Change needed at all levels

Wednesday, February 7, 2018
By: 
Jessica Walton with Writers Victoria

A photo of Jess Walton
Jess Walton

Awareness of disabled and marginalised writers in the publishing industry is increasing, but there’s still a long way to go, says Jessica Walton. Ahead of her Write-ability – Opportunities for Writers webinar, Jess talked to Writers Victoria about seeking out opportunities and the impact they can have on writing.

Writers with disability are hugely underrepresented in the industry. What can be done – from the grassroots level up – to help address this?

Marginalised/diverse writers are told to ‘write into the gaps, write the words you want or need to read’. It’d be nice if that was all we needed to do, but until the structural inequalities that prevent marginalised writers from getting their work published are addressed we won’t see large-scale change.

Publishers, agents, publicists, booksellers, librarians, editors, funding bodies, art directors and others all play a role. You can either ensure opportunities are inclusive of disabled writers, or create opportunities specifically for disabled writers. It’s not just about improving and increasing representation; it’s about building and supporting the careers of disabled writers, which will inevitably lead to more and better representation. Disabled people need to get published, and they need to get paid.

An audit of how accessible your workplace is, and how many disabled people work in or with your organisation, would help address structural inequalities. What’s the effect of privilege and unconscious bias on your organisation and its processes and practices? Are you doing things that exclude disabled writers without even noticing?

Readers are one group I’d like to see doing more. They and the dollars they spend can influence what’s chosen by publishers. Make a commitment to reading work by disabled writers. There are disabled writers who need uplifting; so find their work, read it, and then celebrate it loudly.

Is it true that you have to be an established writer to be eligible for grants or other opportunities?

No! There are funding sources that look at projects rather than the applicant’s career stage. A lack of experience and confidence can stop writers with fantastic project ideas from applying. Just get an application together and submit it. Even if you’re unsuccessful, the process of applying and getting feedback is incredibly valuable. And make sure you call to get advice before you submit. Bodies such as the Australia Council want you to succeed. They’re there to help, so don’t be nervous about asking for advice.

Organisations such as Writers Victoria offer opportunities specifically for emerging writers, and that’s important. Career-building can be hard when you’re still working out what you want to say and how to say it. Having organisations that build your skills and boost your confidence is fantastic. Find those opportunities and apply! If you haven’t applied for any grants or fellowships, I’d recommend starting with the Write-ability Fellowship.

You recently wrote a Twitter thread that went viral about a woman tearfully telling you how courageous you were, and your disability made her realise she took things for granted. You said, “It implies that the more I DO while disabled, the more inspiring I become. The less I do, the less inspiring I become. It implies that my worth depends on how much I do.” Is this an isolated incident, or does this happen often?

It’s really common! Abled people may not know that ‘inspiring’ is a word loathed by a lot of disabled people. I also said in that thread that people should read Stella Young’s words on this. I’d always felt uncomfortable when people called me inspiring or brave, and reading Stella’s articles about inspiration porn helped me understand why it bothered me so much.

Imagine if you were walking your dog, or shopping for groceries, or sitting at your desk at work, and someone gave you a big participation trophy and a pat on the head. That’s what it feels like. When you call someone disabled ‘inspiring’ for just living their life, it’s weird!

Also, like most people I work because I must. Don’t assume I’m at work because I want to be, and don’t congratulate me for it. What would you say if I gave up work because it hurt too much? If working is an inspiration, what is not working? Is that a tragedy, or something to be ashamed of, in your eyes? There are people who can’t work and their worth is no less because of that.

The more disabled writers are given the space to tell their own stories – on all platforms and in all publications – the sooner we can leave these tired stereotypes and outdated ways of thinking behind.

The Own Voices movement has increased awareness of publishing and supporting writers from all marginalised communities. Has this flowed through to the number of opportunities?

YA author Corinne Duyvis created the #ownvoices concept and hashtag in September 2015 “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group”. She said it was not created “to discourage people from writing outside their own experiences”. Own Voices lifts up authors and books that are often ignored and insists that space be made for us to write into, alongside those who were writing about us.

It’ll take a lot of things to change the industry, and the conversation started by Duyvis with the #ownvoices concept and hashtag is one of those things.

Other people are making waves at the grassroots level, too. There’s those who have the courage to criticise the way some awards are judged, or to start their own awards; Justina Ireland’s sensitivity reader database; the We Need Diverse Books campaign; Writers Victoria Write-ability program; schools that promote diverse books to kids – so many people and initiatives that give me hope things are changing.

There are plenty of things that leave me shaking my head too, though. Change is hard, and there will always be pushback.

You recently completed a 2017 Write-ability Fellowship. What impact did the fellowship have on you as a writer?

It had a real and immediate impact. I would never have been able to afford the workshops I did as part of my fellowship. Having that time and space away from my usual commitments to work with established writers and develop my skills gave me a confidence with poetry and short story writing that I didn’t have before.

As part of my project research, I read three poetry anthologies by D/deaf, disabled and chronically ill poets. It gave me an understanding of the way other disabled writers describe their lives and experiences. I felt less alone, less lost. I created a GIANT research poster and pasted snippets of poetry from all three anthologies and identified connections and themes, then added my own thoughts, feeling and experiences. Locating myself within disability poetry like this was empowering and helpful to my writing. I could imagine myself as a disabled poet more easily.

I wrote my own poetry – and letters and short stories! – and even created a poetry zine. This was a great way to self-publish my early attempts at poetry. I’m also working toward submitting poetry to journals and magazines.

The staff at Writers Victoria couldn’t have been more supportive and helpful during my fellowship. They are a wonderful team, and their commitment to building the careers of marginalised writers is having a big impact. It was lifechanging for me. 

About Jessica Walton

Jess is a 2017 Write-ability Fellow, picturebook author, teacher, parent, daughter of a trans parent, and proud queer disabled woman. She wrote 'Introducing Teddy: a story about being yourself' to help explain gender identity in a simple, positive way to her kids. 'Introducing Teddy' began as a Kickstarter project, and has now been published in the US, UK and in Australia by Bloomsbury. It has also been translated into nine other languages. Jess lives in Pakenham with her wife, kids and cat.

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