Hi everyone! I’m happy to bring you another author interview for GeekDis. If you have been following the content created for GeekDis you may very well recognise the name of my latest interview participant as Allison Alexander is a fellow disabled blogger. She has published two articles this month for GeekDis; How Disabled People React to Seeing Their Conditions Represented on TV and 7 SFF Books with Disabled Characters to Read in 2021. I also caught up with her to talk more about her book, Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness, and what disability representation means to her.
Hi Allison! Thank you so much for agreeing to join me for an interview as a part of GeekDis, an open discussion on disability representation in pop culture. It is wonderful to have you here at Just Geeking By 🙂 Could you start us off by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Hello! Thanks for having me! My day job is Editorial Director at Mythos & Ink publishing, and I’m a host of the Wayfarer’s Guide to Worldbuilding podcast. I’m also the author of Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness (part memoir, part research, part pop culture analysis about living with a disability) and the upcoming Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy, which I’m co-writing with fantasy author Shelly Campbell. On my blog, I review SFF books and discuss how to represent disabled and chronically ill characters in fiction. Most of my work falls under the categories of sci-fi, fantasy, worldbuilding, and diversity.
Could you tell us more about Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness and what inspired you to write it?
Super Sick documents my experiences with chronic illness, which I’ve had since I was a child. I discuss navigating doctors, friendship, dating, sex, friendships, anxiety, depression, and religion, among other topics. I also interviewed other people with chronic illnesses for each chapter, because everyone’s experiences (and conditions) are different; it’s important to understand that no single person represents what living with chronic illness or disability is like.
I wrote this book because I wish I’d had a resource like it when I was younger—a book that told me I was not alone, how to make space for my condition, and that it’s okay my life didn’t look the same as others’.
You refer to Super Sick as part memoir as well as part research, how important to you was it that you included your own personal disability representation in your book?
I wanted to tell my own story, partly for selfish reasons (writing helps me process my own emotions, and I learned a lot about myself in the process of drafting this book), and partly because I hoped others like me might find it helpful. As a side benefit, people who do not have chronic conditions have said they’ve found the book helpful to understand loved ones who do.
You mentioned your blog, which has a brilliant amount of articles and resources about disability representation in pop culture. I especially love the disabled character database, by the way. What led you to start discussing the topic of disability representation?
I’m a huge nerd; I love sci-fi, fantasy, video games, anime, TV, and movies. A huge chunk of my nonfiction writing before this book was pop culture analysis—reviews and opinion pieces. So when I started drafting Super Sick, I thought it would be neat to include a fictional example in each chapter—a character with a chronic illness or disability who was struggling with the same frustration I was. I already knew I wanted to talk about Doctor Strange in the first chapter, because he was the first superhero I’d encountered who experienced chronic pain and who was angry and frustrated about it—emotions I’m familiar with.
Surely, I would easily be able to find positive, fictional examples for the rest of my chapter topics, I thought. Surely, amongst all the stories out there, that wouldn’t be too difficult. Ha. Ha. Ha.
I did end up finding an example to talk about in all fourteen of my chapters, from Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy: Advent Children, who deals with chronic illness and depression, to All Might in My Hero Academia, who has trouble accepting his disability and tries to do too much. But it took a lot of digging and I found some terrible disability representation along the way—stories in which disabled people were portrayed as burdens, side characters only there to “inspire” the protagonist, useless until they’re cured, or killed for emotional effect. This kickstarted my desire to see more positive representation in pop culture, and now it’s a topic I write about a lot! I think the main reason writers get it so wrong is that they don’t consult actual disabled people about their stories and make assumptions based on inaccurate messages society has spread. I’m hoping that’s starting to change.
You mention that one of your reasons for creating Super Sick was to create a resource that you wish you had when you were younger. Do you think that disability representation has improved since then?
I suspect if I had written this book in the nineties, I wouldn’t have had as many positive sources to draw upon for the book. I’d say it’s improving slowly as awareness increases.
What are some of the best and some of the worst disability representations you have seen?
When I was researching for Super Sick, I read Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. It’s a YA romance that’s since been made into a movie. When I got to the end, I felt like throwing the book across the room. The protagonist, Maddie, has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, a disease where you’re basically allergic to everything and are confined to sterilized spaces. I thought when I read the blurb, I bet people with that condition don’t see a lot of books written about them. But the “surprise” reveal at the end is that she actually doesn’t have that disease; oh happy days—she can leave her house and be with the boy she loves. Imagine if you are a person with that disease reading that book, excited to finally read about a character like you and then… nope.
On the positive side, I just finished reading The Outside by Ada Hoffman, a Lovecraftian, sci-fi horror story. I don’t even like horror, but I loved it. The author, protagonist, and antagonist are all autistic, and I was struck by how the characters’ neurodiversity was a part of them and important to how they understood their world. Hoffman writes about her decision to make these characters autistic in this article, which I appreciated.
I’m glad you mentioned consulting disabled people, because I wanted to ask you about the guide you offer to creating disabled characters. Was this born from the frustration of seeing so many inaccurate disabled representations?
Yeah, a lot of people don’t seem to know that they’re perpetuating harmful stereotypes and the problem is lack of awareness. So I whipped up a short guide to writing disabled characters when you sign up for my newsletter. Another resource I find helpful is Fay Onyx’s “Ableist Tropes in Storytelling” article series.
In addition to your guide, you offer something very practical, which I have to applaud you for; interviews with disabled people in a blog series called “How to write a character with [insert disability]”. In each interview, you ask practical questions about the person’s disability and their experiences. Have you had any feedback from writers about this resource?
Thanks! I’ve really enjoyed conducting these interviews (though they are a lot of work) and I hope authors find them helpful. I think the series will get more useful as a wider variety of conditions and disabilities get covered.
One final question for you, Allison, what advice do you have for any disabled writers out there who would like to create a piece of work that accurately represents the disabled community they belong to?
First, no one can tell your story but you. You’re not speaking for the whole disabled community when you tell a story using your experience as inspiration—so hopefully that takes some pressure off!
Second, even though this is your story, I’d still encourage you to be aware of stereotypes and disabled tropes. Disabled people aren’t immune from perpetuating these. For example, I might decide to write a story about a chronically ill character who ends up cured, because that’s a fantasy I wish would happen in my life. But when I become aware of the number of stories that use this trope and how it has pervaded media to the point of suggesting that disabled and sick people aren’t truly acceptable unless they’re healed, I realize that’s not a story I want to tell. Instead, I’d rather write stories that accept disabled people like me just as we are, that make a space for us to exist, thrive, and go on exciting adventures.
Thank you, Allison, for taking the time to talk to us!
Over to you
Thank you for reading my interview with Allison! I highly recommend taking the time to check out her excellent website and blog. You can also check out Allison’s GoodReads and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!
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