When I worked at Autism Queensland, where my job was to inform employees about the latest research in autism, I read an article about the experiences of young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) immediately following the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy. People with autism often rely on routine and sometimes process sensory information differently to typically developing folk. Unsurprisingly, the study found that the adaptive functioning (ie the skills they use to adapt to everyday life) of the young people with ASD declined after the earthquake.
I thought of this study as I read Defying Doomsday earlier this year. This collection of short stories was edited by AWW’s own Tsana Dolchiva and Holly Kench, who noticed that there was a lack of characters with disability or chronic illness in fiction about the apocalypse. Likewise, this study mentioned that there was no research on the impact of natural disasters upon people with autism. There is clearly a sore need, in both our real and imagined worlds, for contemplation of disability and apocalypse.
And this seems strange, for people with disability, as Robert Hoge writes in his introduction to the stories, ‘live in a post-apocalyptic world. Stairs remain at stubborn right angles. Communications can wash over us, unheard, unseen. Some social interactions elude—a millimetre away, a mile away … So much of our world is a not-made-for-us space that disaster may as well have already struck. And that’s exactly what makes the stories in this anthology so crunchy and interesting—we are already fighting and thriving in interesting and diverse ways. When the apocalypse comes, we’ve got a head start.’
It’s a great note to begin with – people assume that when the world falls apart, people with disabilities will be a burden, but these stories challenge that idea. There is a character with autism – Holly – who keeps herself alive through precise measurements of when the lethal rains will arrive, and by methodically sealing of her clothes with tape before she sets outside (‘Something in the Rain’, Seanan McGuire). Most of the neurotypical people she knows, by contrast, are caught by the rain, and dissolve.
The story I enjoyed most was Tansy Rayner Roberts’ ‘Did We Break the End of the World?’, not only because it had deaf protagonists but because it was very well crafted, with a twist that related to the characters’ hearing. The characters have personality and verve, with different degrees of deafness – Jin can sign and also uses hearing aids, and takes them out when he needs some peace or when he’s pissed off and wants to ignore someone – I found it a very good representation.
I also liked ‘Octavia Cade’s ‘Portabello Blind’, which follows a blind, fourteen year old girl deserted in a research lab in Dunedin. Anna knows the layout of the buildings, but when it comes to catching food such as fish, things get difficult. The sensory detail is pronounced, as it is for most people who lose a sense – their brain compensates by finding extra information through their other senses. In Cade’s story, this adds a richness and precision to the writing: ‘There were life jackets in the shed. She put one on and it smelled of salt and rubber, of plastic. The life jacket had a whistle attached: a sharp, high sound like a gull.’ And ‘Anna could smell the tides, knew when they were out. The soft-sweet scent of mud was a dead giveaway.’ Although it’s a muted story, the reader identifies with Anna’s sense of achievement at learning to survive. This, I think, is the best thing about fiction - it puts readers in other people's shoes and helps them to imagine what life is like for those who have disabilities.
The stories are set in towns, cities and outer space, but there isn’t a whole lot of nature throughout, which I thought was strange. Even in an apocalypse, nature persists, and can be the cause of apocalypses too (as with the Italian earthquake). The protagonists are also all fairly young. This is no bad thing, particularly as there’s a lack of positive young adult literature about people with disabilities in general, as I wrote in a post for a focus on Australian women writers with disability at AWW in March. However, disability affects people of all ages, and I was left wondering what it would be like for parents or grandparents with disability, for example, who needed to care for their families in an apocalypse.
These are minor quibbles, though, in an anthology that shows people with disability negotiating difficult circumstances with ingenuity, stoicism, and a sense of humour – the qualities that get us through our everyday lives in the 21st century.
This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.