A Short Story and a Lesson: perspectives and differently-abled characters.
June 5, 2010 Leave a comment
I jerked. Then I could see campus again.
“Shit!” My hand stung. My cigarette lay on the ground. I brushed the ashes off my hand, and retrieved my cigarette.
“What the hell was that?” Brendan was staring at me. I took a drag, stalling. I hadn’t told him. He didn’t know. You’d think I’d know what to say by now, I thought. I shook the sting out of my hand.
“It was nothing,” I said. I didn’t feel like having that conversation now. I didn’t know him that well. I didn’t tell very many—only close friends and, of course, family. It was supposed to go away when I agreed to take the medicine. Putting the cigarette between my lips, I snuck a glance at him. He was still staring at me. Now Brendan was leaning forward, elbows on his knees. His eyes were narrow, and I could tell he was slightly freaked out. I concentrated on my cigarette. The smoking was blowing in Brendan’s direction; it was a little windy that day.
“What.” I replied, not looking at him. It was rude. I knew it. But I wasn’t thinking about him at the moment. Whatever he was going to say, he stopped. I stood.
This is an excerpt from a short story that I wrote. The narrator has epilepsy. What she just experienced is called a partial seizure. What I wanted to do with the story was to show readers what epilepsy was like from the epileptic’s perspective. I submitted the story for review to one of my fiction writing classes. The most common feedback that I got from my peers is that I didn’t give enough detail as to what happened when the narrator had the partial. “White flash” did not give the reader enough to know what happened.
The issue is, neither does the epileptic. When I have a partial seizure, my vision goes blank for a moment. My body jerks—the intensity of the jerk varies. When people hear about epilepsy, they imagine someone twitching on the ground. When non-epileptics talk about epilepsy, save for the twitching-on-the-ground moment, it is mostly about those who are dealing with the epileptic. How scared they were, how they watched the twitching, and so on. Is it a coincidence that my reviewers wanted me to take an outsider’s perspective when it came time to show the gory details of epilepsy?
I don’t think so. One suggestion to fix this “issue” was to change from a first-person to an omniscient one for this scene. The thing is, when it comes to epilepsy, it’s not about non-epileptics—the neurologically typical. It’s about the neurologically atypical. I called the story “Typical and Atypical” for a reason. Suggesting that I change the perspective for this scene, and others when the epilepsy shows itself, is a demonstration of the fact that the neurologically typical aren’t interested in our perspective—unless it matches their own. Fiction is supposed to give the reader the experience of living as someone else, to hear their story, and to learn about things they may not have thought about before.
This excerpt also shows the narrator struggling with keeping her epilepsy a secret. She doesn’t want anyone to know, for a variety of reasons: she’s proud, and doesn’t want to appear weak; she knows people will treat her differently when they know, and she wants her privacy. Everyone is entitled to keep their medical history private. However, that right is applied differently to those with conditions like epilepsy. My narrator knows that people will question her about the condition. She knows that people will police her behavior. And most of all, she knows people will question and judge her medical decisions.
Who wants that?
My story tackles a lot of issues. Important issues. But instead of allowing themselves to consider life in a truly different body, my reviewers wanted to erase my character’s experience as an epileptic, and change it to suit their perspective as a bystander (of a wreck on a freeway).