High school senior Effie cringes when people call her "a trouper" or "a little fighter," or worse yet, make her anonymous — "the girl in the wheelchair."
She yearns to see disabled people in magazines, movies and stories portrayed in their complete humanity. The woman who created her character, Minneapolis writer Claire Forrest, did just that when she made Effie, who, like the author, has cerebral palsy and a dry sense of humor.
Forrest's new young-adult novel, "Where You See Yourself," has garnered positive reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and BuzzFeed, which heralded the book as an "absolutely necessary and affirming addition to YA shelves." Effie tangles with her principal over the school's wheelchair accessibility while also steering through the typical teen dilemmas of where to go to college and how to navigate a major crush.
But writing about someone like Effie wasn't what Forrest originally set out to do.
"I wrote stories about girls who did not have disabilities for years because I thought they were the only type of people that got to be the main characters," Forrest said. "As I grew older, I realized that everyone deserves to be in the pages of a book. I started to ask myself, if I were to write the exact book that I wish I'd had as a disabled high school senior, what would it be? And I started from there."
Forrest, 33, graduated from Southwest High School in Minneapolis and swam competitively there and at Grinnell College, nearly making the U.S. Paralympic team. She moved back to Minneapolis, a place she writes about with affection in her book, and got her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University. She joins a growing cadre of disabled writers who are making a mark by writing authentically about disabled people, not as objects of our inspiration or sympathy. Some highlights of my chat with Forrest:
The experiences of high school life — the crushes, the nerves and the angst — all seem so relatable and true. Did you research for this, or do you just have a good memory?
First of all, I've never stopped reading young adult books. I majored in English in college, and I would read the classic books for my major during the semester, and then on every break I was reading the newest young adult release. Also, when I've talked to other marginalized authors, we've sort of agreed that marginalized people have coming-of-age experiences later in life. I had to come to terms with my own disability in my own time and in my own way, which allowed me to write about it.
How did you come to terms with it?
I grew up believing that inspirational narrative. When I was 16, I probably would have said, "I like it when people say they don't see me as disabled." I tried to be kind and agreeable because I wanted to fit in, as every teenager does. Learning about ableism and all the forces that exist to oppress disabled people helped me see that my disability is a part of me. It's not my whole identity, but it's something I can be proud of.
Is there a common microaggression people in wheelchairs face?
Please always ask before you touch a person's wheelchair. It's an extension of our body. Sometimes I will be out in public, and people will come up and just start pushing my chair. I know that they think they're helping, but I also know how to ask if I need it.
Many of us can go our whole lives without having a close bond with someone with a physical disability. What do nondisabled people most need to know about disabled people?
A lot of times when people think about disability and accessibility, they think about things like door openers and ramps. That is very important, and there a lot of places that still are not fully accessible. But I think it would be also good to think about some of the attitudinal and societal barriers that come with living in a civil society. How can you be more inclusive, or create spaces in your community where disabled people truly feel welcomed and not just an afterthought?
What is it like have to constantly agitate to get people and institutions to do what they are legally required to do?
When I was a high school student, I had to advocate for accessibility. I've had to do that from a very young age. There were a lot of issues, from the doors that we would use to enter, to passing time to get to classes. A big part of Effie's story is learning what's up to her, and what's up to society and institutions, to be accessible. I've heard from some nondisabled readers who've read the book say, "I just never think about this stuff — how to access a building or whether there's a ramp. I don't question going up the stairs." Everyone benefits from an accessible society.
How does Minneapolis rank in terms of accessibility?
The biggest thing that I harp on is snow removal. I'm pretty isolated in the winter, and I live in downtown Minneapolis. They plow up into the curb cut so even if you can get down into the sidewalk, you can't properly cross the street.
What was it like growing up here?
I love it here. I benefitted from the strong artistic community in the Twin Cities, and particularly the children's writing community. I was fortunate that in Minneapolis Public Schools, they prioritized bringing in artists to the classroom. When they brought in authors, it was one of the first moments where I realized, "Wow, this can really be somebody's job."
If you go
Forrest will appear at a book-signing at 11 a.m. June 10 at Wild Rumpus bookstore, 2720 W. 43rd St., Mpls.