Writing Disability and Immigration from a Place of Wholeness, a guest post by Natalia Sylvester
I remember the first time someone told me my identity was “exotic” and checked “all the boxes.” More than 10 years ago, over fries and a milkshake at a diner after I’d attended a book reading, a fellow writer told me they were jealous of me and wished their own life as a white, cis, heterosexual and non-disabled person wasn’t so “boring.”
This comment that so thoughtlessly attempted to sum up my existence has haunted me for years. Not because I’m ashamed of who I am—I’m a disabled, Latina, immigrant, amongst so many other things. But there was a time when I didn’t see myself as a real and whole enough person to write about.
Like so many writers of color will tell you, the first stories I penned were about white kids with bodies completely unlike my own. I was a Peruvian immigrant kid who’d spend every other school year homeschooled, recovering from multiple hip surgeries. My imagination sought escape in a reality glorified by nearly every book, television show, and movie I consumed. I longed for ordinary. I wanted so-called normal. I wanted “boring.” Not because I disliked who I was. But because I disliked who I was not being accepted.
By the time I began studying fiction as an undergrad, I’d internalized that people only appreciated my multifaceted identity when it was parceled out into pleasant, easily-digestible packages—and preferably, not all at once. If I wrote about being Latina, let it be about food and sprinkled with bits of Spanish, for taste. If I wrote about immigration, let it be solely about struggle and not fitting in.
I didn’t want to box myself in this way, so I resisted by writing stories that stemmed from joy and triumph, and stories that explored different levels of privilege amongst Latine and immigrant communities.
But if I wrote about being disabled?
For years, I simply didn’t.
Here were parts of me I’d written about in my diaries and journals all my life. When I was a teen, the first essay I ever tried to publish in a magazine was about being born with hip dysplasia, and what it was like to be in and out of surgeries as a child.
But as I got older, this part of me rarely made it into my fiction. There are too many reasons to go into detail here—there’s vulnerability and trauma to unpack, the ever-continuous work of unlearning internalized ableism, and the years it took to accept there’s no such thing as “not being disabled enough.”
Even after all those obstacles, though, there was this: I couldn’t fit my disability into another box. And yet I sensed that if I didn’t, if I wrote myself whole and explored disability through the lens of immigration and being Peruvian, Latina, and a woman, it would be “too much.”
Too many facets. Too much diversity. Too many boxes.
I thought of that writer who told me she was “jealous” of my identity, as if I was greedily collecting lived experiences so that I could have more to write about. The fact is, our industry stil caters primarily to the comfort of readers like them. For all we speak about the necessity of intersectionality, it’s not represented and amplified in books nearly enough to reflect our true realities.
My true reality looks like this:
I grew up watching my immigrant parents fill out form after form, check box after box, as they tried to navigate a system whose default purpose was never to welcome us into this country, but to exclude us.
By the time I was in my teens, I had files full of medical records and x-rays that further tried to encapsulate my life in my body. Their language was one of labels and checkmarks; incomplete sentences like ambulates with difficulty, and rectangular snapshots of my skeleton.
Boxes, upon boxes, upon boxes.
They tried to reduce us. They failed to contain us.
My first years in the States, I spent them with my cousins in their pool playing mermaids, assigning each other tail colors and mermaid names. The personal records I have of my surgeries exist alongside detailed accounts of boys I liked in journals. There are pages full of signatures I practiced, with dotted hearts on the i’s, for passports and immigration forms. There is joy and whimsy and pain and heartbreak.
To me, it is all beautifully ordinary.
I am not exotic or diverse.
I am human in the countless ways humans have always existed.
When I finally found my way to writing a novel about growing up as an immigrant with hip dysplasia, it was this wholeness—not parts of me segmented into boxes—that guided me. I wrote Breathe and Count Back from Ten because the only way I can imagine creating books in a world that draws boundaries around my identity is to write myself beyond them.
Meet the author
Natalia Sylvester is the author of Breathe and Count Back from Ten, a YA novel about a Peruvian American teen with hip dysplasia who dreams of becoming a mermaid at a local Florida theme park. Her previous books include Running, a 2020 Junior Library Guild selection, and two novels for adults. She lives in South Florida.
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About Breathe And Count Back From Ten
In this gorgeously written and authentic novel, Verónica, a Peruvian-American teen with hip dysplasia, auditions to become a mermaid at a Central Florida theme park in the summer before her senior year, all while figuring out her first real boyfriend and how to feel safe in her own body.
Verónica has had many surgeries to manage her disability. The best form of rehabilitation is swimming, so she spends hours in the pool, but not just to strengthen her body.
Her Florida town is home to Mermaid Cove, a kitschy underwater attraction where professional mermaids perform in giant tanks . . . and Verónica wants to audition. But her conservative Peruvian parents would never go for it. And they definitely would never let her be with Alex, her cute new neighbor.
She decides it’s time to seize control of her life, but her plans come crashing down when she learns her parents have been hiding the truth from her—the truth about her own body.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/10/2022
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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