Editor’s note: I invited Derek Newman-Stille to share with us their own experience with writing fiction, as some people might only know them as a champion in elevating speculative fiction authors and/or disabled voices. Their short story, Charity™, is the grand finale of the Nothing Without Us anthology.
Most of my writing about disability has been either academic or experiential, critiquing the representation of disability in the real world and examining my own experiences with my disabled body and identity. I have done analyses of the representation of disability in fiction, have explored the impact of government policies on disability, looked at how DisArt (disability art) articulates disability and the disabled community. I have shared my own stories about disability—how my disability relates to abuse I experienced as a child, how my disabled and queer identities interlink, the way that bullying and violence shaped my experience as a disabled person.
Despite the fact that I read about disability, and despite the fact that as a youth, I yearned for good representations of disability in fiction (and by good, I mean capturing the real complexities of disability, not presenting feel-good inspiration porn stories), I had been reluctant to share any of my fictional stories about disability. I was reluctant to share my fiction about disability because I expected that most publishers wouldn’t want it. They might view it as too distant from the disability narratives they were familiar with and kept pumping out. They might view it as not matching their own perceived narratives of disabled bodies. Plus… my stories about disability tend to call out social issues with an in-your-face snark that people in our community know well.
Nothing Without Us gave me the chance to tell a story that included all of the complexities of disability, all of the challenges to tropes of disability, and all of the snark that I wanted to express. It allowed me to tell a story that challenged the way that people look at disability because that is what the editors were looking for. They didn’t want a story that settles disability, that calms it… they wanted a story that called out ableism and demanded better.
I came up with some of the ideas for my story Charity™ from my own frustrations with the charity industry. I had just written a paper on the “Sick Kids VS” campaign that presents disability as something for doctors to fight and displays images like a girl standing on an apocalyptic nightmare dump of broken wheelchairs and little boys smashing accommodation technologies with baseball bats. I saw a call for stories about optimism, and I instantly started to think about the dangers of optimism—in my perspective, it erases the real discrimination of oppressed people. In talking about an optimistic future, often people present a world where disability doesn’t exist, where we are erased. I thought about the way that the Sick Kids VS campaign was perceived as optimistic, presenting a message that disability could be erased if we put money into finding cures instead of accommodation technology to sustain our existence. I thought about the way that people refer to optimistic images of disability, like the ableist inspiration porn images where a disabled body is presented with a line like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” or “never ignore somebody with a disability. You don’t realize how much they can inspire you”. Optimism struck me as something dangerous.
I knew as I was writing it that it wasn’t a good fit for an anthology on optimism, but I wanted to write it anyway. I wanted to explore the dangers of optimism, the violence of the charity industry, and the damage that is done to us by inspiration porn. Ultimately, the story shaped itself into Charity™, a story of a future where disabled people have to display themselves in order to attract money from people and therefore be able to survive. In this future, the government no longer provides any form of disability supports, but instead a charity industry requires that disabled people perform in order to get funding. The story points to the way that we are exploited by the charity industry and also the way that, as disabled people, we are always expected to present the image of the friendly disabled person instead of the angry Crip. My character was an angry Crip who didn’t want to perform. Someone who knew the history of the Freak Show and realized that the charity industry was a continuance of the Freak Show in a new form. This was a person who was done with being complacent and done with performing a certain type of disabled identity (one that conforms with inspirational stories) and wanted to call out the violence being done to disabled people.
You might wonder why I would write a science fiction story since most of my publishing has been about the present. There is a complex reason for this. Firstly, I view science fiction as theory that is populated with characters and allowed to play out. For me, it isn’t separate from my theoretical work and academic research, it is another expression of that. It is a way to explore ideas in a different forum to get at new ideas, and it leaves ambiguity for the reader to explore their own perspectives within the story. It is a conversation between me as a writer and the audience as readers where we shape new ideas of disability together. Secondly, I have always felt that Science Fiction speaks to the present more than it does to the future. It is about the society who writes it. It speaks to our current needs, concerns, fears, anxieties, excitements, and obsessions. Science fiction, just like my academic work, comments on contemporary society and our relationship with disability. Thirdly, I have been moved by the idea of Disabled Futurity. So often, disabled people are erased from stories about the future – not just from science fiction stories, but also from the public imagination of the future. We are expected to somehow be erased from the future and therefore not accounted for in planning for the future. We are expected to be “cured” or otherwise erased. Alison Kafer discusses this as “Imagining Disability Futures” and points out that for disabled people, people assume that our “future is written on [our bodies]” (From Feminist, Queer, Crip, 2013). We are told by people what is possible and what is not possible for us in the future… and the focus is generally on what is not possible. Options are closed down and erased. The futures that are imagined for us are limited and bleak. So, I realized that I needed to contest the future. I needed to write a future that not only illustrated that disabled people still existed, but also that we are continuing to be part of a resistance to ableism and ableist violence.
Alison Kafer points out the need for “a politics of crip futurity, an insistence on thinking these imagined futures – and hence, these lives presented – differently…. In imagining more accessible futures, I am yearning for an elsewhere – and perhaps an ‘elsewhen’ – in which disability is understood otherwise: as political, as valuable, as integral” (Feminist, Queer, Crip, 2013). I saw writing Charity™ as a political assertion of the continuity of disability, a futurity for disability, and a challenge to the barriers around disability. Charity™ was an act of writing fun science fiction, but it was also a commentary about disability now, in our current social sphere.
Charity™ is not written in isolation. Like any work around disability, it links to all of the work of other disabled writers and activists. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha states “Disability Justice allowed me to understand that me writing from my sickbed wasn’t me being week or uncool or not a real writer but a time-honoured crip creative practice. And that understanding allowed me to finally write from a disabled space, for and about sick and disabled people, including myself, without feeling like I was writing about boring, private things that no one would understand” (Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, 2018). I am proud to say that Charity™ was written from my own sick bed, and that it is part of that tradition of disabled writers.
Derek Newman-Stille is the eight-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. They are completing their PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future. Their short story, Charity™, appears in the Nothing Without Us disability fiction anthology.