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Q&A with Amanda Leduc on Fairy Tales and Disability

Tell me a little about yourself! 

I’m a disabled Canadian writer with cerebral palsy currently living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I’ve always been interested in the weird and wonderful—my first novel, which was published in 2013, was about a man who wakes up one day with wings, and I’ve been a fantasy/fabulist reader since I was tiny. In recent years, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the connections between the disabled experience and the “othered” experience(s) that we often encounter in fabulist and fantastical stories. My newest book, DISFIGURED: ON FAIRY TALES, DISABILITY, AND MAKING SPACE, explores these connections in more detail and is now out with Coach House Books!

You are the author of a new book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space (February 2020, Coach House Books). Congratulations! While you have published novels and essays, what was it like writing a nonfiction book compared to fiction? 

Writing nonfiction was a dream! I found the mixture of research and personal narrative that structures this book so fascinating. One of the things that I wrestle with the most as a fiction writer is plot—it’s so easy for me to come up against a dead-end in writing and think, “Well, what happens now? I have no idea!” But that didn’t happen with this book, in large part because whenever I felt stymied by direction, I went back to the research component of the book. Inevitably, something I discovered in the course of the research would inspire another section or musing, so I could keep on going. This made the writing process for this book much smoother than what I’m usually accustomed to. It was, in so many ways, magical

What did you discover during the writing of this book that surprised you the most about disability in fairy tales? What was most enjoyable? 

I think the thing that surprised me the most in writing about disability in fairy tales was the realization that disability is everywhere in the traditional fairy tales that we know. We are often so used to encountering a complete lack of disability representation in the media that we consume that it was almost a shock for me to open fairy tale after fairy tale and recognize disability in so many of its varied forms.

The key here, of course, is that while disability might be portrayed with more frequency in fairy tales, it’s usually not portrayed in a very positive light. (See: the witch who deceives Hansel and Gretel by first appearing to them with a crutch; the “ugly, hunchbacked” dwarf who is referenced in several tales from the Brothers’ Grimm, and others.) It was fascinating to really dive deep into the research and realize that so many of the preconceptions that exist around disability today derive in many ways from how the disabled body is conceived of in these stories that we’ve told for generations.

For me, the most enjoyable part of this discovery was recognizing how the acknowledgment of disability treatment in fairy tales—and the subsequent revisioning of these stories through a disability-rights framework—has a key role to play in moving forward with new stories that we tell ourselves about disability. If we can begin to tell positive stories about disability—and re-imagine fairy tales in a disability-positive way—then we can shift perceptions of disability as an “unhappy ending” to a life.

What is unique and illuminating about fairy tales as a type of literature? What are some fairy tales you loved as a child? 

Jack Zipes, who is a renowned fairy-tale scholar, has written extensively about how fairy tales have persisted for centuries because they speak to the human desire for betterment and change. Fairy tales are about transformation, about reaching for a better world. And while most of the traditional fairy tales we know in the Western world are about the transformation of the protagonist, who encounters a better world through virtue of some type of individual change, I think there is possibility within the fairy tale structure now to stretch that transformation even further, to social and societal change. I want to use the “better world” framework of fairy tales to encourage all of us to reach for and work toward a world that transforms to include and support and encourage disabled people to thrive.

You explore some of the ableism in major archetypes and themes in fairy tales–can you outline a few notable ones people may not have heard of?

In the Brothers’ Grimm tale “The Maiden Without Hands”, the main character has her hands chopped off and is forced to wander the world, surviving on the charity and pity of others. She eventually meets and marries a King, and her hands grow back as a reward for her faith. This entrenches the idea that disabled people can “overcome” their disabilities if they are devout enough, or if they are “good” (go see the right doctor, drink the right supplements, etc).

In another Grimm tale, “Hans My Hedgehog”, a half-human, half-hedgehog boy is born to a man and woman who have long decried their childlessness. Hans is forced to go out and make his own way in the world and eventually also marries a princess—but after managing this triumph, he reveals to the princess that his hedgehogness is only a costume, and his tale ends with his transformation into a young man—once again reinforcing the idea that the happy ending only comes to those who are abled and healthy.

What are some of the most ableist characters and stories you discovered in fairy tales? How do they impact our society’s understanding of disability (i.e., how can they be harmful)? 

I think the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is the most ableist story I encountered, followed closely by Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale “The Cripple” (where a young boy who is paralyzed from the waist down is perceived of as a burden by his parents until he miraculously regains the use of his legs). In “Beauty and the Beast”, you have this understanding that the Beast is made to be ugly because he is ugly and mean on the inside, and therefore his outer appearance is made to reflect this distasteful interior until he can correct his behaviour. This perpetuates the idea that people who look different from the “norm” are manifesting in their outward appearance some inner flaw of character. You see this a lot with the “scarred villain” trope in so many action movies, including the latest James Bond film! This is an incredibly damaging stereotype that has a very harmful impact on those with facial disfigurements in particular. We need to understand that a person’s worth is not determined by how they look or what they can produce, and fairy tales have long served to entrench damaging ideas about these very things.

Do you think representation in kidlit, young adult lit, and fairy tales is improving? Are there any modern day fairy tales by disabled writers featuring disabled characters you’d like to highlight and recommend? 

I do think representation is improving, though slowly. It’s been interesting to see that representation has proliferated in other genres—for example, we see many representations of disability in superhero films!—but has been slow to catch on in the fairy-tale and fantastical realm. Some modern-day fairy-tale and fantasy re-imaginings by disabled writers that I love include Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, the anthologies Disabled People Destroy Fantasy! and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis, and the Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo.

What kinds of fairy tales and fantasy stories do you want to see in the future when it comes to authentic disability representation? 

I want a Disney Princess in a wheelchair, or a Disney Princess with crutches, or a Disney Princess who is blind and has a guide dog that talks to her. (Animals are always talking in Disney movies! Why is a talking guide dog such an unfathomable thing?)

I want to see fairy tales where “happy endings” don’t entail a magical transformation to an abled life, but include a wider awareness of disability and how society, rather than individuals, can change to grow and include the disabled body. I want fairy tales where the protagonist sees the world differently as a result of having a different body—where disability is no longer a flaw, but in fact the very thing that helps someone triumph. I want a fairy tale where a disability can be a superpower.

Review of Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space in Library Journal.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space on Goodreads


A brown-haired brown-eyed woman stands smiling beside a tree trunk. She wears a deep green shirt and an ivory cardigan.
A brown-haired brown-eyed woman stands smiling beside a tree trunk. She wears a deep green shirt and an ivory cardigan.

Amanda Leduc is a disabled Canadian writer. She has cerebral palsy and is the author of the non-fiction book DISFIGURED: ON FAIRY TALES, DISABILITY, AND MAKING SPACE, out now with Coach House Books. She is also the author of the novel THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN, published in 2013 by ECW Press. Her new novel, THE CENTAUR’S WIFE, is forthcoming with Random House Canada in the spring of 2021.

Her essays and stories have appeared in LitHub, The Rumpus, Little Fiction | Big Truths, The National Post, Open Book Ontario, and other publications across Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia.Born in British Columbia, she has lived in Ontario, England, BC, and Scotland. Presently, she makes her home in Hamilton, Ontario, where she lives with a very lovable, very destructive dog and serves as the Communications and Development Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.


Twitter: @AmandaLeduc


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