’s like they can’t even be bothered to remember their names. At least Dante only does it twice (yes, I counted).

The world-building is wonderful and I love the whole unique spin on the Heaven/Hell dynamic. Secondary characters are also very well-done. I see so many props BFFS shunted aside once the hot guy/girl shows up and it’s nice to see characters that aren’t there just for the sake of making the heroine/hero look good. Is it wrong that I was sorta, kinda rooting for Blue to end with Charlie? I know Dante has to end up with her (hell, the whole plot would be obsolete if that didn’t happen), but come on, the guy loved her before Dante did. And she wasn’t even beautiful then!

Sadly, the plot fell a little flat for me; there weren’t any ohmygod plot twists, but it was layered enough for entertainment value. And honestly, Dante makes up for a lot of it, even if the latter-half him is a tad cheesy.

The romance is nice enough, but if you really think about, it’s a tad insta-love. Took the boy eight days to go from:

My eyes widen at the sight of her. This is the girl Boss Man is after? She looks like a porcelain doll… beat three times with an ugly stick.

to this:

I will protect this girl with everything I have, because if something happens to her, I will lose myself. I will cease to exist.
And I will take everyone with me.

But I do appreciate the point Victoria was trying to make: we’re awesome and beautiful no matter what we look like. And don’t let anyone, even a hot dude with smouldering eyes, tell you different.

All in all, The Collector is a fantastic and humorous read and I highly recommend it. And if anyone out there writes a kick-ass disabled character along the lines of Susannah from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, tell me because I would so read the crap out of it.