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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There's More Than Meets the Eye In Rachel DeWoskin’s Profound Novel: Blind

Posted By on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Rachel DeWoskin - BOOK PASSAGES
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The morning after I finished Rachel DeWoskin’s debut young adult novel Blind, I awoke unable to see. I tried to blink but my eyelids remained firmly shuttered. In the darkness I wondered how life had come to imitate art so literally that I was experiencing psychosomatic symptoms of a book. With some concern over my sanity as well as personal hygiene, I realized that my eyes had been glued together by the phlegmy debris left over from the 394 pages worth of tears I cried consistently through Blind. The novel, which focuses on a teenager suddenly struck with sightlessness, made up for some adolescent incoherence with extraordinary frankness and emotional depth.

Emma Sasha Silver feels invisible among seven siblings in her small town until a terrible accident renders the high school sophomore blind. Nothing in the plot that follows these basic book jacket-facts is surprising. The book chronicles a girl dealing with a traumatic and life-changing event at the height of puberty, a traumatic and life-changing event in and of itself. Her journey towards reconciliation with her disability doesn't have the luxury to pause for adolescence, and DeWoskin should be lauded for treating a disability with seriousness while respecting the gravity of regular high school mores. At first Emma can't dress herself or leave the house alone, later she can't see her crush; she learns to identify him by his smell: "light blue." Blindness isn't a metaphor for navigating through the darkness of adolescence, it is just another unique glimpse into the adult world of suffering. The narrative device of suicide by a childhood friend attempts to force Emma’s suffering into perspective, but becomes cumbersome at points.  
Five tissues deep, 50 pages in, unaware that I approached momentary blindness, I found Emma’s terror is palpable, her helplessness is omnipresent. The reader, experiencing the small town of Sauberg through Emma’s senses, often doesn’t know who she is talking to, how people appear, or what dangers lurk ahead. We don’t feel for Emma, screaming in pain, unable to remember her little brother’s face, we are Emma. DeWoskin (who spent months learning braille and interviewing visually impaired friends in advance of her novel) fearlessly handles of Emma’s disability and the staggering obstruction it presents in her ability to function normally.

Emma’s story batters the heart more than that of other victims of children’s literature because the author allows her to be flawed. Her literary peers in the “suffering children” genre are often portrayed as film-star beautiful, genius, hyper-articulate philosophers of the human condition who barely register pain and wisely fear the existential over the immediate. Emma is no such martyr. When she awakes after a freak firework accident to a world of darkness she feels “shrieking, amazing pain” and wishes to die. She tells her therapist to fuck off, throws inanimate objects, and rejects the warmth of other blind teens. Her bravery is extraordinary because it functions alongside her processing of grief. When her five-year-old sister asks if the dark is “really scary,” Emma lies to her. Later she reflects, “Sometimes words matter, even when they’re not true. And sometimes, repeating lies can be the worst human crutch. It’s something I can’t work out." Blind is jaggedly thought provoking because it capitalizes on the young adult genre ability to state the obvious in a way that serious literature makes prohibitive. When a blind fifteen-year-old says, "Facts aren't facts—they're just names of something that happened" it feels like a new discovery.

Despite its title, Blind never allows Emma's identity to become that of a victim. The triumphant, if somewhat jumbled ending finds our heroine more consumed in the exquisite drama of her everyday life than her vision.In a plot twist that puts to shame recent attempts at female empowerment by Disney, Emma embraces her sexuality and fearlessly forges relationships with boys who interest her while continuing to deepen platonic friendships. Where DeWoskin stumbles in handling teen drug use and sexual confusion she succeeds in the much newer trend of sex-positivity, an area untrod by most mainstream young adult novelists. Emma joyfully plans on "picking whom I like, not just getting picked by whoever likes me." Somewhere, no doubt, Judy Blume is nodding emphatically.

One of the greatest aims of literature is to immerse readers into worlds and identities that are not their own to evoke empathy and understanding. Blind will not teach vocabulary or filigreed prose but it will allow 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. Forget the narrative flaws and syntactical foibles of Blind, for sheer emotional profundity and the elusive feeling of living another person's experience through fiction, DeWoskin is hard to beat.

Rachel DeWoskin speaks at Book Passages at 6 p.m. on August 4 at the Ferry Building. The month of July celebrates the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with initiatives and performances in San Francisco throughout the year.

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Jenny Singer

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