J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City came out from Penguin in 2013. The sequel, The Seat of Magic debuted July 1. Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com.
One of the more irritating bits of critique I’ve ever received: “Have your POV character feel her way around her bedroom so we know she’s blind.”
Seriously? Is that what people think a blind person does in their own bedroom? Feel their way along the walls like they’re a character in an exaggerated 1920s movie? Or are they the ‘magical’ blind person who goes the other way, never steps a foot wrong, and never walks into the corner of a table?
Back in 2007, Jim Baen’s Universe published my short story “Touching the Dead.” The main character, Shironne Anjir, is a young empathic girl who goes blind when her sense of touch suddenly expands, taking up more of her brain’s sensory abilities. Fortunately for her, her empathic abilities give her a sense of where some–although not all–people are in relation to her. That doesn’t help her a bit if someone moves a chair out of its normal spot or scatters wooden blocks across the floor. Or if she’s left unaided in a place where she’s never been before.
But she does not need to feel her way around her own bedroom. In a space that she controls, one with which she’s familiar, she’s independent.
Try it sometime. In your own bedroom, close your eyes and ask yourself if you remember where your bed is. Where is your dresser? How far is it back to the door? If you can do that much, imagine how much easier it would be for someone who practices it every single day.
Go outside with a blindfold on and sit in a chair for a while. What do you hear? (This time of year, for me, it’s a preponderance of cicadas.) Notice the wind touching your face, and whether you can feel the sun on your skin. Better yet, try going out when it’s raining. The world suddenly takes on more definition. Rain sounds different as it hits different objects: a car windshield, the sidewalk, asphalt. It changes the smell of everything. An approaching person’s clothes will absorb the sound of the rain, but their shoes will still squish in the water. An approaching person with an umbrella is a different thing altogether, the water pattering against the umbrella’s taut fabric high off the ground.
Picking up those types of details isn’t a superpower. The blind person who uses that sort of information to get around isn’t magical. They’re practiced. They work hard at it, actually paying attention to the senses that most of us shunt aside as secondary.
At the moment, I’m working on a novel with Shironne Anjir as my protagonist (Dreaming Death). As an author who isn’t blind, I have to work hard to try to understand the character’s situation. How hard does she have to work to compensate? In what situations is she independent, and when does she need help? After four years of blindness, does she even remember what things look like?
I’ve read several books about going blind (a favorite is Touching the Rock by John Hull), I’ve watched TV and movies and documentaries, and I’ve even tried the blindfold. I’ve worn a blindfold for entire days, moving around my house and trying to do chores. Laundry was the worst; I have an unfortunate tendency to buy multiples of things I like in various colors, so I’m not sure if shirt x is the white one or the identical one in navy blue.
If I were blind, I would need to come up with a way to distinguish the two garments. Since I’m not, I can just cheat and peek out from under the blindfold.
This is where my faux-blindness falls apart. Blindness has always been a temporary situation for me, engaged in for research purposes only, with the full knowledge that I can go back to sightedness by removing a blindfold. To grasp what it’s like to know my sight will never return…for that I have to rely on the experience of others who have written about losing their sight.
But I do have to make that effort. As a writer I want to do the best job I can of representing my character’s difficulties and skills accurately. I will never completely understand the world of a blind character. I’m very aware of that. But I do know that my character is neither the girl feeling her way around in the dark, nor the super-heroine who knows where everything is without effort. It’s the balance between those two extremes-how real people act-that I’m seeking for her.