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Interview with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Interview with Elsa Sjunneson-HenryBy Derek Newman-Stille

I was pleased to encounter Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s work through the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction project currently underway with Uncanny Magazine and am glad that we were able to talk about speculative fiction and the power of writing disability. I want to thank Elsa for taking the time to chat with us here at Dis(Abled) Embodiment and for her powerful responses that both enlighten us as readers and empower us.


Q: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: I’m a partially deafblind bicoastal raised speculative fiction writer and editor. I also work in tabletop games and do some theatrical design support work. My platform is more or less broken into three parts: I’m a writer, an editor, and an activist. All three intersect one another, and I work hard to not let them get too disparate. 

Q: You do work in both theatre and creative writing. How do these art forms speak to each other? Does your theatre work inform your writing and vice versa?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: I was having a conversation about this recently. My job in theater is as a dramaturg, which means I’m basically the researcher for a show. I create books for show staff, information about what a production history might look like, the setting (if it’s historical, it might include a brief for actors) and information on design choices for the tech people. It really informs how I prepare to write novels, or short stories, because I tend to create book bibles for my worldbuilding. Reference books for fictional worlds are how I got my start, and they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. 

Q: How do you identify or engage with the topic of disability? 

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: When I was a teenager I did not identify as disabled the way I do now. But these days, I’m proudly disabled. What that means for me is that I’ve engaged with this part of my identity pretty publicly, as an activist, a creator, and an editor. I don’t shy away from talking about what it’s like to be me, but I also don’t shy away from being honest about what I need or desire from the world. 
A lot of my work recently has been as an activist. I’ve been working to get better access to government representatives for disabled people like myself, because equal representation is deeply important to me. 

Q: What are some of the pitfalls and tropes that authors frequently get into when writing blind identities?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: The biggest pitfall is what I call the Daredevil Problem. A blind character who doesn’t need any of the trappings of blindness because their powers are able to circumvent the reality of being blind. In the TV show, Daredevil doesn’t need his cane to fight; he “sees” in red. His senses are so strong that we don’t need him to really be blind. 

The other one is, of course, that most sighted creators of blind characters assume that total blindness is the norm. Which it isn’t. Blindness exists on a spectrum of experiences, and not acknowledging that in our fiction is deeply frustrating. 

Q: What are some ways that your own work disrupts these tropes?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: When I’ve written fully blind characters, I make sure that they intersect with the adaptive devices that would work best for them. Not all fully blind people use guide dogs, some use white canes. Some, like Daniel Kish, echolocate. I try as best as possible to show a wide variety of blindness narratives in my work, because the individual experience of blindness is as much about the way a person interacts with it as what works best for them. 

Penny, my blind FBI agent from Seeking Truth uses a guide dog, because her guide dog is a part of her techniques for her job. Tara uses a white cane because she lives in New York City. Different needs for different women. Same disability. 
Disrupting the common narrative of blindness is one of my goals as a writer and editor. 

Q: Deaf characters are rarely explored in literature. What are some issues that authors tend to get into when writing Deaf characters?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Much like with blindness, there’s a falsehood that D/deaf characters are completely D/deaf 100% of the time. I also think we don’t see a lot of Deaf culture, we see assumptions of how it manifests, but we do not see people who are engaged with (or not engaged with) Deaf culture in meaningful ways. But I suspect the latter will have to come from Deaf authors. 

Q: What do you do with your own writing of Deaf characters to create more empowering narratives?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: I try to push envelopes. I just wrote a story with a Deaf marine, who uses technology and sign to interact with the world around her. She’s still fully able to participate in the military practices that she has signed up for, and in fact is incredibly good at her job. I try to make sure that my D/deaf characters are just as interesting, and badass, as hearing ones. 

Q: What are some ways that we, as disabled authors, can challenge and disrupt tropes and assumptions about us? 
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: I think if you live on the sliding scale of disability (like I do) wherein your disability is not the “expected” representation, it’s really important to show people what disability looks like on a wide array. 
I also think we as disabled authors are hungry for stories that many people can’t imagine us wanting. I heard it said recently that disabled people probably don’t want to write horror, because it turns us into victims. My perspective on that is different. I see horror as a place where we can triumph. When the world grows too dark, we can use our canes or guide dogs. When the word loses sound, we can sign. When people are confronted with sirens whose songs compel us into action, we may be able to turn off our hearing aids. 

Sometimes, being able to lose a sense or knowing how to cope with its loss is a skill we want. 

Q: You have written about ways to engage in acts of resistance and civil disobedience in your essay “Rise Up, Act Up”. What are some ways that we can resist ableism through acts of civil disobedience?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Check out National ADAPT for starters. They’re incredible inspirations to me (and I mean that in the best way possible. Sometimes that’s a dirty word in disability politics, but not here). Witnessing disability and civil disobedience in action is incredibly important. 
If you want to get active, I suggest starting there. 
I think it’s important to remember that not all people with disabilities can or want to participate in civil disobedience, and while that’s not what you asked, what I’m about to say might sound like it excludes people with invisible disabilities, but I hope you understand it’s not meant that way. 

Civil disobedience for me is about more than just the political action of marching, or resisting, it’s about being visibly disabled in the course of that fight. Disabled people are often erased from political conversations, left out from where we’ve always been. I could probably do a whole essay on this, but the fact is, we’ve always been here. National ADAPT has been around since the 1970s, Helen Keller was a dedicated Socialist. Disability and activism come hand in hand, and by being disabled – even invisibly – in public, while participating in a march, or a civil disobedience actin, you’re being visible as a disabled person. That matters. That’s powerful. Because people don’t want to see us sometimes. 

Q: What role do the arts have in disability resistance?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: The ability to write about ourselves is an act of resistance. The ability to force people to see from our perspective is an act of resistance. I identify my participation in Disabled People Destroy as an act of defiance almost. I’m saying I’m here, and that I’m not willing to go away. It feels similar to when I march in a protest, or participate in civil disobedience. We don’t get anything done by asking politely, we get things done by defiantly existing. By creating worlds we want to live in we’re not asking to be included, we’re making it happen. 

Q: You are involved in Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. What are some ways that science fiction can respond to ableism and challenge systemic disempowerment of disabled people?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Let’s start by envisioning futures where disabled people exist. 
We have Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is great. I’ve been re-reading the books recently as I’ve been preparing for Disabled People Destroy. But despite Miles’ boundless energy, Miles is not enough representation for all of us. First of all, Miles is white. He’s male. Yes, he’s disabled, but I have to ask what Miles would have been like if he’d been a woman (don’t worry, I plan on writing about that soon.) 
We need disabilities at all intersections of genre. In our cyberpunk, in our hard scifi, in space, behind wardrobe doors, in alternate history. We need it, and critically looking at why disability hasn’t been included is something I hope to bring out of the non-fiction section of the Disabled People Destroy issue. 

Q: What science fiction authors have you read that are writing empowering narratives of disability and what are they doing that empowers us?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: As I’ve just mentioned – Miles. We definitely need to acknowledge Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s set the bar really high for disability in science fiction. 
While not science fiction, both Fran Wilde and Mishell Baker (disabled authors who will be writing essays for me in Disabled People Destroy) are writing gorgeous books filled with disabled characters. They bring me hope. 
I feel like we’re on the edge of seeing more disabled characters in fiction, not just because I’m writing them, but because I see more coming out. I hear from people who are writing disabled characters. It’s coming, and it will be beautiful. 

Q: Science fiction is frequently about imagining new possible societies. What are some ways that science fiction can help us to imagine an accessible world?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: The future, at least in some incarnations is about what we’ve improved upon with technology. Technology should, theoretically, make disabled lives better. For example, reimagine what a blind person’s life is like with a driverless car. Going from a life where you can’t get anywhere without relying on others, whether it be free rides from friends, or mass transit, to a situation where you can go everywhere by yourself – that’s revolution. 
Marissa Lingen’s essay for Disabled People Destroy is a great illustration of this. I highly suggest after you finish this interview that you go read it. 

Q: In “A Place Out Of Time”, you explore time travel for a disabled character. When i read through time travel narratives, i frequently ponder how narratives would be different if i engaged with time travel through my disabled body and consider how many time periods would be completely inaccessible. What was it like to imagine disability history and think through ideas of access and the historical erasure of disabled people for this tale?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Going back to my first answer in this article about theater and my job in it, I’m a dramaturg. Which means, rather than studying English, I studied history. I dove into history and swam in timelines and studied the stories of the past. And so telling stories about history is in many ways, like coming home. 
I wrote A Place Out of Time in a hot rage. I was reading something, and it erased disabled characters, it actually didn’t even acknowledge them. And I was angry, about where we stood in history, and I wanted to show people what that anger – that loss – feels like. A Place Out of Time is about a lot of things, but for me, most of all, it is about the experience of knowing that your body could fail you, not because it is your body, but because the world around you won’t keep you safe. 

Q: Ableism and misogyny frequently intersect in ways that multiply the oppression of women with disabilities. What are some of the intersections you have noticed?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: Sometimes, being a disabled woman is a really unpleasant experience. What I mean by that is, society already sees me as fragile because I’m a woman, and then you add the perceived vulnerabilities of blindness and deafness, and well, you get a whole mess of trouble. Not to end this interview on a low note, but the amount of violent language, personal space invasion, and outright assault that I experience on a daily basis is unthinkable if you’re a man. People assume that your body is a public object to be moved and manipulated at will. Women with wheelchairs experience this too (and I’m not a man, but I suspect men with wheelchairs also have the experience of being moved without being asked.) 
When disability and misogyny combine it’s outright dangerous. It’s something we have to think about on a constant basis, of “am I safe here” and “will I remain safe here” just to leave the house. These calculations are often left out of fiction. 

Intersections of safety, or the lack of it, are vital. We also don’t talk about disability and race nearly enough, and I believe that is also something we desperately need to fix. Disabled people are not all white, nor are all disabled experiences ones colored by whiteness. Disabled PoC have a very different experience of the world and it’s important to listen to them. #DisabilityTooWhite is an excellent illustration of this. 

——
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a partially deafblind speculative fiction writer and disability activist. Her short fiction is included in Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, Fireside Magazine, and Ghost in the Cogs. She also writes for tabletop roleplaying games and was part of the ENNIe award-winning staff for Dracula Dossier. Her nonfiction has been included in The Boston Globe, Uncanny Magazine, Terrible Minds, and many other venues. She teaches disability representation at Writing the Other, and recently spoke at the New York Public Library on this topic. She is the Managing Editor at Fireside Magazine. She has a Masters in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College, and uses it to critique media representation of disability from all mediums.
Current Projects: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lynnemthomas/disabled-people-destroy-science-fiction-uncanny-m 

An Interview with Dominik Parisien

By Derek Newman-Stille

Today, I had the opportunity to interview an author and editor whose work I love and respect. I am excited that Dominik Parisien is going to be the Fiction Editor-in-Chief for Uncanny Magazine’s latest in their People Destroy series, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. This is an exciting new collection of SF that brings out the voices of disabled people.

Dom

Q: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

 

Dominik Parisien: Hi! My name is Dominik Parisien, and I am an editor, a writer, and an occasional poet. As my name might indicate, I’m a francophone. I’ve lived in Toronto for four years now, and prior to that I lived in Montreal, but I grew up in a small town called Rockland in Eastern Ontario. I co-edited the Shirley Jackson Award-winning anthology The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales with Navah Wolfe, along with two other forthcoming anthologies from Saga Press. I also edited Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction. My work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

 

 

Q: How do you identify with disability?

 

Dominik Parisien: I have chronic daily headaches, insomnia, and migraines. I also frequently lose consciousness and I experience seizure-like episodes where I collapse and convulse violently. I’ve been experiencing these things since I was in my early teens, and I’m coming up on thirty now. It’s been a long and pretty complicated journey for my identity.

 

 

Q: When did you first come to identify yourself as a disabled person?

 

Dominik Parisien: About three years ago, I think. I started collapsing as a teen, and I was constantly in the hospital and undergoing a number of treatments, but I refused to be identified that way at the time. My understanding of the term was very narrow, essentially limiting it to disabilities related to mobility, because it had only ever been presented that way. Additionally, in my hometown it wasn’t a word you heard a lot, it wasn’t really discussed, and it carried a certain stigma. In my eyes I wasn’t disabled, I just had a serious medical condition – I didn’t understand that those could be the same thing.

 

 

Q: In what ways have you connected with the disabled community and how have these connections shaped your identity?

 

Dominik Parisien: When I started university I became exposed to disability theory, and to more resources on disability in general. The first time I ever made a real connection was with my councillor and other students at the university’s Access Services. For my comfort, and in order to avoid disruptions for other students, I always took my final exams in a separate room, in case I collapsed. At first I was unhappy with the arrangement, because it felt like I was being treated differently, but eventually I learned to see it for what it was: an accommodation. I’ve never liked having people watch over me with my condition, and folks do get clearly nervous when I’m visibly in pain and look like I’m about to collapse, but through discussion with some of the others students in Access Services I learned to modify my outlook, and to change how I interpreted disability in general. You don’t always need help – and it’s easy to resent people’s assistance when they hover over you constantly – but when I finally started talking to others who needed assistance, it helped. I didn’t feel so alone anymore, and not as frustrated, because I now knew others who could relate to my experience.

 

One of my biggest and most important connections in the disabled community was you, actually. You may recall that when we first met years ago I was still reluctant to identify personally with the term disabled, despite the fact that I was for all intents and purposes a disabled person. Again, it had to do with a very narrow perception of the word. Befriending you and others in the disabled community helped me to expand my understanding of myself, and of how society treats disabled people. I was much more private about my disability at the time. Eventually I learned that if I, as a disabled person, did not speak to my experience, and did not fight for others like me, then people would continue to look upon disability in narrow and problematic ways.

 

clockwork_canada.png

 

Q: Chronic pain is something that people often ignore when they think about disability because it is not easily visible by the average passer-by. What is the experience of ‘invisible disability’ like for you? What kinds of assumptions do people make about you?

 

“Invisible disability” was one of my biggest impediments to my self-identification. When I do collapse it becomes very obvious that I have a disability, but the rest of the time people tend not to register it. I do have tells indicating my pain levels, but most don’t know them so they often assume I just look tired, or that I’m on drugs or have been drinking, if they notice anything at all.

 

The most common response to being told I’m disabled is the standard, “But you don’t look sick!” Again, it’s that perception that disability encompasses only visible conditions. So, there’s usually some surprise or confusion when I tell people I can’t drive, or can’t participate in certain activities. However, most disabled people I’ve told have not expressed surprise in that way, at least not openly.

 

 

Q: What do you feel it means to have Disabled Pride?

 

Dominik Parisien: To not feel shame for how we are. Disability is one of those things that is often treated as socially taboo, sometimes even abhorrent. People often treat disabled bodies as undesirable, as sexless, as disgusting, as deserving of pity rather than respect. To me, disabled pride means believing and proclaiming “No, we deserve the same dignity you afford yourself and others.” And having the absolute right to decry situations in which that isn’t the case.

 

Starlit Cover

 

Q: You experience Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

 

Dominik Parisien: It’s the experience of the weird. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, the much less evocative name for it is Todd’s Syndrome, is a neurological condition that affects perception. Basically it makes you feel like you’re in Lewis Carrroll’s odd little book. It appears more commonly in children, but occasionally also in adults. How it works is that your brain alters your perception, essentially making you feel like you are incredibly small, or incredibly large, and it alters the size of objects, people, and landscapes around you. It can also affect the speed at which you perceive information. I wrote about my experience of it in some detail in an essay published by Uncanny Magazine: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/growing-up-in-wonderland/ It is a way very strange way of perceiving the world. It can be frightful, disorienting, very uncomfortable, but also fascinating.

 

Q: You are currently one of the editors for Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Could you tell us a bit about the collection and what you are hoping to see come from it?

 

Dominik Parisien: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is the latest project in the Destroy series, which was started by Lightspeed Magazine. So far there have been Destroy projects for Women, Queers, and People of Colour in that order (for SF, Fantasy, and Horror). Each project has focused on an underrepresented group in genre, and has featured fiction, personal essays, and other non-fiction. For Disabled People we’re also including poetry. The project is being funded as part of Uncanny Magazine‘s Year 4 Kickstarter, and we’ve already reached funding for a double issue – now we’re waiting to see if we get sufficient funding for print copies. The Kickstarter is still running, and you can find it here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lynnemthomas/disabled-people-destroy-science-fiction-uncanny-ma

 

Once we open to submission – in January 2018 – we’ll be looking for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry from disabled creators. We’re looking for a wide range of work. Basically, we want to create an opportunity for disabled writers to tell their stories and to foster discussion about disability. I’m the Fiction Editor-in-Chief, so I’ll be handling fiction for the issue. I’m encouraging people to write stories about disability, that feature disabled characters, but that isn’t a requirement – first and foremost we want work from disabled writers.

 

 

Q: In what ways has science fiction in the past done a disservice to disabled people?

 

Dominik Parisien: Science fiction in particular has frequently erased disabled people. I know you’ve personally come across the standard discussion on this, where a science fiction author is questioned about the lack of disabled characters in their world and they respond, often defensively or even angrily, that the technology would exist to cure those conditions so they don’t exist in their world. That’s a common scenario. Or, if a disabled character does exist, it’s exclusively as part of a cure narrative – that science has solved the “problem” of their disability. There’s a regular imaginative failure in science fiction in particular to conceive of the place of disabled people in the future and how different technologies could affect them. The notion this reinforces is that disabled people don’t belong in science fiction. In fact, I’ve seen panels where audience members have outright said that disabled bodies don’t belong in space, because they couldn’t adapt properly – that they’re simply undesirable. Those sort of beliefs exist because people rarely if ever encounter scenarios in which a disabled person is featured, and because of an underlying lack of understanding of disability.

 

 

Q: What are some of the problematic tropes of disability you have observed?

 

Dominik Parisien: The cure narrative is one of the most problematic trope in my opinion, at least in terms of science fiction. Technology is integral to most science fiction, and our popular belief about technology is that it helps improve us, our abilities, and solves many of our problems. Naturally, many writers apply this to disability and view technology as the solution to most if not all disabilities. Cure narratives are some of the most harmful scenarios in science fiction. For one, they reinforce notions that a disabled body must necessarily be ‘fixed’ in order for an individual to be ‘normal’. Another major problem is that they don’t consider the implications of their ‘solution’. There are rarely consequences to a cure narrative – we usually don’t see the toll such a change could take on a disabled person, how it could affect how they view themselves and the world around them, how it might affect their interactions with their family, the complications that might ensue (bodily, hormonal, chemical, psychological). Usually the cure is the goal, the end-point of such narratives. It completely denies the human experience of such things.

 

Disability as a super power is another common and problematic trope. These usually accompany trauma, because for many people who are not disabled themselves it is very difficult to consider “losing” something (mobility, visibility, emotional control, etc) without gaining something in exchange. Superheroes really do love their “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” narratives.

 

The blind psychic is a typical one, but it tends to appear more in fantasy or science fantasy. The “bitter cripple” commonly appears across genres.

 

There’s also a terribly frustrating tendency for disabled characters, especially mentors, to die in order to provide a lesson to the hero, or to allow them to continue their journey.

 

Those are just some standard examples. Of course it doesn’t mean they can’t be done at all, or never done well (though frequently they aren’t), but what often happens is that writers want to explore disability without disabled people – they go off their own experience and imagine what it would be like, or they base themselves on other scenarios they’ve encountered in media (almost always created by other people who are not disabled themselves). They don’t consider if those representations are harmful, and if they are they don’t consider the ways in which they’re harmful. The exclusion of real experience by disabled people, the undervaluing of their actual lives and experience in favour of narrative convenience or expediency, is dangerous because many authors end up reinforcing misconceptions and problematic representations.

 

 

Q: What positive things can SF do for the representation of disabled people?

 

Dominik Parisien: I think that exploring the narratives of disabled people in science fiction is particularly important because it allows us to speculate on the future and what it might look like. That obviously isn’t a novel idea, it’s a large part of what science fiction is about after all, but I mean it in practical terms. We love to explore technology and speculate about it, but usually that future isn’t about disabled people. By actively showcasing disabled characters, and considering issues of disability in those futures, we can help the people developing current or future technology to consider how these things might affect a variety of bodies, a variety of minds and abilities. If we look to these things now, then we might avoid potential pitfalls or exclusionary developments later.

 

ROBOTS_VS_FAIRIES

Q: What SF works have done a good job of exploring disability?

 

Dominik Parisien: I always find this question tricky, because what one person considers accurate and fair may not work for another, largely because our experiences/socializing/background are different. I had a blind classmate in university who loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, and who was especially fond of the character of Geordie Laforge. We often discussed TNG, and although she was frequently frustrated by how some of the story elements handled Geordie, she was also thrilled that he was part of the crew, and he was the first disabled character she encountered in a popular franchise (which seems to also be the experience of many SF fans). On the other hand, I know others who view Geordie as a major problem because they perceive him as a typical cure narrative. I think a character or book/story can certainly be problematic and important at the same time.

 

Louis McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is an example many consider good. Miles Vorkosigan has a form of dwarfism that leaves him prone to injury, and this isn’t treated like a minor detail to be brushed off throughout the narrative.

Although it isn’t often discussed from this angle, Octavia E Butler’s Parable books (Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents) are important to me in how they handle disability. The main character experiences hyper-empathy – she genuinely feels the pain of others – which can make her vulnerable. She lives in a cutthroat world, and she’s forced to hide her disability from most people. There are cultural and social situations in which disabled people either decide not to share their disability, or feel they are forced to do so for a variety of reasons. I wouldn’t call this aspect of Butler’s books necessarily positive, but I do think they ring true and provide real insight into some of the fears disabled people can have.

 

While it isn’t SF, I do want to mention Mishell Baker’s Borderline, which explores disability in some powerful ways. Mishell, like her main character, has Borderline Personality Disorder, and this features prominently in the book.

 

 

Q: How do you incorporate disability into your own writing?

 

Dominik Parisien: I have a particular interest in exploring ageing and disability in my fiction, and much of my recent work has focused on one or both. In particular, I’ve recently been exploring interactions between the elderly and disabled youth. I’ve done a lot of work with the elderly over the years, and I’m very interested in telling their stories. Alzheimer’s is one of my key interests, and I’ve addressed it in several works, most notably my poem “Sandbags”, which was published by Strange Horizons, and my story “Goodbye is a Mouthful of Water” in the anthology Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories.

 

 


 

Dominik Parisien is the co-editor, with Navah Wolfe, of the forthcoming Robots vs Fairies, and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, which won the Shirley Jackson Award and is a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Locus. He also edited the Aurora Award-nominated Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsELQ/Exile: The Literary QuarterlyThose Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories, as well as other magazines and anthologies. His fiction has twice been nominated for the Sunburst Award. He is a disabled, French Canadian living in Toronto.