August 13, 2014

Rachel DeWoskin

A beautiful mind within the darkness
Interview by
We caught up with the author to talk about her blind character, coming to terms with tragedy and much more.
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The last thing Emma saw before going blind was the bright, spinning colors of fireworks—and then it all went dark. In the sensitively rendered and beautifully written Blind, Emma shares her story of courage and resilience as she comes to terms with a world that is forever changed. And when her insular hometown is shaken by a local teen’s suicide, Emma’s own tragedy is placed in sharp relief.

Rachel DeWoskin’s first young adult novel draws from her experiences while working with the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, where she learned braille and was inspired by the determination and warmth of her visually impaired and blind friends. DeWoskin’s ability to draw readers into her blind character’s mind seems effortless, and the story is full of details—such as comparing voices and words to smells and colors—that reveal Emma’s mind to be far from the lonely, dark place she initially fears it will be.

What was your greatest challenge in writing a story narrated by a blind character?
I wanted Emma to be a resilient warrior, but not a saint. To find herself in an impossible context, but not to become that context—or to become a victim or symbol. For me, Blind isn’t a book meant to be about blindness, or even a blind girl—it’s a book about being a girl in the world in general, about figuring out how to make meaning in (and of) your life, no matter how difficult the hand you’re dealt. How to survive and live in a way that’s meaningful and joyful.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about blind and visually impaired teens while working with the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind?
I learned a lesson that I kept finding fascinating even as I learn it again and again in my grown-up life, which is that kids are unbelievably resilient. And, at their centers, so similar to one another, no matter what differences appear to define or set them apart from each other. I think part of what gives them what to my mind is amazing bravery and grit is actually a childish and useful ability to juxtapose (and experience) life’s most profound difficulties and joys with its most daily matters. To go from the zero of a social interaction at school to the infinity of our socially unjust world, or of a life-changing accident, of a death even—in mere seconds. And, importantly, to come back. In the visually impaired kids I met and talked to, this quality is particularly inspiring, because they’ve had to recalibrate how to live in a world designed for people who are sighted. And many of them have done so with quite incredible creativity, grace and humor. They play baseball with a ball that beeps; they read in the dark after bedtime; they wrap rubber bands around their eyeliners so they can tell black from blue. They are creative and funny and imaginative about ways to be their most engaged and best selves.

“For me, Blind isn’t a book meant to be about blindness, or even a blind girl—it’s a book about being a girl in the world in general, about figuring out how to make meaning in (and of) your life, no matter how difficult the hand you’re dealt.”

When the novel opens, there’s a romantic element to some of Emma’s descriptions of blindness (“Words have vivid edges and colors now, and listening to Leah is like being inside a book with glistening pages . . .”). But as the story progresses, the reality and the fear becomes palpable as Emma recounts what it’s like to lose her sight. Was this an important shift to you?
Why? I think when we make progress in our lives, it usually happens in a backwards and forwards motion, becomes a liquid process, even. When Blind opens, Emma has moved past the worst, most shrieking moments of her accident and its aftermath, partly because I didn’t want the novel to capitalize on the shocking value built into a scene like that. I didn’t put that first, and I didn’t want to build up to it and make her disaster the climax of the book. But as she’s not in the first moment of it, she has to remember it and figure out how to live with it. And sometimes remembering, which I think is work we all have to do if we’re going to create palatable narratives from the substance of our lives, can drag you back under the water of your own most difficult moments. Emma lives on a wide spectrum, and she’s trying to figure out how to think of / understand what happened to her, how to be truthful about it with herself. And both versions—the one that features her heightened ability to feel a world she used to be able to see and the one that features her gutting loss—are true stories for her. She figures out a way to live between (and with) them.

Stories of teens with mental and physical disabilities seem to be flooding the young adult industry, and Blind stands out for its tenderness and realism. Why do you think novels like this are important for teen readers? And why do you think they’re gaining in popularity?
Thank you. I don’t know about popularity, but all my books, both the adult ones and this one, are about sameness and difference. About girls and women on the peripheries of their societies or social groups or worlds. I’m interested in how we communicate with (and betray and forgive) each other, across whatever chasms divide us. Sometimes those are cultural and linguistic; sometimes they’re political and generational.

Lately, I’ve been writing some about physical difference; my most recent novel, Big Girl Small, is about a teenage little person who wants to be Judy Garland but feels forced to identify with the “munchkins” of our cultural media world. Blind is the furthest reach of that question for me, an exploration of ways we see the world, no matter who we are. I wrote it in a fit of wonder about what it would feel like to have to change, to have your perspective and identity made irrevocably different both from what it was and from those around you. And how a tough heroine (I always write with my daughters and mama and mama-in-law and an army of my best girlfriends in mind, thinking, how would we keep each other afloat, no matter what the circumstances?) can get through almost anything.

What do you admire most about Emma? If you could give her any advice, what would it be?
I love Emma, because she is a kind of forward-imagined version of my two little girls, who are 9 and 6. My favorite thing about Emma is her thoughtful ability to hold contradiction in her mind, to know that there’s a worst version and a best version, and to find her way to an angle of repose between them. I like that she’s going to be okay. That’s what I want for my girls, the fiery core that allows for navigating the world in a feisty, inspired, courageous way.

Do you know if Blind will be translated into braille?
It will be! And the audio version comes out this month.

What’s next for you?
My next YA book is a novel set in Shanghai in the 1940s, about a Jewish girl and her father who escape from Poland to China and live out the war in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where by 1940 there were 20,000 Jewish refugees! Needless to say, it’s another look at some of the central themes that always drive and inspire me: foreignness, bravery, feminism and difficulty. Like Blind, it’s about learning to let go, even as we hang on.

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By Rachel DeWoskin
ISBN 9780670785223

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