When we’re little, we are told that imagination has no bounds, that we are unlimited in what we can come up with. Every television show relies upon the suspension of disbelief that children are gifted with, and that suspension of disbelief is eroded or beaten out of us as we age. Every children’s book allows for the fantasy of a child’s imagination, but as we grow we are told that those fantasies are left to genres like sci-fi and fantasy. My partner has two children. Being immersed in the world of childlike imagination has gotten me to thinking about how we imagine, and how our imagination changes as we age.
The word genre becomes a bad word.
The world and what we believe it can be gets smaller.
Because society gets in the way.
That process of erosion starts in little ways—forgetting to say “yes, and” instead of “no” when a playmate tells you part of the story they want to tell with you. In the way the books you read go from being picture books with talking animals and trees, to being hidden away and shelved with the other genre books. What’s the difference between The Princess in Black and Dealing with Dragons, which are shelved in general kidlit at my local bookstore, and Uprooted except that we assume children are accepting of all narratives? Isn’t Where the Wild Things Are a monster story in a secondary world?
The erosion tells us what we are allowed to imagine outside of the gutters on the page. Unless we partake in the art of fanfiction, we’re not asked to imagine outside the borders of what’s on the page past childhood.
Science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding is an art in developing boundaries; we have to decide how things work, who lives somewhere, and what can happen in order for our stories to make sense. Audiences (and frequently gatekeepers in our industry) want answers to practical questions like “why can that dog talk” and “is Garfield a kaiju”. They want to know if it’s “realistic” for a blind character to perform certain activities.
But the idea of things “making sense” is a fundamentally grown-up sort of idea. “Making sense” also relies upon commonly understood ways of being. A non-disabled audience is less likely to accept the reality of a disabled life, whether or not it’s accurate.
The world is so much messier than the sensible world gives us credit for.
When I watch movies or read books about science fictional worlds that don’t feature disabled characters, I often imagine those folks on the sidelines of the story. Sometimes I imagine what their lives are like—not because I want to but because I have to. Disabled people aren’t in the text, and are rarely in the subtext. When I imagine disabled characters, it is using my own mind, working off what the author has given me. We’re rarely there, because non-disabled people have been taught not to think of us, and that includes removing us from their imaginations.
The erosion of my imagination has been in part in what questions I do not ask. I have learned not to ask where the disabled people are, because when I do, the inevitable answer is that we wouldn’t be there at all. Curative culture demands that we accept cures for our broken bodies, and it tells non-disabled people that they should imagine that all disabled people have the internal narrative that something is wrong, that they must be fixed. But my internal monologue is rarely about what I need to fix, but about how my world fails me at every turn.
As adults, we contend with something called being “realistic.” It isn’t just in our real lives where we pay bills and rent that we are given little room to roam in our minds, but there are bounds to the world of story too. The imagined world is often gatekept by editors, marketing teams, casting departments and more in terms of what story is “believable” to a mainstream audience. The expectations game is fraught because what’s realistic is ultimately policed by the dominant society. We don’t see blind characters with nuanced vision, for example, because that’s outside of the collective imagination (you should see what happens when people find out I can use Twitter!). This means that the non-disabled people of our collective imagination have made decisions about the disabled imagination, too.
Basically, when a disabled person says what they do (for real) or even what they want to do (as an imagined act) often non-disabled people will tell us we can’t. That’s a limit to our imaginations, and it affects the stories that gatekeepers will buy. It affects what we can have our characters do, too.
In writing, imagination is more or less our currency, it is what makes our industry work.
But when we start to tell each other—our audiences, ourselves—what’s possible, when we start to lose suspension of disbelief in favor of what “makes sense” we’re making definitive decisions not about what anyone can imagine, but about what the creator can. There are thousands of ways to tell the same story, yet the gatekeepers of publishing lay it at the feet of the mainstream audience as a reason to keep perspectives easily understood. Catering to the mainstream narrows what we imagine as a collective. So if you’re a non-disabled author telling a story about the future and you can’t imagine a disabled person in space…we just won’t be there. If you can’t imagine Black people in historical settings…they won’t be there either.
Bias is often running the show when it comes to what can be believed. A clear narrative to a mainstream audience may be untrue for a marginalized author. For example, it doesn’t make sense to a hearing audience why a Deaf character would choose not to wear hearing aids. But it makes perfect sense to a Deaf audience. A Deaf character who doesn’t wear hearing aids is rejecting hearing society and making a statement about hearing culture or Deaf Culture that a hearing reader might not understand. Mainstream society is more than willing to suspend disbelief for the narrative of ghosts and dragons, of aliens and new languages, but the hardened truth of ableism or racism seems to be disbelieved in every imagined context.
Selective imagination is killing us. When we can imagine ourselves in the future, when we can imagine ourselves in public, when we can imagine ourselves everywhere in society, we have the ability to live. When our opportunities are cut off, our choices curtailed, our imagined futures denied…that kills us figuratively, but forcing disabled people to stop imagining possible hopeful futures causes harm that can result in severe depression and suicidality.
Constraining imagination has consequences.
I’m trying to show my partner’s 5-year-old in small conversations about how her imagination has power, the power to shape her world for good or ill. When she tells me that I can’t do something because I’m blind, I ask her where she learned it. That she is imagining the truth of someone else’s body—and that can cause harm.
The stories we tell ourselves about other people come from our imaginations, too.
These conversations, these meditations on story with a 5-year-old driving the bus remind me that the imagination is more powerful than we think.
© 2021 Elsa Sjunneson