Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
The Cripfic Manifesto
by Maija Haavisto
When chronic illnesses and disabilities are featured in fiction, it usually follows a certain formula. A main character or his/her family member has cancer or depression, perhaps another type of mental illness, and generally dies of it or recovers. From the perspective of drama, being "chronic" is stagnant and problematic. Other disabilities are usually relegated to side characters, just like disabled people are expected to assume less visible roles in the society. In some novels crips may be bitter villains, but more often they are just there to be damn inspiring.
I've been guilty of one of those crimes myself. In a novel manuscript I wrote in 2008 the main character, at one point of her life, works as a care giver for two disabled young women, one with severe CFS/ME and one with MELAS, a mitochondrial disease. She eventually quits when she can't cope with the brutal reality of these illnesses and is worried the women are going to die. Essentially, the disabled characters exist to inconvenience in the main character. How predictable.
After finishing that manuscript -- which remains unpublished -- I realized I wanted to write a novel where the main character was disabled, so I did. And then I wrote another. And I realized I was writing a trilogy of something I coined a new term for: cripfic. Google could find no trace of previous usage of this term, which surprised me, as I thought someone else would have come up with it. The first novel in my trilogy has now been published and I have written several cripfic short stories too.
While I invented the term cripfic, the concept is obviously nothing new. There used to be many more disabled and chronically ill characters in fiction, back in the days of consumption (tuberculosis), polio, war veterans and intellectual disabilities caused by brain infections. Of course, these characters rarely were the heroes, and if they were, they were bitter.
Various flavors of cripfic
The way I see it, cripfic can either refer to stories about disabled characters where the disability is the central part of the plot (e.g. a coming-of-age story about the struggles of a boy with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis), or where disability plays a part but is not the focus of the novel (such as a mystery series with a blind detective). There could even be a third type: fiction where disability plays an integral part in the setting, such as a scifi story about a future society where disabled people have a specific role.
So far I have mainly written general fiction and scifi cripfics, with one experimental foray into the world of horror stories, but I don't see why any genre couldn't be cripfic. The main problem is finding the readers. Scifi, and speculative fiction in general, are quite accommodating as genres. There is even a magazine, Expanded Horizons, which only accepts speculative fiction dealing with minorities (such as, but not limited to, disabled people). In 2011, Redstone Science Fiction, magazine held a writing contest titled "Towards an Accessible Future."
Young Adult fiction occasionally features a character with a disability, though this character is rarely the protagonist, but rather a sibling, friend or some other extraneous individual. On the rare occasion when there actually is disabled protagonist, he or she is usually cured of their disability through use of a magic talisman or some otherwise supernatural device. The use of these devices perpetuate the stereotype that a real hero cannot be disabled and any book that uses them is not an example of cripfic.
Fictive detectives have traditionally been eccentric and surely there are some disabled ones among them, but what about romance, erotica or chicklit? Would readers of these genres accept heroes with disabilities? Some traditionally demand formulaic protagonists so introducing disabled characters could be difficult -- but that doesn't that authors should not try.
So, why do this cripfic thing?
Why would anyone want to write a cripfic? Most people don't. I know many other writers with chronic illnesses and only one has ever written something that could be called cripfic. Most write fantasy and some have specifically stated that for them writing is a way to escape their own reality of illness. This likely goes for the most famous author with CFS/ME, Laura Hillenbrand, who writes historical fiction and penned the much-lauded and thoroughly researched bestseller, Seabiscuit, while mostly bedridden.
I find the lives of disabled people something easier to relate to than, say, elves (no offense to elves or any fans of fantasy fiction), but cripfic isn't just for crips; It may help able-bodied readers better understand how we experience the world and how the world experiences us. as Many able-bodied people have no idea what ableism is like or even that such a thing even exists.
Many writers in a thinly veiled way of saying "well, at least I!, enjoy trying to bring diversity into fiction by giving voice to characters less often encountered in literature, such as the elderly, the homeless, persons of ethnic/religious/cultural minorities, genderqueer/transgender people, polyamorists, and even people who work menial jobs.
Problems to be solved
The main problem with cripfic, especially of novel length, is the difficulty of finding a publisher. Three small publishers showed interest in my novel manuscript and I eventually signed with one of them, but larger publication houses expressed doubt about the size of my target audience. If a novel is branded as disability-oriented, able-bodied people may be reluctant to read it. On the other hand, as was the case with my novel, a cripfit writer may score some extra publicity for tackling an unusual subject.
Problems may also arise in the writing process. It may be tempting to preach, running the risk of both losing the plot and drowning the reader with details that resemble more of a dull sermon or a medical article than story.
Even if everything is fictional, readers may assume that the disabled protagonist represents you. One especially runs this risk if the disability is similar to yours. Unlike the main character of my debut novel, I don't use a wheelchair and the book is at most 5% based on my own experiences, yet one editor even wrote in her rejection letter that she found the novel "too autobiographical."
If one ends up writing cripfic regularly, getting stuck on just your own disability is probably counterproductive, yet writing about other types of disabilities may be just as challenging for you as for an able-bodied person. It is difficult for me to imagine what life is like for a blind, deaf or schizoaffective person. Sure, I can interview someone with personal experience--after all, research is what writers do--but it's still difficult to ask the right questions that will lead to an accurate depiction of the condition.
In cripfic it's even more important than usual to portray well-rounded characters. Just like in real life, if you have a bitter, bitchy character who is also a wheelchair user, people tend to assume these two things are related, even if they are not. An amputee who is a charitable person? Better make his or her motivations crystal clear or the readers may just figure this is yet another case of "crip = inspiring hero."
I want to write stories where the blind don't have to yearn for vision and where the wheelchair user may have other ambitions than being "cured" or "walking again someday" --I want to see disabled heroes, but not heroes who inspire or touch others just because they are disabled. We write fiction because in fiction anything is possible, so let's make it possible.
Originally from Finland, 27-year-old Maija Haavisto is an opinionated CFS/ME patient living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She has had three non-fiction books published in Finland and her debut novel, Marian ilmestyskirja, (Maria's Book of Revelations), was released in October 2011. Her website is at http://www.fiikus.net