“Nothing About Us Without Us”
In ordinary years, October and November are busy conference seasons for educators. By then, we are settled into the school year but before the distractions of the holidays. Many of these conferences are taking place online now, along with other events for teachers and writers.
Via Zoom, I’m appearing on panels for the first time in more than three years. That’s what returning to publishing will do (although I did have some work-for-hire writing and translation projects in the intervening years). Two weeks ago I was the featured guest for Kidlit Distancing Social, a weekly news-and-interviews program organized by Laura Backes and part of her Children’s Book Insider initiative. The recording of my presentation on Writing Historical Fiction and Creating Inclusive Characters is now available. If you have any questions after listening, feel free to contact me or ask in the comments for this post. I had a great time talking about the research process for historical fiction, including a diversity of characters in stories about the past, what a sensitivity reader does, and the differences between sensitivity readers and other kinds of expert readers.
I’m also on two panels for the upcoming conference of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English. One of them is a panel of autistic authors where I join Jen Malia, Mike Jung, and Sarah Kapit to talk about #OwnVoices and why our perspectives are important. The other, with Nancy Bo Flood, Kelly Finan, Rebecca Weber, and Sandip Wilson, is on visible and invisible disabilities and how books can make disabled characters and their lives and dreams more visible. Last night we had a rehearsal for the disability panel, which will be recorded in advance of the November conference — though I’ve heard that we will be live for audience questions. In the rehearsal, we identified some questions that we plan to ask each other, and the first one that came up had to do with #OwnVoices and writing from the inside vs. writing from the outside.
There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about #OwnVoices as it related to BIPOC literature, books written by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color or featuring as protagonists. Too often in the past, books by white authors portraying BIPOC protagonists have been published at the expense of BIPOC creators, who’ve been told “we already have a book like this” or worse “your story doesn’t stand out in comparison to [bestselling portrayal by an outsider].”
As a disabled author, I nod in recognition. Years ago, I talked about how early, acclaimed books featuring autistic protagonists and written by outsiders defined the canon and made it difficult for portrayals by #ActuallyAutistic writers to gain acceptance. In our discussion at the rehearsal, one of the panelists asked me, “Can’t someone who’s not autistic do research and write an authentic book? What about parents of autistic children? Why do we have to be restricted in what we write?”
Because we won’t have enough time in the panel to answer all these questions, I thought I’d make a few points here. Just as BIPOC writers have made the distinction between white writers portraying BIPOC protagonists — writing outside their lane — versus including BIPOC secondary characters and vetting them via sensitivity readers, I make the same distinction with disabled characters. There is a difference between taking on the voice and perspective of a protagonist versus that of a supporting character. The depth of knowledge required is that much greater.
In reading books with autistic protagonists written by non-autistic writers, I notice differences even in the good ones. They tend to approach their protagonists from the outside, exaggerating characteristics visible to others and minimizing their rich emotional lives. Internal monologue of autistic point-of-view characters tends to be repetitive and clinical, hitting on key words and themes that psychologists have identified as traits of autism. From that perspective, the protagonist in an #OwnVoices novel written by an autistic author may be criticized for not appearing “autistic enough.” But this is who we are! We write the self that we know, not the one seen by others. What I appreciate about the structure of MOONWALKING, the novel I’m co-authoring with Zetta Elliott, is that the reader sees JJ both from the inside and his complex inner life in his poems, and from the outside, from Pie’s perspective, in Zetta’s poems. As the author of the acclaimed Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged, a neurotypical girl’s poetic narrative of her friendship with an autistic boy, Zetta “gets” what it’s like to be friends with someone who’s autistic and how to portray that secondary character from the outside. At the same time, readers of MOONWALKING, when it comes out, will see Pie from the inside in Zetta’s poems, and from the outside in mine. Being autistic and not always understanding social cues from his community, JJ approaches Pie in a way that his white classmates do not. For his part, Pie notices that JJ is different, while JJ himself remains unaware of everything except that he doesn’t belong and must remain invisible to avoid being bullied at his new school.
Beyond the nature and authenticity of portrayals of autism and other disabilities by insiders versus outsiders, there’s the issue of justice. Traditional publishing is a finite pie in which one person’s success unfortunately means another person’s failure. Just as BIPOC writers have been passed over in favor of white authors or given smaller advances and marketing support (check out the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe), so have disabled writers. People think we’re harder to work with when, as I’ve written before, reasonable accommodations have turned out to be best practices for all. For all those parents of disabled children who believe their books are #OwnVoices because they’re parents (or other relatives), I’d like you to think hard about this issue: You love your children. You want your children to live their best lives and achieve their dreams. How would you feel if your children weren’t given the opportunity to achieve their dreams because decision makers assumed they were less qualified and gave that spot to someone who wasn’t disabled? Parents who are writers and thinking about writing a disabled protagonist — the disabled writer who doesn’t get the chance could one day be your child. Moreover, our children need pioneers to open up opportunities and role models to show those dreams are possible.
If you want to help autistic writers and others with disabilities, you can write secondary characters — friends, siblings, and parents — so that we aren’t so invisible. Show us doing the same things that other kids do, alongside them. When you do so, please use sensitivity readers; even if you’re a parent, you may have baggage or reinforce harmful tropes such as the resentful sibling. And if you do present an autistic or other disabled protagonist (or if amplify one written by an outsider), the right that you claim to do so comes with the responsibility to create opportunities for us to tell our own stories. Mentor a disabled writer who’s just starting out, or one who’s been writing for a while but hasn’t yet gotten that lucky break. Boost the work of disabled writers. Some of us don’t have the same ability to travel in order to promote our work, or we don’t have the charm and charisma to amass large loyal followings on Twitter or Instagram. When connecting with colleagues doesn’t come naturally, it’s hard to build the kind of visibility that gets our books into the hands of the kids who want and need them.
There’s a long history of others deciding they have the right to speak for disabled people. As a result, an expression emerged in the 1980s and popularized by disability rights activist James Charlton in the 1990s: “Nothing about us without us.” This sentiment informed autistic writer Corinne Duyvis when she coined the #OwnVoices hashtag four years ago, and while the situation is better today, with more neurodivergent and disabled authors writing and publishing their stories, we still have a long way to go.