Centering Disabled Characters in My Erotica

This post has been written for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.

In 2012, I started a new phase of writing. I decided to deliberately center disabled and sick characters in my erotic writing. This project began with the initial writing of my Tam Lin retelling, “The Tale of Jan & Tam,” in which I imagine both Tam Lin and Janet as disabled genderqueers who meet at Carter Hall, a public dungeon committed to accessibility. (You can find an excerpt here alongside a post of mine where I give advice about writing disabled characters in erotic fiction.)

This project was an integration of my own transformation with regard to my own disabilities. I had been moving in a new direction around my own experience of disability and illness, and my writing was catching up with me, so to speak. These processes of embracing disability, in my life and in my writing, have had a tremendously important impact, created huge change for me, and they have intertwined and played off of each other in many ways.

Mia Mingus draws a useful distinction between folks who are politically disabled, vs. folks who are descriptively disabled. One of the big things that has sparked changes for me is being in close relationship with folks who are politically disabled. I write my stories with that intimacy in mind, for us. I could not have changed my life, my thinking, or my writing, alone.

I have also been writing about my own process of changing my writing to center disabled people. I wrote a post for Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) a couple years ago when it felt like I had solidified some strategies for how to change my erotica writing to center characters with disabilities. At that time, I had a solid group of erotica stories that centered disabled characters, and began to try to sell them, in the same way I had been selling my other work, submitting the stories to anthologies that seemed like a good fit, and responding to solicitations for stories from editors that enjoyed my previous work.

Last year, I wrote a post for BADD, about being a disabled top in kink community, where I discussed how writing these stories is part of how I navigate access to kink life as a disabled top. I discussed my difficulty selling the stories, but also how much I wanted to get them out into the world. I began to consider a new strategy: including the stories in a collection with reprints of my other work. Several months and a few more rejections later, a publisher asked me to put together a manuscript for a collection of my erotica. That manuscript became Show Yourself To Me, and was released last October.

When I was putting together the manuscript, I edited a number of my other stories to more clearly mark characters as disabled, and also did edits to show more vulnerability in my top characters. (I see these things as connected projects—centering disabled characters and illuminating the vulnerability of tops—because one of my struggles as a disabled top has been with the fantasy of the top as invulnerable and having no needs.)

In the midst of the editing process, I got some feedback about a few of my stories that center disabled characters that had me thinking deeply and critically about what sort of feedback to take in, particularly around how much to explain about disabled daily life. One of my stories has a group BDSM scene where a superfat femme trans guy bottom is tied to a sling that is rated for his size and a bunch of disabled fat tops of varying genders and sizes on mobility scooters are circling him, poking him with their canes. One of the pieces of editing feedback I received about the story was that this particular reader could not picture this moment in the scene, and wanted more description, more explanation. The reader wanted me to help them see the action more clearly, because they could not picture how the people would look as they were moving. This story is an insider story, particularly written for disabled fat activist queers. It intentionally does not make a big deal about how people move on scooters, because it’s a regular part of daily life for the intended audience. Centering disabled readers as well as characters changes how stories are written, and getting really clear about my intention around that has helped me tremendously, especially when grappling with feedback. It also has me thinking a lot about who I seek feedback from, and how I vet those people.

I also got some other feedback about my depiction of disabled characters during the editing process that felt like it really missed the mark, and had me thinking about the intensity of our erasure as disabled people. One reader thought that the disabilities I wrote about were metaphors! As if it was not possible that I might be writing about actual disabled people in erotica. Another reader said that my depiction of a diabetic character was unrealistic. Ironically, the particular moment that was termed unrealistic was deeply reflective of my own daily life as a diabetic—injecting insulin around other people without fanfare or asking permission. I was told that something I regularly do is simply never done!

I’m particularly excited that reviewers have talked about the way I write disabled characters, because I hope that will help disabled readers find my work. I wrote my stories with disabled readers in mind, and I know how rare it is to find erotica that centers disabled characters, much less queer erotica that centers us, so I really want readers to be able to find it. I am also very pleased that one of the stories I had so much trouble selling on its own, “The Tender Sweet Young Thing”, the one with the group scene I described above, is by far the most popular of the stories in the collection.

This work—centering disabled characters—has had to be incredibly conscious and deliberate, for years. I kept slipping back into old habits. I needed to catch myself, go back and edit, because I would lose this intention. Would automatically write nondisabled characters.  Would automatically write invulnerable tops. Would struggle in including the kinds of internal experience and thinking about access that are part of daily life as a disabled person in the world.

It is not easy to change. It takes lots of repetitive work. It is not linear. It takes a long time to integrate learning into doing. Praxis is not easy. But sometimes, eventually, it becomes easier. More integrated. Needs to be less labored. It starts flowing more.

I seem to have happened upon more flow recently, with regard to centering disabled characters, writing for disabled readers. Which I’m very grateful for.

I’m working on a theory about why this work is flowing more for me these days. I think it’s partly because I’ve been reading stories by disabled writers, centering disabled characters. I haven’t found much erotic fiction or romance by disabled writers that centers disabled characters, but I’ve found these stories in other genres. I treasure them when I find them, in any genre. In particular, I’ve been reading more SFF, YA, and NA by disabled and sick writers, and have found that both reading and discussing these stories with other disabled and sick readers and writers has had an impact on how I think about writing, and characterization, and worldbuilding.

Of course that’s not the only reason. I’ve been working hard for a long time. I have been working on a novel that centers disabled characters, and I think the long form characterization really helps. I participated in a writing workshop led by disabled queers specifically for disabled queers, and that space really helped. I’ve been connecting more with other disabled writers to talk craft, and that has helped tremendously. I’ve been reading a lot more essays and blog posts that critically analyze fiction centering disabled characters, and that definitely helps.

That said, I do think that reading is a huge piece of this new flow. For me, reading fiction can help me integrate things, strengthen connection. Particularly fiction that I get to discuss with others. I’m so grateful to disabled writers who are centering disabled characters, especially when writing for disabled audiences. And I’m also deeply grateful to connect with disabled readers who write about and discuss these stories. Disabled readers and writers help to make me a better writer.

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25 thoughts on “Centering Disabled Characters in My Erotica

  1. Please keep me posted on how your novel is going. Deafness plays a significant role with my characters.

    Sometimes I struggle with feedback that tells me to make my non-signers severely deaf instead of profoundly deaf. People in our category apparently don’t exist 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have been posting excerpts from my novel (you can find them here: https://xanwest.wordpress.com/shocking-violet/), and am hoping to finish a draft of it this year, if I can.

      It’s so frustrating when people give you feedback that basically says to cut your own reality out of your fiction. I find it really helpful to follow the #ownvoices hashtag on twitter, because people discuss these kinds of experiences.

      I’d be interested in reading your work. Do you have a link?

      Like

      • Hi Xan

        Sorry, was hoping to reply last night but I was at my parents’ and their internet is a bit off-off. Hmph. Home now…

        Thanks for the link! I actually subscribe to Kink Praxis, so I’ll go have a look at Shocking Violet.

        I have one story published through eXcessica (Single-Syllable Steve, Sam Thorne) but everything else is in pending queues at various publishers. Some accepted and not yet released, others awaiting a verdict. In terms of ‘stuff out there’, I’m not particularly prolific yet, lol. Too much time spent editing, which is my day job. And I’ve taken over from Bob Buckley as Chief Editor of Storytime over at ERWA, which is keeping me spectacularly busy.

        I’m at samthorne100@outlook.com

        I’m happy to send you a PDF of Single-Syllable Steve, though the style of that one is more rom-com with the bedroom door left open. Possibly more in your area of interest, I’ve recently finished a short story about a recently-deafened sub who finally gets to live out a fantasy with a South African dom who’s sex on legs but a nightmare to lip-read. Get in touch if you like and I’ll send it/them on.

        Tig xxx

        Like

  2. Thank you for contributing to Blogging Against Disablism Day!

    I find your experience of feedback really interesting, especially as just now, I’m reading an anthology of post-apocalyptic stories featuring disabled characters in called “Defying Doomsday” which you must check out if you haven’t already:
    http://defyingdoomsday.twelfthplanetpress.com/about-defying-doomsday/

    Most of the stories (so far) at some point detail the impairments of the characters and really bugs me, mostly because I would never ever tell a story about myself which featured anything resembling a medical history. But it’s occurred to me – as it does reading your own experience with feedback – that some people probably really like that, in the same way some people like to have detailed visual descriptions of characters, including hair and clothes, so they have a precise author-led image in their head.

    And I guess part of the trouble is that there’s no standard familiar way of doing it. Traditionally, disabled characters have been described in drawn out physical description to imply tragedy or villainry. So while some of the differences between these new attempts come down to taste, some of these descriptions are bound to be a bit heavy-handed, or perhaps a bit too subtle. If there are to be any conventions around writing disabled characters, they are in the process of being established right now.

    I have no idea if any of that makes sense – it’s been a long day! 😉

    Like

    • Ah! I’ve found in my f2f interactions with (politicized) disabled people that we give each other many hours being together purposely before sharing our impairment story. We’re much more likely to ask leading questions … “So what was school like for you?” then leave room for what disablism and solidarity happened. It’s all about the show-not-tell.

      Looking for non-info dump models, I recall how Atwood and Piercy build up women’s relationships month by year by decade, trickling out details like training a dog, treat after treat.

      Like

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