UK Disability History Month: #OwnVoices with Corinne Duyvis’s Otherbound
This month The Publishing Post has dedicated space to acknowledge and discuss UK Disability History Month, which occurs from Wednesday 18th November – Friday 18th December. For this feature, we are drawing attention not only to Corinne Duyvis herself, but her first novel Otherbound.
An author of science fiction and fantasy, Duyvis has written four novels to date and has two awards to her name: the Bisexual Book Award and the Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award. She is also a champion for important issues: aside from her literary works, she is the co-founder and editor of Disability in Kidlit - a website established in 2013 dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature. The site is currently inactive, but its archives are still online, and it is a resource worth checking out and shouting about.
In 2015, Duyvis coined the #OwnVoices hashtag which is now an established part of the publishing lexicon. Used frequently and widely, Corinne has said that she does not want to moderate or regulate the hashtag and people are free to use it for whatever marginalised/diverse identity they would like, as long as the protagonist and the author share a marginalised identity; for example, a disabled character written by a disabled author is #OwnVoices.
Writing an entire feature just about Corinne herself would be easy to do, but in celebration of #DisabilityHistoryMonth the focus is on her first novel Otherbound. The story follows Amara and Nolan, who live in totally separate and different worlds. Amara is a servant who unwillingly serves a cursed princess. Nolan is an awkward teenager. But, neither of them are ever apart. Every time Nolan closes his eyes to sleep or blink he is transported to Amara’s mind, experiencing her suffering. Normal things are impossible: homework, school crushes, even sleep. Nolan is a powerless observer of Amara’s life and his unexpected involvement in it consumes his own but Amara has no idea. Until one day, it all changes. Nolan learns to control Amara and they communicate for the very first time. All they want is their independence and freedom from each other but they must work together and discover the truth about their connection.
Amara and Nolan are both disabled; she has had her tongue removed and relies on sign language to communicate and he is an amputee. There are some heartfelt moments in the novel where we see the restrictions of these disabilities. Amara is not always free to use her hands to talk, drawing back from lovers after she has kissed them, hiding her hands when trying to communicate discreetly and limited or completely unable to if her hands are injured or bound. Nolan’s missing leg has an intriguing story behind it which is revealed throughout the novel, so I won’t spoil that for those who are intrigued but he too conveys restrictions or difficulties that come with a disability. He goes swimming every week and has a prosthetic to help him do so, but he is watched like a hawk by lifeguards and always has to stay near the edge to cling onto if needed. Furthermore, Nolan can’t control when he is sucked into Amara’s world. In his world to his family and friends, these have been diagnosed as seizures and he can be in Amara’s world for unpredictable amounts of time. While both their worlds can be considered dismal, they each have their own joys. Amara is learning to read (something forbidden for servants to do) which makes her feel empowered and important and she figures out her feelings in love throughout the book while simultaneously discovering her own identity. Nolan, as he slowly learns to control his experiences with Amara, grows closer to his family, becomes more excited about the possibility of actually being able to focus on school, and dreams about a life where his “seizures” are gone. There is a touching moment in the story where Nolan first controls Amara and she is running. He feels the wind whip past her hair and arms and he experiences a joy of movement that he can’t currently feel in his disabled body without a running prosthetic.
I’m sure we’ve all seen and read books which include a token minority character and I know we are all exasperated by those characters with no depth whose only purpose is for diversity reasons.
Otherbound is definitely not one of those books. It is captivating, engaging and heartfelt, portraying the disabled characters as complexly as anyone else. There is no ‘othering’ in this book. Just diversity, LGBTQ+ representation (Amara is bisexual and her princess, Cilla, is a lesbian) and a fantastic example of an #OwnVoices novel. Though, having been written by the person who coined that term, I would expect nothing less.