Friday, December 7, 2012

"Origin" and Disabilities


A few months ago, I posted my less than positive review of Jessica Khoury’s Origin. Last night, I experienced some lingering thoughts regarding this novel. And no, these are not the “Wow, I was probably too harsh on this book” kind of thoughts. The opposite, actually--I don’t think I was harsh enough.

I’m not going to repeat what I said about the demonization of scientists or the poor characterization of the love interest. In some ways, these are ‘harmless errors’ in that they don’t deeply offend me. Well, okay, there is something kind of offensive about the way Khoury portrays scientists as sociopaths, but at the end of the day, that’s something I can just laugh off since it’s further evidence that I’m smarter than she is.

But the thing I want to elaborate on, the thing that is truly offensive, is the author’s treatment of cerebral palsy. It is revealed in the story that one character’s motive for working for the “evil scientists” is so that they will cover the cost of her sister’s medical care (or something--it's been a while since I read it.) This sister, as you might have guessed, suffers from cerebral palsy--or so the author claims. To anyone who actually knows a thing or two about cerebral palsy, it’s very obvious that Khoury didn’t do so much as a Wikipedia search on this disease. Origin didn't give much information on the sister's disease, but the impression I got was that she was perfectly healthy until--bam!--cerebral palsy hit, and then it was downhill until death. Some background info on cerebral palsy: It's a disease that originates very early in life, often before or during birth. It's a chronic disease, but not something that worsens over time. Moreover, it is not fatal.

I’ve seen interviews with the author in which she discusses all the research she did for this book--and it shows in the vivid details with which she describes the rainforest. So why couldn’t she even take two minutes to do some research on cerebral palsy?

But that’s not fair. The book is set in the rainforest. The rainforest is at the forefront of this story--but the little sister? She never even shows up on the page.

And that is exactly what bothers me. The little sister with cerebral palsy is not a character; she is a plot device, meant for no purpose other than to motivate the actions of an actual character. Since the specifics of her disease have no bearing on the plot, it’s okay to lump her in with every other person under the “dying and helpless” umbrella.

But what does this imply? Nothing good, obviously. It's like saying that sick and disabled people are not characters in and of themselves. They aren’t worth the time to develop and research because they only exist for the sake of the healthier, stronger, and more ‘ideal’ characters.

I’m not saying that ‘weaker’ characters shouldn’t be used to drive the main character into action. After all, Katniss entered the Hunger Games to save Prim. But Prim got some backstory and an on-screen presence. More importantly, she got a personality. She even got to make decisions!

When you’re compiling your list of characters, think about your minor characters: Do they have personalities? Do they have goals, problems, and values outside of their relationship to the protagonist? Do they get to grow, change, and make active decisions throughout the course of the story?

And along with that, think about what message you’re sending to groups who are already marginalized. People who suffer from illness and disabilities probably wouldn’t be able to beat up a hoard of thugs while simultaneously hacking into a bank vault (oh wait, you probably couldn’t do that either), but they still deserve respect. They are people, after all.

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