Pathfinders Neuromuscular life

Blogs, News and Features from the Neuromuscular Community

Hayleigh Barclay’s Girl of the Ashes

When I was growing up, there wasn’t many depictions of disability in the media, and when there was it was often a pity party or a token storyline. Nowadays, things are getting better – slowly, very slowly. But we still need more representation and inclusion of disabled characters in all forms of media. For the rest of this article, I will be offering insight into a disabled character I created for my Doctorate project at the University of Glasgow.

Anyone who read my last article will know that for the past four years I have worked on, and published, my debut novel – Girl of the Ashes. Aimed at older teens to adult readers, the story features a coven of vampires who are n a war against a religious cult who aim to wipe out their existence. One of the central characters, Natashka, who has been described as kick-ass, eccentric, and the best friend you wish you had, is disabled. It wasn’t until people read the book that I realised how important her inclusion in the story was. A fan favourite, Natashka is quickly one of the first aspects of the book people gravitate towards. I’m often asked why I decided on a disabled character  and this curiosity stems from a genuine excitement that a disabled character can be a warrior and a pivotal player in the narrative. Creating her felt natural – I wanted a character like me, a wheelchair user, someone I could recognise and understand.

Throughout the book, her backstory is explained and the origins of her disability. Without giving spoilers, her transition from able-bodied to disabled blends elements of DIY science and fantasy. The message is simple – anyone can become disabled. The standard societal attitude towards disability is challenged and readers are subtly shown that Natashka is not defined by her wheelchair. She’s not an inspiration or a saint, though she is intelligent and quirky with an altered body.

There are nods to outdated prejudices, some of which unfortunately still exist. For example, whilst Natashka and the protagonist Elise are moving through town, the pair are stopped by a passer-by who patronisingly asks if Natashka should be out in public. In addition, one particular scene shows the villain, Bothwell, menacingly suggest that Natashka should be hidden away. Not only are these sections designed to shock the reader, they offer a commentary of societal attitudes in Victorian Britain. These are the discriminations that generations of disabled people fought against to allow us to live more freely, although our fight still continues. The inclusion of such scenes are there to remind readers (more so able-bodied readers) of the challenges we faced. 

No subject was off limits when creating Natashka’s character. It was important to me to challenge taboo areas when it came to writing a disabled character. For example, her sexual ambiguity is evident from the second she’s introduced too. Throughout my research on vampire literature, I discovered that the act of a vampire feeding is interpreted as a sexual euphemism. The first time the reader meets Natashka, she is busy drinking the blood of her male friend, it’s interesting to know how readers react to the scene. During a class workshop, I submitted a chapter for critique which just so happened to include the aforementioned scene and one student referred to Natashka feeding as disgusting. Was it the description? The idea of drinking blood? Or the fact that a disabled person had been depicted in a non-passive way? We will never know. To add fuel to the fire, it is suggested that Natashka is casually involved with an animated gargoyle, who is found tied up. There’s no denying Natashka leads a rich life and readers are left to decide for themselves the exact details of her relationships. There is a lot to unpack and the deliberate vagueness of her interactions with other characters serves to raise questions surrounding disability and relationships.

Without a doubt, Natashka plays a vital part in the narrative. Her unwavering loyalty to her friends and protective nature have led to some readers hailing her as a role model. For me, she is not an inspiration – she is an aspiration. Without her, much of the vampires history and mythology would have been lost and forgotten. She is the keeper of secret knowledge, the second in command during battle, and at times, an unfathomably mysterious enigma. When it comes to her disability, she is like the rest of us – she adapts! Having difficulty wielding a sword whilst manoeuvring a wheelchair, she learns to use weapons with her mind. She can’t get up and down stairs, so she uses magic to advantageous effect. The story might be fictional and full of fantasy, yet Natashka brings disability into the real world and asks readers to come along for the ride. These are just the types of characters we would love to see more of. Theare needed to give disability fairer representation within literature.

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