Blindness, Disability, and Society

Photo of Kristen Witucki by Anannya DasguptaIn the short novel The Transcriber by Kristen Witucki, published by Gemma Media, the protagonist Louis makes short work of society’s understanding of disability as he analyzes the way the world treats his blind sister Emily. The book is an amazing, layered treatment of how sighted people view blindness, through the lenses of a stubborn young boy who refuses to see his sister as anything but his sister, even when it gets him into trouble. I interviewed Kristen because I was so curious about her creative process and wanted also to hear her comments on the psychological, symbolic meanings of the story and how she chose to tell it.

Let’s talk about the title of the book, The Transcriber. Can you talk about all the layers of meanings that title has as it relates to the protagonist, the young boy, Louis—both the literal and metaphorical meanings?

Witucki: On a structural level, transcribe has two word parts: trans, meaning across, and scribe, meaning someone who writes. Among braille readers and the people who teach them, a transcriber is a person who is certified to change print text into braille; there are literary, mathematical and musical transcribers because of the different skill sets each type of transcribing requires. In my story, Louis is the person in his family who knows both braille and print. When he brailles the Christmas tags on a day his mother wishes for Emily to remain ignorant about their origin, he is transcribing a particular family experience to Emily, but Emily, of course, shuns that particular type of infantilization. I think that Louis serving as a transcriber means that he is writing sighted experiences and blind experiences across the divides people impose on them, but they are also always filtered through his own consciousness of those experiences.

I read your bio and it says you’ve been blind from birth. In The Transcriber, the protagonist Louis, the brother of a blind sister (Emily), muses about what blindness must be like for his sister. His own experiences in “pretending” to be blind, plus careful observation of his sister, allow him an amazing insight into what blindness must be like for her—but all of it is filtered through his own sighted perceptions. Can you talk about how you wrangled that interesting point of view—the blind author writing about a seeing boy’s perceptions of his blind sister’s experiences?

Witucki: This book was based on growing up as a blind child with a sighted brother who is very close to my age. I initially wrote the story as a break from struggling with plot lines for blind characters in another writing project, but I was so taken with Louis’s voice that I kept working on it. I was so intrigued with the possible burdens a sighted sibling could have in school and in the community, that shift in expectations that comes when someone different is in your family, someone you think is pretty normal. Somewhere along the way, I realized my protagonist also shared a name with Louis Braille, and I almost fell over with the shock of it. When Trish O’Hare and Brian Bouldrey at Gemmamedia agreed to publish this book, I went to the series editor, Brian Bouldrey, in a panic, because I was worried about … well, about everything, but I was particularly concerned that Louis, the sighted character, didn’t have enough visual perceptions of things. I have never seen, so I don’t have visual memories. Brian wrote that the memories, or made-up memories, were still very authentic. Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed the challenge.

The image that struck me the most was when Louis watched Emily and his father, who was becoming ill, walk towards school together. The father was leaning heavily on his daughter, despite the fact that he’d insisted he walk her to the front of the school because of her blindness. Then he had to sit on a bench, by himself, to recover. Louis watched him, realizing his father was trying to figure out how he would get back to the car by himself, now that he didn’t have somebody to lean on. This image of the father, wanting to help his blind daughter, but needing to lean on her instead—it resonated with me in ways I can’t even begin to explain. I think it has to do with perceptions of need, of fathers and daughters, of dependency and independency. I’d love to have you talk about this image, the themes behind it, and the role of that particular moment in the book.

Witucki: The end of this book was based on my father’s illness and subsequent death when I was fifteen years old. His time in the hospital was relatively short, but there were warning signs before that happened, and that was one of them. He insisted on guiding me to the school one morning when he brought me in late, but he leaned on me more than actually helping. So fictionally, I added Louis and the bench and let that speak for itself. I think it shows the stark contrast between how Emily understood her disability and how her father fiercely denied that his life could lead to disability or even death. That moment showed me that even though my father lived with a daughter with a disability for fifteen years, his own struggle with the possibility of having one was still his own.

Louis never quite gets over his selfishness or his rage. Despite the final moments of the book, where he muses about what death must be like, we never see him step outside of himself in kindness (even though he does spend lots of time internally thinking about his sister’s blindness and his father’s illness). Can you talk about your choice to let the main character continue in his sort of stubborn unwillingness to ever treat his sister or his father as dependent, as needy? Is this a kind of grace?

Witucki: I think it is a kind of grace. Louis thinks of these people as whole people, no matter what happens to them. He dreams about his father’s struggle but talks to his dad about recovery, then realizes that he needs to be truthful in his mind. He imagines Emily traveling the world as an adult. His last conversation with her about talking to their father in the hospital is a moment of surprised recognition, that the struggle over their father draws them together. Growing up with brothers has taught me that sentimentality is fleeting and not expressed in a very gushing way, so I didn’t want Louis to have a 180 so much as a quieter realization of what life would be like for their family after death, even though he is just beginning to realize the enormity of death when the story ends.

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