12 August 2012

Writing women with disabilities into literature – the absence of literary characters with disabilities

As I wrote recently in two of my posts, Women with Disabilities – Thoughts, and Women with Disabilities – more Thoughts, I’ve been pondering about writing on this issue. And now, with my second novel being in its initial stages, this has trickled into my fiction.

But what bothers me is the fact that I only now realized that throughout my years of reading and studying literature, I cannot remember one character with any kind of physical disability. Mental, yes. One character stands out: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, with Lionel who suffers from Tourrette Syndrome. Other than that, of course we have all the mad women in the attic during the nineteenth century, but these are by no means disabled women, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper being the most prominent of these. So, essentially, having a Master’s degree in literature, I’m quite familiar with classical, modern and contemporary literature. But try as I might, I cannot remember any other disabled characters.

Throughout my literature studies, we touched upon different issues – race, identity, sexuality, gender roles, economy, politics, geography, slavery, madness, religion, wars, mythology, technology, industrialization, culture, social issues, health, and what not. But again, I cannot remember any lecture or any discussion on disabilities. Women’s mental instability? Sure. Lots of that. But where are all the women and men with disabilities? How come there are no deaf main characters? No main characters on wheelchairs? No main characters with aphasia (impairment of language ability)?

I think this is really outrageous! Not only do we as society not include individuals with disability in the public spaces, we deliberately exclude them from literature as well. And doesn’t literature in fact reflect reality? We exclude them from literature because they are not perfect. They are the “other.” They taint our “beautiful” art. They pose challenges to the narrative. Everything is slower because of them, and we need to go out of our way because of their disability. The artist has to make extra effort to make room for these characters in her/his writing.

To me, literature is not merely a form of the “higher arts.” It is, in addition, a vessel for political and social massages; a means – if used correctly and consciously – to initiate public discourse, to criticize, and to bring public attention to crucial issues society should engage in. All this, of course, through providing deep analysis and a critical perspective. No, I’m not talking about academic articles. I am talking about quality literary fiction.

And so the absence of round characters with disabilities is all the more striking, taken into consideration the role of literature. The degree to which characters with disabilities can enrich and inform literature is invaluable. It has the potential to enrich multiple layers: on the literary side, it has the potential to enrich the complexity of narrative, depth of characters, the range of issues the novel deals with, and the style of writing and structure, among others. Alongside this, it has the power to effect change among readers, thus impacting society. It has the power to bring the social, political and economic participation of people with disabilities in public life to the forefront of public discourse. It has the power to bring the voices and needs of individuals with disabilities from the margins to the center, thereby, contributing to making them equal partners and participants in society.

Dealing with disabilities in writing for me is a conscious effort. A direct result of coming face to face with my own prejudices and preconceptions. But I have admitted my ignorance and am moving forward with processing and learning. I am making a space for characters with disabilities to enter my writing – consciously. Yes, it is challenging both intellectually as well as creatively. The narrative isn’t flowing as with a character without a disability. But this doesn’t pose a barrier. It is a challenge I am working through.

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