For our latest focus on Australian women writers with disability, we have a guest post post from Tsana Dolichva about the process the creation of Defying Doomsday, a collection of apocalypse-survival stories featuring protagonists with disabilities. Tsana is an astrophysicist and a science fiction writer from Melbourne who, when she isn’t reading, writing or blogging, studies dying stars. She co-edited Defying Doomsday with Holly Kench, a writer and feminist who also manages Visibility Fiction for the promotion and publication of inclusive young adult fiction. We are very excited to feature these two wonderful women writers and their work!
The idea for Defying Doomsday came to me one day while I was reading the YA World War II novel, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. In that novel, featuring an American girl in a Nazi concentration camp, there is a scene in which the Nazi guards make the prisoners stand outside for hours on end, and punish them if they sit down or fall over. I remember thinking, “Well that would be how I would die in that situation,” — I can only stand for about an hour without feeling unwell, and eventually I faint, especially if I’m not allowed to move at all. But another element of Rose Under Fire was a group of Polish women who had been experimented on, medically, and now had various problems, mostly with their legs. Although the novel itself was fiction, these women really did exist (there’s a bit of info and links to more about them on Elizabeth Wein’s website as well as Wikipedia) and a staggeringly large number of them made it through the war and out of the camp alive. All this despite their disabilities.
It got me thinking. Here was a real world example of people banding together to help each other get through a horrifying situation even though they were not physically fit. Why was this not an idea explored in apocalypse fiction? A lot of apocalypse fiction strongly features the idea of “survival of the fittest” and implies (or sometimes shows) that disabled people will be the first to die when disaster strikes. But this isn’t even a valid assumption in real life. I wanted to make something that belied the narrative that disabled people aren’t survivors and apocalypse fiction seemed like an ideal vehicle for it. And so Defying Doomsday was conceived.
I got Holly on board and we fleshed out the idea so that we could pitch it to Twelfth Planet Press. We wanted to make an anthology of short fiction in which all the stories had disabled or chronically ill protagonists shown surviving an apocalypse or in a post-apocalyptic world. We wanted to avoid clichéd stories in which survivors were running around with guns shooting other survivors to “protect” themselves or stories with a heavy focus on “every man for themselves” (unless there was literally no one else around). Stories where no one helps each other also aren’t realistic — you don’t have to look far to find news stories of people helping each other when disaster strikes. And, importantly, we wanted to avoid some of the harmful tropes we’d come across in fiction and media, such as the magical disabled character, or the character that exists only to make the able-bodied main characters look good, or any “inspiration porn”.
Once we started looking at what books were already out there with disabled or chronically ill characters, there wasn’t very much. Not nothing — the anthology Accessing the Future, edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad, was put together in a similar (but less apocalyptic) vein, and there have been a few novels and so forth which have centred characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses. I wrote a blog post about ten of them here. But it’s a pretty underrepresented group, especially when you only consider good representation. With 15% of the world having some sort of disability (here’s a detailed WHO report on the matter), it’s a pretty significant minority to be leaving out of fiction.
We hope that Defying Doomsday helps at least a little bit to address the imbalance. Of course, with only room for fifteen stories we couldn’t include every kind of disability or chronic illness. We tried to include a spread and to keep up diversity in characters and the types of stories told. We hope that, if nothing else, our book makes a few people feel less invisible as well as being fun to read.