Addressing Ableism in Editing: An Interview with Amanda Leduc
Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews, U.K., and is the author of the non-fiction book Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space (Coach House Books, 2020) and the novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men (ECW Press, 2013). Her new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was published in February 2021 with Penguin Random House Canada. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ont., where she works as the communications coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.
On Sunday, June 13, 2021, at 3 p.m. ET, Amanda will give the second keynote address at the Editors Canada virtual conference, Editors Transform.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sue Archer: At your recent launch for your novel The Centaur’s Wife, you talked about how it was harder to write compared to your non-fiction book Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. Was your experience of being edited also different for fiction versus non-fiction?
Amanda Leduc: That’s an interesting question. The writing of Disfigured felt like such a gift, and I think it had a lot to do with arriving at a point where I was ready. I’d become the person who was comfortable with my own narrative and it fell out very naturally. The editing process was still in depth — Melanie Little and I went through it chapter by chapter and considered various things — but I didn’t feel like the overall structure of it changed. It kind of came out right from beginning to end. (I know that will probably never happen again!)
That definitely wasn’t the case for The Centaur’s Wife. It was an idea which got expanded into a book. I feel in today’s world, editors don’t sign books on ideas anymore — they take them when they’re more or less finished. I’m so thankful to Anne Collins for taking the chance on that book. I think it was six drafts over the course of three years. It was a lot. And having Anne speak at its launch was so invaluable. I mean, she’s been such an integral part of that particular book.
SA: It was great to hear from her as your editor. She talked about her role of helping the author see what they’re making. What do you see as the role of the editor, especially from your perspective as a disability advocate?
AL: I’ve been pretty lucky on the whole in terms of the editors I’ve worked with. I’ve also had some experience as an editor of non-fiction, working for Big Truths, and I got quite comfortable with what Anne mentioned at the launch — you’re essentially invested in something, but it’s not yours. There’s something to be said for that experience as a writer: to be able to look at your work dispassionately and see where certain things come through and need to be amplified.
I’ve only ever worked with one openly disabled editor, Alice Wong (the creator of the Disability Visibility Project), and she was great. Then when I was writing Disfigured, I had a sensitivity reader go over it who is from the disability community. They were looking for very specific disability-related things which translated into significant edits for the book. That was gratifying and also eye-opening in many ways, because they brought up so many interesting points that I would not have had through just my editorial team.
It really did highlight for me how important it is that we work to get more disability representation in editorial specifically. I think there’s a lot of nuance that sometimes can get missed. It’s not just about teaching the current crop of editors how to do diverse things. It’s also about getting people with diverse lived experience and marginalized experiences in particular into various publishing roles and positions of power.
SA: You’re delivering a keynote on identifying ableism in language and storytelling at the upcoming Editors Canada Conference in June. Could you share a little bit about what you’ll be talking about?
AL: Something I find really interesting is that ableist language in and of itself is not specific at all. If I say my dog is driving me “crazy,” I actually mean my dog is making me very frustrated. I’m angry at my dog because she ate the couch, or you know, my manuscript. We have a responsibility to be specific in the language we use. And when we fall back on ableist language, which at its heart is a cliché, we’re falling back on tropes that can also potentially harm people. Ultimately as an editor, you want writers to push themselves, to make sure the language they are using is clear. I think in many ways ableist language obscures meaning in very particular ways that we don’t think about and need to discuss more.
The non-disabled world also often feels that disability is something that happens to someone and somehow makes their life less. The language we use enforces that in ways that are very subtle, like saying someone is “bedridden” or “confined” to a wheelchair or “suffers” from a disability. We really need to examine that as editors. We need to think about what it means when someone is using language like that even in an offhand way.
SA: I was just having a discussion today with someone who objected to the word “disabled,” saying person-first language should be used. But I know some disability activists prefer “disabled” to “person with a disability.”
AL: Identity-first versus person-first language is also intrinsically tied to the idea that disability somehow makes a person less. The reason people pushed for person-first language initially was because society was defaulting to thinking of disability as a bad thing, and that to acknowledge up front in language that someone had a disability was to state that they were a lesser version of a human being. I feel we need to challenge that core assumption.
There are, however, lots of people in the disability community who still prefer person-first language. Their argument is that we need to push society to view disabled people as people first.
In my view as a disability activist, I think you should take it for granted that I am a person, even though I walk differently than everybody else. There’s nothing wrong or sad about my existence just as there’s nothing wrong or sad about the existence of anybody who comes into the world. I don’t see anything wrong with saying I’m a disabled woman. I do have a limp which will probably get worse as I get older. That’s just a reality of who I am.
SA: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share on the topic of disability and storytelling?
AL: Someone once told me about a disabled character she wrote into a novel — there was a sex scene involving him, and her editor asked her to take it out because it made her uncomfortable. She viewed the disabled person as being taken advantage of because she assumed he wouldn’t have the same kind of agency as a non-disabled person.
We have a real tendency to simplify things and say all disabled people need to be treated in a particular way, rather than adapting the way we look at things for each particular situation. One of the goals of disability activism is to get everyone to understand that we all move through the world in different ways. I want us to get to a world where everybody is being represented on the page and people with lived experience have an equal opportunity to talk about their individual experiences.
The writer Adam Pottle (author of Voice: On Writing with Deafness) did a great Twitter thread on portrayals of disability in Hollywood. He talked in particular about Daniel Day-Lewis and his portrayal in My Left Foot. Adam said, you know, for me, when I watch, all I see is Daniel Day-Lewis acting disabled. He doesn’t seem like he’s acting a character. He’s putting all of his energy and effort into things like how would this character move. It was such a key and interesting insight to me because it’s true. I think for many of us who have either been born disabled or become disabled, you learn to adapt and you learn to move in your particular way and it just becomes a part of who you are, even as it becomes something that shapes your entire existence.
I don’t spend my day walking around and saying, oh, I limp. I just move. But I do try to draw attention to how my disability has shaped me in order to get the wider world to understand what it needs to do in order to help make this shaping into a better experience.
To hear Amanda’s upcoming keynote speech, please register for the 2021 Editors Canada Conference.
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