Counting Books: Finding Dyscalculia Representation in Fiction

Posted January 28, 2019 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Miscellaneous / 0 Comments

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Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week’s off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It’s time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Counting Books: Finding Dyscalculia Representation in Fiction

A few days ago, as I write the draft for this, I had a conversation with my mother about telling time. I can’t recall why we were discussing watch faces, but we were. Something you should know about me before I go any further: I can just about use an analogue clock when it’s got all the hours marked by number and all the minute markers intact, and I’m still slow about it. If you ask me to read the time on an analogue clock, chances are you’ll be all “Oh, it’s X” somewhere around the time when I’ve figured out what the hour is.

The thing is, I know how to read an analogue clock. I can teach people how to do it. I just… am not very good at it. That’s what I was discussing with my mother, you see, and what I was trying to explain. The fewer identifying marks a watch face uses, the harder it is for me to read. Those fancy ones that only have, like, a dot to indicate “This is the top/This is 12”? Yeah, I can’t use those at all. I was trying to explain this to my mother and she… didn’t really understand. After all, the hands of the clock are in the same place no matter whether it tells you what that place is. She can read those clocks just fine and just as quickly as she can any other clock.

Me, though? Nope. At this point, it’s probably useful to note that I have dyscalculia and the fact that I was in my late-teens or early-twenties when I got the hang of reading an analogue clock slowly didn’t really come up much because 24-hour digital clocks were also an option. It’s something that people missed entirely until I was an adult. (Since then every maths teacher I’ve met after graduation who remembered me heard the word ‘dyscalculia’ and went “OMG! Your grades make so much more sense now!” I… don’t know how to parse that yet. I know I wasn’t good at maths or maths-related topics, but how bad does it have to be for teachers to remember it well enough to respond that way? And now you know why I think miracles exist because I genuinely should not have passed my maths exam and somehow did.)

I bring this up because, when I was growing up, no one seemed to know this was a thing. I can’t remember how I discovered that everything I struggled with and that everyone else found very easy had a name. In a way, I was lucky. In some ways I fit pretty neatly into what society expects of girls: I was gifted at humanities and bad at STEM topics. The fact that I was worse at maths than average was, apparently, not a worry.

When talking about asexuality and aromanticism and my experiences with it, I tend to try and unpack why I feel like growing up never really harmed me the way it did my friends. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I think it’s largely because I had other things to single me out. And, despite what I just said, this is one of those things. Because the truth is, even though it was indisputable that I was terrible at anything related to numbers, I was supposed to be good at them. I was supposed to be good at everything academic. But I wasn’t and no one could explain why, so clearly I was actually stupid and all the kids bullying me were right.

In short: not having any idea that dyscalculia existed messed me up in ways I’m still only just figuring out and working on healing from. I’m still working out what my coping mechanisms actually are. For example: I can’t recall phone numbers at all. Well, no. I lie. I can remember my childhood landline because it’s been the same since I was three. I’ve encountered one mobile number that was actually memorable. Even the ‘easy’ numbers are nigh-on impossible for me. I live in fear of forgetting my pin number. I just stare blankly whenever people hand me back change because I can’t work out what I need to get back, never mind if that’s what I actually get. I know, through years of observation, that cashiers (and a lot of other people) are genuinely able to see how much change there is at a glance. It still sounds fake.

I’m not sure how my life would be different if dyscalculia had been more well-known and better diagnosed when I was a child and a teenager. I do know that my life would have been much better and I would have felt infinitely less stupid if I’d had characters with dyscalculia in my life when I was younger. Learning disabilities are still largely unrepresented in fiction.

I didn’t see any dyslectic characters until Blake Charlton’s Spellwright (the first book of which came out in 2010) and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (the first book of which came out in 2005, but I didn’t learn of them until several years later and this is the order in which I heard about them). I can name a handful more, but not many. While some of that is down to the fact that I haven’t looked for dyslexia representation specifically, I want to bring it up as a way to highlight how little these learning disabilities show up in fiction still. Dyslexia is far more well-known than it was a few generations ago. Like me, my dad (who’s dyslexic) didn’t know he had a learning disorder until he was an adult because teachers weren’t trained to look for one and society just chalked him up as being a difficult student, not worth teaching anything.

Characters with dyscalculia, though, those I’ve looked for and found… not even that little. In fact, I found so little that I made sure that A Promise Broken has a character with dyscalculia. Eiryn, being four for most of the book, hasn’t really run into the issues that I’ve dealt with now as an adult, of course, but the frustration with numbers (and people’s assumption of ease) is absolutely familiar. I made sure that Eiryn had something I didn’t really get, though: people who may not understand her struggles with numbers well, but are still trying to offer her aids and coping mechanisms to help her out.

While I published A Promise Broken in 2015 or so, I (re)wrote it in about 2013-2014. It wasn’t until 2017 that I encountered another book with a dyscalculic character. And, if I’m honest, despite the fact that the representation is explicit and part of the way the character navigates the world, I resonated with it so little that when someone said “This features a prominent character with dyscalculia”, I drew a blank because I didn’t even remember that and certainly didn’t feel very represented for that aspect of me. (Note: This doesn’t automatically mean the representation is bad. I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that it clearly didn’t work as intended for me. I’d never seen dyscalculia representation other than my own work before either, so I don’t even know what it looks like.)

Because the other book is the first in a trilogy, that gave me four books with dyscalculia representation, though. Notably, the four books I knew of last year were

  • A Promise Broken
  • Ninefox Gambit
  • Raven Stratagem
  • Revenant Gun

The first is, of course, my own. The latter three are the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. Shuos Jedao, one of the major characters in the trilogy if not the central character (it’s complicated and I’ve only read book 1), has dyscalculia. Book 1 mentions it explicitly and briefly discusses his experiences studying. Book 2 also mentions it explicitly – with thanks to sandstone for providing screencaps showing me the quote. Book 3 does not. Since working on the draft for this post, I’ve finished the whole trilogy and… I’ll be honest, personally I can’t say that I found it particularly representative of dyscalculia. This is, in part, because beither neither mathsy nor visual, these books are hard to understand. Lee absolutely incorporates dyscalculia as an important part of Jedao’s character. It shows up most clearly, I think, in Raven Stratagem because we get some casual scenes wherein Jedao needs to do maths. (Sort of. It’s complicated. And spoilery.)

Book 3, meanwhile, has some scenes where Jedao realises he’s better at maths than he expected and I honestly couldn’t tell you if that’s because someone figured out how to ‘cure’ dyscalculia or just because he’s partially amnesiac. It felt like the former, so the representation in the books, which should have made me ecstatic to have any, just made me feel sad. I wish it’d been a stronger, more visible part of the narrative considering how important “Jedao has dyscalculia” was to the plot in all three books and I wish the narrative had been a little more aware of how easy it was to read two of its major (spoiler-filled) plot points as a miracle cure for a disability that barely has any representation at all to start with.

For this essay, I did a quick google search for more books specifically for this post and came up with a few more listed on Goodreads. This is what I wound up with:

  • The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine
  • My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel

It also lists Thank You, Mr Falkner by Patricia Polacco, but that’s actually about dyslexia from what I can tell, and a couple of nonfiction books. And… that’s it. That’s all I’ve got from GoodReads.

Talking about dyscalculia representation on Twitter also netted me Diana Hurlburt’s Boxed In, currently available for reading on SwoonReads, which is ownvoices for dyscalculia representation. Because I’m rubbish at reading long things online, I haven’t yet had a chance to read that either. (Come on, 2019! Be the year of Reading All The Things!)

And then a day after scheduling this post, a dear friend informed me that Amy Rae Durreson’s The Holly Groweth Green also has a main character with acalculia, which isn’t quite the same – dyscalculia is innate; acalculia is acquired through neurological injury – but I still wanted to mention it due to the amount of overlap between the two and the dearth of representation either way.

Anyway, that’s… basically it. That is literally all the book titles I know of that contain dyscalculia representation. Before I talked about this on Twitter, I went and looked up the samples for the books I found on GoodReads. My impressions were…mixed.

Reading the sample of The Absolute Value of Mike didn’t really offer me any dyscalculia representation to hold on to. In fact, Mike is implied to do some household things related to numbers that, for me, accomplish the opposite of what they’re supposed to. Based on what I read I’d have sooner pegged his father as neurodivergent and Mike as a perfectly average teenager whose idea of ‘good at maths’ is skewed because his father is university-lecturer levels of good at it. But it’s only a sample of the start, so it may not be representative of the way it shows dyscalculia. It certainly sounds like it would. (Also, I have a grand total of six books to choose from for representation. I can’t actually go off to be picky if I want to read books specifically for dyscalculic characters.)

My Thirteenth Winter is a memoir, though, and just the description had me tearing up. Heck, that first page is basically my experience. The only thing I don’t struggle with are grammar and spelling. But this description of a lived-experience resonates with me. I remember how, during music lessons or individual exams, my teacher always needed to demonstrate the rhythm before I had even a hope of getting it. (I usually didn’t, if you’re curious.) I can’t sight-read. If I can’t hear a piece of music I can’t play or sing it. I was decent at any musical theory that involved rote memorisation. And recognising instruments. Anything else? Yeah, not happening.

Eiryn has similar issues with musical notation, as you can see in the scene when Arèn gets a look at her study book. Eiryn, of course, has a ton of coping mechanisms, most of which she doesn’t even realise she’s using because, to her, that’s just a normal way to approach music. That too was important to me when it came to writing dyscalculia into the narrative of A Promise Broken because… I’m not actually terrible at music and most descriptions of dyscalculia would suggest that I should be utterly hopeless at it not… functional and actively looking for ways to cope.

I put it that way because my memory is a giant mass of holey cheese, but one of the more distinct and vivid ones are the ways I used to make sure I didn’t, in fact, flunk music classes. I was generally pretty quick at finishing homework. I spent hours practicing the musical pieces we were supposed to learn, though. In class I’d usually mute the sound of my keyboard and just… tried to press some keys at the right time without distracting or throwing off anyone else. And then I’d come home, look up the piece on the internet and play along until I’d memorised the movement of my hand by rote and didn’t need to look at the notes and try to work out what note went where. (Fun fact: despite having played keyboard since I was about nine, I still couldn’t tell you what note each key is without hearing it and I certainly never mastered playing chords along with melodies.)

And it was… just important to me, when writing the only dyscalculia representation I knew of, that those struggles with music and the way it ultimately works out okay for me were a part of it. So that’s what I did.

As such, A Promise Broken is very dear to me. It’s just a little bit of representation that I never had, that I hadn’t seen anyone give me before and that I don’t think people really realised was there to give until, it seems, about the past decade. I hope, of course, that the scenes resonate with other people when they read it. That it captures, at least, some of the emotional impact that it can have on people. That it will, in some small way, give others something I didn’t get to have: the feeling that struggling with dyscalculia doesn’t mean you’re dumb or stupid.

Because it doesn’t.

To end, here’s a repetition of the list of books I mentioned in this post, so they’re all neatly in one place. All links go to GoodReads.

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