On Blindness and Rachel’s Character

20 Apr

I’ve had this post in the queue for several months.* It’s one of those posts that I’ve needed to write, but haven’t wanted to write, and… Well, here’s the thing: I can be dumb, and insensitive, and I write from my own life’s perspective (which has been pretty darned good). Since I’m a writer, sometimes there are elements in my projects that can be dumb, or insensitive, or come from my own life’s perspective (which sometimes ignores that other peoples’ lives have not been pretty darned good).

What I’m saying is: I’m an asshole but I’m trying to do better.

Take Rachel’s character.

Rachel

Rachel’s first appearance in the comic.

Rachel Peng first showed up in A Girl and Her Fed after the five-year timeskip. When I wrote her first appearance, I knew Rachel was:

  1. Half-Chinese.
  2. Blind.
  3. Had been U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command before recruitment to OACET

That’s it. I sure as hell didn’t realize she’d be starring in her own line of novels a few years later. But over in Real Life, money was getting tight. The comic paid for itself, but I was going crazy working the equivalent of multiple full-time jobs. I decided to pay some bills by writing a novel from the perspective of a cyborg who served as the OACET liaison to the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police.

And hey! I already had this cyborg cop right here!

Folks, I had absolutely no idea about the tropes about blindness at the time I dusted Rachel off and stuck her in her own book. I was unaware (one might say dumb) and didn’t think (one might say insensitive) and was just churning away on Digital Divide until a plot fell out.

After the book was released, praise for the book often mentioned the main character was a “blind Chinese lesbian”, or some iteration of similar adjectives. And, because I hadn’t really thought about these issues in novels, I started to check out We Need Diverse Books and other efforts to promote diversity in characters.

For a minute there, I swear I thought I was doing something good.

Here was Rachel, a (hopefully) fully realized character who was also blind, half-Chinese, and lesbian. She was a snarky cop who was a deadshot with a gun and could hold her own in a fistfight against a man twice her size. One the best pullquotes I will ever get came from Seanan McGuire, who said: “Rachel Peng is a bad-ass for the digital age.”

Wait, hold up (I hear you asking). How does a blind woman use a gun?

Well, here’s where I got myself into trouble. Rachel isn’t just blind; she’s magically blind. Like this guy.

daredevil_comics

Blind, but still able to see, and in many cases able to use their “expanded senses” to see better than anyone else around them.

It’s a Real Thing…in fiction. TV Tropes refers to it as Disability Superpowers, where a physical or mental condition that could be considered a liability is suddenly transformed in some manner that makes it a character’s greatest asset. In Rachel’s case, the chip in her brain that lets her access the EMF also gives her a surrogate sense of sight that’s superior to normal vision in many ways.

This was dumb and insensitive of me. It comes from my own perspective of being able to see and not recognizing there are other ways to write a character who is also blind. By labeling Rachel as blind, and then giving her a technologically improved sense of sight, I’m calling her one thing but portraying her as another.

I learned all of this while writing Maker Space, by the way. You might have noticed there are a few significant shifts in Rachel’s character where I backpedal frantically:

  • Rachel can’t read. This was established in Digital Divide but I elaborated on the reasons in the sequel. Before she lost her vision, she was an avid reader who devoured poetry and bodice-ripper romance novels. By State Machine, she’s able to lose herself in books again via a Braille tablet.
  • Her implant is analogous to a Cochlear implant for Deaf persons. Rachel discovered that her implant is a surrogate for sight by accident, but realized that it could be applied to others who have experienced similar loss of sight. She has been working with vision specialists to help make the technology widely available.
  • She’s spending more time with her implant off. Rachel is gradually becoming more comfortable with the idea of her own blindness. Her favorite alone-time activity is to sit in a hot bubblebath and read.

Are these perfect solutions? No. Definitely not. But I do have four more books in this series. I’m hoping if I do it right, by the end of it, Rachel will have progressed from a woman who has recently lost her vision and is keeping her condition a closeted secret to a woman who delights in kicking ass…and is also openly blind.

rachel2

And is also quite sensible.

 

 

I’m an asshole. I’m trying to do better. And I’ll never stop trying to do better, because I’ll always be an asshole.

Life’s a process.

* I finally pushed the button on this post after reading Elsa S. Henry’s piece “So, You Wanna Write a Blind Character”, which I strongly recommend.

5 Responses to “On Blindness and Rachel’s Character”

  1. Nyerguds April 20, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    Honestly, on all the books together, it felt like natural character development; as we readers get to see more and more of Rachel, she just naturally evolves from “lesbian blind cop” into something more. I think you could certainly have handled that worse 🙂

  2. Buddy Brannan April 21, 2016 at 3:01 am #

    I’m totally new to this…series, character, pretty much everything, gotta go look for this stuff! Thanks for writing this post, for being willing to examine your thinking on this character, and most of all, for doing something different. I often find myself frustrated by blind characters in books and short stories, even the better ones. Like Kaitlyn (SP…sorry….) fixation on Helen Keller in WWW trilogy, which was pretty fantastic in the main. Anyway, keep on doing what you’re doing 🙂

  3. Michael Poore April 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    Because you have *ONE* does not mean you are *ONE*! I have followed the comic from the very start. The books have provided the most relate-able and exciting character that I have read in years. I cannot remember when I was more thrilled at the availability of book release dates. I close with a Wil Wheaton quote that I read, “Be kind. Not just to others, but to yourself.”

  4. Jules April 25, 2016 at 5:52 am #

    I’m siding with the other commenters so far: in my (non-blind, non-disabled, therefore prejudiced) experience, Rachel’s books read as character growth, not asshole-writer-backpedaling.

    I enjoyed exploring “what it means to be blind” together with Rachel (and apparently-after-reading-this, together with you).
    After reading the “so you wanna…” link, I’d say you are taking its advice to heart, and I believe Rachel is a better character for it.

    I keep admiring the background research you do on your writing as well as your willingness to call yourself on your own bullshit. There’s a saying in Dutch: “gentle doctors leave stinking wounds”. You, dear writer, are NOT gentle, therefore your wounds/books do NOT stink 🙂

  5. Kriss (@christabel6) May 17, 2016 at 6:19 pm #

    Tommy Edison over on YouTube does a really great job of answering the ‘what is it like to be blind and deal with everyday stuff’ kinds of questions.

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