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Monday, 27 May 2013

Blindness in Fiction 5: blueeyedboy

I have always loved Joanne Harris's fiction. She is best known for her Vianne Rocher trilogy (Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure) which hides its dark centre beneath a sugary coating. blueeyedboy, on the other hand, is a thoroughly bleak novel of deceit, danger and death. It is confusing and beguiling in equal measure and even after two readings I am not sure I know exactly who is who and what precisely is what in its world of internet posts where no-one knows what is real and what is fiction.

It is hard to write about this astonishing novel without giving aspects of its complicated plot away, but I can say that it is a novel narrated by two people, both of whom take on more than one persona. At some points, one of the narrators describes the (perhaps imaginary) thoughts of a blind girl or woman. This is one of the most convincing depictions of what it is like to be blind I have come across. It is convincing not through discussions of darkness, tragedy and obstacles to be overcome, but because it describes actions, thoughts and feelings with no mention of vision whatsoever. The descriptions are, instead, full of lavish evocations of sounds, smells, tastes and touches. It is as if the sense of sight has been completely erased from this particular consciousness. But this is done, at first, without alerting the reader to this character's blindness. So it is only much later on in the narrative that it occurs to us that these descriptions have been written by someone who does not see. And the most exciting thing about this is that it is not until we begin to suspect the character's blindness that we notice the absence of the visual. Before this point, there is no sense that anything is missing from this character's interactions with the world. And this is precisely how the blind experience the world: not as a place of absence or lack from which the most important sense has been removed, but as an all encompassing sound-, smell-, touch- and taste-scape.

Harris can pull off this trick of writing blindness without lack because her writing has always been extraordinarily sensual. Sighted characters throughout her books revel in the tastes and smells which surround them in a way which calls into question the traditional hierarchy of the senses. In her best-known book Chocolat, this is epitomised in the magical smells, tastes and textures creates by Vianne in her shop in the south of France. In blueeyedboy Harris gives us a blind character whose interactions with the world are rooted in her non-visual senses. But she also shows us sighted characters who relate to all their senses in extremely powerful ways.

I love this book because as well as providing a gratifyingly positive representation of blindness, it also challenges the perceived primacy of sight by suggesting that vision is not as all-powerful as people tend to believe. Through the world of the internet we learn that nothing is as it seems and that the words which we glimpse on a computer screen might trick us in a way that smell, taste and sound do not. Indeed of all the characters in the book, it is perhaps the blind girl who is most perceptive about the world around her and the people in it.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

International Conference: The History of Blindness and the Blind

UPDATE: Read my account of the conference's impact here.

I have only recently realised that blindness is a subject worthy of academic research. My previous academic work focuses on the body first in the novels of Emile Zola, and then in the nineteenth-century novel more widely, but I have only 'come out' as a disabled scholar - and a scholar of disability -  in the last 18 months.

My work on blindness is both personal and professional. The wonderful writings of Cathy Kudlick and Georgina Kleege have inspired me to see my own blindness in a positive way, whilst the crucially important history of blindness in France, Vivre Sans Voir (The Blind in French Society) by the majestic Zina Weygand demonstrates how crucial it is that the blind are able to both write and read a history of our own. Thanks to Cathy, Georgina and Zina I can feel an urgency behind my own research into how blindness and the blind are represented in French culture which comes from both a need to change the way blindness is perceived and a desire to finally speak a history which has been neglected for far too long.

I hope that the International Colloquium on the History of Blindness and the Blind which takes place in Paris next month will change both public and academic  perceptions of blindness. As a member of the organising committee I have been able to put my new-found belief in the importance of blindness into practice by helping to organise a major historical and cultural event which pushes blindness to the forefront of the academic agenda. As a speaker at the conference I will have the chance to meet and talk with leading historians of blindness from around the world. Now all I have to do is write my paper.

Attendance at the conference, which takes place in Paris from 27-29 June is free but advance registration is essential by emailing: histoire.cecite@singer-polignac.org

Monday, 13 May 2013

On Giving Directions to the Blind

Last week I visited the RNIB to use their research library. I had found a couple of promising nineteenth-century texts through their online catalogue and as I had to be in London on Friday anyway, I made an appointment and requested the materials.

As this was my first visit to Judd Street I was looking forward to seeing how visiting an overtly blind-friendly environment differed from my usual experiences. I find going to unfamiliar places challenging and disorienting and usually need some help to find my way around at first. But surely the RNIB would be different?

I planned my route from King's Cross using the excellent map I found on the RNIB website. As well as giving street names in large print, it has useful landmarks like shops, traffic lights and post boxes marked on it too. Even though I'd never been there before I easily found my way to the well-signed entrance.

But once I was inside things were less clear. At a desk which I took to be Reception I gave my name and asked directions to the research library. The response I received was not quite what I was expecting: 'Just through there' said the receptionist, pointing vaguely. As I don't find visual gestures very enlightening, I asked for a bit more detail: 'It's just down there' wasn't quite the response I was hoping for.

Nonplussed by this less-than-helpful welcome, I headed into what I now know is the shop and asked the next person I came across for directions. He didn't appear to know that the RNIB had a research library, but his colleague helpfully told me to walk round to my left until I came to a low desk. Finally a set of directions that I could relate to! I collected my documents and spent a happy couple of hours reading about Victorian visitors to the Institute for the Blind in Paris.

But my mind kept wandering back to my disappointing welcome. How was it that the UK's leading charity for blind people was so resolutely reliant on the visual? I had been expecting tactile floor guides, Braille notices and an abundance of aural clues. Instead I was given a welcome that compared pretty unfavourably with the help I get in most 'sighted' environments.

At first I was shocked and upset that the RNIB of all people weren't doing more to challenge the hierarchy of the senses. But then I had a thought. One of the main aims of the RNIB is to help those with sight loss come to terms with their condition. They believe in 'rehabilitation' 'adaptation' and 'quality of life'. So perhaps their unhelpful welcome was not a result of ignorance or lack of imagination. Maybe it was a rather abrupt way of reminding me that it is my responsibility to adjust to the resolutely visual world in which I find myself.