For Artificial Divide, (2021) Robert Kingett and Randy Lacey collected sixteen stories by visually impaired and blind authors. As I lament in my essay “Twilight of a Stockbroker” (2017), there is almost no fiction created by blind authors in which any of the characters is blind. It is a glaring void in literature, and I commend Kingett and Lacey for putting together and getting published a volume that seeks to start filling it. However, a Google search uncovers only casual reader comments, and I believe the book deserves more thoughtful consideration.
I first need to acknowledge that I submitted a story to this project that the editors rejected. Also, I have corresponded many times with one of the contributors, Tessa Soderberg, whose writing I admire.
In their synopsis, the editors write: Artificial Divide is an own-voices story collection that captures the many layers of Blindness and, for once, puts visually impaired protagonists in the driver’s seat, letting us glimpse their lives.” This characterization is a useful starting point from which to approach the collection.
Several of the anthology’s stories are highly entertaining. The two best appear at the end, fourteenth and sixteenth out of sixteen. By “best,” I mean most accomplished, most engaging and most faithful to the experiences of blind people. This latter claim stands even though both women in the stories are very publicly associated with sex, not exactly what one might expect. In Melissa Yuan-Innes’s story, the blind character is revealed mostly at the end as a seventeen-year-old DJ. Up to that point, the focus has been on a sighted pole dancer. Both characters are compelling, and the ending has a nice touch of optimistic ambiguity. In M. Leona Godin’s story, a blind standup comedian moves from disappointment to success, back to disappointment and then more redemption, until, after we’ve followed her for several years, in the last scene she triumphs. In both stories, the blind character asserts herself, and in gratifying ways.
The anthology’s opening story, by Heather Meares, is pure fantasy, with a setting recalling Oscar Wilde’s Luscious fairy tale settings. Fantasy, including the paranormal, is a common thread running through no fewer than six of the collection’s first nine stories. Tessa Soderberg’s protagonist alone hears a menacing splashing. The central event in Ann Chiappetta’s entry depends on a blind woman’s clairvoyance. Rebecca Blaevoet’s story depicts a visit by an angel who calms a young blind woman in a disquieting setting. Jamieson Wolf’s story is set mostly in a magical forest. And in her otherwise more down-to-earth story, Jameyanne Fuller brings in a temple goddess.
In a collection promoting stories about blind and visually impaired people intended to let us “glimpse their lives,” this opening concentration on fantasy seems odd. “Fantasy” is a legitimate genre. As individual stories, some of those here are done well. However, such an early concentration in fantasy signals that blind people have a heightened need for escapist literature.
On the other hand, some stories read more like didactic discourses than narrative fiction. Anita Haas’s story about a blind man and a woman reuniting in Madrid after their Ontario farmland childhoods is ostensibly about two people deciding whether their bond is strong enough. But they’re so busy analyzing what it’s like to function as a blind person in a small community and how much easier it is in a city that we never feel their closeness. When the man makes his decision, it lands with an uncathartic thud.
The protagonists in two entries are young visually impaired children, both girls. In Eunice Cooper-Matchett’s story, everyone assumes the girl is only pretending not to see until her father takes her to an optometrist and confirms that she is vision-impaired. A pair of glasses gives her sight, and the results delight her, but the children at school adapt their original taunting by calling her “four eyes.” It is her father who directs her toward independence, as is even more movingly true in Jameyanne Fuller’s story of a child whose mother pities and then deserts her, leaving father and daughter to fend for themselves. Once again, sighted children are tormentors.
In both stories, the girls start out as victims but, so we are led to believe, they will become agents of their own destiny. However, readers are made this promise without being shown its realization.
Victimhood is explicit in Alice Eakes’s gripping contribution about a blind high school girl who is raped on her town’s beach. Bad as that assault and its aftermath are, the harshest moment occurs when the police reject her identification of the boy because they believe that reliable identification requires vision, even though she knew him and his voice. Skeptical of the girl’s identification, the police refuse to take DNA from the boy she names. The story, which is perfectly paced in the best thriller tradition, takes a clever plot twist when the girl and her best friend figure out a way to change the police’s attitude.
That’s where the story ends. Once again, we don’t witness the outcome of the events laid out before us. It’s common, and often effective, practice for an author to stop a story at the point where readers might assume the rest flows from what has been written. But in a volume dedicated to putting “visually impaired protagonists in the driver’s seat,” it’s puzzling. In this story, the success of the girls’ endeavor is hardly guaranteed. First, it’s doubtful that the police would so quickly and definitively reject a high school girl’s claim to recognize her attacker from his voice and then decline to obtain a DNA sample to resolve the accusation once and for all. Perhaps in the past, but today? Even if the police’s attitude were plausible, the author presents it perfunctorily when even a modicum of ambivalence on the police’s part might lend it more credibility. Humorless stupidity doesn’t make for satisfying fiction. Then, given the police’s off-hand rejection of the girl’s identification, the likelihood of persuading them to change their minds in the circumstances presented at story’s end is doubtful. The girls’ stratagem needs to play out for the scenario to be convincing.
The preponderance of hostility of nondisabled people against this collection’s blind characters is disturbing. It isn’t just the discrediting by sighted police of a girl’s capacity to be a witness to the crime committed against her. In three stories, the two already mentioned and Anita Haas’s, sighted children taunt blind children. In Lawrence Gunther’s story, the blind ice-fisher’s two companions desert him in a dangerous place. As I mentioned, mothers take particularly bad hits. Then there’s Felix Imonti’s tale, where a young blind teacher is treated unprofessionally by the public school system’s administrators.
No question, historically, disabled people with whatever infirmity have been treated unfairly and even cruelly. It can still be true. But unfairness and cruelty were never universal responses to disability. Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar legislation around the world are encouraging nondisabled people to look at their disabled neighbors and prospective employees with respect. I know law officials can evince skepticism of the capacities of blind people and that education systems sometimes show contempt for blind applicants. In fact, education systems are notorious for taking advantage of all idealistic young people, disabled or otherwise, willing to work for inadequate salaries. These incidents should be acknowledged in fiction as in real life. However, in Artificial Divide, a collection touted as reflecting a variety of blind people’s experiences, this dark side is almost unrelenting.
Once again, it’s Melissa Yuan-Innes and M. Leona Godin who give us the most balanced depictions of sighted people’s responses to blind people: unfairness vying with respect. In these stories, all the characters are flawed. In contrast to many characters in the anthology’s other stories, where the blind characters are either innocents or perfect, here they make mistakes. Ultimately, the ability of the blind characters in both stories to come out ahead is due both to their own fortitude and the support they receive from the nondisabled people around them. This is a realistic theme and surely one disabled people would choose to highlight. It encourages disabled people to know that good outcomes are possible, even likely, and it shows nondisabled people that blind people can manage just fine.
Readers might complain that I’m asking too much. Do fiction writers have any obligation beyond the job of entertaining? Should a collection of stories by blind and visually impaired authors use their blind and visually impaired characters to help bring about, in however small a way, improvements in the way society perceives them? Shouldn’t I evaluate the stories purely in literary terms? But it is the editors who promote a social purpose, beginning with the title: Artificial Divide. At the end of their book blurb, they say, “When we think about it, we’re not really divided.”
The quality of writing in the anthology is uneven. Two stories are amateurish and best overlooked. Some authors reveal their difficulty in conveying the point of view of blind people without switching over to that of a sighted character. This perspective question is one of several challenges for blind and visually impaired writers, as I discuss in my essay, How to Write Fiction from a Blind Character’s Point of View (original version published in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2004).
On the other hand, In addition to the two fine stories I’ve already highlighted, Niki White’s is gracefully crafted and holds the reader’s attention. As an incidental benefit, I learned about the physical skill and force required for Broadway singing. Her story ends anticlimactically, but it’s one of the five or six I would gladly re-read. It’s also one of the four with touches of humor. Predictably, two of the others are those written by Melissa Yuan-Innes and M. Leona Godin. The fourth is Felix Imonti’s depiction of a blind teacher with clear but conflicting aspirations. My misgiving here is that the story’s very last line reveals the blind teacher as, until that moment, staggeringly oblivious, and oblivious in a way unique to someone who can’t see.
I wish the editors had left the fantasy contributions until later in the volume so that readers aren’t told right away that blindness is too much to bear. I also wish the editors had led with their two best stories, maybe one at the outset and the other two or three items further in. Between the indifferent quality of some early stories and the fantasy focus of others, many readers are sure to be discouraged from dipping deeper into the anthology. Considering the quality of the last few stories, it’s unfortunate.
Reservations aside, readers who make it all the way through will discover how good blind writers can be and how compelling their stories. I’m pleased that Kingett and Lacey undertook to get this volume out into the world. I agree, we need the divide to keep narrowing until it really no longer exists.
1. Artificial Divide is available in print, audio and as a Kindle book. American readers who qualify can obtain a copy from the Library of Congress’s BARD program. Details for all these options can be found here: https://blindjournalist.wordpress.com/2021/08/30/artificial-divide/
2. I explain why I use the term “nondisabled” in my essay “Disability and Censorship” (2021). It boils down to this: “Nondisabled” is too general, while “Ableist” is too general and pejorative.
3. Caroline, my novel with a blind protagonist written by a blind author, appeared after publication of Artificial Divide.
4. Robert Kingett turned down my submission with a thoughtful note offering his understanding of “short story.” Anyone interested in reading the story may do so at https://adrianspratt.com/stories/california-towhee/.