(Image from Flaticon)

#OwnVoices is an essential movement. If you don’t know about it, you should read this. Incontrovertibly, marginalized groups must be afforded every opportunity to tell/write/publish/sell their own stories. Privileged, able, cishet, white, middle-class, dude scribblers like me do not have to stay out of the imaginative lanes of these groups, but we must drive with extreme care. It bears repeating — #OwnVoices is an essential movement.

No less important are those groups with #NoVoices.

Exchange of Heart Cover

My fifteen year old son cannot tell his own stories. He cannot articulate the supreme difficulties of being a teenager of profound otherness. He cannot challenge affronts to his dignity and humanity. He cannot campaign against the R word — a slur still in common usage. He cannot take to Twitter when a powerful sociopath mocks the wider community to which he belongs.

Rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, I have chosen to pick up a pen and write on his behalf.

My new novel is titled Exchange of Heart in AUS/NZ, and Munro vs. the Coyote in CAN/US. It’s about Munro Maddux, a sixteen year old Canadian exchange student who visits Australia in the hope of healing from the death of his younger, disabled sister. Munro finds that consolation volunteering with a team of six residents — Bernie, Shah, Blake, Dale, Iggy and Florence — in an assisted-living facility called Fair Go. In this book, as with all my books, as with all writers of fiction, I sought to tell a great tale. One that takes hold of readers, carries them along, then releases them, sated and affected.

img_2063Beyond delivering an emotional journey, I had a weighty responsibility to fulfill. In writing about a silent group rarely found on bookstore shelves, I needed to be proved worthy of my self-appointed spokesperson role. Was I successful? The true judges of that can only ever be my son and his peers. In the absence of their blessing or admonishment, I hand the novel over to readers with the quiet declaration that I tried my best.

Should you find yourself with an appetite for discussion after setting Exchange/Munro down, here are six specific nods to #NoVoices in the work:

Characters with intellectual disability are free of diagnostic labels.
– In my previous novel Are You Seeing Me?, main character Perry’s ‘brain condition’ is never named. He is allowed to be himself without the burden of a medical pigeon-hole. The success of this approach in freeing Perry led me to do the same with the residents of Fair Go; the exception to this rule being the necessary narrative reveal of Evie and Blake’s Down Syndrome. For the others, I know what’s in their files, but I’ll never tell.

Characters with intellectual disability exercise control in their relationship with the intel-typical protagonist.
– The first scene I wrote in Exchange/Munro was the interview of Munro by the residents. That initial connection sets the table for the relationship throughout the novel. The residents, in particular Shah, are not mere devices for Munro’s journey — they have their own paths to travel, their own dreams to fulfill, their own stake in a friendship with a broken-hearted young man.

The intel-typical protagonist does not save the day.
– On the contrary, and without delving into spoilers, much of Munro’s ‘rescuing’ of others turns to shite. The lesson he must learn, as revealed by Kelvin in the narrative: walk side by side rather than hold a hand. In the end, the only person Munro is charged with saving is himself. 

Characters with intellectual disability have agency.
– The residents have special needs, hence their presence in Fair Go. But despite their lack of full independence, they have a big say in the shape of their days. Whether it’s voting to keep Munro around or permitting a pop-in visit or determining where to go on the ‘Straya Tour’, the residents are often positioned to consider choices and make decisions.  

Characters with intellectual disability stand up to oppression.
– I love Bernie. She’s a figure and a voice (and a t-shirt) of resistance. How she chooses to challenge her oppression may be tokenistic or doubtful or even offensive, but who has the right to question her cause? Certainly not her author. More power to her.

Characters with intellectual disability love deeply.
The relationship between Blake and Dale might be my favourite in Exchange/Munro. It might also be the most important. The idea that special needs and true love are not mutually exclusive was something I felt strongly about emphasizing in this story. So much so, I couldn’t stop at one relationship…Right, Iggy and Flo? 🙂