In this post, Kim Fernandes explores the theorization of refusal within disability discourse, and connects the same to childhood studies through an analysis of Shruthi Rao's book titled Susie Will Not Speak (2019).
In thinking about representations of quietness and how they might be unsettled, it is worth visiting quietness - framed more broadly, albeit imperfectly, as the refusal to participate - for the opportunities that it offers us as readers of children’s literature to disrupt normative portrayals of children. This post examines refusal through a single text - Susie Will Not Speak - and asks what it might mean to interpret a character’s refusal as a valid form of participation. How might readers of characters that refuse consider the act of choosing otherwise as a means through which to create a range of possibilities for the lifeworlds of children?
Carole McGranahan, in “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction,” writes: “To refuse is to say no. But no, it is not just that. To refuse can be generative and strategic, a deliberate move toward one thing…and away from another. Refusals illuminate limits and possibilities” (2016). Refusal, therefore, cannot be merely understood as the decision to say no, but instead opens up a range of ways in which to choose otherwise. Decisions to choose otherwise are frequently portrayed as defiant or non-normative in a range of writing about children. Under an environment of able-bodied normativity, disabled children’s decisions to choose otherwise are particularly written about as decisions to move away from - or to choose against - normativity. In an attempt to disentangle some of the ways in which discussions of choice can often be intertwined with ableism, this post discusses the portrayal of a disabled child as a means through which to enter the question of interpreting refusal and participation.
Although the scope of this post does not allow for a fuller discussion of the portrayal of disabled children in Indian literature, in “The Changing Treatment of Disability in Children’s Literature in India,” Dipavali Debroy charts the course of recent changes to the portrayal of disabled children in Indian children’s literature (2018). Debroy expands on Michelle Superle’s (2011) argument that in general, children have come to be depicted more positively in Anglophone Indian children’s literature, while also noting that disability nonetheless remains a largely underrepresented theme in this literature (2018). On the whole, she concludes that while newer children’s books are attempting to counter previous portrayals of disabled children as malevolent, evil or problematically inspirational, there is still a long way to go in “testifying to the courage and resources of the disabled” (Debroy 2018) (see end-note 1). Beginning with Debroy’s suggestion, I offer another possibility for thinking about the representation of disabled children, who have often been depicted through ableist portrayals as ‘not like other children,’ ‘difficult’ or ‘stubborn,’ rather than as characters who have the right to display a range of emotions and opinions.
In this post, I engage with a theoretical framing of refusal to offer an analysis of the story of Susie, the protagonist in Shruthi Rao’s “Susie Will Not Speak” (2018). Written in third person, the story begins when Susie meets Jahan, her new neighbor. Jahan is eager to make friends and tells Susie that he has learnt of her nickname (Toots) from other children on the playground, but is surprised when she first refuses to accept this nickname. As he learns her name from his mother and visits her to apologize, they quickly become best friends, also bonding over Jahan’s tendency to accumulate cuts, bruises and bumps from little accidents.
At several points in their friendship, Susie is (understandably) hesitant to participate in social situations that require her to speak, such as Diya’s birthday party, because she is aware that she is constantly being mocked for her lisp. At the party, Diya’s father attempts to imitate Susie and tries to get her to speak so that he can laugh at her. Although Susie enacts her own revenge, in the form of turning off the ringer on Diya’s father’s phone and hiding it under the cushions of their sofa, she soon feels guilty and tells her parents, who make her apologize to Diya’s father. Her parents also accuse her of not handling the situation as well as they would have liked, suggesting instead that she remain unbothered by other people’s attempts to mock her and persuading her to begin speech therapy. Here, too, Susie’s parents remain unwilling to see her refusal of inappropriate treatment as justified.
Susie reluctantly agrees to begin speech therapy. Subsequently, in the middle of conversations, she is often reminded by her parents of the many tips and tricks that the speech therapist had shared, and is asked to repeat the word she just said. As the narrator reports, “By the time she managed a clear S, she would be annoyed and breathless and give up on finishing whatever she had been saying” (p. 36). Her exhaustion through these numerous attempts is most evident when she is required to give a class presentation on photosynthesis. In lieu of having to say the letter S out loud, Susie chooses to cough instead each time, unwilling to put herself through the draining process and be ridiculed for it by her classmates.
As Jahan tries to convince Susie that it is in her best interests to work on her pronunciation of the letter S, Susie adopts another approach, stating that she prefers to stop speaking altogether. She cites a range of reasons - people laughing at her, making her say things for their entertainment, attempting to correct her, questioning her capacity, or belittling her intelligence. Instead, she notes that she would prefer to communicate only via pen and paper henceforth. Jahan thinks Susie is being dramatic. Susie’s mother can barely stifle her laughter. Although the narrator notes that signing and writing on paper are for one short day both exciting and acceptable to Jahan, the next day, Susie’s mother tells Jahan, “Don’t encourage her, Jahan. You can play with her, but pretend that you don’t understand her” (p. 47). Suddenly, from then on, communication appears to break down between both friends in the story, and Jahan no longer is able to understand clearly at all. Soon, Susie also tires of writing, and the two friends eventually settle into a comfortable routine that involves signing, much to the irritation of their parents.
Four days into her refusal to speak, Susie has an accident at home, breaking her left hand. Although she can still write, Jahan now agrees with Susie’s parents that her refusal to speak “wasn’t fun or funny any longer” (p. 59). He decides instead to take it upon himself to show Susie that she cannot keep refusing to speak. When they are supposed to play together the next day, he tells Susie that on account of his many small accidents, he has decided not to walk. As he points out to her, “If I don’t walk anywhere, I will not get hurt. So I will not walk from now on” (p. 62).
Susie is quickly aware that this is Jahan’s attempt to get her to start speaking, and she writes, “I know what you are doing. It is not the same thing” (p. 62), further pointing out that she is required to go to therapy for her lisp, while Jahan is not required to do anything similar. Although Jahan responds that he would have been sent to therapy for his clumsy tendencies if there was such therapy, Susie suddenly agrees to begin speaking again. The end of this story comes quickly - Susie’s parents are thrilled with Jahan, she agrees to go to speech therapy without further expressions of dissatisfaction, and she is ultimately able to give her science class presentation on photosynthesis after much practice.
As is clear throughout the book, Susie has felt upset and angry at the many times she has been bullied about her lisp, and attempts to exercise various kinds of refusal in her response to this taunting. Her refusal is, at numerous turns, somewhat harmfully thwarted by her parents, who are keen that her speech can be ‘fixed,’ even when the refusals never indicate that the problem is Susie. Throughout the story, Susie’s refusals are depicted in a manner that suggests she may just need a little more coaxing to (normatively) ‘do what she is supposed to be doing,’ rather than as deeply legitimate ways to respond to inhospitable environments.
How might we therefore instead interpret Susie’s refusal, moving away from a stereotypical, normative insistence that she is being stubborn, silly or defiant? What might it mean to do so in a way that pushes back against ableist notions and expectations of characters in children’s literature? For one, it is worthwhile to note that her decision to move away from saying words out loud is not choosing quietness; rather, she continues to choose to communicate, even though her choices are largely dismissed by her family and subsequently Jahan.
Susie’s choices clearly appear uncomfortable to Susie’s parents and Jahan for their perceived deviance, as a result of which Jahan attempts to equate his own accidents with the Susie’s lisp, and the subsequent bullying that Susie has endured. Although Susie is eventually persuaded to speak, to take her refusal seriously would have been to recognize both that her decisions to refuse are legitimate in their own right, and that both Jahan and her parents attempt on multiple occasions to obscure this legitimacy so that they can each nudge further toward their ideas of abled normativity.
Reframing refusal through a move away from seeing it as unnecessary, and legitimizing it instead as the character’s decision to participate in the ways that they choose therefore allows us first to see refusal as a legitimate form of participation. Such a reframing is useful both in our own analysis of children’s literature and in the ways that we talk about children’s literature with young children, and in the ways that children further use literature to make sense of the world (see for example Adomat 2014, Gervay 2004, Luke and Freebody 1997).
1. Interestingly, similar recommendations regarding the portrayal of normate children as “courageous” or “resourceful” are not suggested in this article, and are altogether rarely - if ever - suggested in commentaries elsewhere, thereby further singling out disabled children as bodies in need of “special” treatment.
Adomat, Donna Sayers. 2014. “Exploring Issues of Disability in Children’s Literature Discussions.” Disability Studies Quarterly 34 (3).
Debroy, Dipavali. 2018. “The Changing Treatment of Disability in Children’s Literature in India.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 56 (4): 14 - 21.
Gervay, Susanne. 2004. “Butterflies: Youth Literature As A Powerful Tool in Understanding Disability.” Disability Studies Quarterly 24 (1).
Luke, Allan, and Peter Freebody. 1997. “Shaping the Social Practices of Reading.” In Muspratt, Sandy, Allan Luke and Peter Freebody (eds.), Constructing Critical Literacies: Teaching and Learning Textual Practice, p. 185 - 225. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press.
Rao, Shruti. 2018. Susie Will Not Speak. Chennai: Duckbill Books and Publications.
Superle, Michelle. 2011. Contemporary English-Language Indian Children’s Literature: Representations of Nation, Culture and the New Indian Girl. New York: Routledge.
Bio: Kim Fernandes is a joint doctoral student in Education and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Their dissertation examines the practices and processes involved in generating data about disability.
Image description: A person with brown skin smiles at the camera, their hair over their left shoulder. They are wearing a blue t-shirt. Behind them is a grey wall.