First, the good news:
The recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks Twitter coup was an admirable rebuff of the longstanding hegemonies in children’s and young adult fiction. It doesn’t look like a flash in the pan either, so that’s good too.
Now, the bad news:
The whole exercise has further illustrated – dare I say, reinforced – the pecking order of minorities in both the book debate and the wider society looking on.
Race / Ethnicity is king. From the moment the fateful BookCon lineup was first identified as “all-white” (not “all able-bodied” or “all neurotypical”), colour figured to be front and centre in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks call to action. Gender got a look-in. So, too, sexual orientation. Disability? It was an afterthought in the frenzy, barely a blip on the radar.
Not surprising when you consider this, courtesy of Diversity in YA:
Clearly, we have a literary journey to take with all these marginalized groups. But, as demonstrated above, the distance for disability is far greater.
It’s not just about more books with disabled protagonists – crucially, it’s also about how these characters are presented on the page. Last week, I read a thought-provoking paper by educator and literature student, Rebecca Wolkenstein, titled Representations of disability in Australian Children’s and YA Fiction. Among its many interesting assertions was the idea of ‘Other’ in portraying physical and intellectual impairment. Wolkenstein’s examination of James Roy’s work July – Speaking of Dragons posits that central character and narrator, Mark – identified by inference as mild autistic spectrum disorder – “serves to perform the role of Other”:
“Even though Mark tells his story, readers discover much about his pedantry and very little about his life, as though his obsessions are the singular frame through which he views the world…”
Having not read Roy’s piece, I can neither support nor refute Wolkenstein’s claim. The criticism, however, carries an important caveat for any author who plumbs disability for fictional fare. In my 2010 novel Kindling, I stated in the author notes that Mark Haddon’s modern classic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time had served as inspiration for my story; although not stated outright in the notes, Curious Incident also prompted me to strive for an autism characterization that was broader and more holistic than the one Haddon had elucidated. Haddon’s brilliant and fascinating Christopher could not be accused of being hamstrung by a singular obsessional frame, but he was something of an arm’s length character; at times challenging to understand, most ways difficult to empathize with. He presented almost as an exhibit – a caged autistic creature, captured for our viewing pleasure, considered study and wanton awe.
I wanted to temper the ‘exhibit’ factor with Kieran, my protagonist in Kindling. First and foremost, he had to be an authentic voice, resonant to those for whom autism is a constant companion in their lives (it is a particular source of pride for me that reviewers and readers who know ASD universally consider Kieran to be true and real). The quest for authenticity naturally invoked ‘Otherness’ – jagged sensory profile, social awkwardness, exaggerated fears, borrowed expressions…
While these traits were important in painting the picture of Kieran, it was essential they not be the only brush used on the canvas. Readers needed to connect with him on deeper levels; as a fighter, as a mourner, as a rule-breaker, as a peacemaker.
As one of us.
I wanted him to be ‘Another’, not just ‘Other’.
My desire for balance in representing disability is even more pronounced in my new novel, Are You Seeing Me? Protagonist Perry is not encumbered with a diagnostic label and, while many of his thoughts and actions separate him from reader experience, his intentions and motivations, like his predecessor Kieran, come from sources that ought to be familiar to us all.
He likes to be funny. He seeks approval. He wants to improve his social skills. He wants to achieve and carve his own path. He loves deeply.
Perry is diverse, not because he’s a disabled frontman in a mainstream young adult novel, but because he is a human being.
I certainly hope my work to date has succeeded in crafting a layered, textured tapestry of disability, a healthy dose of ‘Another’ over ‘Other’. Ultimately, the readers can decide if I got it right.
Are You Seeing Me? will be released by Random House Australia in August 2014.