Misappropriation in Action: Zeroes by Westerfeld, Lanagan & Biancotti

On the weekend I was talking to another person with disability on Twitter about poor representations of disability, citing Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti as one example.

Lanagan jumped into our conversation uninvited and attempted to silence my criticisms. She said they didn’t know about disability tropes and claimed they “couldn’t” research disability. I assume that Scott Westerfeld, Deborah Biancotti and Margo Lanagan have the intellectual capacity to research disability therefore Lanagan’s claim that they “couldn’t” research disability adequately before appropriating a minority voice is invalid.

They chose not to research disability after choosing to write a disabled character. According to Lanagan they heard from teenagers that they didn’t like Braille — and, from the way in which they deal with Braille in their book they don’t understand the issues around Braille — so they finished their ‘research’ there. They didn’t bother to research on TV Tropes, to read people with disabilities reviewing books about disability or, y’know, HAVE A ONE-HOUR SKYPE CALL WITH ME TO ASK ME WHAT I THOUGHT ABOUT THEIR BLIND CHARACTER. Because that would be too much effort.

Or perhaps talking with disableds and reading disableds’ words about representations of disability is beneath them? I prefer to think they only decided to use their privileged entitlement to misappropriate minority voices.

They decided to appropriate disability without respect, doing as Lionel Shriver recommends: putting one over on their readers to see what they could get away with.

In my review of Zeroes, I pointed out some of the appalling tropes they, in their callous disregard for people with disabilities, trotted out in their novel. I mentioned one or two examples of how their ableist misappropriation of disability reinforces public perceptions of disability and disability discrimination. I was gentle. I restrained myself from denouncing their character as misappropriation that is worse than no representation.

Margo Lanagan repeatedly defended her book after butting into a conversation that did not include her. Prior to Lanagan’s interruption, I made these comments:

Irony, much?

Regarding research: if authors are too proud to consult with minority groups when appropriating minority experiences for their personal gain, perhaps they could consult TV Tropes. It’s not as good as directly researching disability, consulting with disabled disability advocates and engaging feedback from disabled beta readers, but here’s a start.

Some of the tropes used in Zeroes are listed in TV Tropes under the heading ‘disability’:

It’s been a while since I read Zeroes so I’m not sure if the Woobie and Wheelchair Woobie tropes apply but I think they did, at least when Flicker was introduced.

Under the banner of disability, TV Tropes omits issues like refusing to engage with school by refusing to read Braille and not having alternate technologies. The Writer and the Critic reviewed a book about a character who changed bodies every day, commenting that this would have had huge ramifications on education and aptitude that were ignored in the story. Likewise, Flicker’s refusal to engage with Braille and relying on her sister to teach her to read while using her sister’s eyes to learn to read printed text is conveniently ignored in Zeroes.

Flicker’s dependence on her sister is inconsistent and their relationship reeks of facile writerly polyfiller instead of a thoughtful engagement with the issues of willful dependence. This entire sibling relationship lacks believability on so many levels. A simple Google search for ‘siblings of disability’ reveals lots of sites that comment including this one. There are support groups available for siblings of disabled or chronically ill children because the issues are so profound.

Lanagan defends a joint decision to misappropriate disability without doing fundamental research and then perpetrating harm by reinforcing perceptions of disability and disability discrimination. Unable to silence me, unable to get me to agree with her, Lanagan then said

Did she think I was flattered by her ‘engagement’, her interruption of a discussion by disableds about representation of disability in novels to argue that what she did was justified?

Throughout the exchange, I was upset and angry that she would seek to either silence me or try to convince me that her appropriation of disability was positive. I thought about blocking her or disengaging myself but ‘silence is assent’ and I will not allow anyone to believe I assent to misappropriation of disability.

After ‘disengagement’, Lanagan posted this to emphasise her point.

Lanagan says that my concerns are silly? It’s silly  for me to argue that this is not some theoretical discussion but that her writing perpetuates harm in the daily lives of people with disabilities? Niiice.

Although at one stage Lanagan says ‘Welp, all I can say is that we’re less ignorant now than we were’ she never apologised. Not once. All she did was claim they “couldn’t” do basic research and argue that what they did was justified.

Zeroes by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti