A friend asked me this, so I’ve decided to answer here because I think it’s something others might like to know. The question was, why did I decide to make Oree Shoth, protagonist of The Broken Kingdoms, blind? Bear with me; this is gonna be another long one.
I have a problem with the question itself, to be honest — though to some degree it’s a fair question. After all, I’m not blind, and there’s been a lot of talk in the SF world lately about the dangers of cultural appropriation. But I’m not biracial either, or American Indian, and no one has yet asked me why Yeine was half white and half (something like) Inka. Nor am I as desperately poor as Oree — I’m living paycheck to paycheck, but at least I have a paycheck, and health insurance, and sick days, and so on, which she doesn’t. Nor am I Haitian, or an immigrant in a hostile land, or a middle-aged white female Italian chef… or most of the statuses that affect the protagonists in my fiction, really. No one’s called me on my ability or choice to write any of that. So I think I’m dealing with an authenticity question here: somehow I’m perceived as able to plausibly write characters who are very different from myself along certain axes of identity (race, gender, class, some others), but not others (disability).
I highlighted those two words in the previous sentence because the problem here, I think, is twofold: perception (on others’ part) and plausibility (on my part). So I’ll answer the question on those two levels.
On the perceptual level, the plain fact is that there aren’t a lot of stories written from the PoV of disabled people (at least not in English-language fiction), and most of us are still wrestling with understanding and addressing how ableism causes and impacts this. Think about it this way: nobody’s ever asked me, “Why did you make Yeine able to see?” That’s because the unspoken subtext of the “why’s Oree blind” question is Why is she different, why’s she strange, why didn’t you make her “normal” or like everyone else? The subtext is the same with other variations of this question that I’ve gotten, like “Why is your protagonist female?” or “Why did you make her black?” (or “why didn’t you make her black?”) and so on. Ultimately the real problem with all these questions is not the writer’s choice, but the reader’s assumptions about who “belongs” in epic fantasy. Or who’s “allowed” to write it.
Now, note: I haven’t gotten questions about Oree’s race or gender nearly as often as I’ve gotten questions about her blindness. So, using that as a highly nonscientific survey of attitudes, it to me that women and black people are deemed to “belong” in epic fantasy to a greater degree than disabled people. (Or maybe people just know better than to ask me about the first two, lest they get popped in the mouth.) That might be because the SF/F fanosphere — myself included, here — has done a better job of talking about things like the racial default and illogical assumptions about gender, than we have about issues of ability and its representation in fiction. So this post is part of my attempt to address the deficit.
Now back to the main question. “Why is Oree blind?” does have an answer: because she is. That is — I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I wasn’t trying to play “check the boxes” on some hypothetical Fantasy World Diversity Quota form. (“Female, black, poor, and blind! If I can just make her gay, I win!”) I just went with what my mind conjured up, as I always do when I create a new character. And as always, I tried to develop Oree as realistically as I could, so that she would be a person and not a caricature. Thus Oree’s blindness is meant to be just one more aspect of who she is, same as her femaleness and artistry and blackness and poverty. All these things impact her life to some significant degree — but the story’s not about any of those aspects of her identity. That’s because I’m writing fantasy, not African American Interest fiction or “chicklit” or a poverty narrative or fictionalized artist biography; the part of Oree’s identity that matters most is her magical heritage. The rest is just detail.
I get that some people think I should have written The Broken Kingdoms as an intensive study of Blindness, Living With. Or Womanhood, Functioning Despite. Or Blackness, Existence Of, or whatever. Many of us have been trained, thanks to ham-handed efforts at diversity in the wider world, to expect that certain kinds of people will only show up in A Very Special Episode circumstances. We figure black people should only appear in stories about racism (as if it never happens to anyone else, and as if that’s all that defines black life), for example, or poor people in stories about the value of working hard (as if only laziness makes you poor), or women in stories about rape (as if it never happens to anyone else, or as if that’s all that ever happens to women). But y’know what? Most of those Very Special Episodes? Those were bad writing. They were superficial attempts to tackle deep and complex issues, in a woefully inadequate amount of time, put together by people who either didn’t know any better or couldn’t do anything about it if they did. So it’s probably a bad idea to use those examples as the model for how to do this right.
That’s not to say I’m 100% on Doing It Right, though. Far from it. (Here’s where we segue into the plausibility part of the discussion.)
I knew that when I decided to make Oree disabled, I was going to have to do my research, because hey, I’m not blind, however much I might joke about the thickness of my contact lenses. So I spent awhile reading autobiographies and memoirs by people who were born blind, were partially blind, or spent time blind, just to get some grounding in the issues. The set of books that I read included the better-known personalities — Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder — but I also sought out accounts by so-called “ordinary” people, few of whom turned out to be such. (Always the problem with relying on memoirs, really — if your life is ordinary, why would you write about it? And who would publish it?) I was initially disappointed with Erik Weihenmayer’s To Touch the Top of the World, because it was as much about his efforts to be a master mountainclimber as it was about his life as a blind man — but then I had to check myself, because that was “Very Special Episode” thinking. Why shouldn’t a blind man’s memoir be about something other than his blindness? He wasn’t living his life to be my research subject. So I liked it better then, especially as it helped me realize just how capable the average blind person is of navigating through the world using other senses and simple logic. Compared to climbing Kilimanjaro, Oree’s ability to get through her daily life in Shadow is a walk in the park*.
(Side-note: one of the most interesting memoirs I found was that of John Howard Griffin, the same extraordinary man who, among other things, darkened his skin and pretended to be a black man for awhile in the Jim Crow South. He also went blind at one point in his life, then later regained (much of) his sight, and he speaks to both states in his memoir Scattered Shadows. I borrowed from this in the later chapters of The Broken Kingdoms, when Oree effectively becomes temporarily “sighted” (mostly) while in Sky. Her tiredness in the light of Sky’s magic, her need to learn to judge distances and heights using only her eyes; all that came from Griffin.)
So you could say I did my research. But I was missing one key piece of information: I had no visually-impaired friends to talk to for a more direct understanding. Now, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about “talk to a member of [insert identity]” as a research strategy, because it’s been done to me before (“Say, can you explain black people to me?”) and I usually react badly. (“No. Get the hell away from me.”) It’s problematic, to say the least — let’s just call it rude — to approach a complete stranger and request, or even hope, that she will allow herself to be objectified for your edification. And I’m of the opinion that a good writer shouldn’t have to do that; a good writer ought to be able to extrapolate. Especially SFF writers — for Itempas’ sake, we’re all supposed to be able to put ourselves inside the heads of dragons, sentient slime-molds, and the like. If we can’t manage to empathize with our fellow human beings, we don’t deserve to be writing in this genre.
That said, I did try to talk to someone, because although it was my responsibility to get it right, I’m not above asking for help. Quietly I asked around in the community, trying to find someone who might be willing to read over a few excerpts of the book as it was being written. Didn’t meet any visually impaired folk, but I did have input from an otherwise-disabled writer friend who offered me a few general pointers on How To Write About Disabilities in general, which I tried to take to heart. Step 1 was something I’d already begun: do the research. Step 2 was to avoid adding to the zeitgeist of misconceptions out there surrounding blindness and blind people. Oree’s not unusual in being able to partially see, for example, even though what she sees is magic. Most blind people actually have some sight or periodic sight; total blindness is far more common in movies and on TV than it is in real life.
But I should’ve thought a little deeper about how disabled people are stereotyped. See, I’ve known for awhile now that the focus of this novel was going to be demons rather than gods or humans. And demons, as we see via Oree, are Special. Yeine’s description of demons as “monsters” in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was not a mistake; in the old stories, demons were characterized that way because many of them had physical peculiarities that marked their magical, non-human heritage. Oree’s example of this — her eyes — is fairly mild, but the demons of old were fantastically varied, as gods themselves tend to be. (Dateh’s example is even milder: Oree notes that he isn’t fully Amn, but she doesn’t realize until Shiny’s explanation that Dateh’s non-Amn traits come from his godly forbear, Nahadoth.) But although gods can change their appearance at will, not all demons are able to do so. Most of those old-school demons who were visibly marked by their heritage did not survive the gods’ attempt to eradicate them, because they couldn’t hide among mortals easily. Which is why most demons by the time of The Broken Kingdoms are like Dateh and Oree’s father — superficially indistinguishable from mortal humans, though very different beneath the skin.
(Side-note 2: Some of those hidden differences are neurological or psychological, note, because like gods, demons are often able to perceive things that ordinary humans can’t — like magic — or they think in ways that are more typical of gods than mortals. Oree’s perception of the world is partially synaesthetic, for example. She doesn’t actually know which colors she’s seeing, throughout the book, because nobody ever bothered to teach her colors. So she guesses. As someone raised in a predominantly sighted society, she’s heard all her life that blood is red, skies are blue, etc., so she guesses right sometimes. But she also tends to sniff a thing, or touch it, and arbitrarily decide that it is [color] because she associates [color] with that smell or texture, or the feeling it inspires, or something else.** This works for the purposes of her art, although it’s not always useful in the practical sense — e.g., in the introduction, where she mentions having done something horrible to the laundry.)
(Side-note 3: And because many non-demon humans are also the descendants of gods, they occasionally possess godlike traits too. It’s a continuum, not a simple matter of magic or not. An example is Previt Rimarn, who mentions that he smells the magic in Oree — i.e., he perceives magic by scent, in much the way that Oree perceives it by sight. Did anybody catch that? I was hoping someone would.)
But here’s the problem: I had effectively made demon-ness — that is, the inheritance of magic — a kind of code for disability. Which ran smack into another big stereotype: the magical disabled person. I’m not gonna lie here; this was a fuckup on my part. If I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t have made her sighted, or unmagical, because like I said, that’s what she needed to be to fit the character in my head. But… I would’ve severed the association between her magic and her inability to see, so that one did not cause the other. Like I said, I wanted her blindness to be part of her identity, as unremarkable as her gender or race… but by constructing her blindness as the result of her magic, I not only made it remarkable, I emphasized its abnormality. Imagine if I’d said she was only female because the magic made her that way. Or if I’d said she was only black because one of her ancestors was something inhuman that happened to have black skin. (We’ll discuss Laurell K. Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry books some other time.)
I figured this out, by the way, six months after I turned in the book to my editor. Specifically after I attended a great workshop at Readercon, called What Good Writers Still Get Wrong About Blind People, presented by Kestrell Alicia Verlager. (Note part 2 and part 3.) Too late to change the book, but not too late to learn from the mistake. I am determined to do better next time — and there will be a next time.***
I got a few other things wrong too, mostly because I kept slipping into sighted ways of describing the world. I tried to catch most of them during revisions, but I missed a few. Some were unavoidable given the English language; for example, Oree frequently says “I see” as a synonym for “I understand”, and so on. As Kestrell notes, it’s pointless and awkward to try and remove such statements; we’re all raised in a sighted society, so we’re all — blind and sighted alike — likely to talk like this. But in retrospect I did use a few too many cases of Oree intuiting what others were feeling from a distance. This might’ve worked if I’d used it solely to differentiate between gods and mortals — i.e., anyone would sense Shiny’s emotions, because he’s a god and even diminished gods tend to radiate a certain force of will (Yeine noted this with Nahadoth in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms too, but I think it wasn’t as noticeable there). But since I used it with every strong-willed person in the story, it ended up being too much.
All this said, I’m mostly pleased with how I wrote Oree as a blind woman, and with the fact that most readers have picked up on the things I tried to do.
Man, I gotta stop writing these long-ass posts.
* See whut I did thar? Another example of the way I kept slipping into sighted ways of describing the world during TBK. I wrote that “(easy as a) walk in the park” cliche before I remembered that a walk in the park isn’t easy for a visually-impaired person. Caught it this time, but left it in place to illustrate my point.
** So yes, it’s entirely possible that Madding’s liquid/crystalline form isn’t blue! He feels blue, though, which is all that really matters to Oree.
*** In fact I’ll be returning to this subject in a couple of years, when Reaper and its sequel come out, because there are a number of “neuroatypical” characters in it, and they’re magical too. I think it is possible to do magic with disabilities in a way that doesn’t fail; it just requires thought and care. But more on this in 2012.
**** There is no four-asterisked point. I just put this here to fuck with you.