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On-page representation matters

Reading books with queer and disabled characters had a huge impact on Jessica Walton and the way she saw herself. Ahead of her Our bodies, our stories webinar for the Writeability program, Jess explains the importance – and positive impact – including marginalised characters in literature can have on readers from all backgrounds and marginalised groups.

Why is it important to write and read about disability?

We exist in the real world, and we should therefore exist on the page along with everyone else. Every time a story, poem, essay or article about disabled people is written and written well, disabled readers feel less alone and may be empowered to start writing their words.

My left leg was amputated above the knee when I was nine, but I didn’t identify as disabled until a few years ago. When I came out as bisexual I found my community and peers and role models, and learnt what pride meant. Reading books about LGBTI people brought great joy and comfort in seeing my community represented on the page. When I began writing it was natural to write queer characters; I was writing my own life down, and in doing so adding to a growing body of work across genres and art forms that celebrated queer identities and experiences.

I grew up surrounded by able-bodied people, isolated from my community and the role models and activists who might have helped me understand my experiences as a disabled young person. I still grieve for the years I spent coping with those experiences alone and internalising the ableism around me.

After reading the work of disabled writers like Jax Jacki Brown, Carly Findlay, Stella Young and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and by engaging in conversations with other disabled people on Twitter, I finally began to call myself disabled. After discovering amputees like Viktoria Modesta and Lisa Bufano and working with a new prosthetist to make a leg that looked the way I wanted it to and did the things I needed it to, I began to feel more comfortable identifying as an amputee too. I found identity, pride, community and role models.

Most of my writing (unpublished at this point) is about my body – trying to understand it, love it, and connect it to the history and politics and community that comes with each of my identities, especially my identity as a disabled woman. I’m trying to rid myself of my internalised ableism as I write, and fight back against ableist narratives about disabled bodies.

The first time I read an amputee character was a few years ago. That book wasn’t written by an amputee, but the author had done a great deal of research and consultation. I felt represented on the page for the first time in my life. It helped me think about how I would write an amputee character. I’ve since found more writing by amputees and other disabled writers, though not nearly enough.

Can you tell us about the impact the Own Voices movement has had on you?

Reading #ownvoices stories, poems, articles and essays has helped me find the words and the confidence to write about my own experiences. I’m working on a picture book about an amputee now, and it focuses on the importance of self-expression and agency for disabled kids. It’s the book I needed as a kid.

The issue of whether we can write outside of our own identity/experience is an interesting and relevant one for me. I’ve written a picture book with a trans character, and I’m cis – having a trans parent doesn’t make me an expert, and it’s important to acknowledge that – so these issues are ones I think about a great deal. I hope I got the representation right but I’m very open to hearing otherwise, especially if that feedback comes from trans and gender-diverse readers.

Since writing ‘Introducing Teddy’ I’ve focused on reading and celebrating #ownvoices books by trans and gender-diverse authors. I hope there will eventually be a huge range of books with trans and gender-diverse characters, and that many of them will be #ownvoices stories.

Since YA author Corinne Duyvis created the #ownvoices hashtag in September 2015 a huge number of books have been recommended on this hashtag, helping marginalised people find books that are written by people who share their identity, and helping everyone celebrate the work of marginalised authors.

I’ve read books that aren’t #ownvoices that got the representation right, or mostly right, but what Duyvis says about “telling our own stories, our own way” is important to me too. There are so many tired stereotypes and harmful narratives about disability, and sometimes you just need to hear someone from within your own community speaking to you about your shared experiences. Campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices have helped energise supporters of diversity in literature; they are both a challenge to publishing and a positive initiative connecting diverse readers with the writers who shared their experiences. 

What influenced you to write your picture book ‘Introducing Teddy’?

In 2014 my wife gave birth to our first child, and I excitedly started building the best picture book collection I could. However, there were some disturbing gaps and patterns in our collection. We kept seeing the same family, the same main characters. I’m bisexual and disabled, my wife is a lesbian and one of my parents is transgender. My kids would be growing up in a diverse family, community and world – so it seemed weird that the picture books on their shelf had no disabled people, no LGBTI people, and way too many white people.

You might think books with diverse characters are something only families like mine need to think about, but books full of the same characters and families positions one kind of person or family as the norm to any child reader, and those who are missing from picture books as the Other.

We started filling in the gaps, but there were few books that dealt with gender identity. I didn’t just want a book with a trans character; I wanted a book that could help start conversations about our family and our values, about the importance of being yourself and being loved for who you are.

You funded publication through Kickstarter and gained interest from around the world. What’s the response to the book been like?

I really did write this book just for my family, because we needed it. I put together a video, Dougal MacPherson drew some initial illustrations to put up on the crowdfunding page, and I started the process of publicising the book across social media. I was genuinely worried that we wouldn’t reach our target.

Instead, we sold far more copies than we’d anticipated, and hit double our target. Neil Gaiman tweeted about the book. Calls started coming in from media in Germany, the UK and Brazil! Bloomsbury bought the worldwide English rights and the book’s being translated into nine different languages. The whole thing’s been quite surreal.

The feedback’s been overwhelmingly positive. We love getting emails, tweets and Facebook messages from teachers and parents who are reading the book with their children. One parent used ‘Introducing Teddy’ to help explain their gender identity to their young children – I sat at my computer with tears pouring down my face when I read that one. I also have a special place in my heart for teachers and librarians who are championing this book in their schools and classrooms.

Your webinar will look at how disability has been explored across a variety of formats. How important is it to have the stories of disabled people available across different genres?

Think of the alternative. We’ve had the alternative. I’m not saying disabled people aren’t writing in every format and every genre, but writers from marginalised groups are less likely to have work published because major publishers often don’t think disabled main characters have broad appeal unless they’re written in stereotypical, harmful ways. That’s where smaller publishers, literary journals, zines, websites and Twitter accounts come in. Some smaller publishers and publications are actively seeking writing by diverse authors. That’s where your word ‘available’ becomes so important. Every single work – every single WORD – by a disabled writer or featuring a well-written disabled character that gets published helps disabled readers see themselves, helps other disabled writers to start writing, and helps abled people to better understand our lives and experiences.

In a society that constantly centres the abled, that is literally built for the abled, writing about disability is a form of activism and resistance. In the face of ableism and harmful stereotypes, our voices shape alternative narratives and challenge ableist language and ideas. Even the most personal of writing become political and powerful, centring the disabled experience over the abled.

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