So Lucky just won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction! Wow. I am surprised and happy. Both the Seattle Times and Seattle Review of Books have more info so go read those for details on where, what, who etc. What I want to talk about here is my surprise.
As the night’s MC, Paul Constant, pointed out, this really was one of the strongest groups of finalists I’ve seen for these awards. Every single book on the fiction list would have been a fine winner. (Yes, writers often say these things as a courtesy; this time, it’s true.) I did not expect to win, both because of the other books nominated but also because of the nature of So Lucky itself.
I’ve never been a fan of false modesty or excessive humility. I can write; So Lucky is a good book. But, by its very nature, it is designed to force the reader to look inside themselves and face their own ableism—because, oh, we are all ableist, even if we don’t want to be; it’s how we’re raised. If the book works as intended, it will make the reader uncomfortable (as well as thrilling, amusing, delighting, all that stuff—but, definitely, some discomfort). In other words, So Lucky is not the kind of fiction that wins awards. Nonfiction that makes the reader squirm? Sure, maybe. But fiction? No.
So when I saw the finalists I knew I wouldn’t win. I showed up at the ceremony a) because it really is an honour b) free party! and c) I wanted to support the friend who I was convinced was going to win. Of course I had thought about what I might say if I did win—doing otherwise is like going for a drive and, though not expecting to crash, not taking a moment to fasten your seatbelt: just plain idiocy—but I hadn’t thought deeply, and I hadn’t polished my thoughts or committed them to memory.
Then when I got to the auditorium I saw that the only microphone at the front was a fixed mic attached to a podium—utterly inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. So then I was sure, with rock-bottom certainty, I wouldn’t win. So when Constant read out my name I was shocked. I wheeled out, totally blank, and they handed me a handheld wireless mic. And I thought, Fuck, should have practised…
Luckily, I did in fact remember most of what I’d intended to say (because I’ve been saying it for a year at various book events), though not nearly as elegantly as this (now polished—yes: stable door, meet bolt) written version:
SO LUCKY is about a woman with MS, written by a woman with MS. The first word of the book is it, and it is a monster. But the monster is not MS, the monster is ableism.
Ableism is the story we’re all, disabled and nondisabled, fed from birth: that to have intellectual or physical impairments makes us less, Other. Ableism is a crap story.
For one thing, it’s wrong. What disables a person in our culture is not impairment but society’s attitude to that impairment. We are disabled by assumptions. By, for example, the bookstore owner who, when asked why there’s no wheelchair ramp, says, with no trace of irony, “Well, none of our customers use a wheelchair.” Or the editor who says to their author, Can you make the disabled character a bit more lonely and sad, more authentic?”
Ableism is not only factually incorrect but poorly constructed, an inauthentic story told by those who have no clue. Next time you read a book about a quadriplegic who kills himself because he can’t bear to live in a wheelchair, next time you read about a blind woman whose happy ending relies upon a magic cure, ask yourself: Is the author of this story disabled?
According to the CDC, 25% of Americans has an impairment that has a serious impact on their life. One quarter. But what proportion of novels on our shelves are by and about disabled people? According to my back of the envelope calculations, about 0.00013 percent.
Ableism is a crap story. I wrote So Lucky to counter it. So for giving this book—this anti-ableist story—recognition, thank you.
I added a few more thanks, I think. At least I hope I did. If I’d had more time—and less shock—I would have thanked the judges, and Washington Center for the Book, and Washington State Book Awards. I would have thanked my agent, Stephanie Cabot, for having faith in me and my work (no matter how odd it gets); my editor, Sean McDonald, at FSG who found a way to publish a weird thing as an actual novel, and to do it in a vast great hurry because I felt it was urgent; Kate Macdonald, publisher and chief energy source at my UK publisher, Handheld Press (ditto); and all my friends who were sincerely puzzled at my sincere puzzlement over this book. Librarians and booksellers have been amazing; they expected HILD II and got this odd little thing, but embraced it anyway. But most of all I want to thank Kelley, my rock and my beacon, who always had faith in me and my book even during those times when I didn’t, quite. She took the picture, below, of me at the afterparty, still looking a little bemused.
I suspect the bemusement may last a while. But right now the sheer delight is gaining, so I think I’ll stop here and go party some more!