Monday, October 5, 2015

Own Your Own Words

So. Yesterday, if you missed it, I wrote part one of this blog, in which I confessed my biggest failure as a writer to date. Go ahead and read it. I was very nearly very racist, stopped only by the thoughtful intervention of a person who probably wasn't thrilled to have to do it.

What started me on these posts was something I stumbled across on the internet last week. You may have read my previous post about disability in children's literature. You may or may not be familiar with the term "inspiration porn," that sort of literature mean to inspire able-bodied readers with how plucky and courageous disabled people are, as they go about their daily activities. They get out of bed! They go to work! They go to school!

Pro tip: people with disabilities hate serving as your inspiration. Trust me on this. Or, hell, go look it up.

Anyhow, I was reading about how people with disabilities feel about books written about people with disabilities, and I came across a blog post from 2013 about the book Wonder. I didn't remember this from reading the book, but there's a line on page 188 in which Auggie, the craniofacially-disfigured plucky protagonist, shouts at his mother, "I'm not a retard!"

Retard. A slur against disabled people in a book about kindness toward people with disabilities.

This upset one particular 10-year-old reader, whose older sister is developmentally disabled. His mom emailed the author, R.J. Palacio, and asked her to explain. It's Palacio's reply that wound me up:

1. Never start an apology with "if." I apologize if seeing that word in my book has marred your son's enjoyment. She already knew it had. There's no room for if. How about, I apologize that I used a hurtful unnecessary word.

2. "Creating characters that feel real to my readers requires my portraying them realistically.." seems to say that the only way Auggie could come across as a real boy is if he used a slur. And as a writer she is required to do so? No. No, she is not. In Jefferson's Sons, the word n----r would have been both realistic and accurate. Was I required to use it? No. And I did not.

3. "The word was not 'thrown around' without careful deliberation." Wow. In other words, she didn't make a mistake, she intended to use it.

4. That whole last paragraph. Poor Auggie, not aware enough to use the phrase "developmentally delayed." Here's the thing: Auggie is fiction. Auggie does not exist. Auggie is wholly the creation of R.J. Palacio, and for her to hide behind the excuse that her fiction character would just do things on his own is ludicrous and also contemptible.

Because this isn't a hard one to fix. Change the word "retard" to "stupid." "I'm not stupid!" The truth is, that small of a change you could make in the book right now. I've seen more than one novel modified late in the game. Changing one word--particularly when you've been at the top of the best-seller list--would be easy to talk your publisher into doing.

It bothers me enormously that the author of Wonder doesn't own her own words. As writers, we have to. All of us, all the time.