The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Homecoming

Cover image for K. A. Cook's 'The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March'. Vector/cartoon styling of a creepy folly/shack/treehouse with various gothic accoutrements and a crow or raven perched on the roof. Folly is surrounded by more vector images of trees, bushes and scrub set on a cartoony green-hill background. Typeface for author and title credit is white stroked with black. The whole thing is very flat/one-dimensional and looks like a still from an 80s cartoon.Tes Alden, collector of words, rescuer of books and counter of objects, knows ze isn’t like everyone else. This wouldn’t be such a problem if everybody else didn’t struggle with it. Hir mother prays a run-down school in the middle of nowhere may be the best place to stow hir brand of peculiarity, and Tes has nowhere better to go.

Darius Liviu lost a limb and his lover in the hell of Mul Dura. He spent the last three months as a guest of the Greensward, crafting a jointed hand from elf-sung wood and trying to ignore the mutterings of the ghost that haunts him. Now, he returns to the College to take up the second-most dangerous job open to a magician: teaching.

Tes just might be a magician in the making, if ze can survive adventures in alliterative magic and hir own lethal curiosity. Darius, though, keeps a secret that makes the usual problems of overgrown rhubarb, basilisk hordes, verbose eldritch objects, shrieking purple monkeys and cauliflower explosions look like nothing at all.

The elves are coming, and nobody fears elves more than Kit March.

Cover credits: OpenClipart-Vectors (stock images) and VAGDesign (typeface).

Homecoming: Darius Liviu arrives in Greenstone to take up March’s offer of a teaching job, only for the belt to betray a certain confidence involving the dead Efe Kadri.

Chapter count: 9550 words

Content advisory: Hallucinations, at least in the eye of the protagonist, that play with the line between auditory hallucinations and fantasy genre conventions of the talking dead/spirits. A protagonist who has a less-than-helpful relationship with previous healthcare providers, has undergone physical and emotional trauma and expresses his grief through guilt and numbness and depression. A protagonist who uses the words “crazy” and “madman” to describe himself because, like most of us, he suffers from internalised ableism (and lacks a suitable language). A narrator who experiences a partial seizure: I experienced dissociation/aura writing it. Lastly, Darius’s approach to food from here on in is reluctant and disordered at best even allowing for SPD/autism-related taste, scent and texture repulsion, and his narrative (speaking as someone who experiences just this) after this chapter colours food in a negative light. This could be extremely triggering, in multiple ways, for a great many people.

Note the first: We first meet Darius in Certain Eldritch Artefacts and later in The Adventurer King. Fourteen years of study and adventure have passed since he met the belt in the Great Souk of Rajad, and seven since he met Efe and Aysun Kadri. The belt and Efe (later, Aysun) are fairly important in his life/narrative.

Note the second: I’ve lived the position of having to come back home in failure with the consequent feeling that that I’ve come back home only to be the person I was in that space before I left it. I came home feeling far less than I’d found myself to be, and that’s a peculiar, adult kind of despair. This is a character arc explored more in literature than in genre writing, but since the beauty of this story is exploring different adult character arcs, Darius, however bleak and depressed, lets me play with this narrative (and the truth that this is one of the many lies depression likes to tell us).

Note the third: I can only speak to my own experience, and I’m aware that my experience isn’t universal, but after some time my experiences with hallucinations shifted from “There’s a horde of spiders swarming all over me! PANIC!” to “Man, here’s the spiders nobody else sees again. What are the fuckers going to do this time?” I don’t tend to see this kind of relationship to hallucinations in fiction, so it’s important to me to write a character whose approach is one of awareness and annoyance—to the extent that it’s actually an exercise in tedium, one that wouldn’t be half so problematic most of the time if only other people didn’t notice.

You come through my doors battered and lost and alone, and I watch over you.

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The Man on the Hallway Floor: Disability and Writing Character

A writer friend of mine asked a question: why do non-disabled authors feel compelled to fill this gap by writing fictional books about disabled people?

This is important because we live in a world both where there aren’t enough disabled protagonists and abled authors actively, even if not intentionally, do fill this void. Sometimes I feel it’s for good reasons, as the abled author seeks to provide a more honest snapshot of reality in their fiction, or that the abled author recognises that most abled portrayals of us are dreadful and seeks to ensure that we too should have realistic, natural, empowering representations of our lives.  Sometimes I feel it’s for bad reasons, as the abled author is using disability to manufacture drama or throw a spanner in the works, especially if this is followed by complete recovery or a poorly-portrayed experience of actually being disabled. Sometimes I feel it’s for terrible reasons, as the author just wants to do something different, and abled authors often get a lot of attention and awards for daring to break the typical mould of what makes a narrating protagonist. It is, for some reason, seen as brave to write outside one’s experience.

I answered with a question: why do disabled authors feel compelled to write fictional books about abled people?

I see discussions about who should write what and why. I see disabled creatives discussing the works of abled creatives who write disabled characters. I see far fewer discussions that explain why I, a disabled writer, have struggled all my writing life to write my own lived experiences into my characters.

I’m disabled. Multiply disabled. (Not all people with my medical history will consider themselves disabled. That’s fine. I do. I have to.) I have been all my life, although I didn’t begin to know it until seven years ago. Not knowing labels, though, doesn’t mean that I don’t know what it is to be those things. It just means I lacked, for so long, the benefit of a label, and now I get context, dialogue and a community to accompany the experience of disability I had all along.

If we want to take my chronic hand pain as a case study, I’ve been in pain for six years as of this month. Six years. (I actually made a mistake on my hospital forms by writing it as five. I’ve been in pain so long now I can’t keep track of it.) So how many characters have I written with hand pain, hand limitations or some other hand-related disability in that time? As of two months ago, none. Most of my characters can be seen, with hindsight, as autistic, especially in terms of their sensory processing differences, but how many of them, before my diagnosis, were purposefully written to explore life lived as that collection of divergence from allistic norm and SPD (which I’ve blogged about, so I’ve known myself to have sensory processing differences long before anyone formally told me I’m autistic) usually called “autism”? Before beginning Kit March, one. As for anxiety, depression and abuse/trauma, well, I’ve written several characters purposefully meant to explore this, but none before I first saw a psychologist, even though I suspected I was depressed for several years beforehand.

But this isn’t even the beginning of what I haven’t talked about. My twenty years of chronic insomnia made it to a character once. I experienced complex visual hallucinations throughout childhood, and know well what it is to tell someone that something they can’t see is real to me, even when this thing has me shaking in terror, but those hallucinations never made it to a character. My partial seizures, my dizziness and headaches that come from both overstimulation and exposure to various scents and chemicals, my sensitivity and/or aytpical responses to various common medications, my motion sickness?

When I wrote Darius lying on the hallway floor because he’s spent the conversation breathing in coffee and oil and enduring glaring light, so now the only thing he can do is wait until the nausea goes away and then, hopefully, sleep it off if circumstances allow, I wrote something I’ve experienced at least once a fortnight over the past four years. No big deal. Or, at least, it isn’t to me, because it’s remarkable what the human body and mind can endure when one is given no choice in the matter, and I well know how much better I have it compared to so many. I wanted, in that story, to write a character who goes through what I go through, picks himself up, dusts himself off and keeps going, largely by arriving in a space where he doesn’t have to waste time on pretending to own a body absent assumed-unconventional demands, needs and oddities.

Normal, for me, is pain, unpredictable dizzy spells, the crashing black-and-white-striped wave of seizure rolling through my head, panic attacks, depression, the knowledge that the world that is too much and too present for me is somehow just right for most others. Normal, for me, is disability. It’s always going to be. There’s no changing that. Why shouldn’t my characters live that, too?

It’s taken me years, though, to get to a point where I can proactively, deliberately and gladly write characters who experience my normal.

Until relatively recently, I wrote characters who aren’t my normal. If they were disabled, they were disabled in all the ways people think of when they whisper “disabled” or its tangle of insulting synonyms: blind, wheelchair users, cane users. Anyone visibly, obviously disabled. When writers spoke of including disabled characters, it never occurred to me, as someone with many experiences of disability but does not appear disabled to others if I don’t wear my splints or let myself limp, to include me. I had to learn, first, that I was disabled, how I was disabled, and how to accept being disabled, and those things aren’t simple to learn.

But, and here’s the sticking point, why should they be?

Disabled authors aren’t encouraged to write about disabled characters. We’re not even encouraged to be disabled ourselves, so how are we supposed to write and express ourselves in our characters when we’re pressured into giving our whole lives over to the art of appearing as abled as possible?

This year is the first time I’ve found a psychologist who uses the word “disabled” in conversation with me and acknowledges me as a disabled person. Despite being in pain for six years, the closest I ever got was “limitation”. When I talked about writing on this blog, and psychologists asked if I were comfortable with them reading, it, I refused. Not because I was was writing anything I didn’t say in session, but because I dared refer to myself as a disabled person, and I feared how they’d respond to a word they refused to give me. I was on disability support at university, yet I still never had anyone refer to me as disabled. I have no real formal diagnosis as to my chronic pain, despite the fact it has persisted for six years, because doctors cannot or will not consider it an illness. Shall I mention how long it took me to be told I am autistic? Three weeks ago I sat through a series of lectures at the pain management clinic that was all about justifying why it was appropriate to take aids away from people with chronic pain – disabled people. I’m disabled, at least as regards my hands, because of a workplace injury, but it was deemed appropriate by my first-aid-qualified supervisor to deny me medical treatment for a second injury because she considered me a workcover cheat. She suffered absolutely no consequences for this, even when I filed a complaint. I, however, no longer have a (different) retail job because I make faces, unintentionally, that offend people. I’m only welcome in a retail job if I can successfully, completely and eternally mimic allistic people, but ableist arseholes can keep working just fine. Shall I continue? Because this is only a drop in the ocean! How many disabled people of colour have been murdered, massacred, in the US alone this year? How many disabled people have died from lack of treatment or access to financial support? How many disabled people are forced to remain in abusive and dangerous situations because they cannot afford to get themselves out?

Every time I turn around, I am faced with a new proclamation of the fact that I am not allowed to be disabled, and I’m saying this with the privilege of being white and Australian. I am not allowed to be disabled, says the world, and I deserve to not be treated, acknowledged, included or employed because of it.

Everything from a refusal to mention the word to a refusal to treat me is ableism, and all of it is diminishing and damaging.

When a disabled writer writes a disabled character, it is a powerful declaration of existence in the face of this ongoing dehumanisation. With Darius I am saying something that people do not tell me: yes, I lie down on the floor because the lights are too glittery and the smell makes my head compress, and I’m not going to hide this like the world tells me I should, but I am still a competent human being who deserves to be a heroic protagonistEven if I have to nap before we go hunt down this Dark lord. I am sticking my middle finger up at the world and saying that, actually, I am okay, I should exist and I can accomplish things (but my value should not exist in my accomplishment) because of, despite and irrespective of my disability. I am saying that the details of my experience, as a disabled person, are storyworthy and important, no matter what the world says about me and people like me.

I am saying I exist. I am defying the programming that has taught me, all my life, I am only valid if I can pretend to be abled.

When a disabled writer writes a disabled character, we have to confront our own internalised ableism, the ableism expressed by those who work with us and the ableism expressed by society. This isn’t a quick process. To get to this point has taken me years and I still feel like I have barely begun it!

I know why I am compelled to write books about abled people: ableism. After all, we’re taught from birth that abled people are the only ones who matter, so why shouldn’t we write about them? Why shouldn’t we hate ourselves so much we make the subconscious choice to excise ourselves from our fictional creations? We’re not taught to love ourselves! We’re not taught to exist for ourselves! We’re taught that our only worth lies in how well we can fit into and function within an abled capitalist mould but, if we can’t do that, we exist to teach the abled a lesson about their own worth, so we should take that and be happy. We’re taught to hide as much of our difference from the assumed norm of how to human as is possible, always, because we’re not allowed to be disabled. Is it any wonder so many of us end up depressed?

But why do abled people write about us?

It’s still ableism.

Why wouldn’t an abled writer write about us? Our lives are a quick and ready go-to for adding drama and misery to a character or plot because of the ableism that teaches it is awful to be us. Want to give a character something to overcome? Disability! Want to tug at your audience’s heartstrings? Disability! Want to position your writing as different? Disability! It’s all right there, an endless selection of options to make your audience feel anything from inspired to sympathetic to encouraged … but only the disabilities that don’t bore or annoy or frighten or dissuade or confuse or disgust an audience, of course.

But even an abled writer, who actively rejects the mode of thought behind that above paragraph either through knowing disabled people or just being a decent, self-aware person, will find it easier to write about us than we do.

No, I’m not referring to detail or accuracy.

Abled writers just don’t have to confront, examine and navigate self-hatred in order to acknowledge that their disability exists and is an acceptable thing to include in a character. They don’t hate themselves for being disabled, and they haven’t been taught to hide their disabilities away from society, their families and friends, and even themselves, the way disabled people have. When I write Darius lying on the hallway floor, I’m writing against every time I’ve staggered in the street with my groceries, terrified that I’m going to pass out or vomit before I make it home. I’m writing against every time I’ve dragged myself a few steps to my bed because I’ll look more frail and pathetic if I just lie down on the kitchen floor. I’m writing against every time I’ve crawled across my bedroom floor only to force myself to stand as I walk though the rest of the house to the toilet, because I can’t show my family, not ever, how dizzy I am. I’m writing against my own internalised ableism and self-hatred that says I don’t get to appear disabled and I am only a good disabled person if I hide my experience from others. If I believe that about myself, and I do, how can I not believe it about my characters?

An abled writer never has to do this. They can just write the character. At worst (best for us), they worry about accuracy and motive. It’s easier for them because the colour, difference, education and interest disability adds to a character is all external. An abled writer can write about us precisely because they aren’t us, and they often have more opportunities to do so with far more reward. We still live in a world where an abled writer gets all manner of praise for including, no matter how badly, disabled characters, even if those characters exist simply to make abled readers feel good about themselves and their lives. (We, on the other hand, are disabled, so writing disabled characters shouldn’t be considered special or courageous: the ableism here denies the impact of ableism on our lives and expression.) Ableism is the very mechanism that rewards abled writers for writing us while frowning on us for daring to express the real details of our disabled lives. Of course they can see the absences and seek to fill them – we’re too busy trying to hide our real disabled selves lest we be the subjects of hate and violence! We have far fewer opportunities open to us, fewer ways to physically or mentally access those same opportunities, and fewer means of physical, mental or financial support while we do so. If an abled writer doesn’t experience pain every time they touch fingers to keyboard and doesn’t have the speech quirks of an Aussie-accented autistic that render voice-to-text an exercise in absurdity, of course they can write about us with more reach, frequency and access than I can!

Without ableism, no abled writer would have the reason, the need or the ability to fill those absences. The question exists because of ableism.

When I finished by saying that the answer to both those things is ableism, though, I didn’t mean abled writers of disabled characters are all ableist arseholes who hurt, intentionally or accidentally, disabled people. It wasn’t even a criticism of the question itself.

What I meant was this: we are all, disabled and abled writers both, creating within the confines of a limiting, restricting social construct. My inability to write disabled characters is as dangerous and ableist as an abled writer’s free rein to write whatever disability inspires them regardless of knowledge or authority. All of us, always, are committing crimes of ableism: we’re all as like, without the benefit of self-examination, to write an abled mentor to a disabled character, because in this ableist world this is what we experience. Realising that this is wrong means facing life-long social programming, and this programming runs so deep one must expect to spend a lifetime itself challenging and deconstructing the idea of how disabled people exist. The only difference is that we disabled people have vested self-interest in learning not to hate ourselves!

To call something ableist isn’t something we should fear or resent. It is a mere statement of fact that arises from the natural state of creating anything within this construct.

Nobody will ever know, truly, what it took for me, and what it means, to write a man who just lies down on the hallway floor. It’s not an ability I possess myself. It’s not an ability I may ever feel safe enough to risk for myself. It is an ability that runs counter to everything I know about how I’m supposed to be human, and that’s why I wrote it, but the K. A. of two months ago couldn’t have done so.

At the end of the day, what and why we write what we do is shaped by that one eternal constant we must break down.

Why? Ableism.

Pain Study

The doctors look at you and ask you that dread question.

They asked it before. You answered it before. It never gets easier.

They look at you, while you try to find the right words, and the idea that you sit down and write stuff with any kind of eloquence but can’t tell this story to save your life leaves you flapping your hands in despair.

It’s not hard, surely?

Tell your story. Explain your pain. Do so in as few words as possible but in a way that has you taken seriously as a patient.

Right.

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The Age of Mindfulness

Today I found a half-size water bottle. I bought it because my full-size water bottles (one green, one purple) are too heavy for me to carry in my satchel, because it was only a dollar fifty, and because it was green and purple. This bottle also just happened to have the coolest spin-up twist top, at which point I stood in front of the heater for a few moments just twisting the top open and closed, so I now own an item that is both useful for reasons unrelated to the attraction of the spinning top and a colourful stealth stim toy. Thank you, Sistema. If your stuff weren’t so ridiculously expensive most of the time, I’d buy more of it.

So I’m standing in front of the heater twisting this top in wild joy at the discovery that this water bottle top is an ideal out-of-the-house fidget nobody will take askance because I’m always that person with a water bottle … and also just because it’s really fun to see the purple nozzle pop up out of the green base.

My mistake lies in mentioning my enjoyment to the person in the lounge room with me.

“You’re just a big kid, aren’t you?”

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Not Only the Label

Before I came back to writing and posting it here (for me a profoundly terrifying thing) I was considering whether or not I should just build a new website from scratch. I’ve got a lot more .org experience now, thanks to my work on the Twilight School website, and I would definitely have fun building my own self-hosted blog where the CMS allows me more control over certain elements and I’m not constrained by a client’s finances and design requirements.

There were two reasons why I was contemplating this.

One was that the Twilight School is sponsored by the Salesian College Sunbury, and I’m so far out of the closet I’ve lost the way back to Narnia. Maybe it would be safer to have an online identity that’s a teensy bit less, well, queer?

This is now irrelevant, since I’ve outed myself to the Twilight School community and the world hasn’t imploded. In point of fact, I experienced the entirely underwhelming reaction of … nothing. Man, when I’m steeling myself up to cop homophobia that might even extend to the loss of my job, it’s bewildering to then experience silence. Good, certainly, and I hope this is the beginning of interactions with people of Christian faith who are, if not accepting, at least considerate enough to keep their beliefs about my legitimacy as a human being to themselves, but bewildering.

(I’ve also been sitting on a post about how community does in fact comprise those of us who dare to be queer, and any school promoting their community outreach initiatives doesn’t get to pick and choose which parts of the community are welcome, which is something like being all dressed up with nowhere to go.)

The other was … well, most of the things I’m feeling and exploring right now aren’t all that queer, taken in a separatist/isolationist view that denies the importance and relevance of intersectionality. I’ve been asked to write a piece about turning points for a publication, and while my first thought was to write about the subtlety of turning points, I’m actually thinking that what I’m feeling right now is the turning point encapsulated in the word “autism”.

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All The Puzzle Pieces, Please

I have a roller bag/trolley. It’s a battered railway-issue bag I’ve had for a little over a year, and it goes almost everywhere I go. People comment on it as though it’s funny: they can’t imagine why I need to take it everywhere.

I consider it an accessibility aid for anything that involves leaving the house.

I have things I need to take everywhere with me. My wrist and thumb splints, because my pain is something I can’t plan, and being in pain at work without a splint is a nightmare. A thick hooded jumper, because my hypersensitivity to cold means that waiting at railway platforms at night is agonising. A woollen, hooded scarf, ditto. A large tub of Play-Doh, for stimming. A bottle of water, for timetabled and non-timetabled medication. An umbrella, because I live in Geelong/Melbourne where we can get five seasons in a single day. Lunch, if I’m going to work, because I can’t afford to just buy two meals a working day on the hours I get.

I’ve also got optional things I take everywhere with me, like my netbook (I use all time I spend on trains), deck boxes and a dice bag (you never know when you might run into someone and regret not having a deck on you), a playmat (this makes it so much easier for me to pick cards, even sleeved cards, up off the table) and other odds-and-ends (wet and dry tissues, nail scissors, deodorant, a tape measure because the Warhammer players never bring their own and sometimes the store one gets lost). Yes, I have the bloody kitchen sink, but you’d be amazed at all the times someone has needed something I just happen to have.

I also have a rainbow-striped satchel over my shoulder for absolutely-bloody-essential things like wallet, headphones (I need something to drown out the noises made by other people/traffic/trains), coin purse, meds, bandaids, notepad and pen. A satchel bag where I can just reach in without pulling the bag off a shoulder and unzipping is so much better than a backpack, even if a backpack is less gendering.

I also need, quite simply, a place to put anything I buy.

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A Dialogue in Good Faith

I haven’t said it here, yet – there are a great many things I’m yet to speak about here on the matter of finding my way back to myself – but I started freelance work this year designing event flyers and administrating the Twilight School website.

The Twilight School, run by Bruno Lettieri (of Rotunda fame, one of the most amazing and generous people that ever lived) is the community outreach project of the Salesian College Sunbury. The Salesian College sponsors something quite unique: an after-hours education service providing classes, guest speakers and other community events, at low-cost, for the Sunbury community. Most of these conversations involve literary personages and community health workers, and the classes run from cooking to writing and gardening to photography. The Twilight School also sponsors the Good Man Project, which is about fostering and developing healthy and open emotional dialogue with, between and among men. Barn Owl Journal is another of Bruno’s pet projects for getting creative writing out into the community, and you can read the current issue here.

(For an event example, you can go and see actor, comedian and writer John Clarke this month for $10 plus drinks, and all you need to do is bring a plate of food for the communal table. We’re talking an evening with a seriously famous, at least in Australia and New Zealand, seriously clever satirist for $10 and however much it costs you to bring a plate of sandwiches or cake. If you’re in Melbourne and this interests you, book now, because places are filling up. If I were living anywhere reasonably close to Sunbury at the moment, I’d go.)

I can’t overstate how important this sort of thing is. The Twilight School is offering and allowing real connection, expression and education in a world where the privileged have an infinite number of avenues in which to communicate yet we are still discouraged from being honest and vulnerable in the company of others.

(When your feminist goddess of a friend is telling you that she’s not sure she should have written about her experiences with depression and anorexia because it’s not appropriate to tell that kind of intimate story, on her own damn website no less, we have a problem with communication.)

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