Thursday, 1 May 2014

Blogging Against Disablism

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014 Today is Blogging Against Disablism day and I thought I'd join in. I'm going to be mainly talking about the representation of mental illness and neurological conditions in books, partly because that's one of the things the book that inspired this dealt with and partly because, well, it needs to be talked about. Also, there will be miscellaneous spoilers for some of the books I discuss. Thems the breaks.

The book/series that inspired this post was the Assured Destruction trilogy by Michael F Stewart and, particularly, the final volume, With Zombies. The main character's mother has MS and is confined to a wheel chair — another piece of nice representation in this story —and on top of that, she suffers a period of severe depression (like catatonia severe) starting from somewhere in book two. Obviously this has a strong impact on the main character's life (more so since her mother is her sole parent) but what was most incredible was that her mother wasn't stigmatised for suffering from a mental illness, nor for spending time in the psych ward. And quite frankly, the book gets points just for calling it a psych ward (it's concerning how rare that is). Later on, the main character also ends up in a psych ward (a different one, since she's a teenager — love the attention to detail) suffering from plot-induced acute stress disorder. Her friends, while a little confused about what's been going on at first, end up being really supportive and — gasp! — also don't stigmatise her for having mental illness cooties. The terrible thing is how rare this kind of representation is in books and in real life.

In real life, mental illnesses — especially the kind that require time in a psych ward — tend to come with some stigma attached. I shouldn't have to spell out why this is a bad thing. I also believe that the more people know about mental illnesses and the more they understand how they work (and, critically, how they don't work), the better it will be for everyone. A key way of learning about a diverse range of people is by reading about them or by seeing them in other forms of media. I'm obviously biased towards books because I'm a book-blogger, but I do think the way books allow us to get into characters' heads is a particularly powerful tool.

I've already talked about the thinks I think Michael F Stewart does right in the Assured Destruction trilogy, and now I want to talk about some other books that do things both well and poorly. Also, I'm including characters with neurological conditions as well as mental illnesses because, quite frankly, there isn't a huge number of either.

Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes is a post-apocalyptic novel about an autistic girl with a service dog, her brother, and some other people they befriend. I don't know as much about autism as I do about some other conditions, but to me this was mostly positive representation. For a discussion of some of the things the author didn't quite get right, I recommend this article. One thing I particularly liked about Viral Nation was that the main character needed support from her brother (or a reasonable facsimile) to comfortably survive. So often "non-independent" characters (scare-quotes because no one is truly independent of other people, yet some forms of dependence are normalised while others are stigmatised) are assumed to be killed off as soon as the first disaster strikes, it's refreshing to see one who survives. I would very much like to see more diverse characters appearing post-apocalyptically.

Some other books with good portrayals are Playing Tyler by TL Costa and Pawn by Aimée Carter. Playing Tyler is split between two point of view characters, one of whom is a teenage boy with ADHD. Costa's writing allows us to get into his head and the choppy way she's written some of his thoughts gives us an idea of what it's like for him. Featuring a bit less prominently, the main character in Pawn is dyslexic. In her dystopian world, this means that she has very few opportunities to live a life not hampered by poverty, despite her intelligence and knowledge. The world is set up so that if you can't do well on exams (which she can't because she has difficulty reading them even though she knows all the content), you can't get ahead. Since she's the main character, unusual circumstances take her in an unexpected direction, but even then, not being able to read is an issue. The reader is set up to empathise with the main character and feel the injustice of her not being able to properly convey her talents to a faceless examination board.

Finally, I want to end on a less positive note. The following book was not one I particularly enjoyed and a large part of that was the ableism perpetrated by the main character. It did not help that Cracked by Eliza Crewe opened in an "insane asylum" complete with just about every stereotype you can think of. Part of the problem is that the main character is a terrible person — that's built into the premise of the worldbuilding — but that doesn't mean I had to like it. The book concludes with (among other things) the main character grudgingly accepting that the "crippled" girl (who has a limp from an old injury) is not as much of a waste of space as she'd initially assumed based on her disability. Charming, right? But what's worse, I think, is that while it's clear that the main character's attitude towards the girl with the limp is part of her being a terrible person and evolving from that, her attitude towards the "insane asylum" and it's residents is not explored at all. And that really pissed me off.

There are just some examples from recent YA books that I've read. I feel like mental illness is more likely to be covered in YA books than adult books, but maybe that's just a case of the genres I read in (speculative fiction on all counts). And I have to admit, part of the reason I chose to talk about mental illness and neurological disorders disorders is because I could think of more books that fit into those categories than books that dealt with other disabilities or chronic illnesses. And I've been going out of my way lately to find books with disabled and/or ill characters, so that makes me sad. (It does mean that there are some waiting to be read that I haven't got to yet, but still.)

More books with more diverse casts! Go!

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