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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Man Booker Prize for (Audio) Fiction

The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It is a clever, moving and deeply imaginative book and a worthy winner. But if the judges had read the shortlisted books by ear rather than by eye it would not have won. 

This year I listened to all 6 shortlisted books and chose my own winner based on what I heard. I was using the same literary-merit criteria as the judges, but I added another element that sight-focused readers couldn't take into account: how the audio version of the book contributed to the reading experience. 

Audio books used to be the preserve of bind people. When I was a child, they were a rare and precious thing. Now they are mainstream. Publishers routinely produce downloadable audio books alongside kindle and paper versions and a lot of (sighted) people prefer them; audible is a thriving amazon company and public libraries are finally making audio books available to download via apps like overdrive and Libby. And with popularity come production values. The audio books of my youth were little more than a voice on tape. Now publishers go to great lengths to create a memorable reading experience. They carefully choose a narrator (or narrators) whose voice matches the feel of the story. Sometimes they even add music. Yet despite the popularity of audio books, they are still not taken seriously by 'serious' (aka sighted) readers. When I tell my literature students and colleagues that I read books by ear they are skeptical. 'Audio books send me to sleep,' they say. 'How do you remember what you read?' they ask. This cynicism is insulting because it implies that blind people cannot engage with literature to the same extent as sighted people. More worryingly, it misses one of the points of prose. All the writers shortlisted for the Man Booker care deeply about how their prose sounds. The content of their book is important, but so is its form. They are all writer-poets who crafted their words for rhythm and rhyme as well as sense. Their audio books are the perfect place to experience the beauty of this prose. Yet they are still seen as less 'authemtic', less 'proper' than the printed 'original'. 

Lincoln in the Bardo would not have won an audio Booker because it was almost impossible to follow by ear. Apparently the printed format of the book is 'disconcerting': this is even more the case for the audio version. So much so that I gave up listening twice before I finally got through it. According to audible, the book's 'dazzling chorus of voices' was captured by a '166-person full cast featuring award-winning actors and musicians, as well as a number of Saunders' family, friends, and members of his publishing team'. This may sound impressive in a press-release but it leads to a wholly unfeasible listening experience. Even if I were endowed with the mythical super-hearing erroneously attributed to blind people, I would not be able to recognize and attribute 166 different voices. When I listened I only got the vaguest sense of who was speaking, and I learnt more about the story from audible's synopsis than from what I actually heard. This audio book probably works brilliantly as an accompaniment to or adaptation of the printed novel. But if audio is your own way of accessing this text, then you will be frustrated and alienated by it. 

The other 5 shortlisted books all make the much more sensible decision to stick with just one audio narrator. Of these, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and Elmet by Fiona Mozley are first-person narratives told by adolescents and both are read by audio-narrators whose voices have the age, gender and accent of their book's narrator: a young North American woman (Caitlin Thornburn) for Wolves and a young Northern English man (Gareth Bennett-Ryan) for Elmet. The fit between fictional and audio voices creates a close bond between listener and storyteller because both audio-narrators do an excellent job of capturing the tone of their protagonists. I am sure that my listening experience of these two novels was more captivating and immersive than that of my sight-reliant peers.

Ali Smith's Autumn is written in the third person, but much of the story is told from the perspective of the novel's protagonist, 32-year-old Elisabeth Demand, using free indirect style. The audio-narrator, Melody Grove, sounds close to Elisabeth in age and provenance, but she also manages to capture other key characters such as 8-year-old Elisabeth, Daniel, and Elisabeth's mother using changes in tone and inflection. Autumn works as an audio book because it has several underlying thematic threads which hold it together; it felt like the audio-narrator understands this and cleverly emphasizes them in her reading.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is also written in the third person but it is less successful than Autumn because it has not one but two protagonists: Nadia and Saeed. The presence of two characters of different genders makes the choice of audio-narrator difficult. If a male narrator is chosen, there is a risk that the listener feels closer to Saeed's story, whereas a female narrator will create a bond which favours Nadia's perspective. In the end, anglo-Indian actor Ashley Kumar was probably cast as audio-narrator because his voice resonates with both the novel's context and the author's persona. Despite the captivating and timely story, and the characters' powerful portrayals, I felt a distance between audio narrator and listener in this book which I did not experience in Autumn.

At 37 hours long, Paul Auster's 4321 takes about as long to listen to as the other 5 put together, and what a delight it was. 4321 is the only shortlisted book entirely narrated by its author. (Apparently George Saunders is one of Lincoln's 166 voices but I couldn't tell which one). When it is done well, as it is here, author-narration works brilliantly. No-one understands how a book should sound better than its author. I was seduced by Auster's narration of Ferguson's lives from very early on in the narrative. Not only did his voice match the main character's personas, his intimate knowledge of the text added a dimension of fluency and connection which brought another layer of emotion and understanding to the reading experience. For this reason, 4321 would be my audio Booker winner, with History of Wolves, Elmet and Autumn close behind.

As more and more people choose audio books over print versions, it seems crucial to include an audio reader among the Man Booker judges. I would happily volunteer.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction out now!

This image shows the front cover of Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction by Hannah Thompson. Above the title, a hand is shown reading a sheet of Braille. 

I am delighted to announce that my book Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction has been published by Palgrave in their Literary Disability Studies series.

In this work I show how and why French fiction is fascinated with visions of blindness by identifying and analysing the complicated relationship between writers, readers and fictions of blindness that permeates French fiction. Blindness is a mysterious phenomenon. It arouses curiosity and invites discussion. It is also a multi-layered and multi-faceted collection of narratives. Writers are drawn to blindness precisely because blindness itself is a collection of stories. The stereotypes, clichés and misconceptions which constitute what most non-blind people describe as “blindness”, have been described by David Bolt as a literary “metanarrative”. Whilst many French depictions of blindness reinforce and conform to the various strands of Bolt's mostly negative metanarrative, my work focuses on more positive depictions which question, undermine or deconstruct the prevailing myths of blindness. I re-view a selection of the most interesting, surprising and moving depictions of blindness in French fiction by authors including Brigitte Aubert, Honoré de Balzac, Georges Bataille, Tonino Benacquista, Maxime du Camp, Lucien Descaves, André Gide, Jean Giono, Hervé Guibert, Victor Hugo, Thérèse-Adèle Husson, Paul Margueritte, Guy de Maupassant, Marc Monnier, Maurice Renard, Didier Van Cauwelaert, Fred Vargas and Romain Villet.

Works by these authors contest and overturn received ideas of blindness through both the form and the content of their fiction. When blindness sheds its metaphorical meanings and exists as part of a narrative on its own terms, it becomes a positive signifier of change, desire, success and enhanced subjectivity.


Chapter 1: Introduction
I begin my re-viewing of French fictional depictions of blindness by calling for a rejection of negative misconceptions of blindness. The most interesting depictions of blindness in French fiction are those which challenge stereotypes of blindness and the emerging field of Critical Disability Studies provides us with the theoretical tools needed to do this.

Chapter 2: The French Metanarrative of Blindness
I survey those literary depictions of blindness which reinforce the metanarrative of blindness discussed by David Bolt. Maupassant’s short story ‘The Blind Man’ evokes the blindness-ignorance and blindness-darkness synonymies whilst also using nominalisation and generalisation to dehumanise its protagonist. Blind male characters are represented as weaker, less active and less able to access language than their non-blind peers. Female blind characters, on the other hand, are often portrayed as meek and passive victims of their condition. Non-blind characters routinely trick, pity and manipulate blind characters in these typhlophobic fictions of blindness. The chapter ends with an analysis of André Gide’s The Pastorale Symphony which shows how myths of the blind mystic and of sensory compensation emphasise blind protagonists’ otherness.

Chapter 3: The Creative ‘Look’ of the Blind ‘Seer’
This chapter marks the beginning of  my sustained examination of the creative possibilities of blindness. Through close-readings of novels and short stories by Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Thérèse-Adèle Husson, I show that the unseeing gaze of the blind protagonist often transforms him or her into a surrogate narrator who is paradoxically more adept at gathering information than the sighted narrators usually present in realist texts. In works which feature blind narrators, the process of information gathering and dissemination becomes an even more overt challenge to the traditional supremacy of the sense of sight.

Chapter 4: Non-Visual Language and Descriptive Blindness
This chapter considers works by Hervé Guibert, Jean Giono, Romain Villet and Lucien Descaves which use blind characters to sensitise the reader to the descriptive power of non-visual language. In Blindsight, Guibert uses visually impenetrable language to stimulate his readers’ other senses whereas in The Song of the World, Giono mobilises the presence of a blind character to signal his use of non-visual description throughout the novel. My detailed reading of Descaves’ extraordinary novel of blindness, The Trapped, reveals not only that non-visual description is a highly effective way of communicating with a non-blind reader, but that Descaves includes braille in his novel in order to temporarily exclude his sighted readers.

Chapter 5: Male Desire and the Paradox of Blind Sexuality
In the first part of this chapter, I use readings of scenes of castration and pornographic pleasure from Hervé Guibert’s Blindsight and Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye to suggest that both authors undermine the traditional dominance of the voyeuristic male gaze. In the second part, I explore how the non-visual eroticism suggested by the blindness-castration association is manifested in the descriptions of blind male desire found in Lucien Descaves’s The Trapped and Romain Villet’s Look.

Chapter 6: Silenced Sexualities: Listening to the Voice of the Blind Woman
Unlike the examples of blind male desire discussed in the previous chapter, the voices of blind female characters are much harder to hear. Blind female protagonists often remain silent in their texts: they are frequently unspeaking objects of the sighted male gaze and when they do speak, their words are often filtered through the voice of the male narrator. Detailed readings of Thérèse-Adèle Husson’s Reflections and Didier van Van Cauwelaert’s Jules shows how it is possible for a blind woman to subvert many of the stereotypes of blindness in order to express herself.

Chapter 7: Blind Assassins
This is the first of two chapters to focus on a specific literary genre, in this case the roman noir. Close readings of detective fiction by Fred Vargas and Brigitte Aubert show how this traditionally ocularcentric genre can be subverted by the presence of blind characters who encourage both other characters and the reader to reconsider the assumptions they routinely make about blindness. By comparing how male and female blind detective figures relate differently to the crimes they are solving, I also show, in chapters 5 and 6, that blind men and blind women are treated differently by both friends and enemies.

Chapter 8: Science, Fantasy and (In)Visible Blindness
Science fiction’s fascination with invisibility tells us more about blindness than it does about vision. Taking Maurice Renard as my main example, my detailed readings of The Blue Peril and The Doctored Man show that rather than reinforcing the supremacy of vision in the hierarchy of the senses, narratives which present us with different ways of seeing can in fact be read as celebrations of the powers and possibilities of blindness.

Chapter 9: Conclusion
I use Tonino Benacquista’s critically acclaimed 1991 roman policier, La commedia des rat
és to show how French fiction’s most interesting representations of blindness are those which draw attention to a range of stereotypes of blindness before using surprising imagery, plot twists, characterization or stylistic features to undermine the reader’s expectations. This novelistic subversion encourages the reader to look again – or re-view – his or her understanding of blindness. Blindness is best understood as a multi-faceted and multi-layered collection of narratives which, when re-viewed together, testify to the powerfully creative potential of blindness. 

Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction is available as a hardback or e-book from Palgrave or amazon. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please get in touch.  

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A Sensory Tour of the Watts Gallery

As part of my ongoing work on creative audio description, I have been collecting different ways of experiencing museums. In March I had two very different experiences at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester. This weekend I took part in a sensory tour of the Watts Gallery, led by visual artist Monica Takvam. The Watts Gallery is a collection of late-nineteenth-century painting and sculpture by British artist G F Watts, one of the leading artists of Victorian England.

When we met Monica, she explained that rather than giving us a traditional audio-described tour of the paintings, she wanted to take a much more immersive approach to the collection. Before leading us into the gallery itself, Monica asked us to think about the surrounding grounds. We were encouraged to listen to our surroundings and asked to choose words to describe our sense impressions. Once in the gallery, Monica encouraged us to break with conventional ways of experiencing art. Rather than looking at the paintings and sculptures, she asked us to smell them and to find any that smelt particularly strongly. It had never occurred to me before that even sculptures which are more than one-hundred years old still smell of their materials. Paintings too carry the smell of oil paints in them, and a stronger smell can suggest several layers of paint.

This photograph shows me with my nose pressed close to Watts' cast-iron bust of Clytie

Instead of describing the whole collection, Monica focused on one picture, Watts' painting of Greek mythological figure Clytie. First, Monica encouraged the non-blind members of the group to participate in a collaborative description of the painting. Then she took us outside to a half-hidden sunken garden where we were able to touch a stone bust of Clytie which Watts made as a study for the painting. We also had the chance to explore the cast-iron bust pictured above. By juxtaposing painting and busts, Monica cleverly used Watts' own artistic practice to create a sensory experience of the painting.

In the final part of the tour, Monica, who is the artist-in-residence at the Watts Gallery this year, introduced us to her own work. I was particularly drawn to two photographic portraits of blind people hanging on the wall of her studio.

This photograph shows one of Monica's artworks. It represents a man's head and shoulders. The man's features appear blurred because they are behind a sheet of Perspex. Holes in the Perspex form words in braille. 

This portrait is hanging on the wall of Monica's studio at the Watts Gallery. Monica invited us to touch the Perspex cover and explore the holes pierced in it. The holes spell out words in braille but these words are too difficult for a braille reader to understand: like David Johnson's art installation they are 'Too Big to Feel'; they are also absences rather than raised dots. Sighted viewers are just as frustrated in their quest for information. Through these holes we are given tantalising glimpses of the photograph beneath. but it is not possible to build up a complete picture of the man's face. This piece challenges both blind and non-blind ways of seeing. It remains impervious to the sighted gaze whilst also denying blind readers easy access to it. It raises questions about how we see and how we look at other people. It also creates an association between blindness and sightedness which emphasises their shared lack of perception.

This photograph is a close-up of the Perspex cover with the braille holes in focus. Details from the photograph are visible through the holes whilst the portrait itself remains blurred.

Like her art, Monica's tour brought blindness and sightedness into dialogue. As well as myself, our group included one completely blind adult, two non-blind adults and two non-blind children. Rather than focusing on the blind members of the group, Monica included everyone: by privileging all our senses, and by thus introducing new ways of experiencing art, she encouraged everyone to rethink their relationship with visual dependency and to explore their neglected senses.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Braille Legacy: the irony of (lack of) access

When I heard that a French musical about the life of Louis Braille was opening in London my heart sank. How, I wondered, could the production possibly avoid the stereotypes of blindness in a genre which thrives on cliche-ridden songs of sentimental pity or triumphant overcoming? Luke-warm reviews of the show confirmed my fears, as did the director's controversial decision not to cast a single blind or partially-blind actor. Disability activist MIchele Taylor criticised the show for its 'spectacular cripping-up' of blindness as well as for its failure to employ any blind cast or crew: she boycotted the show for these reasons. Despite not being able to attend an AD performance - out of 90 performances, only 2 were audio described and they were both on the same bank holiday weekend when I was out of town - my curiosity got the better of me...

...and on one level it was rather better than I was expecting. An outstanding performance by Jack Wolfe as turbulent, intelligent (and actually quite sexy) bad-boy Braille and some pretty good tunes led to an enthralling and moving evening: on the whole the play did a very good job of telling an important and little-known story. But there were also some serious problems....

From Vocaleye's helpful introduction to the play I learnt about the over-complicated glass and wood two-storey set, the unnecessarily detailed period costumes and the fact that all the blind characters in the play wear blindfolds to symbolize their blindness. 

Wait. Blindfolds? Really? 
Yep. Blindfolds. 

In their introduction, the describers explain that 'All the actors in the production are sighted.  Blindness is indicated by gauzy black cloths worn as blindfolds.'

This use of blindfolds to represent physical blindness is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it suggests that blindness is these children's only defining characteristic; their blindfolds stigmatize them, positing them as a homogeneous and marginal group who are diametrically opposed to their sighted teachers and carers. Secondly, it suggests - wrongly - that blindness is always total and always in both eyes. This use of blindfolds reminds me of the controversial use of blindness simulations to allegedly teach sighted people about blindness. Researchers have recently found that simulating blindness can in fact do more harm than good, and I fear that the show's use of blindfolds may have a similar effect. 

But as the play progresses, the blind children sometimes remove their blindfolds, particularly when they are celebrating the invention of the braille alphabet or protesting against the Institute's refusal to let them use braille to read. This removal suggests that the blindfolds do not in fact signify physical blindness at all. Instead they stand for the metaphorical blindness which comes from being denied access to literature and knowledge. This association between blindness and lack of knowledge is of course equally problematic. As David Bolt explains in The Metanarrative of Blindness, the ‘seeing-knowing metaphor’ (p. 18), like the ‘blindness-darkness synonymy’ (p. 21) and the odd idea that people are either fully blind or fully sighted (pp. 69-70) all contribute to sighted society's view that blindness is an affliction in need of a cure or a tragedy in need of a happy-ending. But at least this metaphorical dimension allows the director to make the point that the children are 'blinded' less by their physical lack of sight than by society's insistence on using sighted means to communicate information. 

Importantly, as well as telling the story of the invention of braille, the plot of The Braille Legacy includes a sinister suggestion that an over-zealous ophthalmologist at the Institute was secretly conducting dangerous, even fatal, experiments on the children's eyes in a bid to find a 'cure' for blindness. Happily, this medicalization of blindness is countered by the play's more sympathetic characters who argue that blind children do not want or need a cure: instead all they need is a simple and universal way of accessing information. This tension between cure and societal change echoes the tension between the 'medical' and 'social' models of disability which still exists today. By associating the cure with the death of innocent children, the play controversially argues against medical intervention and in favour of improved access to literature, culture and the arts. 

Given this insistence that the blind children deserve access to knowledge, it is unspeakably ironic that the play itself was not made accessible to blind audience members. If audio-described performances are too expensive then why not include AD in the show itself? Surely this production would have been ideally suited to the kinds of integrated audio description deployed so effectively by theatre company ExtantWhy not use a simple set rather than a confusing structure with reflective surfaces and glaring spot lights? Things off-stage were no better. Despite the fact that the production was supported by the RNIB, I saw no evidence of braille or large-print programmes. This is a shocking omission as is the fact that the video about the play on the RNIB website is captioned but not audio described. If the RNIB can't lead by example then how can other organisations hope to improve access? To be fair, the front-of-house staff had clearly had some training in how to act as sighted guides, but their techniques, whilst enthusiastic, were clumsy and patronizing in places. Perhaps the play's overall lack of accessibility meant that they did not have many blind audience members to practice on...

Overall, this production represents a massive missed opportunity: whilst the play's script convincingly calls for the emancipation of blind people, this optimistic message is completely undermined by the failure to make the production accessible. Like the embossed books which frustrate Louis in the opening scene, the play was designed by sighted people who have put no thought into the best way for blind people to access its content.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Precious Blindness Archive and Museum Under Threat!

I began Blind Spot Blog immediately after my first research trip to the Valentin Haüy library and museum in Paris in February 2012. My first post is full of excitement at the rare and precious books which I discovered there thanks to the archivist and curator Noëlle Roy. Noëlle retires next month and she learnt recently that she will not be replaced. This raises worrying questions about the future of the books and artifacts in her care.

It is impossible to over-state the significance of the Valentin Haüy collections. The library's founder, Maurice de la Sizeranne (1857-1924), began collecting copies of works of French literature either written by blind authors, or referring to blindness in some way, in 1886. Since then, the library has continued to acquire both fictional and non-fictional material relating to blindness and blind people in French (and to a lesser extent English) and is thus quite simply the single most important collection of literature on blindness in the world. Presumably acquisitions will cease without an archivist to manage them. Many academics, students and general readers have used the collection in their work. Zina Weygand's crucial history of blindness in France owes a significant debt to the collection as does my own forthcoming book Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction. Many of the speakers at the 2013 History of Blindness conference and the 2015 Blind Creations conference referenced the Valentin Haüy collections directly and most of my conference presentations since 2012 draw on material I discovered there.

The collections are a crucial resource for researchers but they also have huge symbolic value. They are housed at the heart of blindness history, next door to the Institut national des jeunes aveugles where Louis Braille was educated and where he developed his eponymous writing system. In addition, Sizeranne's decision to collect works by and about blind people transformed blindness from an affliction into a valuable means of cultural production. His collection legitimized and validated blindness as a life experience and crucially gave a voice to a group of people who had been - and continue to be - silenced by mainstream culture. Any threat to the Haüy collections is a threat to the ongoing exploration of the history of blind people. It is also a threat to research into disability history more broadly. Most importantly though, the threatened loss of access to this collection risks an erasure of the history of a marginalized and under-represented group. If people can no longer access this collection of materials by and about blind people, this history could disappear. Sizeranne began his collection to celebrate and empower blind people. It is deeply sad and shocking that a resource that has been growing for more than 130 years is now under threat.

It feels particularly poignant that I am writing the blog post from the Association canadienne pour les études sur le handicap (Canadian Disability Studies Association) conference in Toronto. Tomorrow I present a paper on Québécoise writer Marie-Claire Blais whose work I first encountered at the bibliothèque Valentin Haüy. Without the Haüy collections I would not be here.

If you want to save the Valentin Haüy collections please e-mail the two directors of the Association Valentin Haüy using the addresses here and here.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Book Review: Patient H69

This image shows the front cover of Vanessa Potter's book. The title - Patient H69  - is presented in the style of the familiar Snellen eye chart. The subtitle - The Story of my Second Sight  - and the author's name sit beneath the eye-chart letters.

Vanessa Potter, otherwise known as Patient H69, lost her sight suddenly over three bewildering days. In this compelling memoir, - part patient diary, part journey into and out of blindness, part popular science book - she describes how her sudden blindness made her feel, what changed as she slowly regained her sight, and how her new way of seeing has changed her outlook on the world and herself.

When Vanessa and her publisher first asked me to read and review her manuscript I was worried that I would find yet another blindness-as-tragedy, triumph-over-adversity story. But Vanessa's refusal to accept the role of passive patient-victim, the pleasure she takes in the new experiences of her 'second sight' and the humorous and articulate way she talks about her own and others' reactions to her new way of seeing, saved this book from becoming yet another self-pitying account of blindness as almost death. 

There is much of interest in Vanessa's tale. Some readers will love the human-interest aspect of Vanessa's story as she describes how her illness impacts on her life as wife, mother, daughter and friend. Some readers will be fascinated by the psychological and neurological explanations which underpin Vanessa's understanding of her condition. I am most interested in what Vanessa's story of sight-loss tells us about how visually-dependent and appearance-obsessed modern society has become. 

It is fascinating to see how Vanessa's attitude to blindness changes. At first, she sees blindness as unimaginably awful, so unspeakable that she bans her family from even using the 'b' word. Although the terror she feels at the possibility of going blind is entirely understandable given how visually dependent sighted people tend to be, the passion with which she articulates her fight against her failing sight nonetheless still feels like an insult to blind people. When she refers to herself as 'staring with that blank, off-centre gaze that blind people have', Vanessa not only lumps all blind people into a homogeneous, alien and unattractive group, she also refuses to relinquish her sighted status, by talking about 'them' as opposed to her. Perhaps it is this inability to see herself as blind that prevents Vanessa from accessing services for blind people. As I read the descriptions of her struggle to weigh herself, her abandonment of reading, and her attempts to write with a giant felt-tip pen I was horrified that no-one offered to help her get hold of some talking scales, an audio book subscription or the kind of free text-to-speech software I discuss here.

After several days of total blindness, Vanessa becomes more appreciative of its nuances and wonders. At the very moment when her sight begins to return, albeit in odd, unpredictable and indescribable ways, Vanessa begins to appreciate the complexity of seeing and not seeing. Her struggle to put her new way of seeing into words is the book's most interesting part. For during this struggle she encounters society's misguided obsession with perfect sight and its consequent need to categorize people as either 'blind' or 'sighted'. Vanessa can read nothing on the Snellen eye chart. She is therefore officially blind. But she can see patterns, shapes, even faces. Yet the medical establishment has no way of measuring this kind of sight. By showing how seeing actually happens on a spectrum, and how it is as much about the brain as it is about the eyes, Vanessa reminds us that everyone sees things differently. No-one has perfect sight so everyone is partially blind.

Vanessa quickly learns to supplement her sight with her other senses and the enjoyment she takes in this new way of relating to the world is a precious reminder that sight is not as necessary as we often think. The multi-sensory nature of Vanessa's prose reflects her other senses' expansion. For example, her description of the sound of the nurses' shoes as an 'invisible symphony' is a clever and synaesthetic way of combining (non)sight with sound to emphasize the power of the latter over the former.

But despite this increasingly multi-sensory approach, which is beautifully and evocatively reflected in her prose, Vanessa refuses to give up her fight for sight. Throughout the book she insists again and again on her need to see. This stubborn reliance on sight is the book's most important, yet most unsettling message: by revealing just how embedded sight is in most people's sense of their own identity, Vanessa unwittingly reveals the complex reasons why most people are terrified of losing their sight. Anyone who is frustrated by society's refusal to acknowledge the validity of their particular way of seeing will find much to relate to in this enthralling account.

Patient H69 is available in print and e-book here. Enter PATIENT at the checkout to receive at 30% discount. It is available from amazon here as a kindle or audio book. At my behest, Bloomsbury have provided descriptions of all the images found in the book here.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery 2

As part of some scoping work for my new research project on creative and collaborative audio description, I have been experiencing AD in various settings. Last week I went to a high-profile (and expensive) exhibition at an internationally renowned university museum whose AD provision was rather limited. Yesterday I went to a small exhibition at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester (Kent) who have adopted a much more inclusive, and impressive, approach.

This photograph shows a poster advertising 'The Value of Touch'

'The Value of Touch' is an exhibition of work by members of the Kent Association for the Blind Medway Art Group curated and facilitated by artist Wendy Daws, whose new touchable art works also feature in the exhibition. Yesterday's tour was particularly remarkable for the layers of interconnected and collaborative audio and tactile experience it revealed and encouraged. At the beginning of the project, in July 2016, the artists were given an audio and tactile tour of objects in the Guildhall Museum's collections by the collections manager Steve Nye. They then worked with Wendy to create tactile art works inspired by the museum's artifacts. Not only was art created in response to tactile and audio experience, it also had tactility embedded within it. This meant that yesterday's audio described tour, delivered by Lonny Evans from VocalEyes, could easily incorporate a tactile element because all the art works were designed to be touched as well as looked at. In addition, Wendy added her own touchable art works to the show.

This photograph shows Wendy's artistic responses to the artists' work. Lonny's audio description says: "'Low Relief Tactile Representations' captures in tactile form the key artworks from the exhibition. A significant motif from each of the artists' work has been selected and rendered in 11 separate crystacal plaster plaques moulded from carved clay. The raised plaques are creamy white and about the size of a large side plate. They are embedded in two rows into a purpose built grey table." What Lonny doesn't say is that beneath the artworks is a sign, in print and braille, which says 'Please touch gently'.
These artistic responses to the artists' responses to the museum's objects create a third layer of tactile experience which visitors can explore alongside the artworks. Lonny's description adds an audio layer. When experienced together these four elements represent both an artistic response and a tactile-audio translation; a brilliant example of how access can be literally built into art and how art can be inspired by access as well as being mediated through it.

After describing the general layout of the exhibition spaces, Lonny gave us an audio account of a selection of the artworks on display before letting us touch both the artworks themselves and some of the artifacts which inspired them. Lonny also included quotations from the artists and those artists who were present also spoke about their own works. The result was an immersive, collaborate and inclusive audio and tactile experience which enabled visitors to experience art in a multi-sensory way.

As well as writing and delivering the AD script, Lonny has agreed to make it available online so that anyone can use it as part of their gallery experience. This means that blind (and sighted!) people can get a sense of the exhibition before, during or after their visit. The museum has also produced large print and braille guides to accompany the exhibition.

When I asked the Ashmolean why they had not produced large print, braille or audio guides for their Degas to Picasso exhibition, they said that it is generally not worth producing such materials for a temporary exhibition. But yesterday's audio tour at the Guildhall Museum''s temporary exhibition gave 20 blind and partially blind people an unforgettable and immersive experience. It is also now available to anyone who wants it. This exhibition is a model of best practice which other museums and galleries should be encouraged to emulate. This is because access is celebrated here for its creative and collaborative potential. It is positioned at the centre of this exhibition, not added (or more often than not omitted) as a costly and cumbersome afterthought.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery

This image is a screenshot from the Ashmolean website. It is made up of three panels. The left-hand panel gives the title of the exhibition, in the middle is a picture of a mother and child which looks like a Picasso (but in fact isn't), and on the right is a panel with further information. 

In the February issue of their Museums Journal, the Museums Association included an article with the somewhat 'no-brainer' title 'Museums need to do more to welcome disabled visitors'. According to the article, whilst museums are keen to point out that their galleries are accessible to wheelchair riders, and that guide dogs are welcome, they do not always make the actual collections accessible to partially blind visitors. This is particularly true of temporary exhibitions and the Ashmolean Museum's current blockbuster show, 'From Degas to Picasso' seemed to be no exception. The show's website reproduces the frustratingly familiar misunderstanding of access evoked in the article. To the Frequently Asked Question: 'Is the exhibition accessible?' they provide the chirpy but misleading response:
Yes. Access to the exhibition is via lift and the entire exhibition is wheelchair accessible with handheld labels available.
Undeterred, I phoned up to ask about availability of audio description headsets, large-print labels or a Braille catalogue, I was not surprised to be told that none of the above existed. But I was delighted to be offered a 1-to-1 audio described tour of the exhibition from a knowledgeable expert-guide.

When I got to the museum, my guide Lynne was waiting for me exactly where I was expecting her to be. She introduced herself, led me up to the exhibition and gave me an overview of the history of the collection and its contents before we went into the three-room show. She then provided me with descriptions of a selection of the pictures, coupled with the kind of information that brings art and its history to life. My friends and family have been describing pictures to me for years, but none of them (apart from my Dad) know enough about art history to combine the kind of objective description used by audio describers with an insight into artistic techniques, context and the painting's place in the collection more generally. As Lynne adapted her descriptions to my interest, sight levels and knowledge of nineteenth-century French art, the tour became a collaborative response to the pictures. Indeed, at one point another gallery-goer chipped in with her interpretation of a detail in one of the exhibits.

The tour had other unexpected consequences. Lynne encouraged me to break the unspoken rule of gallery going and get as close to the paintings as I could. With my nose pressed up against the glass, and her fingers guiding my eyes, I could see globs of paint, brush strokes and chalk marks that I would never have dared to discover otherwise. I also noticed that as we moved from the nineteenth-century realism of David, Ingres and Millais, to the cubist work of Picasso and Braque, Lynne's descriptions reflected the visual difficulty of the pictures. As we together deciphered Albert Gleize's cubist portrait of Stravinsky, for example, our inability to find the language to describe the disjointed shapes on the canvas reflected the picture's own challenge to normative ways of both painting and seeing. I like to think that the cubists' challenge to conventional representation was being echoed in our unconventional approach to the guided tour. Part tour, part audio description, our collaborative exploration of a selection of the exhibition's works felt like a wonderfully immersive way of sharing different ways of seeing and talking about art.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to benefit from Lynne's time and expertise. But I am sure there are lots of partially blind people who will never access this art. Some will be put off by the website's failure to mention audio described tours. Those who are persistent enough to find the right number to call (FYI at the Ashmolean, access is handled by the education department), may not be free on the same days and times as Lynne. (As is so often the case tours are not usually offered on weekends or in the evening). Or they might be put off by the 1-to-1 format. This is wonderful art that everyone should be able to experience. Surely it can't be that difficult or expensive to record or transcribe Lynne's words and make them available in audio, large-print and braille versions for anyone who wants them.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Crowdfunding Appeal: Please Support Cull by Tanvir Bush

Making a crowdfunding pledge is always a bit of a gamble. You are agreeing to back something that you like the sound of, but unless others do the same, there is no guarantee that your support will make a difference. I made my first foray into crowdfunding four years ago when I backed indie documentary 'Best and Most Beautiful Things'. When I received my copy of the film earlier this year I was delighted that my gamble had paid off. You can read more about this wonderful film here.

I backed 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' because it promised to depict blindness in creative and unsentimental ways. Too many representations of blindness in film and fiction trot out tired stereotypes which do nothing to change the largely negative ways that society sees blind people. If we want these attitudes to change, it is essential that positive images of blindness become more prevalent. This is a crucial means of ending discrimination against disabled people. The new satirical novel Cull by partially-blind writer and film-maker Tanvir Bush has the potential to do just that. Not only does it feature a partially-blind heroine but it is billed as 'a fabulous, funny, sharp, outrageous satire about the deadly dark side of discrimination'. And it is endorsed by Fay Weldon. What's not to like?  In addition, the synopsis sounds very promising indeed:
Alex has a problem. Categorized as one of the disabled, dole-scrounging underclass, she is finding it hard to make ends meet. Now, in her part time placement at the local newspaper, she’s stumbled onto a troubling link between the disappearance of several homeless people, the new government Care and Protect Bill and the sinister extension of the Grassybanks residential home for the disabled, elderly and vulnerable. Can she afford the potential risk to herself and her wonderful guide dog Chris of further investigation?
 And the excerpt is definitely worth a read. Having enjoyed Bush's first novel Witch Girl, I know she can write and I'm convinced that this is a novel that needs to be published. I've made my pledge. Will you? Click here to support Cull.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Audio Books and Disability Gain

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful book. And it is a powerful example of the value added to a book by its audio version. It is the story of a family - a father, a mother and four daughters - who move from America to the Congo in the early 1960s. The father, a Baptist missionary, wants to bring the word of Jesus to the people of the village. The women just want to survive. The novel is full of rich descriptions of the plants, animals, food and inhabitants which the family encounter in their new home on the edge of the Congolese jungle. Especially when listened to, it is an immersive and sensual account of place.

The story is told by five alternating voices as the mother and her daughters take turns to speak directly to the reader. All the women have distinctive ways of speaking and they all relate to language in intriguingly different ways. These differences are brilliantly reflected in the audio as the narrator – listed as Robertson Dean (although I have my doubts about this: see * below) – uses different intonation and rhythm for each character. The distinctions made by the audio voice are so strong that when I skip between sections of the book, I can tell which of the five characters is speaking without referring back to the chapter heading introducing them.

But here we come to a problem, one which I blithely skipped over in my previous post about audio books. What should I call the person, in this case, (apparently) Robertson Dean, whose voice I hear in my headphones as I listen to the story? S/he is a reader, but not in the same sense as me, or in the sense of the notion of 'reader' used by literary critics when discussing a text's impact. S/he is also a narrator, but again not in the sense that literary critics use the term: unlike Kingsolver’s five narrative voices, the audio narrator is external to the story, yet also part of it through the voices s/he creates and his or her presence in my head. (We might call this collapsing of outside and inside the audio equivalent of free indirect style). The audio narrator is also a storyteller, in that s/he tells me the story, but as both Kingsolver and her five fictional narrators are also all story tellers, we need a way of distinguishing between them. So what word can I use to describe the work and function of the audio narrator? From now on, and to avoid the kinds of confusion alluded to above, I will use the French word conteur (male) or conteuse (female) – a word meaning variously teller of tales, oral storyteller, out-loud narrator - to refer to the person who has recorded the audio version of a book.

Back to The Poisonwood Bible: the text is particularly suited to being listened to because of its poetry. Adah in particular speaks in rhythmic prose poetry, frequently reversing lines of text or creating long poetic palindromes. Kingsolver plays too with the resonances of the three languages which the family encounter. Their native English becomes increasingly mixed with the French of the Belgian colonizers and the Kituba or Kikongo spoken by the village’s inhabitants. One of the most astonishing benefits of listening to a text rather than reading it is the way its patterns and sounds surround and bewitch you: for days during and after listening to The Poisonwood Bible I have had new words, like maniop, kakakaka, bangala and mongosi scattered through my thoughts and dreams.  I cannot write with the poetry of Kingsolver but I can urge my readers to aurally immerse themselves in this powerfully evocative world.

As well as being an epic story of the effects of colonization, the battles for race and gender equality, the dangers of military rule and the difficulties of democracy, The Poisonwood Bible is also a powerful celebration of disability through the story of Adah.

Despite her final, silent ‘h’, Adah is proud of her palindromic status (indeed I did not know about her ‘h’ until I read about the novel on Wikipedia). She calls herself Ada. Like me Ada is a palindrome, and like me, she is asymmetrical. She was born ‘crooked’ (she has hemiplegia), she walks with a limp and she does not speak until adulthood. Indeed, her palindromic status makes her a poet: she reads front-to-back and back-to-front and her world is full of a magic that she loses when she is later ‘cured’. Most people judge Ada by her physical appearance and treat her as a slow and backward child. She is often forgotten or left behind, most notably on the terrible night of the ant invasion. But her voice - which only the reader hears for much of the narrative - is full of wisdom and wit. As an adult, Ada is cured of her limp and begins to walk ‘normally’. Whilst her family and colleagues are delighted by her new able-bodiedness, Ada herself feels like she has become a different, and less interesting person. Her response to her ‘cure’ resonates strongly with my own feelings about disability gain, exemplified for me by the power of the audio book:

I am still Ada but you would hardly know me now without my slant. I walk without any noticeable limp. Oddly enough, it has taken me years to accept my new position. I find I no longer have Ada, the mystery of coming and going. Along with my split body drag I lost my ability to read in the old way. When I open a book the words sort themselves into narrow minded single file on the page. The mirror image poems erase themselves half-formed in my mind. I miss those poems. Sometimes at night in secret I still limp purposefully around my apartment like Mr Hyde, trying to recover my old ways of seeing and thinking. Like Jekyll I crave that particular darkness curled up within me. Sometimes it almost comes. The books on the shelf rise up in solid lines of singing colour. The world drops out and its hidden shapes snap forward to meet my eyes. But it never lasts. By morning light the books are all hunched together again with their spines turned out, fossilized, inanimate. No one else misses Ada. Not even Mother. She seems thoroughly pleased to see the crumpled bird she delivered finally straighten out and fly right. ‘But I liked how I was’, I tell her. ‘Oh, Adah, I loved you too, I never thought less of you, but I wanted better for you’. Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western civilization. Expect perfection and revile the missed mark. Adah the poor thing. Hemiplegious, egregious, beseigious. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault. But one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance offstage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray! All better now! Hooray! If you are whole, you will argue, why wouldn’t they rejoice? Don’t the poor miserable buggers all want to be like me? Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you or get the Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be alright. How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? (The Poisonwood Bible chapter 13)

* Robertson Dean is credited with the narration of the audio book but I spent the whole novel convinced I was listening to a female conteuse. Having listened to samples of Dean’s other work on the audible website, I am struggling to believe that he is the conteur of Kingsolver’s work. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Best and Most Beautiful Things

This image is the cover of the DVD: it is a shot of Michelle's legs waiting at a pedestrian crossing in the dark. Her white cane is also shown. She is wearing bright pink ballet pumps and mismatched knee-high socks.

In 2013 I was contacted about a crowd sourcing project to fund a documentary about a legally blind student graduating from Perkins School for the Blind. I was pleased to make a donation and a few days ago I received my Kickstarter reward: a free download of Best and Most Beautiful Things. The film, which was released to much critical acclaim, aired on PBS yesterday and is now available to buy as an iTunes download or a DVD with Audio Description. 

Before I watched the film, I was worried that it would be yet another sentimental, 'triumph over tragedy' story about a blind girl overcoming adversity. But knowing that it won 'Best in Fest' at the 2016 International Disability Film Festival 'Superfest' reassured me that I was about to watch a creative and critical depiction of blindness.

'Best and Most Beautiful Things' is indeed a thought-provoking film about blindness. But rather than trying to teach its audience about life with blindness, the film simply shows Michelle going about her daily life. This is a hugely effective way of sharing Michelle's experience without depicting her as victim, object or other. We see her magnifying text on her computer, holding print close to her face and using her white cane. We also see her roller-skating, singing, shopping, getting dressed and skyping. Blindness is part of Michelle's normal. So as we watch the film it becomes part of ours. The film's cinematography helps us share Michelle's way of seeing. Extreme close-ups replicate Michelle's proximity with everything she sees whilst out-of-focus, decentred or jumpy shots echo the world beyond Michelle's field of vision. There are also moments which remind us of the disadvantages and advantages of blindness. I have often experienced Michelle's tearful frustration when fruitlessly searching for a lost object. But on the other hand, her karaoke singing is made more beautiful and more fluent because she is obliged to memorise the lyrics of every song she sings.

This still from the film shows Michelle colouring in a large home-made poster which says 'Unlearning Normal!' in rainbow letters.

In 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' Michelle urges us to 'unlearn normal'. The film shows Michelle's refusal to conform to any of the stereotypes her parents, teachers and acquaintances might have once associated with blindness. Her provocative re-appropriation of the myth of the infantile blind girl is particularly interesting. She challenges some people's tendency to overprotect or talk down to blind people, particularly blind women, by both her proud love of dolls and her discovery and celebration of submissive BDSM age-play. Michelle's sex-positive, non-binary stance is a crucial part of the film's challenge to normal. As the director Garrett Zevgetis puts it in a Q and A for PBS:

Our collective ideas about “normal” can be downright dangerous and thus must consistently be challenged. #HackNormal: The most dangerous and deep rooted normality might be hegemonic masculinity.

We all have a tendency to make assumptions about other people based on our own preconceptions. 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' urges us to rethink how we see others. It is a powerful, touching, yet resolutely unsentimental call for a more tolerant, imaginative and creative society where everyone is valued for who they are.

Watch it.