What We also Need in Diverse Books
“We Need Diverse Books” is a phrase I first read during one of my many searches through the Twitterverse. The idea struck me as a rallying cry, as it did for so many others—a call for Other voices to be heard. It was great. Here were conversations surrounding diversity in gender and ethnicity in all written forms, especially novels. This discussion had been lacking in open forums for so long and is essential for diversity to flourish.
One aspect I found next to non-existent among many exchanges was ability. I was involved in some talk on the topic of disability, but it wasn’t nearly enough. In a groundswell of diversity with so many voices vying for recognition, ability remained a quiet whisper. The whole idea got me thinking about novels with physically and mentally challenged characters.
The classics are a great place to start in any genre, and so rather than talk in generalities I’d like to frame this discussion in terms of a genre that I know, science fiction. I adore the science fiction story Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys, just as I love SF in general, a genre that can take me to wondrous outer realms or to the deepest reaches of my mind. In Flowers for Algernon there was something different about Charlie. He wasn’t your usual protagonist—Charlie was mentally challenged. This SF classic was originally written in 1958 as a short story, then published as a novel in 1966. Both forms have stood the test of time.
During my search for SF novels with disabled characters I discovered Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, a story about an autistic process analyst. I also found the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, which includes a physically challenged character. I had to dig to find such physically and mentally challenged characters. The amount of talk around these novels paled in comparison to the chatter about books like I, Robot, Hunger Games, The Foundation Series, Dune and many, many more.
Stories with ability challenged characters can feature a fresh way of looking at the human condition. These characters can touch the soul and provide us with a glimpse of how Others live. They are a window on Other lives, not in a voyeuristic way, but in an experiential way, which helps us to see and feel that experience along with that character. Once we’ve had this experience we are better to empathize with peoples who diverge from societal norms. These tales provide us with an opportunity to think beyond the confines of our own space and our own lives to something bigger.
It’s exciting to know that there are agents out there who are willing to champion books like those in The Vorkosigan Saga, but we need more—more of these kinds of agents and more of these kinds of books. Where does a need that publishers will respond to come from? It comes from the populace, the audience; it comes from people like you and me. Can you think of any other books that feature ability challenged protagonists or characters? I’d love to know of these kinds of novels, especially in other genres. Don’t allow their stories to fall silent, but let them raise up to be heard as a rallying cry. Let’s start a space here were we share voices articulating a range of abilities so that everyone can be heard. Give me your disabled protagonists—give me their unique stories.
The next time you’re involved in a We Need Diverse Books conversation or you use #weneeddiversebooks, check back to this list and feel free to create conversations about these novels and others like them, because everyone has a story.