Disability Rep Done Good | The First Third by Will Kostakis

This is disability representation done right, people.

The entire time I read it, I was kind of delirious at the fact that somebody had finally represented ME. In an actual book. My disability was being described and, while I'm not 100% like that character, I could identify with them far more strongly than I'd ever identified with any character before. I was so overjoyed it was getting to the point that I laughed - and then cried - most of my way through the book.

There were probably a dozen or more tiny things that made it awesome, and despite having read it almost cover to cover twice, I probably won't be able to recognise and describe all of them. I guess I'll just do some?

Right. So. The disability representation in The First Third comes in the form of Lucas - A.K.A. Sticks - an eighteen-year-old joker and wingman to the long-suffering Greek-Australian protagonist, Bill. He's a hilarious person, he genuinely cares about Bill, and he has Cerebral Palsy, so walks with crutches. When a sidekick character like Lucas is disabled, it's easy for their inclusion to just feel like tokenism, like a joke. It's easy for them to be an afterthought - and that afterthought hurts.

(Sorry. When I get excited, it appears that I use a lot of italics.)

REASONS WHY LUCAS DID NOT FEEL LIKE AN AFTERTHOUGHT (OR, THE PARTS OF THIS BOOK THAT I LIKED THE MOST)
  • His disability didn't define him, but neither was it ignored. Constant little references were slipped into the text enough to make it feel like CP was an integral part of Lucas' (and through extension, Bill's) life, but none of them felt like the author was yelling "HE'S GOT A DISABILITY, REMEMBER?". That takes a lot of subtlety and no doubt some very good editing, but it's so so so necessary if you want to write disabled characters truthfully. Please take note, and remember that the MC was in a particularly stressful situation he wanted to get away from, not just being heartless:
          "Faster," I barked. He rested on his crutches for a second. "Difficult."
  • There's this huge, utterly lovely discussion about dating with a disability (and as a gay person, for that matter), and it was somehow absolutely vital, insightful, and funny all at the same time. I don't want to say too much - because spoilers, amiright? - but it made my heart happy.
          "Says the able-bodied hetero kid." Sticks said. "If you think you have to jump through hoops to find someone - then my hoops are spinning. And they're on fire."
  •  It was really refreshing to see a physically disabled character who wasn't in a wheelchair? There's nothing wrong with wheelchairs - an awful lot of disabled people (including me) use them, and they deserve to be represented too, but there's this frankly useless stereotype in the world that disability always equals wheelchair. And this subverted it! A tiny bit! HUZZAH!
          (I think a lot of this also has to do with the fact that Lucas is based on an actual person, rather             than just being a cookie-cutter of a disabled person, but I'll leave Will to explain that in his                   interview in a bit.)
  • HARDCORE (CANON) SHIP INVOLVING A DISABLED PERSON.
  • The process of growing up with a disability is described at the beginning, and the little details just made that description. The way mini-Lucas explains CP to fellow four-year-olds by saying his "legs won't listen" (I tell small children a similar thing when they get inquisitive). The whole "rebrand" he goes through in early teenage years, initiating the nickname Sticks and shortening the phrase Cerebral Palsy to CP (I didn't have the self-confidence to choose an ironic nickname, but I definitely gave up the long name.) This, ladies and gentlemen, is an able-bodied author who has DONE THEIR FREAKING RESEARCH.
  • I was also oddly comforted by how okay Bill was with the little things of being a special needs friend. 
          Shush. It's a term now. I invented it.

          It might surprise you how much time I spend worrying about how much my friends do for me,             even though they always look at me like I'm crazy when I bring it up (thanks for being                         amazing, you lovely people). But ... seeing how matter-of-fact Bill is most of the time about                 walking a bit slower, or handing Lucas his sticks - and knowing, as you'll see in the interview,             that the author speaks from a position of knowledge on this - just set my mind at ease like                   nothing really has before.

In summary, this book is a testament to disability representation at its finest: and it shows that, while #ownvoices are ridiculously important and we just don't have enough of them in disability lit, able-bodied authors can write really decent portrayals. Beautiful portrayals, in fact.

Not all of them do, but that's a topic for another day. Wednesday's post, in fact.
Now, I'm guessing you guys want to peer into the brain which put this together, right? Well, today's your lucky day, because I have an interview lined up for you. Thank you for agreeing to do this, Will - I'm certainly fascinated by what you have to say!


What made you want to write about a disabled character like Lucas?
In my first year of university, I met someone. We were both seated and we spoke for what felt like hours. The conversation was lively, and my sides hurt from laughing so hard. We clicked. This was back when Facebook first launched and I was genuinely excited to make a new Facebook friend. He went to leave, and walked away with his crutches. As he did, I realised he had cerebral palsy. 

My first thought was, 'Oh, lucky I'm not friends with him, that'd be really inconvenient.'

And then I heard that first thought. I was deeply ashamed. That was my first thought meeting someone with cerebral palsy? I immediately acted to correct it, we became Facebook friends, and now, he's one of my closest friends. And every time we hang out, I'm reminded that had I listened to that prejudiced first thought, I would have missed out on one of the best relationships in my life.

The reason for writing Lucas was two-fold. First, I wanted to capture that relationship, and second, I wanted to make sure that nobody who read The First Third ever had that same first thought.

What was the hardest part of that process?
The hardest part was capturing the reality of being a gay teen with cerebral palsy, without making him read like Oscarbait. His arc has tragic beats, most in the novel do, but I didn't want it to overwhelm. On the flip-side, I didn't want to reduce him to comic relief.

It was a delicate knife edge to tread, and I overcame it by thinking about him less like he was the protagonist's sidekick, and more like his friendship with Bill was the central character. They are two halves of one whole.

What did you do to make sure that you represented CP in an accurate way?
I started by making sure Lucas was a clear character, with a distinct voice. I didn't want his disability to be a plot point, but I wanted it to inform who he was. Much like I didn't want him to "just happen to be gay", I didn't want him to "just happen to have CP". There are two parts to representation - incorporation and exploration. While I think incorporation is admirable, it's that second part that writers should strive towards. It's the exploration of identity, it's the details that make it feel real and less tokenistic. That means research, beyond my own personal experience with my friend, asking questions and listening.

How did your publisher react to Lucas' involvement in The First Third?
Lucas was the best-realised character in the early drafts. From the first pages they read, Penguin Random House Australia embraced him. While his disability was never an issue, his arc was a point of contention. The First Third is about teens taking their first awkward steps into adulthood, and for Lucas, that's acting on his sexual desires.

First, I was asked if the scene was essential. Did it have to be through an app? (Keep in mind this is before Tinder sort of normalised dating apps for straight people.) Did it have to be with a stranger? Yes, Lucas is coming to terms with what it means to be gay and disabled. He has been taught by previous interactions, and an ablest culture, that he cannot be desirable and disabled, so inviting someone over via an app allows him to disguise his disability.

The first time they read the scene, my publisher was its champion. But still, there was trepidation. I understood why. As a touring author without an international name, the local education market is important to me. ‘Difficult’ content begets difficulties, like not being shelved in school libraries and not being invited to speak. They were hypothetical difficulties at that stage, sure, but compromises were still made to reduce the risk of them becoming my reality.

I say compromises — Lucas was aged up to 18, and the scene occurred in his bedroom instead of a hotel room — but these changes didn’t compromise my vision. The scene had changed slightly, but its meaning remained intact, and it was now likely to get into more schools, where more gay kids, more disabled kids and more kids with friends and classmates like Lucas, could read it. 

To make doubly sure we would not encounter roadblocks, we did our research. We sought out similar scenes written about heterosexual teens, often younger, in books that had made school reading lists, and used them as guides. The thinking was, and still is, what makes sexual content appropriate has absolutely nothing to do with the genders of the parties involved. Still, I was overly cautious. If I could gently imply, I gently implied.

By the time the novel was published, and Lucas was embraced, the trepidation was forgotten.

Were you worried about how Lucas would be received by readers?
Reading is a subjective exercise. As readers, we bring our contexts and histories to everything we read. As a writer, I always worry about how everything - from the characters to the punctuation choice on page 65 - will be received by readers. I do what I can on my end to minimise errors and missteps. I won't publish a book I don't 100% believe in.

But I am also aware that believing in a book is subjective too.

If I wrote a harmful representation, I would want it to be received poorly. Identifying issues allows them to be corrected. Nowadays, publishing processes are so much more flexible, and by extension, the contents of stories are more fluid, than they have ever been. What was once literally set in stone can be changed, bettered based on feedback and consultation.

At the end of the day, my worries as an author are not the issue. The impact of being called out for poor representation on me as a writer is nothing compared to the impact of that poor representation on an affected reader.

If a story alarms you, don't be afraid to reach out to a writer. And the inverse is true too. If a story speaks to you, let an author know. It means a lot to know you got it right.

Do you have any tips for writers who want to represent disabled characters, but aren't confident in doing so?
Build confidence the same way you build confidence in all other avenues of life: work on it. Show people, listen to feedback. Listen, listen, listen. Write some more.
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10 comments:

  1. That's wonderful that this book actually portrays disability in a realistic and accurate way and that it wasn't just thrown in there but was really a part of the character and the story. That's definitely a rare find. And you can tell when an author really does their research and gets it, it's always in the details. And I love the interview, especially his reasons for wanting to include a disabled character. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's so rare to find a book that does what this one managed to do - I'm kind of ecstatic about it, can you tell? As for the interview, I can't take the credit, but glad you enjoyed!

      Delete
  2. I actually want to staple this post to my forehead but that would probably hurt and make it quite difficult to read!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (I've just had coffee, can you tell?!?!?)

    Just so many the feels with this post and the awesomeness and this is totally going on my TBR dammit! (Also: 'says the able-bodied hetero kid' - YES!)

    Awesomeness x 10000000000!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! XD

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Woah ... Cee, how much coffee have you had? That's a lot of exclamation marks! *hides the stapler*

      The phrase 'says the able-bodied hetero kid' is absolutely my favourite piece of dialogue ever. I might staple that to my face - or maybe just use blu-tak.

      Glad you enjoyed!

      Delete
  3. This book sounds fantastic! :) I love it when I can read a story that includes so much diversity and doesn't feel like it's been added just for brownie points. It's also hopeful to read as a white, able-bodied person that it's possible to write diversity and not screw it up. I never want to do wrong by my characters or readers, but it can be terrifying trying to attempt something like that knowing full well that I will never have firsthand experience. But I guess with anything, research and communication is key. I hope we see lots more books like this one from all kinds of different authors. Great interview!

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    1. The addition of diversity just for the sake of brownie points absolutely does not get you brownie points. It's, like, the opposite of brownie points. Cabbage points? Horrible cake points?

      Anyway, you get what I mean.

      Yes. RESEARCH AND COMMUNICATION. Also genuinely caring about creating good rep because you know how much it will mean to people. And you, Kate, are more than capable of both. x

      Delete
  4. This review and interview is AMAZING, I love hearing why Will chose to write this and how he developed his characters so they felt real and seemless. Representation is good but good and accurate representation is so great there is nothing that annoys me more then the token (add any type of diversity here) side character I mean just don't put it in if your not willing to research and do a good job that do that person/character justice. Planning on reading this asap! Thank you for this review xx

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    1. Awww, THANK YOU! I was super interested to hear everything Will said too - not least because the researcher part of me was busy taking copious mental notes! I'm so glad you're planning to give it a read, because ... well, everyone needs to.

      And you're absolutely right on the tokenism front. I mean, why bother putting in a character you'll have to research if you can't be bothered to do the research properly?

      Delete
  5. Lara, this interview and book reflection were super great! You definitely did an excellent job. What a wonderful book! It sounds so, so good to have a disabled main character who also GETS A ROMANCE!

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    1. OH he gets a romance. It's a great romance too, Dina. I squeed. I cheered. It was just my favourite thing of ever.

      I did a good job? Thank you. *blushes*

      Delete

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