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Emma Claire Sweeney on the power of poetry and fiction

How the written word can help to subvert misconceptions on learning disabilities

Author of Owl Song at Dawn, Emma Claire Sweeney has written a powerful guest blog post for Leslie Tate on her own experiences and how her relationship with her sister Lou has inspired her debut novel.

"Some of my most prominent memories of my grammar school days in Birkenhead relate to my sister, Lou, even though she attended the special school across the other side of town. After a swimming lesson in the early nineties, for example, an older boy referred to Lou as a ‘spaz’. I still remember the sudden strength I acquired when I pinned him against the wall, seeing it as my role to speak up on her behalf.

Not long after this, I complained to my first year English teacher about the use of the term ‘idiot’ in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Mrs Nuttall generously responded by devoting one class to a debate on the subject. It is only in writing this that I realise the extent to which I am indebted to my former teacher. She legitimised and focused my fierce (and, in hindsight, somewhat misplaced) sense of injustice at the inadequacy of literary representations of learning disability.

I had yet to find in the novels and poems I devoured a portrait of a family that resembled mine, and so, with the help of Mrs Nuttall, my inarticulately angry response to that boy at the baths was now being funnelled into a creative process that allowed me to speak up on behalf of those who, like Lou, lacked the language or comprehension to tell their own stories. My first ever secondary school creative writing assignment, for instance, was about a girl trying to decipher a phrase that her sister kept repeating indistinctly."

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