Fiction/Nonfiction: Disability Representation

One of the things that I have been learning throughout my reading journey is that diverse reading does not just pertain to race and cultural background. In the last few years, I have read more books written by neurodivergent or disabled authors, and my reading has become much more enriched because of it!

A book that really drove home the importance of disability representation was Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, which I read towards the end of last year. This nonfiction book is part literary criticism, part memoir. The author, Amanda Leduc, has cerebral palsy, a movement disorder that affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance. (She is also the Communications and Development Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, which champions diverse Canadian literature and also has a fantastic yearly reading challenge!) In Disfigured, Leduc recounts her own childhood experiences of growing up in hospitals and always being told that her body is an obstacle to leading a successful life (her “happily ever after”, in a way). She contrasts these experiences with the ableist ideas that are prevalent in Western fairy tales and childhood stories. For example, the Beast and the Little Mermaid from our favourite Disney films and stories can only achieve happiness once their physical “deformities” are removed (his monstrous body and her mermaid tale, respectively). Leduc also challenges the use of physical disabilities to represent evil or malice. (For example, when the Evil Queen from Snow White disguises herself as a hag.) Always depicting the bad guy in a story as someone with a visible disability can only have negative consequences on the people in real life who actually have these disabilities! It’s a reminder that representation is so important, and that positive representation matters.

In Disfigured, Leduc doesn’t just challenge disability representation in fairy tales, she also critiques the treatment of disabled people in the real world. In both contexts, the onus is often on the individual with the disability to overcome obstacles, rather than the world changing to make everyday tasks easier for the disabled person. While cerebral palsy doesn’t make her life any easier, Leduc makes it clear that, at least for her, disabilities are not simply a challenge to overcome, but are an important and positive aspect of a disabled person’s identity.

A few months after reading Disfigured, I found out that Leduc had a novel coming out, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy (thanks to NetGalley and Random House Canada)! I saw this novel as Leduc’s way of responding to the ableism in fairy tales – not just through literary criticism, but by writing her own version of a fairy tale, which featured a disabled protagonist and also turned other fairy tale tropes on their head.

The Centaur’s Wife starts out with a bang – literally! – when a meteor shower causes the world to descend into chaos. The novel’s protagonist, Heather, is a new mother of twins and has a physical disability, similar to Leduc’s cerebral palsy. (Her twins are also redheads, which is a nod to how those with red hair have often been discriminated against in history – another physical “disability” that really isn’t something that needs to be overcome.) As with other post-apocalyptic stories, The Centaur’s Wife follows a small community of survivors who struggle to stay alive. What sets this novel apart is the fairy tale element – sprinkled throughout the novel are short fables that mirror or reveal further insights on the challenges that the survivors must face. In terms of positive disability representation, Heather doesn’t seem to think of her illnesses as much as those around her do. I think this is what Leduc wanted to show – able-bodied people position disability as an obstacle and make disabilities seem much worse than they actually are.

The more I think about what I want to say about this novel, the more at a loss for words I am! The Centaur’s Wife is very complex and touches on a lot of important issues and themes that affect our world today. (I haven’t even gotten into the environmental sustainability part of it!) I found The Centaur’s Wife to be a perfect continuation of Leduc’s arguments from Disfigured, and there are so many more ways in which she challenged ableist representations in her novel, which I unfortunately can’t get in to because then this review would be full of spoilers. In any case, I highly recommend both books, and I will keep my eyes peeled for whatever Amanda Leduc writes next!

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