I have had the experience of having two very separate lives. Up to the age of 18 I was a sporty, able-bodied teenager looking forward to university, and my future in general. The second life began when I was involved in a serious accident that left me with permanent ‘life changing injuries’. This dual perspective reinforces my belief that as someone with severe disabilities, I rarely see issues or concerns that relate to my circumstances in novels, films and in public life. I am mostly invisible and at times feel left behind. In talking to other disabled people, I know they share this view.
When disability does become visible it usually relies heavily on stereotypes or unbelievable situations, which increase the division in society between the disabled and able bodied rather than uniting us.
For example, across the UK, in America and Australia there have been protests at the film ‘Me Before You’, adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Jojo Moyes. The protesters were from an increasingly vocal disabled movement (a user-led movement that since the 1970’s has been steadily growing). We felt the depiction of quadriplegia was sanitised and made palatable for the younger audience. Also, decisions such as making ‘Will’ incredibly wealthy, allowed the author to sidestep any of the social issues that affect those with a disability. In fact she relies heavily on the outdated ‘medical model’ of disability, which says it’s the disability itself that is disabling, rather than the social model, which says the fault lies within society, with its poor access, attitudes and lack of meaningful opportunities for disabled people. (In The Morning Star I wrote about Me Before You)
That brings me to this question: what social responsibility do writers have? I’m not just talking about the representation of disability, but also the lives and concerns of other marginalized and oppressed groups. For example those fleeing war and persecution.
Jeanette Winterson, author of many books including Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (Vintage) was asked: What do you feel writers can contribute to society? She replied:
‘Everybody who has a chance to make even the smallest difference – whether you influence one person or many people, whether you change something in your neighbourhood or you change something at a bigger level…
And writing books isn’t separate by the way. I do think the writer or the artist has to live in the world, fully participate in it. This isn’t ivory-tower stuff. It’s about being in the world that we’ve got and contributing to it and trying to change it.’ (Jeanette Winterson interviewed by Andrea Tetrick in The Believer Magazine March/April 2013)
Winterson was talking about the writer as an artist, and what our responsibilities should be, politically and socially. I think she was also reaching out to writers to consider what we are writing, in terms of the impact our work has.
So, is she talking about what is known as the ‘social novel’? A precise description of the social novel says it is: ‘Works of fiction in which a prevailing social problem such as gender, race, class prejudice are dramatized through its effect on the characters in the novel.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic edition 2012)
A modern day social novelist would be Dave Eggers. If we just take a look at one of his books we can see why.
Zeitoun (Penguin) tells the story of Zeitoun Abdulrahman who got caught up in a nightmare of a situation following Hurricane Katrina.It was described by’ The Toronto Globe and Mail’ as: ‘A damning indictment of governmental and judicial failings in the wake of Katrina – but beyond that, it recounts a wrenching, human story of family, faith and ultimately, hope.’
Dave Eggers also contributes to society in another way, he founded ‘826 Valencia’ which uses writers who have spare time to help teach on a one to one basis with those in the deprived local community. There is an English equivalent in London ‘The Ministry of Stories co-founded by Nick Hornby.
In an interview with The Guardian Dave Eggers said:
‘Sitting in your Garage writing, or pretending to write…sometimes makes you feel a little useless. Sometimes you feel like getting out in the world and seeing if you can be useful in some more immediate or tangible way.’
This illustrates how writers can participate in society, contribute to society. Even if you don’t have the funds to open a writing school in your community, simply through your own writing you can make a difference. Fiction means we imagine a life other than our own, and surely those invented lives can be from communities who currently don’t have a voice and who are regularly misrepresented?
I truly believe this is one of the purposes of fiction, in that it can bridge the gaps between people who have different backgrounds and experiences. I think fiction can promote compassion, empathy and understanding amongst readers, rather than reinforce stereotypes or outdated beliefs. I also believe a novel can shape events, and allow readers to understand issues or injustices; the equivalent of shining a torch onto a topic rather than deflecting the light away.
This is why I wrote The Single Feather (Pilrig Press) a novel with a seriously disabled protagonist, and a cast of disabled and/or older characters (another group misrepresented in fiction). The action takes place in the present day, in a fictional Northern town, ‘Carthom’, which has suffered under the recession and austerity. If compared to the likes of Me Before You, The Single Feather is truly radical, and I was encouraged that some of the reviews from readers seem to understand the core message of the novel.
My aim was to give a voice to those left behind, to highlight issues such as poverty, or attitudes, including racism and intolerance. However, at its core, I wanted to show that there is hope with more that unites rather than divides us. We all may be single feathers, blown about by the wind from crisis to crisis, but joined together as a wing, we can be stronger.
This post is brought to you by Ruth F Hunt.