Here’s an audio version
The title isn’t a metaphor. The word “unseen” isn’t a reference to Prime Minister Harper’s genuine political will on climate change, or the reallocation of military budgets towards health and education, the title refers to concrete things in the real world.
Atypically for a child born blind in Ontario when I was, my family chose not to send me to residential school, preferring to keep me where they could keep an eye on me. In my family and my neighbourhood, no special fuss was made over me doing most of the stuff the other kids were doing, or at least none I was allowed to know about. I’m the youngest of five siblings, and expectations were pretty high for all of us. I got no particular praise for my academic performance or extracurricular activities, especially not from my brothers and sisters, who were as likely as any siblings to blow off their younger sister as boring and unremarkable.
Recently I was having a chat with my extremely business-savvy brother about promotional considerations in self-publishing my Novel. I was sort of stunned speechless when he said, “I know we grew up together and everything, and I’m pretty used to you, but when most people hear, ‘she’s blind and she wrote a novel?’ they’re going to think Holy Shit!” While I was doing my deer in the headlights impression, I was also doing some quick thinking, and of course, as anyone would, I thought, how can I capitalize on this?
His perspicacious remark caused me to do some highly focused reflection on aspects of my writing I hadn’t thought much about at the time. My novel is about sighted people, and most of my anticipated readers would be sighted as well. Obviously the ways I perceive the world and other people hadn’t offered much material. How had I constructed landscapes, descriptions of body language in conversation, and the visual impressions people get of one another through appearance and carriage.
Landscapes? This brings to mind my favourite advice for anyone joining Twitter: follow smart people. Twitter didn’t help me write landscapes, but an indirect root through the internet led me to an extremely fruitful correspondence with a very smart person, also gifted with empathy, imagination, excellent writing skills, and generosity. He helped me with descriptions of Scottish landscapes in general, and 16th century Scottish landscapes in particular. He also helped me develop my own empathy about a visual person’s response to landscape by inviting me to imagine how it would feel for a rural French woman to embark on a sea journey, and eventually find herself completely out of sight of land. Her habit of watching the sunrise each morning from the rail of the ship with awe and reverence was my own idea.
Body language and appearance were actually a little easier. I’ve been an avid fiction reader since I first discovered audio books, and had to be bribed or bullied to leave escape land and return to the real world. I’ve had decades to assimilate the unspoken cues people give off. I know what it means when the person I’m talking to at a party is looking somewhere else while talking to me. My fifteen years as a massage therapist has given me some sense of the variety in posture and carriage, which helps me make sense out of ideas like “haughty” or “self-effacing.”
I’m fond of remarking (mostly as a way to excuse any of my screw-ups) that fiction writing is an exercise in imagination. Which is harder: imagining what it was like to be a 16th century French woman, or what it’s like to look into the eyes of someone you love? I don’t know. Fiction lets me play recklessly with ideas. My main character discovers that she enjoys working with dyeing fabric and wool, because she finds the hypnotic sight of the swirling colours soothing as she stirs the vats. She’s a visual person, and visual stimuli affect her most strongly, just as some sighted people are occasionally more focused on sound or another sense.
There are still some things I don’t feel comfortable that I got right. I’d love a good 3d model of a castle, or a detailed tactile drawing of what fan-trained trees look like against a wall. Likewise, the involutions of women’s clothes in the early modern period are still pretty mysterious to me. Relevant to my current writing project, I’m planning an involved discussion with another smart person I know in order to get a good grounding in what the course of a river might look like if you travelled its length. I’m also scheming to chat with someone about hunting.
Most writers, and all historical fiction writers, rely on some degree of research about their setting, period or characters. For me, landscapes and body language kind of fit in with sociology, politics, and geography as topics to be studied. I hope sometime to have the chance to talk to someone who read my novel and only found out later that I’m blind. I’m intensely curious to know how well I did.