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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 (http://feministpalestinianwriter.blogspot.co.il/search/label/women%20wit...), 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.

Comments

Wendyiscalm's picture

You have touched me. I have grown

Hello Khulud,

You have made me stop and think. You are right. I do not know a single character in literature who had a physical disability. The closed I come to this is Helen Keller who, of course, was deaf. But now you have raised my awareness and my curiosity and I shall research this and tell others. I want you to know I really appreciate your bringing this to my awareness. I will let you know when I find some characters with physical disabilities.

You are amazing. Thank you.

Keep up the good work.

Ubuntu (I am who I am because of who we are together).

Wendy Stebbins

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Khulud's picture

thank you

Thanks Wendy! I was already beginning to think I'm hallucinating this, because it really doesn't make sense!
btw - Hellen Keller isn't a literary character, she was an actual person. I was only referring here to fictional characters.
If you do discover any, please do let me know.
again, thanks
in solidarity,
khulud

Wendyiscalm's picture

Sorry

Khulud,

I was thinking in my head I know of no literary characters but meant to say the closest I have come is a true charactor, Hellen Keller. Sorry for not clarifying better. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Keep up the good work

Wendy Stebbins

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Cali gal Michelle's picture

close to my heart...

Growing up with two brothers of differing abilities, I am keenly aware of the numerous injustices surrounding them. I will never stop fighting for them and what is just.

I have read very few pieces of literature highlighting persons of differing abilities. One of the dearest to my heart is from the 19th century author, George MacDonald in his work "Sir Gibbie".

Since my life work is with young children severely affected by various syndromes and diseases altering their abilities to communicate, I am always on the lookout for books with characters reflecting their lives. One that I recall reading and thoroughly enjoying is "The Curious Incidicent of the Dog in the Nighttime" by Mark Haddon. Just the other day I was purusing through a book store and my eye caught a youth-oriented book about a girl without a voice who at long last is given an electronic communicator. The title escapes me, sadly.

It is a start, though. No a great one, but a start. Heroes and Heroines need to be written as if they are the norm. Just another human experiencing life in a different way. Maybe changing the world, even.

Participants in society indeed! Leaders, even. My brothers have taught me more and loved me more than anyone else I have known or will ever know. For that, I am grateful.

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

usha kc's picture

Hi khulud, I respect your

Hi khulud,
I respect your heartful thoughts.Disabilities any one may go through this. I have hearty love for them who are living their life with their different abilities .

Thank you for sharing your feelings.

good luck for your writting.

Hi Khulud,

Hope this finds you well. I said I would come up with some novels/fiction that have physically disabled characters. This is what I have found:

Animal's People by Indra Sinha

Saffy's Angels: a series by HIlary McKay

The Bone Collector: a book in the Lincoln Rhyme series

Among Others by Jo Walton

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Accidents of Nature by Harriet Johnson

Avatar

Forrest Gump

Handle With Care by Jody Piccoult

Ubuntu,

Wendy Stebbins

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Hummingbird's picture

You are right

I was trying to recall if I read something about people with disabilities in Arabic literature. Maybe there are characters but not playing the main role in a novel, they are always marginalized. I also though that some evil characters mainly in movies and series are presented to the audience with some kind of disability!
I really would like to read a work of literature based on the story of human who is physically or mentally challenged.

Thank you for this.

A drop of rain can revive the earth, be the drop.

Hummingbird

Khulud's picture

thank you everyone

thanks you everyone for all your feedback and comments.
I will definitely check out all the books that you recommend.
I've been free-writing and experimenting with my writing and would really like to present a real-life disabled woman that will be the main character of my next novel. To present her as strong and not marginalized. I do want to bring the voices of disabled women into literature, and I hope that I will be able to do it in an honest way and to reflect their experiences as true to reality as possible. It is very hard to write the experiences of someone when you yourself haven't went through these experiences, but I am drawing on my mother's experience as a disabled woman and on the process I went through in an empowerment group for women with and without disabilities. I hope I will succeed in my mission.

again, thanks so much
khullud

Wendyiscalm's picture

Book

I do think that once you start writing your subconcious mind will take over and memories will flow out of you when you least expect it and that you don't remember. My son gave me the idea of keeping a tape recorder with me so when this happens there isn't enough time to write everything down. You will forget. It has helped. The looser you are the more will clow through you from pen to paper. I surprised myself in my writing. Good luck.

Ubuntu,

Wendy

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Celine's picture

Hi Khulud, You said it

Hi Khulud,

You said it "everything is slower because of them," but unfortunately societies find it difficult to go out of their way because of persons with disabilities. The challenges are enormous but could be tackled if patience is to be exercised.

I am glad that today women with disabilities are taking up the challenges. See this page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/227242094021214/

Cheers,
Celine

Hello Celine,

I am writing you from Chicago,Illinois USA, Obamaland.

I was impressed with what you said about "everything is slower because of them". You are right. The way I look at it is "They are OUR GIFT". The world here has become so fast, texting, and everything else. That the way I look at it is that people with disabilities are our gift, our reminder to slow down and smell the flowers, breathe in the air, say hello to each person we meet. So, there should not be any apologies from people with disabilities. My brother was mentally ill through no fault of his own. He taught me what really matters as I saw him struggle daily with his emotional pain and horrors and as he watched his dream of being a great jazz drummer wash away. So, go ahead and slow us down, those of you with disabilities. You matter. You are necessary. I thank you for this gift.

I met a lady in a wheelchair one day. She was looking up at a tree. As I walked by I spoke to her and looked her in the eye. She commented "You stopped. You talked to me and you even looked me in the eye". What a lesson for me. From then on I always have made sure I stop and do the right thing. May we all learn our lessons through these gifted, more highly evolved people".

Ubuntu (I am who I am because of who we are together)

Wendy Stebbins

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Khulud's picture

thanks Celine

Hi Celine,

Wow, thanks for sharing this group with me. although I myself am a writer without disabilities, I'd love to become a member of this group.
khulud

Shelley Megquier's picture

Thank you for your comments

Dear Khulud,
You are very right that characters of varying levels of physical ability are largely excluded from the literary cannon. In addition, as you noted, people with disabilities are often excluded from public discourse and, in many communities, from public life. As a proponent of sustainable development, I think that including every member of a community in the development process is essential. Further, respecting the human rights of each and every person in society, regardless of race, creed, nationality, class, gender, sexuality, or ability, is an integral component of true development. I appreciate you bringing up the important subject of discrimination on the basis of ability.
On a separate note, I would highly suggest 'Animal's People' by Indra Sinha. 'Animal' is a male character physically disabled after the Bhopal chemical plant disaster. He is a fabulously complex character and the book brings up issues of environmental racism, corporate injustice, and, ultimately, democracy. It is a very interesting read.
In Solidarity,
Shelley

Khulud's picture

thanks Shelley - someone

thanks Shelley - someone already suggested it to me, and I will definitely search for it.
thanks for all your feedback.
in sisterhood,
khulud

Khulud's picture

here's what I've come up with so far :)

thanks everyone for the valuable comments!
I've begun experimenting with writing a disabled female character - and here's the link to the raw material.
so far, I'm drawing on my own personal experience with my disabled mother, but I hope that the character will take off and lead me in her own direction.
http://feministpalestinianwriter.blogspot.co.il/2012/08/an-incident-in-l...
comments are very much appreciated
in sisterhood,
khulud

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