K. A.’s Link Round Up

I don’t know if anyone here is interested, but I’ve been quite busy online in places that are not, actually, here and are borderline queer at best. Before I go back to finding ever more hellish ways to describe Tes’s adventures in a cobweb-enshrouded gnome-inhabited tower in the hope of giving you a chapter this weekend, I thought it would be nice to talk about what else I’ve been doing. As you might have noticed, the word autistic has become fairly significant in my language and expression. In addition, the nature of exactly how I am queer without gender (although still assuredly genderless) has changed and evolved. These things and a little less depression have given me all manner of new things to talk about!

Header Image link to Eldritch Esoterica Tumblr
I spend a lot of time on Tumblr these days. It’s interactive, one of my best friends is on it and the autistic community is amazing. My personal Tumblr is me talking about me, by and large. Mostly rants, crafts and random asides interspersed by rants. If you’re interested in me when I’m not trying to be vaguely psuedo-philosophical or writing fiction, well, here I am. There’s a lot of hate for Tumblr’s hate of the word queer and photos of things I make. I only update when I have something to talk about (quite like this blog) so I won’t spam your dashboard.

Header Link to Eldritch Ephemera Tumblr
Because my personal Tumblr feels like a diary and I wanted somewhere to reblog cool and thought-provoking things that aren’t mine, I made a Tumblr blog just for reblogging. If you’re not interested in me but you are interested in what I find interesting, this is the place for you. Mostly queer, disability and autism things ranging from discourse to positivity.

Header Banner Link to Stim Toy Box Tumblr
One of my passions – I think special interest, in the autistic sense, applies – has become stim toys. At first, it was just trying to track them down here in Australia. Then, because everything for sale on etsy stores was too international to be affordable and my life revolves around making shit – be it narrative, website headers or craft items – I had to try making them myself. Then talking about where I found stim toys and how other Aussie stimmers might get their hands on them became a thing … at which point it seemed pretty obvious that this interest needs its own space. Stim Toy Box is about collating information on finding, reviewing and making stim toys. The ever-growing tag list is an attempt to make all this information easy for other neurodivergent people to find and use. This takes most of my online time, these days, but the reception has been amazing. To have other people ask me questions or engage with the information here (both created by me and collated from other stimmers who review and discuss stim toys) is the most flattering thing.

Header Link: Abstruse Arcana Neurodivergent Arts and Crafts
What, you thought I was done with the absurd alliteration? As I said, I started making my own stim toys. Tumblr is good for many things, but long, image-heavy posts are not one of them. As I’d invented a toy or two of my own, and found a new way or two to make other toys, and had my friend asking me to write tutorials, I needed somewhere to do it. This isn’t like to be updated too often, but I have half a dozen tutorials in the works (read: photos sitting on my harddrive waiting for Photoshop). For those who have made it this far down the page, my first tutorial on bead ring necklaces doubles as pride jewellery, so for all those wanting to make pride accessories for those orientations and identities forgotten by crafters, you have an option! (If you can find grey pony beads. It took me months to find grey beads for my aro pride necklace.)

So that’s me. I’m probably never going to do Facebook or Twitter or all the other things writers are supposed to do. I’ve only got so many hand spoons. But I am around, doing things that involve abusing stock images, if you’re interested in who I am in spaces not here.

As for my writing, I’m trying to write Kit March and line edit (still) Great Aunty Lizzie. (It has occurred to me that Abe is pretty autistic. It has also occurred to me that Steve is autistic in the entirely opposite direction.) I’m also, sporadically, working on the first draft of What Was Meant To Be A Short Story And Is Now A Fucking Novella (Or Novel) with the working title of A Courtship of Magpies, otherwise known as The Book Where Darius And Efe Very Badly Take Down An Evil Lord And Figure Out Their Relationship. I think it’s an aro romance. (Or Darius thinking that, despite what the belt thinks, he doesn’t feel any inclination to romance … and now has to deal with a man who tries to make up for all his gaffes on the matter of Darius’s autism with grand romantic gestures. A man Darius likes … just not quite that way. Just in ways Efe thinks are quite that way but aren’t to Darius.) Writing an aro romance, though, is super fun. It’s a delight to have a character feeling everything I have in romantic situations!

Since, however, I suspect that posting two posts in a row that aren’t about Tes and fingernail-sized blood-sucking gnomes (who brought a civilisation to its knees) is a little bit cruel, I’ll hit “publish” and go back to writing about March’s inability to nail shut a door.

But not before I marvel at the fact that I’ve written a post in less than a thousand words.

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Language of Autistic Queerness

Increasingly, I’m feeling that there’s nothing about my identities as a queer person that can be separated from my feelings, experiences, world-view and personal sensibilities as an autistic.

Nothing.

I suspect that I’m queer because I’m autistic.

I don’t mean that people who aren’t cisgender, heterosexual and heteromantic must be autistic to be queer. I don’t mean that queerness is intrinsic to neurodiversity (although I will argue that neurodiverse people are more like to eschew cisheteronormativity and amatonormativity in a variety of ways). I’m trying to say that my identity as a queer person is complex, and most of that complexity, if not the entirety of it, exists because, as an autistic person, I have a loose, complicated relationship to many social norms and a body with very different requirements. In this case, I lack the deep, natural, unquestioned physical and emotional connections to experiences like sexuality and gender. That looseness provides space to think and question; it’s easy to reject normativity when you’ve only been anchored to it by the chafing, fraying twine of societal expectation. Even someone like me, trying desperately to perform allism (the state of being not autistic) and fearing the heaping of more difference on top the difference I repressed, still found it possible, over many years, to examine, test and accept labels that define and celebrate more of my differences. I still tried on labels like bisexual, lesbian, man; I still found labels like agender and queer.

The idea that a word like autism can group all the ways in which I have been different is new. I’m a baby autie, in terms of my space in the community, and I don’t deny it for a moment. I’ve been that kind of different all my life though, so the only arguable difference is that now I can retrospectively apply a word—autism—instead of the words I’m used to using, words like “weird” and “strange”. The real difference between me today and me of two, four, ten, fifteen years ago is that I now possess a word that owns, positively, my differences. I can own my autistic traits instead of shoving them to the background and pretending that they don’t exist from the fear that people will only like and accept me if I am half or less of the person I am. In spaces where I feel safe enough to use this word, I can deny nothing. I’m not broken. I’m autistic. I don’t think and feel like you, but I don’t wish to!

(There’s a price to pay for that difference of thought, being that I needs must live in a world not designed for me and experience a range of difficulties that are seldom accommodated or understood.)

This adopting of a new word does make visible to me, though, that there are many other things, including identities and complexities of those identities I am, that I have been pushing away because society tells me these things are abnormal.

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Survival of Naming

My mother, most of the time, can’t remember my real name.

It doesn’t matter how many times I correct her. She isn’t good at remembering things. The birth name, legal name, dead name, the name that I never speak or use myself, slides from her lips, and she never sees me wince. If I do protest, if I correct her, if I show exasperation or annoyance, she gets angry. I know her reasoning: she has a bad memory. It isn’t fair that I expect her to remember a name that isn’t the name she chose for me, isn’t the name she gave me at birth, isn’t the name ingrained in her understanding of the person I am. It’s too hard, too much, to ask her to think something that isn’t there in her own head.

Sometimes I feel strangled, as an autistic person who knows with painful understanding what it means to forget names. I should be more understanding, shouldn’t I?

But it’s my name. It isn’t even as though I’ve changed it to something wildly different: I’ve just hacked off six letters. Why is that so hard to remember?

Her anger works. It holds me rigid and silent. There’s no point in correcting if she’ll only yell at me for being an ungrateful arsehole who isn’t considerate of her memory struggles. She’s patient with me, isn’t she? So why can’t I be with her?

Here I am, strangled again.

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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.

Representation: A Primer

I hate those “how to write [x minority]” posts.

I hate them with the passion I currently reserve for Malcolm Turnbull, the entire Liberal party, and the mainstream media who portray Bill Shorten’s opposition to the plebiscite as though Shorten is the bad guy killing marriage equality. (No. Just no.) If you’re Aussie, that should give you some indication of the strength of my hatred. If you’re not, well, exchange “Turnbull” for “Trump”. Got it? Hate, hate, hate. I hate them when they’re written by members of the minority group in question. I hate them even more when they’re reblogged by people who aren’t of the group in question and don’t understand that these posts are just checklists of “How To Write The Other” in slightly more palatable form.

(I know that plenty of people who share my identities will disagree with me. Awesome. Keep on doing what you think is right. There’s space enough in the world for both of us.)

It doesn’t matter that society has marched on and the word “other” is no longer in use. The impact is still othering. I am still reminded, every time these things cross my dash, that I am so abnormal I need an instruction sheet in order to be properly rendered inside someone’s fictional universe. How is this not othering? Why shouldn’t I find it, at the very least, uncomfortable? These pieces aren’t written for me, but they’re written about me as though I am so rare and unusual there’s no expectation that I’ll happen across people talking about me as an object. Yet, inevitably, because I’m a writer who reads about other writers, I do. Have you ever happened across people talking about you behind your back? That’s how these pieces make me feel: itchy, hurt, violated, momentarily unreal.

I object to that like I object to the plebiscite and a Prime Minister who wants to pay Australian hate organisations to spew hatred for the person I am as though that’s right and fair and natural.

The fact is that it takes an awful lot of imagination, empathy and research (be this lived experience or diving into a realm crafted by other people’s stories) to write minority (be it in the singular or intersectional) characters. In fact, it takes imagination, empathy and research to write anyone well, and if you can’t look at your character and step into their skin enough to make them real, you probably shouldn’t be writing them. No how-to-write or what-you-should-write guide will give you this no matter how slavishly one follows said list. No guide will make up for the absence of listening to other people’s stories. A good character, though, will surpass stereotype if they’re written with empathy and heart. Readers will forgive stereotype if characters are written with empathy and heart!

However, meaningful representation, and dialogue about it, is more than just writing a character from a minority group and calling it a day, even if said character ticks all the correct boxes on the how-to post. I don’t see this much talked about, but it’s a conversation I keep on having and want to keep on having. Some of it has come to light in feedback I gave to a writer; some of it has come to light in the fandom’s response to the character of Saheeli Rai in Magic the Gathering’s Kaladesh release; some of it I’ve been nursing, as a grumpy, bitter reader and writer, for several years.

Please note that this is targeted with an eye to fiction writing, but it applies, with some modification, to other creative formats and to how we go about discussing representation in general.

1: Not all representation is meaningful.

I’d like to make the case that there’s two kinds (at least) of representation: incidental and meaningful.

Incidental representation is when a character happens to be an identity that doesn’t much matter, if at all, to their character arc, plot, or role within the setting. They just happen to be of a non-majority identity because, despite what media tells us, the world isn’t solely comprised of white dyadic cishet able-bodied dudes.

Meaningful representation is when a character is in some way about their identity (or identities): it is expressed in their character arc, plot or setting. A character can be incidental representation in one way and meaningful representation in another. A biracial, bisexual character with chronic pain whose character arc is about the experience of being biracial and bisexual, but just happens to suffer chronic pain in a few scenes that don’t impact the story’s plot or their character arc, might be said to be meaningful representation of race and bisexuality (and their intersectionality) but incidental representation of disability.

We need to recognise the difference between incidental and meaningful, as people who talk about representation in fiction, because so often I see works promoted as great representation, go in expecting meaningful representation and get only incidental.

2: Meaningful representation is a state only possessed by a protagonist/antagonist/narrator.

I believe that believing anything other than this causes irreparable harm to minorities who need to see themselves as central characters in a world that tells us we don’t exist. Representation is only meaningful if the character is a protagonist, (sympathetic) antagonist or narrator.

If I had a dollar for every time I saw and will see a book on a trans fiction list only to discover the trans character is never a narrator, has no story arc of their own and only exists in relation to a cis protagonist’s plot and character arc, I’ll never have to work again. I wish like fuck people would stop talking about this as though this representation is profound and meaningful. It’s incidental at best. In fact, if the character exists as only a learning point, it’s not even incidental representation! To profile this as representation sends a terrible message to trans people: we’re not the star of the show; we are unimportant; we are supporting cast characters in someone else’s story; we are so uncommon and unusual that there’s no point in our lives being front and centre. It says we only exist in relation to a cis protagonist, but we’re supposed to be happy with this. That’s not good enough.

Meaningful representation involves characters like us telling and showing our stories for our benefit. If a work doesn’t do that, it’s not meaningful representation. We writers need to stop pretending it is; we readers need to stop pretending it is.

If you’re writing a character to be meaningful representation, we need to enter their world. The story needs to be about our lives as that identity. They need to be a protagonist, (sympathetic) antagonist or narrator. Period.

3: Not all representation should be or must be meaningful.

I’m so damn white I glow in the dark. I cannot write meaningfully, based on my own experience as a person, about characters of any ethnic background or identity that isn’t distant-English-migrant-white-Australian and white-Dutch-migrant-Australian. All the research in the world will never give me that bone-deep knowing: this isn’t my story. As someone who is used to people not me telling my stories (and often telling them badly), I feel that I cannot and should not write about racially-diverse characters with a central focus on life lived as an identity not mine.

(I know other creators will, unequivocally, disagree with me. Disagree away. This is a personal position, coming from a place of repeatedly having my story taken and poorly repackaged by others who don’t have my lived experience. I’ve also got nothing but respect for those writers who see the failures in how my stories are treated and want to do something about it while prioritising my experience and feedback in the process of making sure better, honest, accurate stories are accessible to people who are so in want of heroes.)

However, I can and should and must write characters who are incidentally racially diverse (or experience disabilities or sexual/romantic/gender identities I don’t). I can and should decide that my autistic trans headmaster is black in a fictional world that is and should be and must be as racially diverse as the real one. He isn’t, though, meaningful representation. This doesn’t mean I don’t research or don’t think about the role racial identities play in this setting. It doesn’t mean I don’t go and read works by trans people of colour. It doesn’t mean that I don’t try hard not to be an offensive, ignorant white arse (although I probably am). It just means that this character isn’t written to be meaningful representation on that axis.

A character doesn’t have to be meaningful representation in every aspect of their identity, for reasons of authority, access, ability or setting, and that is acceptable, as long as we don’t make the mistake of treating incidental representation as meaningful. This said, we all need to make a world where meaningful representation of all minority and intersecting minority identities (especially that written by people with lived experience of those identities) is extant, vibrant and accessible.

4: Incidental representation is correct, appropriate and important.

This is especially important for any of the many, many characters in a work who stroll on stage for a minute, speak a few lines and wander off again. Supporting cast/minor characters can be and should be incidental representation. Have your gamer protagonist meet a retail worker who just happens to be disabled. Have a character who just happens to struggle with auditory processing ask your protagonist for repetition before realising what was said halfway through the second time! Have these characters carry out their minor plot-required interactions while also being representation, because this resembles the real world. I’d get a such a kick out of seeing even a minor character in a book with prosopagnosia and auditory processing disorder who has to remember spoken names and match them to faces, even if this has nothing to do with anything else that character does. We need to see that our lives exist in fictional worlds.

It’s also important for major characters, narrators, antagonists and protagonists. If you cannot or will not write meaningful representation, please give us as much incidental representation as you can. Reasons of authority are a good reason for choosing the incidental route, speaking as someone who’s read cishet writers try to write stories centering on the experience of being gay, lesbian or bi/pan. (Some manage it. Many don’t.) It is better by far to write incidental representation that acknowledges we exist than to write terrible meaningful representation or no representation at all.

As before, we need to stop treating this as meaningful representation. It isn’t. That’s okay.

5: Representation solely for the purpose of representation isn’t functional representation.

If you write a disabled (or any minority) protagonist as representation who plays no role in terms of the story’s plot, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled antagonist as representation who only enables another protagonist’s character arc and possesses none of their own, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled narrator as representation who can be excised from the story with no change to the plot, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled character who exists just as a lesson or motivation for an able-bodied character, you haven’t written true representation. If you write a disabled minor character who plays no role (however utterly minor) in terms of the story’s plot or setting or interaction, you haven’t written true representation.

A character with prosopagnosia who sells the protagonist a game has a function in the narrative in addition to being representation, even if only serving to get the game from the shop into to the protagonist’s possession. A person who wears a splint and is described as no more than that but exists only to pass the protagonist in the street is an object lesson: here be disabled people. A disabled person as an active but minor character who exists in the framework of the fictional world you’ve created to send a message about the setting is fine; a cardboard cutout whose job is only to remind the protagonist and/or the reader that we exist is not.

If someone walked past me and described me as a person wearing a hand splint, that leaves out the fact that my splint is bright pink hard thermoplastic now covered in layers of dinged-up, grey-edged white medical tape to hold it together, is fastened with green valcro and is worn on the right hand by a short-haired genderfucking person who also carries a rainbow satchel, wears hiking boots and is usually fidgeting with a bead ring necklace, a telephone cord hair tie/bracelet or, these days, a tangle. I’ve barely begun to describe myself in that long sentence, but a glance at my splint tells you I’m unconventional and either broke or that I’ve had problems with my hands for long enough to crack my splint. (Both, in fact. The smell of said splint will also tell you I’ve owned and worn it for a long time.) Consequently, there must be more one can say about our character with a splint to give them a function in the setting via making a statement about the world in which they live (at very least).

If even a minor character needs to have a relationship to the plot or setting to be real representation, a protagonist, antagonist or a narrator must have a role in the plot and their own character arc. They need to be a hero if not the hero (if a protagonist). Otherwise the message is this: we exist to make a point, to educate the protagonist and/or the reader, to exist so readers don’t complain or to push other characters into action, but, despite the fact you venture into our worlds and depict our lives as minorities, we do not and cannot exist as a proactive character who grows and develops and directs the action in our own right. We need to be as much a part of the story as we are a minority character.

We cannot exist only to educate and demonstrate on the matter of our minority identities. That’s called objectification and it isn’t good enough.

6: Readers will disdain representation that exists solely for representation.

If you’ve gotten this far, it’s safe to say that you know analytical readers will see straight through a character written solely as representation. The feedback given by Magic the Gathering fans on Mark Rosewater’s claim that Planeswalker Saheeli Rai from India-inspired world Kaladesh was pushed as a visible protagonist but had no main role in the plot demonstrates the feeling that an important-as-representation character had better have some impact in the story – what’s the point of her existence, otherwise? None of us have forgotten the prior, hurtful treatment of another female Planeswalker, Arlinn Kord, also a minority demographic as a middle-aged woman, who looked pretty on Shadows over Innistrad card art and fulfilled no story purpose despite the importance of her character.

Majority readers (or readers uninterested in representation) won’t like these characters any better. These people read for compelling characters, clever writing and a good story. They’ll also notice representation that exists only for representation, only they’ll see it as an unwelcome intrusion that interferes with their ability to enjoy the story, and they’ll likely be even more scathing in their condemnation. They don’t want to be hit with reminders of their own privilege, and representation that has no other function but representation doesn’t soften that reminder. It doesn’t give the reader any reason, through character arc or plot, to keep on reading, confront their privilege and learn. It does give them every reason, no matter how grounded in privilege and hate, to close the book.

Nobody wants representation that only serves the needs of representation, not plot, character or setting.

7: Real representation is and always is real character (with a real purpose).

Real representation is a character written with empathy and heart, be it incidental or meaningful, who has a function within the story. Make your character more than their minority identities. Make your character express and internalise their identities in ways unique to their personality and history. Make your character as human as you are and whatever representation attached to them will be worthwhile to someone, no matter your mistakes. You will make mistakes. What I know about autism is filtered through my experience of being autistic, but there are so many other ways to be autistic and experience autism that what I know is minuscule at best. I’ll attempt to write them, because we cannot have autism represented solely by those of us who are eloquent when handed a keyboard, but I’ll likely fuck up as much as I get it correct. Like everyone else, I’m human, which means we try our best and learn from our mistakes.

Good characters, though, always earn my forgiveness, and I suspect most readers will afford me the same generosity.

Real representation, the kind of representation that changes how people think and feel, the kind of representation that tells us we too are heroes and human and valid, starts with real character grounded in real motivation.

Write me a trans, autistic, queer character who wears a flanno shirt with the sleeves rolled up because men’s shirts are too big in the shoulder and boy’s shirts are too short in the sleeve, bites their lip, spins on a desk chair and smacks their knees into the sides of their desk just to hear the dull thunk noise made by bone hitting wood … while paging through their battered Macquarie to compare “miniscule” versus “minuscule”. That’s all I am in the last two minutes, not counting the pain in my wrist (five or six on the pain scale, usual minimum level of pain if I wish to write anything), the fact I’m shamelessly blasting Celine Dion and my feet are freezing. Or that I stopped halfway through writing this to yank the shit out of my own hair and, when I noticed that, roll a D20 across my desk. There’s so much more to me than just “trans”, “autistic” and “queer”, and I am those things in ways unique and specific to me!

Write me a character that is as human as I am and you are, and I’ll smile and call it, gladly, representation.

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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