Monthly Archives: July 2012

Blind But Unbroken

The Broken Kingdoms is the second in N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy. I found the first one, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, well-written and intriguing, so I went ahead and picked up the sequel, and lo and behold, I found another disabled character to talk about. I’ve got a whole list of books to read because someone somewhere has said they have something to do with disabilities, but I really love discovering them on my own. It’s like turning over rocks to find bugs, only a lot less squirmy and squishy.

Oree Shoth, the protagonist, has been blind since birth. She can “see” magic, but that doesn’t really help her on a day-to-day basis. To me, it didn’t feel like Jemisin had an agenda for writing a character who’s blind. The disability was just a part of the whole, something that added another dimension to who Oree was. I really admire an author who can take an impairment that affects all aspects of life and treat it as just another character trait. It makes disabilities feel a lot more normal – see, I’m really not all that different from everyone else – and it helps everyone else see disabilities in a different, more intimate way.

Now, I’m not blind, so I don’t have any experience to compare Oree with, but from my limited perspective, the details Jemisin provided seemed pretty consistent and thought-provoking. Oree always recognized people by scent or sound rather than physical characteristics she couldn’t see. She could tell plants and pigments apart just by touch or smell. And Jemisin did something really cool to highlight Oree’s different perspective. There were moments in the book where there was so much magic around her that Oree could actually see, and she marvels at the experience. Things that never would have crossed my mind became the defining details of her narrative. She wonders at things like depth perception, the way her eyes try to focus, and how her hands look. She did do the stereotypical face feeling, and I’ve heard several people who are blind scoff at this, saying, “No, I don’t want to feel your face. Do you want to feel mine?” Oree does it more to tell what emotions people are feeling, but I still wasn’t buying it.

Oree really values her freedom and independence. She uses tools and has a routine that allows her to live and work independently. She fights for her freedom and chafes when it’s taken away. However, she recognizes that it’s okay to need help occasionally. I loved watching as Oree struggled to teach this balance to another character. Maybe because I was almost as stubborn as he was about accepting this simple life lesson. No one can do everything, except maybe Superman, and who wants to be him? Have you ever tried changing in a phone booth? Though I’ll admit the flying thing is certainly tempting. Whatever, my point is that I can ask for help without sacrificing anything of myself or my pride.

And Oree had a really subtle strength. There were plenty of moments where she seemed weak, where she accepts all she can do is run away, but when it finally came down to the line there was no one else to pick up the slack, she stepped up and saved the day. There’s something about that kind of hero that appeals to everyone, I think. Not all of us are capable of being the big, blond guy with the stainless armor and sword, and the smile that goes ting. Some of us are more like Oree, bruised and bowed, but unbroken, with a subtle heroism if you’re willing to look beneath the surface.

Yeine and Oree’s stories might be done, but the trilogy concludes with The Kingdom of Gods.

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Clumsy Clichés

It was a dark and stormy night.

“There she blows!”

Captain Amab clicked his spy glass shut and spun on the tip of his wooden leg.

“After that whale, you scurvy sea dogs. That’s the beast that ate me leg.”

The sailors shuffled their feet while the first mate and the bosun looked at each other.

“Is he always like this?” the bosun asked.

“Oh, this is just the calm before the storm,” the first mate said.

“Captain,” the bosun said. “We haven’t seen shore in months.”

“Avast that talk. You’ll not rob me of my revenge.”

The first mate and the bosun exchanged another look that said, “we’re all in the same boat”. Or maybe it was “sink or swim”. They nodded to each other.

They grabbed Captain Amab by the arms and chucked him over the pin rail.

His peg leg disappeared with an unassuming bloop.

“Not so hard after all,” the bosun said. “Turns out he was just a drop in the bucket.”

 

That was written during a writer’s group meeting where we talked about clichés. The general consensus was that they’re bad and no self-respecting writer would ever stoop to using them. However, I disagree. I think there’s a time and a place where clichés can be used effectively. For example, spotlighting the ridiculous, as seen above. Disclaimer: I’m a sailor and I’d have thrown him overboard too. What is a scurvy sea dog anyway?

The thing is, clichés are cliché for a reason, usually because there’s some truth in them. I’m not giving you free rein to go out and use all the same tired phrases and cheesy situations you can think of. I know it’s really easy to fall into the cliché trap when creating your characters. Half the work is already done for you when readers can easily imagine the crusty sailor with a peg leg, or the PI with a smart mouth and a drinking problem, or the romance heroine with a sordid past. But readers can also easily get bored with such tropes. Maybe stop and think about what you want to get across to your readers and figure out how you can use clichés without making them cringe and throw your book at the wall.

I write fairy-tales and what’s more cliché than happily ever after? One of the reasons I love fairy-tales is because they’re so familiar. Everyone knows that Cinderella loses her shoe at a ball. I use the familiar to bring out and highlight the differences in my characters and my stories. My Cinderella doesn’t lose a glass slipper, she loses an ankle-foot orthotic. Still just as unique to her (I mean, Prince Charming still has to be able to pinpoint her, right?), but not nearly as uncomfortable as glass footwear. Or what about a character that twists clichéd metaphors or uses them wrong. A guy says, “I beat that dead fish to death”. Tells you something about the character, doesn’t it?

I also write about disabilities. Just like everything else there are clichés associated with the handicapped, and like I said, they’re clichés because they’re at least a little bit true. My characters have the expected feelings of anger, bitterness, and uselessness because I had to go through those myself. But I try to write beyond them as well. There are deeper reasons behind the emotions that are far more interesting to read about than just “she’s angry because she can’t walk”. We’re capable of feeling so much; can you really justify assigning just one emotion to a character? My Maid Marion is angry, yes, but it’s a mask to hide her self-loathing and protect her from pity. She hates the people around her for not understanding her and then hates herself for hating them. So I’ve explained the cliché and moved past it, creating a deeper character we can understand and relate to.

So before you ax everything that sounds even remotely familiar, consider how clichés could actually help your writing.

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Wheelchair Waltzing

Phantom Waltz by Catherine Anderson

After losing the ability to walk in a barrel racing accident, Bethany Coulter considers herself lucky just to be able to function as independently as she does. She has reconciled herself to never being able to ride or dance or date ever again. But when she meets Ryan Kendrick Bethany begins to hope that she can find love and happiness despite her disability.

 

I’ll start by saying that I’ve found I’m more critical of books that feature disabilities similar to mine. I want them to be good. I’m invested in their success. So I expect more of them, like a teacher with their star pupil. Or like Scrooge standing over Bob Cratchit’s desk with unreasonable expectations. I haven’t decided which yet. That’s why I was so excited to start this book. A heroine in a wheelchair? So up my alley that it’s parked in my driveway and knocking on my door. Except… it wasn’t. I think somehow it got the house next door.

Bethany Coulter has an incomplete spinal cord injury at L2. For those who Spinal Columnaren’t anatomy nerds, that means her spinal cord was damaged at the second lumbar vertebrae, the lowest portion of the spine. If the reference means anything, mine was at T9 (T for thoracic, the middle portion of the spine). One thing Anderson did right was provide a lot of specific details. What bothered me was that most of them seemed wrong for Bethany’s injury level and the functionality she should have had. In my experience, L2 is a very low injury. In fact, they don’t get much lower than that, which means she should have normal upper body strength and pretty good core balance. So why is she in a power chair? What was her occupational therapist thinking? Power chairs are great for those without the strength and balance to push a manual wheelchair, but they’re huge and heavy and have to be recharged every night. It didn’t make sense that Bethany used a power chair when a manual one would have served just fine. Unfortunately, this incongruity was present all through the book. Bethany was very clear about how she needed a dressing sling in order to get dressed, and what I can only describe as scaffolding, in order to go to the bathroom.

Now, I know that every injury is different, especially incomplete ones, and my experience is not the be all end all of SCIs. But from the information given, Bethany and I should have been very similar. I know I’ve never used a dressing sling (never even heard of one), and I don’t even need to use the bars in the handicapped stalls to go to the bathroom. At most, I sometimes used a sliding board for particularly tricky transfers, but I eventually gave it away because I stopped needing it. I’d love to read about heroines with such low functionality, but if Anderson really wanted her protagonist to actually need all the equipment she uses, she should have made Bethany a quadriplegic, or at least have a much higher level injury. It would not have changed the story any, and the details would have been correct.

Aside from all that, I had a hard time liking Bethany as a character. She was always telling people about how she wanted to be independent, but she acted so helpless when she was in trouble that I had a hard time believing it. And she was always explaining how hard things were, or how she couldn’t do something specific instead of trying to work around her limitations. She did manage some heroics (yay for crawling to save your man while a bear’s on the loose!) but in the end it just didn’t make up for her overall wimpiness. Maybe it was just that her philosophy was so different from mine. All I know is that I kept wanting to yell at her, “Go for it! You deserve better! Why can’t you be with him? He built you a ramp for pity’s sake. What better expression of love and commitment does a girl need besides a ramp?” But as usual, my cries went unheeded.

At the last, Bethany did learn that it’s better to live your life to the full, accepting the risk that you might get hurt, than to live safe but unhappy in a box of your own making. As far as themes go, this is one I can definitely get behind. I want disabled characters to figure out how to continue doing the things they love instead of sitting around whining because that’s what I want for myself. I wasn’t an athletic person before my injury so I’m not missing a lot, but I can guarantee that one of these days I’ll figure out adaptive sailing because I really want to sail again. Though it might have to wait until we live near some water. It’s hard to sail in a desert.

Although I agree with this theme, I want to point out that I think finding a balance is equally important. I can fight to find ways to do the things I love while accepting there are other things that I will never do again. I’m perfectly capable of taking short hikes around the Rockies (so long as I’m okay with being in some pain afterward), but I will probably never climb a fourteener. I’m sure there are other people with disabilities out there who have, but to me, it’s not so important. So I’m going to accept it and move on to the things that are.

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Finding Freedom in Disability

There is something very important about being able to do things for yourself. We as humans strive for a certain independence and strength, and the more limited we are, the more important our independence becomes. Those of us with disabilities fight for freedom daily, and when we’ve won it, we guard it closely. I remember when I was first cleared to go to the bathroom by myself in rehab. Before I realized this was something I’d been able to do for years before my injury, I was so proud of myself. I felt like a person again, not that I wasn’t before that, but I had regained some of my humanity. With every little task we learn or recover, every little thing we can claim as our own, we collect another piece of our self-respect. So how do we gain our freedom when our very bodies and minds seek to keep us enslaved?

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of tools that help us find our independence, and since every disability is different, the possibilities are limitless with just a little ingenuity. Wheelchairs give us the ability to get out of the house, sliding boards help us transfer, crutches help us walk. Therapists teach us how to use what we have and regain what we’ve lost. Service dogs give us more freedom and companionship.

But these tools really only cover physical independence. What about the self-enslavement of our thoughts, the murky doubts that wrap us so tight in lies we can no longer reach for the truth? The lies I struggle with are huge, oppressive ropes that bind and choke me. I’m weak. I’m worthless. I can’t walk so I might as well give up. But by dwelling on the doubts – no, the lies – by letting them become the biggest things about me, I’m letting them win. I’m letting my disability define me and my relationships and my life.

The thing is, I recognize that there are things I can’t do, I’m not trying to deny that. But I refuse to let the things I can’t do control who I am and how I behave. It sounds cheesy to say I have to accept myself, but in the end, that’s what it comes down to: knowing there will always be things that I can’t do, and choosing to concentrate on the things I can. It’s a choice, one that I have to make every day, and believe me, it’s not an easy one.

I choose to take pride in the small accomplishments of a day done right. I choose not to get angry when I run up against something that trips me (sometimes quite literally). I choose to ask for help when I need it and not be ashamed of those moments. And sometimes I choose to let the day overwhelm me because I’m human, and I occasionally screw up.

It took me a long time and a lot of heartache to get to this point. It took me even longer to learn that my experience is not the ultimate authority. I can talk to other people with disabilities and learn that they have very different ideas of how to get along. Just because I have reached this conclusion does not mean that it is the end result for every one else struggling in this world. I don’t want my words to be read as “Kendra’s amazing cure for what ails you”, but I do hope that my journey can be helpful to others who carry around lies. You’re not alone. You’re not beyond hope. You’re strong enough to win. Choose freedom.

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