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Representation Matters by Lynn Buckle

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Lynn Buckle

Lynn Buckle

Why are chronically ill, deaf, and disabled people underrepresented in publishing and why does it matter? One in five people identify as having a life-long chronic illness or disability yet we do not see that percentage reflected in literature, publishing staff, authors, literary reviews, or awards. From my own perspective as a deaf author, there is much to be done before we can see ourselves accurately represented in books or treated equally in publishing and wider society. Access to opportunities, the promotion of own voices, and reasonable accommodations all need to be understood and provided as standard.

What can non-disabled writers do to address this? Firstly, avoid writing harmful disability stereotypes and don’t assume that rude health and physical ability are desired outcomes. Some would wish for this, especially those in chronic pain, but the reality varies for everybody as we are not a monolith of experience. Society and fiction have long held onto the belief that disability is something to be overcome. Even Charles Dickens, who addressed ableism in Doctor Marigold, didn’t quite get the point that being deaf isn’t a tragedy, that we are not all in need of a saviour. But some parity would be nice. Unfortunately, many authors still write lazy ableist tropes. For example, stupidity, ignorance, and evil traits are often expressed in the shape of a physical disfigurement, perpetuating discriminatory attitudes about difference. Or else characters are exposed as frauds, faking their illness or disability. And it is not unusual to see a character unrealistically cured. Romanticizing illness and disability is another inappropriate trope so remember we don’t have profound knowledge or great insights trapped inside our damaged bodies. Portray us as active protagonists with agency, rather than plot-props or foils to enlighten main characters and readers. Ableist misconceptions abound in real life and are perpetuated by mis-informed authors, agents, editors, publishers, and reviewers who fail to call-out discrimination. Sensitivity readers help, but work by own voices authors should be favoured because sometimes equity means the promotion of the marginalised over the privileged.

Barbellion Prize LogoEven when published, our books can be held to higher expectations and the constraints that we must write only within our experience of disability, write to educate the abled world. We can, and do, write outside of these parameters. But there are still accessibility barriers. So what is the publishing industry doing in terms of representation? Some are rewarding own voices. The Barbellion Prize, now in its third year, was established by Jake Goldsmith to bring equity to the current book awards system and to highlight the best published literature by own voices around the world. It is the only international literary award for chronically ill and disabled authors. It is broad in scope, open to fiction, memoir, poetry, and creative non-fiction, including works in translation. The inaugural prize was awarded to American author Riva Lehrer for her memoir Golem Girl and subsequently to my own novel What Willow Says. I shall be judging the next competition which is currently open to entries – submission details can be found here. Two more awards are about to launch. One is specifically aimed at the representation of disability in children’s fiction and The Society of Authors recently announced the ACDI Literary Prize for UK writers. Longlisted books from such awards challenge damaging literary and social stereotypes while showcasing great writing. They recognise that many authors find themselves inadvertently denied access to mainstream literary prizes. Barriers can be disguised in many ways, as eligibility criteria, as a lack of accommodations, as the everyday restrictions and costs which ill and disabled authors face. But in raising profiles, in amplifying voices, these dedicated prizes encourage positive representation, validate the chronically ill and disabled, and get to the heart of inclusion.

What else can be done by the book world? Afford these book awards the same weight and media coverage as mainstream prizes. Caption online content and events, add visual descriptors. Supply interpreters for deaf authors and audiences. Ask what accommodations can be made and ensure supply. Trust that authors know which technology or equipment is best for them and believe that their accommodations are necessary. Assume that an author’s medical history is private and allow for additional rest and travel time, facilitate their carers, and provide blended online/in-person events. Budget for access requirements as part of your annual expenses and plan access well in advance. Target funding. Educate yourself by undertaking diversity training. Create diversity policies and analyse their effectiveness. Employ disabled people and pay for their input. Promote own voices. By doing all this, you will empower disabled authors and create a level playing field.

So, who are the own voices writing today? If you cannot name twenty, you can see the problem. Worthy of mention is Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky, whose verse novel Deaf Republic re-characterises deafness as a form of resistance, and Bea Webster who composes in BSL. Or Khairani Barokka who writes intersectionally of colonialism, gender, climate, and disability. Jen Campbell has written numerous children’s books from her own perspective of disability and disfigurement, while Claudia Piñeiro integrates failing bodies into her detective story Elena Knows. Ely Percy, who lives with a brain injury, brings humour into her Scottish YA novel Duck Feet and there is the raw Irish talent of Lauren Foley’s short story collection Polluted Sex. I have written of domestic violence in The Groundsmen, celebrated nature and sign language in What Willow Says, deconstructed eco ableism, and written extensively on other themes. We are not confined to our own experience, but we are the best at describing it.

(c) Lynn Buckle

What Willow SaysWhat Willow Says is Lynn Buckle’s second novel published by époque press.

About What Willow Says:

Sharing stories of myths, legends and ancient bogs, a deaf child and her grandmother experiment with the lyrical beauty of sign language. Learning to communicate through their shared love of trees they find solace in the shapes and susurrations of leaves in the wind. A poignant tale of family bonding and the quiet acceptance of change.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Lynn Buckle was educated at University of Warwick and NUI Maynooth as an art historian and tutor. She lives on the boggy hinterlands beyond Dublin with her children, large and small. She draws, paints, and teaches there. Her protest writing features in HCE Review, Luisne an Chleite, Brigid, Infinite Possibilities and the epoque press e-zine. She has benefitted from awards by the John Hewitt Society, Greywood Arts, Kildare Arts & Library Service, and was appointed UNESCO Cities of Literature Writer in Residence 2021 at the National Centre for Writing, Norwich.

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