–Author Rachel DeWoskin
I began to imagine and write the novel BLIND when my two little girls and I read a children’s book called The Black Book of Colors every night for a year. I was both terrified and inspired by that shiny, embossed wonder, full of images you can feel rather than see. The more we touched those pages, the more I wondered what it would be like to be able to see and then lose that ability. Would my memories stay visual? Would my senses cross so that I could taste, smell and hear colors? Would I see by hearing? How would I read?
I was interested in the question of what language might look, feel, and sound like if I, or one of my little girls, lost our vision. How would the way we make meaning of the world change? We would read with our fingers and voices, hear books, each other, and everything around us in an utterly transformed way. The stakes would be astronomical. What if listening and feeling became our ways of seeing?
I wrote Emma Sasha Silver’s story so I could try to feel my way through someone else’s experience, my favorite part of both reading and writing. Emma is the heroine I wanted for my daughters, a complicated and 3-D girl who ultimately manages to be a warrior when faced with staggeringly painful circumstances. Like so many teenagers I know, she is tenacious, scrappy, funny, and difficult. She is resilient not only because she musters up her own courage, but also because the girls around her are kind. Emma’s friends, sisters, and parents are like mine: flawed but loving, trying to be their best selves even in the worst possible moments. They are no saints in Blind, but girls take care of each other when it matters most. Because for me, that experience is true and urgent.
In order to dream Emma up, I spent a year studying Braille at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, a generous universe of creative, gritty, graceful people who see the world in all sorts of complicated ways, and who use every tool at their disposal to live full, independent, dignified lives, no matter what level of vision they have. At the Lighthouse, I saw blind artists creating and producing stunning clocks, running radio shows, teaching, studying, reading, listening. There is a giant library there, of Braille and audiobooks. I learned to calm down and listen to the world, to traffic, to people, and to novels. I learned how visually impaired teenagers play baseball – by listening to a ball that beeps as it comes toward the batter or catcher, who hit and catch by hearing. I listened to the pages I was writing as I wrote them, by setting up “Jaws” on my computer, software that reads the screen out loud.
Writing Blind taught me to listen – and to think of listening – in new ways. People with perspectives both radically different from (and at their core, primally similar to) mine, showed me how to slide and tap a white cane; how to solve geometric proofs by feeling shapes on a magnetic board; how to read my favorite books by hearing them. Blind girls told me they always wear nude bras, so the colors won’t show through, no matter what tee-shirt they might accidentally choose. I felt clothing labels Braille-d onto little squares cut from milk jugs, learned to distinguish a blue eye-liner (one rainbow loom band around the top) from a red lip-liner (two bands). I got how and why blind girls like to wear make-up. I was reminded that kids are kids no matter what their particular challenges, everyone working on the same universal projects: to figure out who we are and how to engage in the world in meaningful ways.
Blind is for all those kids, and for my daughters, an exploration of what we need in order to stay on the opposite side of loneliness: each other, curiosity, love, empathy, and books. Needless to say, I felt with tremendous urgency the need for an audiobook of Blind, and I danced with joy when I knew there would be one – that all those who helped me most, the blind and visually impaired friends who gave me their stories, their hopes and histories, and access to their way of seeing the world would get to read the book. I am beyond thrilled and relieved that the audiobook exists for all those who read by listening, and that it is read with such wild beauty and imaginative force by Annalie Gernert.
I listened to it the second it arrived, with my ten-year-old daughter, both of us with our eyes closed. My daughter told me later, shyly, that she believes that Emma Sasha Silver is a real person. I think getting to hear the book out loud, in a voice other than mine, gave her that faith. For me, getting to hear the book let me do what I want my girls – and all girls, sighted or blind – to get to do as many times as they can, all their lives: to close my eyes and open my imagination to the fantastic possibilities of a new way to look at—and read—the world.
Commemorate Blindness Awareness Month this October, by listening to Rachel DeWoskin’s profound YA debut. “It is imperative that all people understand the realities of living without sight,” says Tina Fiorentino, executive director of The Little Rock Foundation. Blind offers listeners a chance to understand the world in a new way and experience a world without sight.
Praise for BLIND:
★ “A vivid, sensory tour of the shifting landscapes of blindness and teen relationships.”—Kirkus, starred review
★ “Profound YA debut…[DeWoskin]’s sensitivity to details (comparing characters’ voices to smells, textures, and colors; describing conflicted reactions to Emma’s blindness) shows.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“DeWoskin skillfully balances the pain of loss with the promise of new experiences and discovery in her YA debut…A gracefully written, memorable, and enlightening novel.”—Booklist
“Blind…allow[s] readers to inhabit another person’s soul so fully that they will be unable to separate the heroine’s pain from their own and become a little less blind to human suffering…For sheer emotional profundity and the elusive feeling of living another person’s experience through fiction, DeWoskin is hard to beat.”—SFWeekly.com
“Blind is soon to be on the tips of everyone’s tongues.”—Bustle.com
Hear more from Rachel: Rachel also recently appeared on WMAQ-TV / NBC Chicago with Dr. Janet Szlyk, President & CEO of The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, to talk about writing BLIND and her experience at the Chicago Lighthouse.