This year’s Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter campaign is well underway, seeking to fund the Magazine’s Year Four as well as the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Right now, the campaign is into the stretch goal of producing print copies of Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Hooray!
Today, we are honored to host Nicolette Barischoff, Uncanny Magazine’s Personal Essays Editor the their special issue, talking about representation of disability in science fiction.
So, representation of disability in science fiction is iffy. It’s spotty and suspect, like a banana you’d rather leave in the bowl. We know this. We don’t like many of the disabled characters we’re given to read about, and we don’t like the conspicuous lack of prominent disabled authors on the market.
There have been essays and essays and so many gorgeous essays written on the subject of those iffy disabled characters, and why they persist in place of ones we might like better: The ableist lenses that cast disabled people as either villainous or tragic. Abled authors who are already certain they will find the concept of a true disabled protagonist too difficult, distressing or dull…
We’re familiar with the laundry list of reasons why abled writers might be unable or unwilling to write about disability in any sort of nuanced way. But what about those disabled authors we all wish we’d see more of? Why aren’t they (we) writing more of the disabled characters they (we) wish to see in the world?
Well, sometimes they are. Sometimes a publisher decides there’s a lack of reader interest from the get-go, and your awesome story about a double-amputee pirate queen never sees the light of day. But I think the odds are good on the story never having been written at all.
There are unique reasons why a disabled author might be reluctant to write about disability. I can only speak from my own experience about some of them.
One reason might be simple burn-out. We’re burned out before we really begin. The thing of it is, almost from the time we learn to put words paper, disabled people (especially those born with visible disabilities) are pressured to write about themselves. We’re pressured and prodded and roundly encouraged to write about ourselves and our disabled bodies, almost to the exclusion of any other kind of writing, and often whether we show any real inclination to write or not. And God help us if we do.
Many of us, by the time we reach adulthood, have received countless opportunities to “tell our own story.” These are usually opportunities to write for free, presented to us by able-bodied educators or editors or publishers or filmmakers who have decided for us that “telling our story” is how we can best contribute to world. There is no sense of real ambition or destination surrounding these opportunities. We learn quickly that our stories are destined for unexamined and dubious corners… books of free poetry put together by humanities teachers, Chicken Soup knockoff anthologies, documentaries that get shown in bits and pieces on local news (and nowhere else), the endless “newsletters” and “ ‘zines” geared toward the parents of disabled children…
The sheer ubiquity can make us wary of who we write for, and what, and why.
At seventeen, I was conscripted to write an unpaid article for a fairly well-circulated local newspaper. While an entirely positive experience at the time, I find myself looking cockeyed at it now, and wondering what it taught me about how disabled writers– and disabled narratives–can expect to be treated by the abled people who supposedly want to hear them.
So I wrote my very first article. I wrote the thing in one fevered, ecstatic burst, and handed it over without even a thought of being compensated, so exhilarated was I to be able to call myself a working writer. Local Newspaper’s editor-in-chief was thrilled, thrilled with my quick turnaround, my adult vocabulary, my charming author photo, my miraculous lack of copyediting errors. He was thrilled, too, by the letter one reader sent in, demanding that I be hired on the spot. But not thrilled enough to consider paying me.
Perhaps it never occurred to me to expect payment because the “my story” narrative was already something I’d internalized. I don’t get paid for telling My Story because My Story is How I Contribute. It’s the Reason Why I’m Here. Oh, it’s something people will read, yes.
Just not something they’re prepared to pay for.
It wasn’t a very good article, even as these things go. It was verbose and strange and rambling and not really about my disability at all. But that didn’t stop them from switching out my esoteric title for something like “Teen Tells What It’s Like to be Disabled.” I wasn’t asked my opinion on the title swap, or even informed that it was happening. I discovered the final incarnation of my article alongside the rest of its readers, when I opened my contributor’s copy of the morning’s paper.
The new title was the only bit of the entire process about which I ever expressed any open displeasure. That wasn’t an accurate title for my article at all! My article was about being trapped in able-bodied people’s wrong ideas of me! It was about humans’ natural evolutionary desire to categorize leading to dangerously oversimplified stereotypes! It was about the universal human experience of feeling unseen, unheard, unknown! I used the word taxonomy, for God’s sake! Aren’t you even a little bit intrigued by a title that features the word taxonomy?
My complaints were good fun to the adults around me. They were precocious and colorful and hilarious and full of an adorable kind of narcissism. Adults who knew me not at all patted my cheeks and told me I was such a writer, oh my goodness god, such a writer. And I quit complaining and quietly took note.
So. Those people who ask me to tell my story–who aren’t ever going to pay me for my story–they already know what my story is. Whatever I intend to write about, whatever I actually write about, they already know the headline. My story’s only any good to them as long as they get to tell the story of what my story means. And that’s just a colorful part of being a disabled writer.
Apart from the surprise new title, there were no other edits. I was asked to make no edits, and absolutely none were made on my behalf. The thing was printed a day after I typed it, in all its rambling glory. Nobody thought to rein in purpler instincts of an utterly untested seventeen year-old writer, because apparently nobody could imagine a better piece of writing than the one I delivered.
Because, I was forced to conclude later, the article itself didn’t matter. The content, the quality of the writing quite simply did not matter to anyone who had employed me to write it. What mattered was that I was the one to write it. I was a Special Guest Speaker. I was an Authentic Voice. I was Joe the Plumber. I was a dog who could bark the alphabet. It didn’t much matter what I said, or how eloquently I said it. It was My Story, In My Own Words. You don’t think about such narratives in terms of Good or Bad Writing. That defeats their purpose. The thing that mattered was that I was a disabled girl writing about being disabled.
Which brings me to the last, and most enduring lesson I learned writing for Local Newspaper: When writing includes disability, disability is all that matters.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a disabled screenwriter colleague about giving her nomadic, queer, free-spirited painter protagonist a visible disability. She nodded absently and said, in a tired voice, “I’ve thought about it, but I’m sending it to the big network programs and… you know, they’ll want it to be all about that. They won’t be able to pay attention to the… well, any of the plot.”
She was actually afraid that giving a character a visible disability (like hers, like mine) would so preoccupy the minds of able-bodied television executives that it would utterly destroy their ability to absorb the plot.
Because you abled people are kinda preoccupied by disability. You don’t know how to be in the same room with it. You’re so certain that it’s either a traumatic life-altering event, or a path to secret wisdom, or an indictment of society as a whole, you have a hard time just letting disabled characters exist in your imagination. And when you try to write us, it shows.
Disability as written by abled writers tends to eat up whatever story it’s in. The minute a disabled character rolls onstage, even an intelligently-written and nuanced one, we know we’re going to spend a lot of pages on a difficult childhood, or a past episode that could’ve (should’ve) killed them and that now they can never stop thinking about.
And we don’t always want your pages. We don’t want our bodies to be the focus of every story we’re in. Even when we’re the protagonists.
Especially when we’re the protagonists. We’ve lived in these bodies for our entire lives, some of us, and they’re not compelling conflict to us anymore.
I think sometimes for an able writer, (and for an able reader as well) a disability hangs on the wall like Chekhov’s gun. They feel an overwhelming sense that if it’s there, it has to do something, it has to function in the story the way a reader expects it to function, else it ought to be removed.
And to be fair, part of the reason for this is that a story doesn’t take place in our world, even when it seems to. Writers know that a story is in fact a separate place, where everything happens for a reason. Nothing in the world of a story is incidental.
But I think equally, there’s a dash of baffled entitlement where disability is concerned. Abled people want to be able to attach a narrative to disability. They want to be able to satisfactorily explain to themselves why it’s there, what comfortable function it serves in their arrangement of the universe. It’s not a satisfactory response, to an able-bodied person, to say that disabled people want to exist in stories because we exist in the real world. We have to fire the gun. We have to demonstrate our function as a portrait of disability, else we might as well be able-bodied.
I can’t remember the last time I wrote for free (for anyone I didn’t love.) I’ve long stopped worrying whether or not people will pay me for my stories (they do, at a full six cents a word) and it’s been a long time since I encountered an editor who wanted to change my title (and the one who did would have given a finger before changing my title without permission). But this last one still occasionally trips me up, and causes me to backburner stories I should be writing, and I’m not alone.
I don’t know what to do about the fact that when I include a disabled protagonist, the disability of it all tends to eat an able-bodied reader’s brain to the point where they can’t seem to focus on the story I wanted to to tell. But it seems I’m going to have to figure it out, we’re going to have to figure it out, because we belong onboard the rusty backworld starships along with everyone else.
Nicolette Barischoff was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Podcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. Her personal essays on these topics get read way more than her fiction does, which is only a little annoying. She regularly collaborates with visual and performance artists to promote normalization of visibly disabled bodies. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.