Dialogue on Blindness and Writing
Jill Khoury, Emily Lund, Emily Michael and Kristen Witucki are four writers whose work in poetry and fiction has openly addressed issues of physical disability. Wordgathering invited them to take part in a discussion surrounding issues of craft and publication for writers with visual disabilities.
WG: In her essay "Answering Blindness" in the June 2014 issue of Wordgathering, Emily Michael discusses her ambivalence towards submitting work that references her visual limitations to periodicals that really have nothing to do with disability. How do the rest of you feel about this? What have your experiences been?
JK: Emily, that essay was fantastic. I have similar anxieties about submitting poems about blindness to journals who do not specifically welcome marginalized voices or work about disability.
It is difficult for me to write directly about my blindness because, like Emily, I am "sort of blind." I think "Certain Seams" (WG June '14) really encapsulates my dilemma—I use a white cane, but not all the time. I can see lots of things, but completely miss most. If I've just met you, I can admire your clothes and haircut, but I will not get a good enough look at your facial features to be able to pair your face and name in my head. You shouldn't let me drive your car or ride your bike; it's better for both of us. And I'll probably get lost in your house if you have me over for tea. When I find there's a need to explain myself, I feel like real life examples of how my blindness affects my interactions with others are more effective than giving people the medicalized version of what is "wrong" with my eyes. But these explanations never go out to editors.
My cover letter is standard. It does not mention my blindness. I try to include something about disability in my bio, but it's vague. For a long time it was "she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Breath and Shadow: A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature. Now it's "She is a contributing staff member to Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature." If the editors read the bio, they'll note the disability issue. I don't feel obligated to disclose.
Then again, until very recently, I only felt comfortable sending poems directly addressing blindness to journals where I knew they would be welcomed. Before I was a "contributing staff member" to Wordgathering, I sent all my blind poems there. And before that, I sent them to B&S. I literally think that all but one of the poems that deal with blindness have been published by disability-friendly journals, or, in the case of "Certain Seams," Split This Rock picked it up, and they are an organization dedicated to social justice—they value the viewpoint of a disabled woman as a politically necessary thing.
However, writing about my blindness does not comprise a huge part of my work. I write a lot about relationships, mental illness, and poems that address gender issues —I call these my "girls in trouble" poems… and those have been well received.
I have this new poem—one of the last to be placed in my first full-length manuscript, about the origin of my blindness and the idea that being blind is not an either/or proposition. It's the first of my poems about blindness that I'm sending out to regular journals. No word yet.
There's a lot about this poem that may be considered "inaccessible," in addition to the subject matter. My newer work tends toward a style that could be called lyric, magic-realist, even experimental. So if the journal is comfortable with my use of white space, lyrical leaps, and weird punctuation, then maybe they can exist in the liminal space of my personal blindness. Maybe they can trust that their readers do so as well.
KW: I've been born blind, so it's much easier to write from the point of view of a blind character in fiction or from my point of view in nonfiction. And even when I write from a sighted perspective, I do write about blindness, because it has informed so much of my experience, and for me, it helps me to get at larger, universal themes in a unique voice. When my son was born, some of the nurses in the hospital and one doctor were skeptical that my husband and I, who are both blind, could parent. At that point, I made it a mission to write about mothering as a blind person for periodicals which didn't necessarily cater to a disabled audience. However, this has had a flip side; one editor asked me to change a piece to highlight our blindness more strongly rather than wanting me to explore a different theme, because that description was more interesting to her and because it described our family better for the particular series of articles for which I was writing. Because I wanted to continue my writing relationship with that magazine and because I like working with those editors a lot, I did it, but I'm definitely torn between wanting to write about blindness and breaking "out of the box."
EM: Kristen mentions the editorial hazard of "highlighting" her blindness, and I've experienced similar conflicts. Like Kristen, I write about my perspective in areas where a blind person's perspective is uncommon. For example, I often blog about my experiences performing with a competitive chorus graded on its visual showmanship. There are only a handful of blind singers in our international choral organization, and I feel that writing about these experiences helps destabilize the visuocentrism in the performing arts, especially in music where it has no place.
In my essay, "Answering Blindness," I addressed the idea that my blindness is what makes my work sell. Now, when I write, I ask myself, "In a year, 5 years, 10 years, will I be happy with the Emily that appears on these pages?" If I feel that I am writing honestly from my perspective — and that accentuating or disclosing my blindness enhances that perspective — I make overt references to my blindness. But more often than not, I avoid reinforcing the binaries between sight and blindness, disabled and nondisabled. When editors ask me to talk about how "a blind person" would experience something, I remind them that I can only talk about how I experience it; I can't speak for all blind people and I don't attempt to. I don't want my work to be the "token" blind perspective, and I won't prepare a submission for a journal where I'm getting that vibe.
WG : I think your responses to the first question are encouraging to Wordgathering because it is precisely the point that writers with disabilities have a unique viewpoint (to use a visual metaphor) unavailable to most able-bodied people that enables them to make a contribution to literature that is the raison d'etre of this journal. And you each make the important point that this need not be a limiting factor. I do want to ask you, however, how you respond to questions about how you can use visual imagery or description in your own work.
EM: When asked about my use of visual imagery, I go straight to the heart of what writing is — an exploration. I don't strive for the "correct" or "accurate" visual images so much as the poetic images. However, it has not always been easy for me to practice this belief. I talked in my essay about getting certain images right, about feeling invalidated if I messed up a powerful visual archetype. But now, I approach the visual with a sense of playfulness — especially in poetry. Yes, I strive for accurate visual descriptions when I can give them — but when I can't be sure of whether I'm writing about a tree or a person or a wrought-iron railing, I like to see where the language carries me. What does the image become as I write it? Can my image or idea ever be truly static?
I rarely find that people ask of my work, "How can she know that?" Perhaps this is because I try to approach description with as many sensory details as I can. This is not to say that I don't have my moments of insecurity, times when I ask, "Is this really yellow?" or when I call on a sighted friend to describe something for me so I can write about it with more confidence. I "borrow" others' eyes often, and I have no problem with that. I'm not borrowing their writing, and the writing is what matters.
JK: I liked Emily's answer and will second some of what she had to say. Emily said, "I don't strive for the 'correct' or 'accurate' visual images. Personally, I believe accuracy is boring. Unfortunately I have to put this belief to the side when teaching freshman comp.
My work tends to use a lot of figurative language, surreal scenes, and also brings in more senses than the visual. I love the dark, the weird, the improbable, and more than occasionally, the implication of violence and dread. Once, a friend called my language "visceral," and henceforth I have embraced this description. To borrow Emily's words, "I go straight to the heart of what writing is..." but in my case, I go straight to the gut of what writing is. And I feel that at least for me, this is not necessarily representational of "the real world."
In the interest of disclosure, I have a shred of clear vision. About 5% of what the "norms" have, but it's there. I do collage, painting, and photography in my free time. I can visualize shades of color very specifically, but if you ask me about proportion or distance or perspective, forget it. My concepts of these things are a guessing game, constantly in flux.
It's possible that my inability to accurately perceive space is what drives me to include such a sense of menace in a lot of my work. The outer world feels menacing to me because it is so spacious, fast-moving, and unpredictable. As a child and young adult, I was mainstreamed. I was given mobility training with the goal of moving about in the world relying on my low vision, without any assistive devices. It caused a lot of anxiety which is still with me, but that is another story.
EL: Although I can't speak to this from the perspective of visual imagery, I sometimes run into this issue with the physical movement of characters—how they stand, walk, and just move in general—because I realize that I have almost an idealized perspective on it. My characters do a lot of "slouching," leaning," "hopping up," "perching," etc., because I like for them to have all the physical dynamicism that I don't have, due to my physical disability. The plus side of this is that I feel like I pay more attention to how my characters move; on the other hand, I sometimes worry that their movements are too often described, that they move too much, especially when I'm writing from the point of view of an able-bodied character who wouldn't necessarily notice that as much as a physically disabled character would.
KW: I've never had vision, so I constantly worry about rewriting the visual incorrectly, even though I guess many sighted writers through the ages did not worry about misrepresenting blindness in literature when they made it symbolic instead of actual. But I'm very inspired by Emily Michael's idea of liberating the imagination, and it will comfort me as I struggle to create somewhat authentic visual imagery in the future. I do try to use visual imagery to open others' experiences rather than to limit them and to fill them in with other sensory details. I think some of the gaps in my visual knowledge might allow the reader to imagine something specific to her experience rather than something specific to mine. I certainly hope so!
EM: The idea of misrepresentation fascinates me. We've all expressed this fear of misrepresenting the visual, as Kristen said. But to misrepresent, we have to agree on a uniform or normative representation. So our anxiety about misrepresentation showcases just how much we've internalized The Norm. I dwell on this internalized norm whenever I ask my sighted friends about color. I can't identify color by name, but I'm able to distinguish most shades visually and I consistently recognize and prefer the same colors. So I'll ask a friend to tell me the color of a sweater and she'll say "Pumpkin orange" but another friend will say "No, it's really more of a burnt orange. Pumpkin is lighter." And a third friend will say, "It's actually a dark pumpkin." It amuses me how infrequently people will just say "orange" or "red" when I ask about a color; each color comes with its own narrative, and the narratives teach me more about the color's personality—warmth, coolness, brightness, subtlety.
Skies work really well for these color-stories.
JK: Emily, when I referred to accuracy as being boring a while ago…that was kind of a throwaway line. I guess what I meant is, when writing creatively, one has the freedom to be "inaccurate." I guess I was responding to the moment in your essay when your friends criticized your interpretation of the moon's corona as being "reflected fire," and were taking issue with the idea of a "thin" sky. As a contrast, in the style of freshman comp that I'm most used to teaching, they want the students to take a strict rhetorical argument approach —the accuracy of the evidence the student presents in the paper is important, or else the argument falls apart. So what I was trying to say, I guess, is that there are some arenas (argument, journalism) in which accuracy is very important, but writing creatively is not necessarily one of them.
EM: I know what you mean, Jill. Our assignments are constrained by several rubrics, so I can empathize. I often think that there should be more overlap between creative and academic writing. My students have a lot more fun writing creatively (no surprise there) and their process is more kind and less critical. I try to get them to think of their papers as creative endeavors by focusing on their planning process and giving them content options when I can't give them style options.
EL: I've really enjoyed this discussion of "accuracy" in writing and description and am wondering if it comes down to an issue of "authenticity" more than "accuracy"—the ability to create an enveloping narrative more than the ability to create an objectively accurate one (to the degree that's possible). One of my creative writing professors in undergrad once commented that all stories have to feel emotionally authentic, even if the content of the narrative itself is fantastical or otherwise "inaccurate." In other words, the internal consistency of a narrative impacts its success as a story much more than its objective probability of actually happening. Similarly, a narrative that is factually "accurate" falls apart if it has no emotional honesty or consistency to it. Perhaps this speaks to the importance of using visual imagery—or, in my case, physical imagery—in a way that is true to the story being told and feels narratively authentic to the reader, rather than focusing on whether or not that imagery exactly represents the readers' perceptions of or experiences with that type of imagery?
EM: Emily, this is an authentically fantastic point. My irritations with disability literature are usually an issue of plot or character, rather than language itself. What bothers me about disability narratives written by nondisabled people is that the blind characters never seem authentic to me. The most recent book I read with a blind character was WWW: Wake, the story of a blind teenager who receives a digital eye transplant that malfunctions, allowing her to "see" the Internet. The storyline is pretty good, but I got so frustrated at the scene where the school jock tries to take advantage of the blind teen at a school dance. It's not X-rated (it's an adolescent read), so the plotline is pretty tame — but I remember thinking, "Why did that even have to happen? All it does is reinforce the idea that blind women are extra vulnerable."
I haven't met myself in any book about a disabled character. Maybe I need a better reading list. I keep reading, hoping to find a character who is experiencing what I've experienced. I find myself more in the nonfiction, especially the disabled authors who write about writing and poetry, than in the fiction.
KW: Conversely, I sometimes worry that when I write a character who is adjusting to blindness or who feels vulnerable in a situation, I will offend someone who is blind who has more advanced skills, who advocates more or who didn't have that period of adjustment. I just want to write a character who interested me and who grows somehow from life. That person doesn't represent my thoughts about the possibilities of blindness for everyone.
EL: I agree, and I think this is a particular challenge when it comes to writing from under-represented or marginalized points of view—because there are so few characters out there who represent that point of view, they aren't allowed to be characters instead of representations of an entire heterogeneous group, simply because the heterogeneity of that group is never allowed to be shown. Thus, there is a lot of pressure to turn these characters into tropes or anti-tropes, rather than to let them be fully developed dynamic characters. Likewise, I think that there's a lot of assumptions that if a marginalized author is writing from the point of view of a similarly marginalized character, that the author is the character and vice versa. I've found this frustrating at times, as I've written characters whose experiences and beliefs considerably contradicted my own, simply because those felt more authentic to the character and their background, only to have people assume that, because the character was also disabled, those beliefs and experiences were direct representations of mine.
JK: I wholeheartedly agree with you. For me as well, emotional authenticity is what I'm drawn to in others' work and what I strive to create in my own work. Great point you make here.
WG: In the context of what we have been discussing, I'd like to quote a paragraph from Dan Simpson's wonderful essay "The Trouble with I" from the December 2012 issue of Wordgathering. Dan, as I'm sure you know, has been blind since birth.
But I took this too far in my essay. I crossed the line from not drawing attention to my blindness to actually faking knowledge I didn't have about seeing. At that point in the essay, my mother, my brother and I had just sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy our ritual of ice cream before bed. When my father started gasping for breath and my mother rushed past me and Dave to run up the stairs to his room, I tried to show my shock, or my attempt to stay calm, by describing how, while she was half-talking, half-crying to my father, I was walking to the sink to rinse out my bowl. At the sink, I tried to tell the reader what the yard looked like and to imagine how our house must have appeared to someone walking by. In real life, I did walk to the sink, but I added the visual imaginings for ambience and for what I hoped would provide some kind of emotional depth. I can't remember now what tipped off a sighted reader that I didn't know what I was talking about—whether it was how I imagined being able to see into the dark yard, or how I imagined looking into the light of the kitchen would have worked for the sighted observer. After that gaffe, I made a decision never to write as though I had any knowledge of vision beyond my ability to see light, even if the "I" of the poem or essay was not specifically me. Even in fiction, and even if a character could drive, read the most basic of facial expressions, or see signs, I wouldn't attempt to go into visual details I didn't fully understand.
I'll add the caveat that Dan goes on to rethink this position in the essay, but what I want to ask you is if you have had any similar experiences in your writing and how you dealt with them. What conclusions did you draw that affected your subsequent writing?
KW: One experience which has made me shy away from using visual details was reading a blind student's writing in which visual details from descriptions had sort of been cobbled together. It made me realize again that people easily forget other senses and use the sight words, as Dan says, to give emotional depth to the scene or story.
I do feel, however, that there are still legitimate writing challenges in portraying blindness accurately, even if it's my characters' take on blindness, and that a blind author can write within that experience and still write a completely different character. For instance, I'm working on a character now who is blind like me. However, he lost his sight much later, he grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s; and he is an African American who was interested in the Black Power Movement for a while. And he is a he. Those differences keep me checking that I'm not misrepresenting and that I'm inventing a character and not a stereotype. They also help me to empathize, just as I do when I read a good book. I also think it's good for readers to think beyond the visual. We have a unique opportunity to illuminate blindness for them.
EM: While I haven't gone out of my way to make up visual imagery beyond my comfort zone, I can attest to feelings of sight envy when writing about certain topics. I often write about musical performances from a singer and a listener's perspective. Because I'm unable to visually follow a conductor, I can't even begin to describe how a conductor would gesticulate. All I can say is "The conductor waved her hands" or "The conductor signaled us to begin." When I feel confined to these vague assertions, I often leave them out entirely because they don't seem to add anything to the writing. There are situations when I wish I had a vast repertoire of visual knowledge so that my pieces would have more authority. However, as I said in my essay, I'm afraid that if I fake it inexpertly, someone will find me out.
When I can employ detailed visual information, I often feel that I should credit the source ("My friend Katie described the scene for me"). Then I have to bring in another character just to account for the attribution. This is clumsy and self-conscious work, which is why I'm slowly phasing out this technique.
Now I'm at a place where I feel comfortable asking a sighted person for help: "I'm writing a piece about traveling at dusk and would like to know what color the evening sky is after a rainy afternoon."
There's a conflict present in writing "what you know." We read and write to increase empathy, and how can you build empathy if you never read and write beyond your own experience? However, there's a danger in taking on someone else's perspective in that you can do harm through misrepresentation — and everything is filtered through your experience. So, we're traveling in circles.
JK: I wonder if the challenge Dan S. describes in his essay is more frustrating for those trying to develop characters for fiction pieces, or flesh out a scene from an essay. In my poetry, like I said, I rely a lot on figurative language to stand in for what others may see more accurately.
WG: I'm really interested in the example that Emily Michael gave earlier of doing a piece of writing involving musical performance in which she felt no need to try to appeal to a sighted audience. It is definitely true that the default, i.e., the assumed audience is always a sighted one. One piece in this issue of Wordgathering is an essay called "Portals" by Caitlin Hernandez which focuses almost exclusively on touch as a medium for conveying feelings. I'm wondering if any of you have written pieces that are intended for a blind audience, i.e., ones in which the roles are reversed and it is sighted readers whose basic modes of perception are put on the periphery and who have to fill in the gaps.
EM: This is a challenging question to answer. I would say that I write for sighted readers more often than blind readers, but since my low vision places me in an in-between category, I can't say that I ever write to a fully sighted or fully blind audience. When I choose which sensory details to include, I make these choices based on the details that are important to me.
I have found certain topics difficult to cover when writing to a sighted audience. Anything related to my literary interactions with Braille has been extremely hard to write about for sighted readers because of the amount of "explaining" needed. Sighted readers unfamiliar with Braille won't easily call to mind the patterns of certain Braille characters.
Even though I'm rarely writing specifically for blind readers, I find it useful to pretend that I am. This draws me away from the blindness clichés or the misconceptions about disability that so often color writing for nondisabled people. My writing sets up a context of rigorous expectations for my readers: I don't make space for the easy ableism of a sight-centered experience in my work. I expect my readers to respect blindness as I do, and I'm always surprised when they react to my work with pity or condescension because I don't imagine that I "built" those paths into the work itself. But as I said in my essay, I struggle with trying to determine or control how my readers respond.
KW: I don't always think about my audience when I write, but of course, I'm aware of audience. When I write for myself, I don't need to explain the things I might need to explain to people who can see. But at the same time, I try not to use too much "explanation" as a distraction; I prefer to imbed knowledge into characters' experience.
The closest I've come to writing about the perception of blindness is an essay I wrote a few years ago for the Division of Visual Impairments' Quarterly newsletter, which went out to educators of blind students who were mostly sighted. I also posted it on my blog. I can already think of a hundred ways to revise it and can add non-visual words I previously hadn't thought of!
I'm definitely looking forward to reading "Portals" to learn about Caitlin's experiences and as a springboard for my own writing!
JK: I echo Kristen—I can't wait to read this essay to understand what Caitlin's process was like. But to answer the question, no I have not tried to write like that. The idea of it fires me up though, really inspires me to TRY to write a piece without any visual imagery, employing instead the sense of touch or the sense of sound… I love this idea.
WG: In the article that Kristen refers to, she makes the following statement:
There are instances of language during which I can't help feeling as if the words people use promote sight over blindness. Clichés such as "blind optimism" and "blind faith," which connote ignorance rather than lack of sight, pop up everywhere in my daily reading.
I want to ask Emily Lund...I'm wondering if you have the same experience when you read, in relation to language about walking? Do you continually come across ways of expressing things and figures of speech that assume a walking culture?
EL: The question of how movement is portrayed in language has always been a tricky one for one because I've felt pulled in two directions by it. On one hand, I feel like the "party line"—standard disability etiquette advice—is that languages that refers ability (e.g., run along, see you later, fall on deaf ears, etc.) is neutral and doesn't have any relation to disability or ability. Although I think this is true in general conversation—I won't get offended if someone tells me that they "have to run now" (and indeed, I use similar language myself)—I sometimes wonder if this hard push to insist that these phrases have no actual connection to disability limits our ability to explore in writing. When I write characters with disabilities, I am very conscious of the language they use and how their experience of disability impacts it. For example, I once wrote a character with a pronounced limp who referred to himself as "a dead man limping," as opposed to "a dead man walking," and the feedback I got from my able-bodied readers was both that it took them a minute to understand the play on words but that once they did, they appreciated the twist on the usual phrasing. One of my favorite things about writing is that it gives us the ability to play with and explore the nuances of language, and I feel like writers, both able-bodied and disabled, are sometimes reluctant to play with the assumptions of common phrases because of that fear of appearing hypersensitive or speaking against the "party line" on disability language and etiquette and thus limit "how much" disability is allowed into a narrative.
KW: Yes, I know what you mean. In general conversation, the use of visual language doesn't bother me. (It would say more about me than the other person if I corrected, "See you later," especially because I say it all the time myself). I would just like to hold written language to a more nuanced standard, especially my own!
EM: I will second (third?) all of that. In fact, I'm more uncomfortable when a non-disabled person stumbles over those casual visual phrases. But like Kristen, I have a problem with "blind faith" and other such clichés. I also can't tolerate the phrase "the blind leading the blind," and I correct it in every situation I can. I tell people, with as much civility as I can muster, that when the blind are led by other blind people, it usually goes quite well. I even blogged about being a "sighted" (using the term loosely here) guide for a former blind boyfriend — which was a success. These phrases do more harm than a hasty "see you next week."
KW: Emily, I'll never forget the joy both a blind student and I felt when I guided her safely down an escalator in the West Virginia Cultural Center. My mobility is ok, (I can get where I need to go independently after some practice, but my spatial/navigational concept isn't wonderful) but not great (I fully support blind people being mobility instructors, but that is NOT my vocational path). Anyway, this student had a lot of anxiety and was scared about riding on an escalator, but the staff member who had taken her on a special elevator had disappeared when we needed to go. And I knew I could guide her safely in that situation, so we went. I didn't include that in the reply to all—it's just not worth publishing, but I had fun being a sighted guide.
EM: I love the example of the blind leading the blind, and it really going quite well. I certainly agree that certain cliches or turns of phrase can be more or less stigmatizing, insulting, etc., depending a variety of factors, and I also think that one's personal history with a cliche can impact who we react to it and its emotional valence. I recall, several years ago, describing to someone how I had written a character in a non-modern setting from whom being called a "freak" had been a particular virulent slur and that writing about the extremely hurtful nature of that word for the character had caused it have negative connotations for me. The person immediately responded that they had no issue with the term "freak" and so for either me or my character to was unrealistic.
WG: You've raised the issue of characters with disabilities in narrative, but, of course, disability literature is more than dropping a character with a disability into a story — or for that matter — even making that character the protagonist. It is about the structure of conventional narrative. You probably know the ground-breaking work of Lennard Davis and of David Mitchell (who coined the phrase "Narrative Prosthesis") but for our readers who may not, I just want to toss out their main points. Davis points out that the novel is a relatively recent middle class invention. The classic trajectory of the novel is to take a character who for some reason has been confronted with an issue that takes him/her out away from the status quo and through a series of events return that person to "normal." To give an overly simplistic example, the woman who has lost her vision at the beginning of the story in the end regains it — either literally or metaphorically. Mitchell extends the analysis to point out that when the protagonist has a disability, this classic trajectory bootstraps authors into choosing one of several outcomes: they can be cured, they can overcome their situation, or they can have an epiphany. The problem with this, of course, is that all of these techniques reinforce ableist visions of normalcy. For a fiction writer (novelist or short story) this is a real conundrum. How does one write fiction without falling into these traps? A few writers, like Jillian Weise in her wonderful novel The Colony, are able to do it, but it generally means rethinking narrative structure. I'd like to ask how you approach this problem.
KW: This question initially filled me with despair, because I'm still learning how to avoid the pitfalls of the abelest narrative. My first published work of fiction was from the point of view of a sighted character with a blind sister. I draw strength from a quotation by Jhumpa Lahiri, who did not write from the disability tradition at all but rather from the in-between place of the experience of the second generation Americans, feeling neither Indian nor American. "From story writing, I've learned that you have to write a lot, and you have to write well and you have to write poorly, and you have to be able to discern what's good and what's bad. From there, it's just a matter of drawing strength from the great, creative minds that have moved you to write, and of trying to make it new in your own small way. That's all I can really hope to do." That idea comforts me, because not all of the changes to traditional narrative need to be huge and structural, though some of them can be and should be.
For me, it's quite easy to avoid the cure endings, but the use of epiphany is harder. It can be masterfully used, especially when writing for children and adolescents, because their emotional growth through pivotal events in their lives can be truly astounding—worthy of the word, epiphany. Or epiphany can become merely a gateway to sentimentality. In The Transcriber, I avoided the use of sentimentality by keeping Louis from becoming perfect. His sister and the events surrounding his father's death helped him to think more deeply and grow up a little bit, but they didn't make him become a completely different person. Did he reach an epiphany? Not exactly. Could some people reading the book feel that he did? Absolutely.
That said, I haven't experimented that drastically with narrative form just yet. I admire those who do, and I hope to in the years to come.
EL: I agree, and I think this is a particular challenge when it comes to writing from under-represented or marginalized points of view—because there are so few characters out there who represent that point of view, they aren't allowed to be characters instead of representations of an entire heterogeneous group, simply because the heterogeneity of that group is never allowed to be shown. Thus, there is a lot of pressure to turn these characters into tropes or anti-tropes, rather than to let them be fully developed dynamic characters. Likewise, I think that there's a lot of assumptions that if a marginalized author is writing from the point of view of a similarly marginalized character, that the author is the character and vice versa. I've found this frustrating at times, as I've written characters whose experiences and beliefs considerably contradicted my own (simply because those felt more authentic to the character and their background) only to have people assume that, because the character and I both had disabilities, those beliefs and experiences were direct representations of mine.
EM: Though I don't write fiction, I often encounter this problem when creating essays for my blog. My blog mostly handles issues I care about by way of personal stories. When I think I want to write a post to address some issue (chronic belittling of blind people, lack of access in public places, or vision-centered approaches to nonvisual arts), I struggle to avoid the moral-at-the-end-of-the-story approach.
I suppose I imagine myself circumventing these narrative prostheses by explaining how I resolve each of these issues. Often my solution does include a new "vision" for others, though I rarely pitch it as such. Rather, since so many of my blogs deal with the issue of voice, I put forward the idea that if disabled people are consulted more regularly and more proactively, many of these issues would not occur.
I have no problem with nondisabled people having epiphanies in my blogs. But the real balancing act involves a kind of triangulation with the reader, the characters, and myself. I like to leave space for the reader to have epiphanies when the characters don't.
WG: I want to thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. I don't know how much we have solved, but I think that one thing we've accomplished is to kick up a little bit of dust around issues that often go unconsidered by readers, editors and even other writers when it comes to writing from the perspective of someone with a visual diability or perhaps developing fictional characters who are blind. There is certainly much more to say about many of the points you've made, but I hope at least for some readers, we have gotten the conversation started.