Sarah Chorn uses her blog, Bookworm Blues, and her column, “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” at SF Signal to bring attention to authors with disabilities and characters in speculative fiction with disabilities. She interviews and hosts guest blogs with people who experience mental and physical challenges and explores how people with disabilities are represented in genre fiction. I’m so happy that she was able to do this interview!
On both Bookworm Blues and SF Signal, you feature guest posts and interview by authors with disabilities and/or authors who feature characters with disabilities. What led you to focus on this aspect of writing and representation?
A few things, really. Two of my brothers introduced me to fantasy when I was a teenager, and my brother Rob really kept me involved in the genre for quite a while after that. We’d always trade books and talk about what we read. My brother Rob is disabled. He was born with part of his brain missing. He has seizures and now he is paralyzed as well. A few years ago Rob had a horrible seizure that really ripped his mind apart, and rocked his body into temperatures of 107 degrees for five days. It was terrifying. As a result of that, he can’t read anymore, but we still talk about books a lot and he still loves the genre despite the fact that he can’t really participate in it the way he used to. A few years ago I was talking to him about one thing or another and he said, “I really wish that someone would talk about how people like me can be important in books, too.” That sentence is where the whole idea for my column sprang from. I did some research after that, and I realized that there are lots of people talking about gender, and race in the genre, religion and other aspects of diversity, but I really couldn’t find anyone talking about disabilities in the genre, and how people like my brother Rob can be important, too.
I decided to change that.
And I’m beyond thrilled that so many authors and bloggers and readers are willing to help out.
Can you talk about one particular post that really got your attention – something that made you see things in a different way or have a new idea?
It’s hard for me to pick a few that stand out because they all move me so profoundly. This is an incredibly complex topic, and the more people write about it, the more I learn. However, if I had to choose one piece that really sticks out to me the most is an interview I did last November with my brother Rob. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/11/special-needs-in-strange-worlds-a-conversation-with-my-brother/It was neat to be able to talk to him, to see why reading is so important to him, and how he uses books as a way to inform and educate others, as well as to get out of his own skin. Reading isn’t just about escape, for my brother it is a lifeline, and it really took me having that candid discussion with him to grasp that.
Jim C. Hines wrote a piece recently about writing with depression. That also really touched me because he was so open about his struggles, but he also candidly talked about how he was trying to integrate it all into his writing. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2014/05/guest-post-special-needs-strange-worlds-jim-c-hines-writing-depression/ Struggles aren’t just physical, and Hines really did a great job at delving honestly into some mental and emotional issues, but also showing readers how, despite his battles, there is always hope. It was really touching, and quite empowering.
Contributors to Special Needs in Strange Worlds (on SF Signal) talk about a huge range of disabilities. Are there any common threads you observed?
I am truly amazed at the strength of the human spirit. Each article that someone writes absolutely astounds me by how strong, how positive, how hopeful that person is, whether they are disabled, or know someone who is. People in general are amazing. It truly humbles me to see how many people are willing to participate in my column, and support my effort to keep a dialogue going. A lot of people open up about a lot of personal, emotional, deeply touching details when they write for Special Needs in Strange Worlds. That takes very real strength, and it takes a kind of courage that really boggles my mind.
That’s probably what has stood out to me the most while my column has run. People are so much stronger than they give themselves credit for. I find myself constantly inspired and enlightened by the email I get, the articles that have been written and are being written, and the subjects people talk about. You are all so amazing and so strong. Every last person involved in Special Needs in Strange Worlds has touched me profoundly, and inspired me.
In your experience, is SFF more or less open (or about the same) as other genres of fiction when it comes to talking about people with disabilities in a sensitive way?
I think it’s a work in progress. In general I tend to think that speculative fiction is a progressive genre. The whole purpose of it is to play pretend, to explore things that might not be, and see how life would change if those things existed. What if we had magic, or space ships, or governments that spanned species and planets, or could shape shift? It’s a progressive genre, but I think that we have our issues just like anyone. If we didn’t, there would be no reason to have people fighting for diversity, or equal representation.
That being said, I do think that things are getting better. It’s the natural flow of progress. I see fewer authors inserting the token disabled person in the books they write. Fewer are fixing (or curing) disabilities unnecessarily. It seems like more authors are realizing that it’s okay for their character to suffer from depression – that’s realistic. It’s okay if their protagonist has asthma – it doesn’t need to be fixed. It also doesn’t need to negatively impact what those characters are capable of achieving. Someone with asthma can be important, too. Someone in a wheelchair, as Stephen King proves in his Dark Tower series, can be just as badass as anyone else.
We read for a number of reasons, and we write for a number of reasons. We like to see bits of ourselves in the books we read, but we also like to get out of our own skin and live someone else’s life for a time, face different challenges, see the world through different eyes. I am loving this trend of authors really embracing that, and realizing that the world (ours or a secondary one) isn’t homogenous. Diversity is beautiful, and vibrant, and oh-so-important. Diversity makes a book real. It’s important to insert that in the books we read and write and I’m thrilled that so many people realize that.
Though as a genre, there is room to grow. That’s part of what I love about speculative fiction. There is always room to grow, room to improve, and room to change. Speculative fiction is always changing. That’s why it’s such a fantastic, exciting genre to be part of.
However, I do get disappointed by how frequently disabilities get overlooked and underrepresented in important genre discussions on diversity and equality. I’m not sure how to fix that, and I guess that’s a big reason why I started my column. I want to get the discussion going. I want people to realize that diversity is so important, and so is equality, and there is a huge group of people who really almost never get a seat at the table, or a voice in the conversation when these discussions are raging. These are people like my brother who just wants the world to realize that he might be paralyzed, but he can be important, too. It breaks my heart. It’s about tolerance and understanding, about realizing that limitations don’t necessarily mean that the person is limited and incapable, and certainly not helpless. We need to see that in the books we read, just like we need to understand that in real life. It isn’t about glorifying anyone. It’s about realizing that the world isn’t homogenous, and everyone can be important. Everyone is important. We are all the protagonists in our own novels.
People keep meticulous track of how many books written by women they read each year, and while I truly and honestly applaud that (never stop!), I look forward to the day when people pay as much attention to the representation of disabilities in the genre. Occasionally I’ll hear someone say, “At (insert convention here) there was a diversity panel and (insert author here) talked about disabilities” – I don’t hear it often enough. Change happens slowly, and I really hope that eventually disabilities will get as much attention and discussion as anything else.
Can you tell us some more about your other projects in the writing and blogging world?
There isn’t much to say, really. I wish there was, but there isn’t. I’m pretty boring. I continue to write reviews on Bookworm Blues, and my column Special Needs in Strange Worlds will push forward on SF Signal until people run out of things to say. I hope that never happens. I’m currently working with Shaun Duke (Of The Skiffy and Fanty Show podcast) on a Special Needs in Strange Worlds anthology where all proceeds will go to charity. Occasionally someone will ask me to podcast, which I always welcome. I have a few writing projects in the fire, but until I have a set publication date and all that, I’m keeping my lips sealed rather tight. Other than that, I’m anxious to start participating in conventions, and whatever else comes my way.