To accuse a work or its author of cultural appropriation can be to censor a possibly sincere attempt to celebrate fellow human beings. The same can apply to claims of disability appropriation. In my view, the focus should be on countering it, not censoring.
Numerous blind characters populate fiction, but almost all have been created by people who can only imagine what it’s like. As someone with that disability, I am often disappointed by these renderings, but they’re worth examining, as I did in my essay, “Time to Move Past Memoir.”
Lawrence Durrell’s Clea is a novel set in the early 1940s that I’ve loved ever since my adolescence despite his depiction of a blind woman named Liza as so perfect that she makes none of “the little errors of judgement the blind make, like talking to a chair which had just been vacated.” In one scene, Liza has an argument with her lover, Mountolive, while they’re out walking: “Then with a sudden twist she broke free and with a single jump cleared the parapet like a stag, to land upon the sand. She began to run towards the sea.”
I ask myself, was Liza familiar with this beach and, specifically, this part? If not, chances were her run and jump would have resulted in a broken ankle or worse.
There are good reasons people with limited vision are circumspect in their movements. But circumspection can also be graceful. It’s a perspective I bring to my novel Caroline, albeit with my character’s blindness secondary to the main storyline.
That said, I believe it’s a good thing that sighted authors create blind characters and imagine themselves into their minds and circumstances. Usually, two considerations matter. First, is it good writing? Second, is the author’s effort to get the character right sincere? This latter is unverifiable, except that good writing usually means the author really is trying to get it right. Durrell was an exceptional writer. However, while little things here and there suggest to me that he might have known a real-life model for Liza, he put her character on a pedestal and did an injustice to blind people in general.
The notion of cultural appropriation came to national attention in 2020 with the controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, for which the white author was berated for writing about an ethnic group she doesn’t belong to. The better question is how to get fiction written by the people who have lived it into the mainstream. In a 2020 Guardian article about the American Dirt controversy, Nesrine Malik blames marketing:
… [T]he problem isn’t that Cummins wrote a story that wasn’t hers to tell, but that she told it poorly – in all the classic ways a story is badly told. Two-dimensional characters, tortured sentences, an attempt to cover the saga of a migrant without even addressing the wider context of migration or inequality. No wonder the book was so popular with publishers.
The entire publishing industry does genuinely have a problem with telling stories of the “other”, but that issue isn’t one of cultural appropriation. The problem is that publishers, broadly, are only interested in such stories when the protagonists are flat-pack characters that can be assembled quickly into a neat stereotype that fits comfortably into the white, mainstream readers’ worldview.
The paucity of mainstream fiction with blind characters written by blind authors means there’s precious little to offset such portrayals as that of Durrell’s Liza. If the work of disabled authors could reach a mainstream audience, mainstream authors would surely take better care with their blind characters. Romanticize them, please, as Durrell did. But in doing so, don’t detach them from reality.
Liza has just been insisting to the man she loves that she can’t marry him because an ambassador’s wife can’t be blind. Having argued against the very thing she desires, she is driven by intense emotion to race across the sand. Mountolive catches up with and holds her. The scene is beautifully written.
In the future? First, make Liza credible. Account for possible impediments. Then let her run to the waves.