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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Blindness in Fiction 4: Reprobate: A Katla Novel

It is notoriously difficult for non-blind writers to depict blind characters in fiction. Although anyone can close their eyes and imagine blindness for a few minutes, living in a world where sight has lost its meaning is incredibly hard to imagine. For this reason, blind characters in fiction are relatively rare. Where they do exist, they are either secondary and therefore always described from someone else's point of view (as in Adrian Mole) or evil and not described sympathetically at all (as in Ratburger). Like Star Gazing which I blogged about last April, Reprobate is a novel of shared viewpoints, in which a blind character, Bram, plays a crucial role.

When the reader first encounters Bram, it is easy to mistakenly think that he is nothing but a fascinating plot device. We initially encounter him just after assassin Katla has finished a job. When he interrupts her as she is cleaning up the crime scene, her first instinct is to kill him, as she normally would an 'additional' who might later be able to place her at the scene. But when Katla realises Bram is blind she decides to spare him. Her reasoning is that he poses no threat to her because he will never be able to make a positive identification of her.

Katla, like most sighted people, imagines at first that a world without sight is a world of darkness and confusion. But Bram is not the kind of passive, low-functioning blind person who is frequently found in fictional representations. Unlike the blind man in Amelie, for example, he is always well aware of his environment. He picks up clues from the sounds, smells and atmospheric conditions he senses and is never described as having a lesser experience of life because of his blindness. This is wonderfully demonstrated in the scenes, such as the episode in the diner at the beginning of the 'Luncheonette' chapter, which are told through his perspective. In these scenes, the author focuses only on what Bram can hear, touch and sense. But the reader nonetheless gains a complete understanding of the scene. In fact until you look closely at the language of the scene, you probably won't even notice the absence of visual clues. Bram's presence in the novel, and the part he takes in its narration, brilliantly shows that sight is not essential to a full and happy existence. Bram is clever, funny, sexy and sporty. In fact very soon the story becomes so gripping that the fact of his blindness would easily be forgotten if it weren't for the detail with which the narrator describes the practicalities of his life.

If you want to know what it is like to be a blind person living in a sighted world, then you should read this book, especially if you enjoy complex and multi-layered thrillers with unexpected twists and a truly triumphant ending.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Legacy of Helen Keller

Helen Keller is without doubt the most famous blind person alive or dead. But it is astonishing how many blind people have very mixed feelings about her legacy. I remember when we studied her at primary school along with other 'inspiratinal figures' like Florence Nightingale and Martin Luther King. I was embarrassed  and upset by her story of triumph over tragedy. She made me feel at once inadequate and angry: inadequate because I knew I'd never have her patience or tenacity, and angry because her story was told with a sentimentalising pity which assumed that blindness was a horrific affliction which only superlative amounts of courage and determination could help you escape from. Yet at the same time it felt confusing and disloyal not to like her when her story seemed to be saying that all blind people (myself included) should try to be like her.

When I started encountering other blind academics last year I realised that I was not alone in my misgivings. Both Cathy Kudlick and Georgina Kleege have written about the problems of the Helen Keller Legacy.

So when I was asked to write a blog post about a Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign which is making a film inspired by Keller's essay 'Three Days to See' I wasn't sure how to respond. The film aims to raise awareness about the nature of blindness and the difficulties faced by young blind and partially sighted adults as they leave the protected world of education and head out into the sighted world. I have no doubt that the film will present a more positive image of blindness than other recent films. And of course it is crucial to raise awareness of the reality of blindness by showing the general public that blind people are not deficient or lacking individuals who should be pitied, saved or cured. But I was worried that the film would (unknowingly) reproduce some of the insidious myths of triumph and tragedy which continue to haunt representations of disability.

The film will only be made if enough money is raised, but a trailer already exists. As I watched I was relieved to see that the film-makers seem to have avoided (almost all) sentimentality. They focus instead on the articulate and thoughtful blind student whose story structures the film. We hear her thoughts and fears alongside images of her and her classmates studying, relaxing and exploring the world around them. What comes across most strongly is the sense that these adolescents are just like millions of adolescents all over the world. They are individuals on the brink of adulthood. Their blindness does not define them: it is part of who they are, like hair colour or body shape but it is not a limit or a hindrance. It is a way of relating to the world which is just as valid as the more well-known sighted way. It turns out that blind people are not all the same.

The film combines images of today's teenagers with Helen Keller's words. Some of these quotations, particularly those that focus on humanity, made me think that I had judged Keller too harshly. Or perhaps I was only shown one side of her at school. I am still uneasy about her insistence that she is missing out on something by being blind, but in the end her legacy must be a good thing if it creates confident and articulate adolescents who have perceptive opinions about their place in the world.

This is a film that needs to be made because it will show the world that blindness is not a disabling affliction. It is people's attitudes to the blind that disable them, not their blindness. To help make this film happen go to their fundraising page.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Cooking Blind

I was making some flapjacks the other day when my husband found me sitting on the kitchen floor with my left ear turned towards the open oven door. When he asked me what I was doing I explained that I was "listening to see if they were ready". He was amazed that I judge the readiness of food by what it sounds like; I was amazed that it has taken him 10 years to notice my way of cooking.

When I was a child I was scared of cooking. I was forever being told to take care of sharp knives and hot ovens by my understandably over-protective mother. And at school I remember being given a D- for Cookery because my efforts never looked as presentable as my peers' and my workspace always looked like a bomb had hit it.

Perhaps I would have been a more confident cook if my teachers had privileged the non-visual elements of cookery. Who cares what the food looks like as long as it tastes good? My cakes never look perfect but they are (almost) always delicious. And as someone who spends her life arguing against myths of beauty and symmetry, surely I should be the first to celebrate the 'different' appearance of my culinary creations.

Recently I have realised that despite cookery books' tendency to emphasise the visual nature of cooking through references to the desired colour and consistency, smell, touch, taste and hearing are in fact all I really need. I can tell whether a sauce is thickening by the way the spoon feels, and if a cake is ready by how springy it is. I listen for the sound of bubbling on the hob, under the grill and in the oven and always know if I've misjudged things when the smoke alarm goes off. Since I've started wearing glasses, they steam up horribly whenever I am leaning over a hot stove and my eyes water terribly whenever I peel an onion. I've tried all the old remedies, but have decided that chopping onions glasses-less and with my eyes closed is the only way to go. This is much easier and safer than it sounds: touch is all you need to feel the difference between skin and onion; in fact working out which layers to peel off with my fingers makes cooking a much more sensual experience. I've been chopping blind for a few months now and still have all my fingers intact.

Cakes and pasta are all very well, but meat is a different matter. I haven't yet worked out how to tell if a chicken is safely roasted without sighted help. And I'd worry about serving my children any kind of meat that I wasn't sure had been properly cooked. Much as I like to check the progress of my meals by having a quick nibble, food hygiene dictates that I shouldn't really snack on half-raw pork. So when I do cook with meat I tend to go for mince or well chopped pieces which I can be sure have been thoroughly cooked. I think I'll leave the more inventive meat cooking to others. After all, isn't that what restaurants are for?

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Joined Up Singing

Like most people, I first encountered the Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children when they performed the National Anthem at the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

The Kaos Signing Choir at the Opening Ceremony
(Photo courtesy of Alex Hedley)

At first I was taken aback by the idea of a 'signing choir'. But as I heard and watched them perform I realised that they are a perfect embodiment of the inclusiveness of singing. Singing really is something that everyone and anyone can do.

I was in the choir at school and absolutely loved it. But although I knew how to read music, I could never see any of the music or words I was supposed to be singing. I learnt surreptitiously by ear, secretly copying those around me and mouthing along when I couldn't remember the words. This was fine at Christmas time, when we did the same carols year after year, but it wasn't ideal when we moved onto more complicated music. Even if I wore my reading glasses, I would have to hold the music so close to my face that any sound I made would be immediately swallowed up again.  

About four years ago I discovered that singing can be just as inclusive as the Kaos Choir demonstrates. 'Joined Up Singing' is a community choir based in Headington, Oxford. We sing music from around the world and every song is taught by ear. This means the tutor sings a line and we listen and then sing it back. This is repeated over and over until everyone can sing the whole song. We learn three or four songs a week and have built up a repertoire which we perform at local community events.

Joined Up Singing has taught me to listen better both to others and to myself. It has taught me that singing by ear can help ease stress, improve concentration and promote health and wellbeing. But most of all it has taught me not to hide my blindness. At school I pretended I could see much more than I can. Now I no longer need to pretend because sight is no longer a pre-requisite to singing. I can sing just as well with my eyes closed. And I often do. My favourite part of the session is the final fifteen minutes where we sing in the dark, with only a candle shining in the middle of the circle. I always close my eyes as soon as the lights go out (sometimes before) and revel in the freedoom darkness brings me. When I know that no-one can see me I forget about sight altogether and focus instead on making and hearing sounds.

There is no better time to start singing. The Kaos Children's Choir showed the world that singing can be inclusive. The wonderful Gareth Malone made choirs out of a whole range of unwilling or unlikely singers. And community choirs like Joined Up Singing put inclusivity into action by being open to everyone.

If this post has inspired you to join a community choir, the Natural Voice Network has information on choirs and events running throughout the UK