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Spotlighting Disabled Black Authors: Sophia Chester Debuts First Book, & Shares Her Plight As a Disabled Black Woman

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For Black History Month, I decided to interview disabled Black author Sophia Chester.  You may remember Sophia’s name from last week’s post about disabled Black authors in literature.  Sophia is someone I met via Tumblr, and I stumbled upon her book, Cosmic Callisto Caprica & The Missing Rings Of Saturn, on my dashboard late last year.  Sophia was so excited that I “fangirled” about her book that I knew that I had to interview her for the RYV! blog.

Sophia’s book is one of many I support because it has a strong Black female character lead, as well as disability representation within it.  In my eyes, Sophia knocked it out of the ballpark with the level of diversity that is present in her book.  I ardently believe in supporting disabled Black women who are trailblazing empowering paths, and Sophia fits that mold for me.  

Sophia was gracious enough to take the time in allowing me to interview her for Black History Month, and to share HERstory with myself and my readers.  Her voice and body of work are greatly appreciated and needed, especially for those of us who aspire to become authors and writers.  

Without further ado…

Tell us about yourself.   

My name is Sophia and I’m from a small sleepy country town that you’ve probably never heard of.  In case you’re wondering, the sleepy little town that I’m from is called Cambridge, Maryland, aka Groove City.  I’m 31 years old and I’m a bit of an otaku.  I could probably write an 80 page dissertation letter on the finer parts of Sailor Moon R, which FWI is the best season out of the whole series.  Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved to read.  I remember reading my first big chapter book when I was in the second grade.  It was Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty.”  This was the start of my literary journey and also my descent into madness of trying to read and consume as many books as possible.  For me, reading has always been so therapeutic.  Because of my disability, I spent a lot of time alone as a child.  So, reading became a huge outlet for me.

 

What is your disability(ies)?  

I was born with Cystic Lymphangioma, also known as Cystic Hygroma.  I was born with a large cyst on the left side of my face.  I spent the first years of my life at John Hopkins University.  The best way that I can describe having a cyst removed is, it’s like trying to take water from out of a sponge without squeezing the water out.  The cyst that I was born with left me deaf in my left ear.  I was diagnosed as blind at birth; however, I can see out of my left eye.  My sight in my left eye is very cloudy.  It’s very hard for me to make out the details on things from far away.  For example, depending on how far away that I am, I can see a large red stop sign.  However, I most likely won’t be able to read the word “Stop” that is on the sign.  The entire word would look like a gigantic white blob to me.  I also have no control over the muscles that are on the left side of my face.  I can only control the muscles that are on my right side.  I’ve had a lot of people over the years ask me if I’ve ever had a stroke, which I haven’t.  I just have a slight facial deformity.

 

What was it like growing up as a disabled Black girl?  To be a triple minority?

unnamed-7Growing up as a disabled black girl, there aren’t enough words I can use to describe what I went through and what I’m still going through as a disabled adult.  I could tell you countless stories about being teased.  Being told that I was ugly or that I needed to fix my face, but I’ll spare you all of those not so nice details.  Just know that like any person with a disability, school was terrible and the only time I ever had fun was when the clock struck 3 o’clock, which meant that I could finally go home.  In fact, it was so terrible for me that I dropped out and I earned my GED.  

I’m Black, so of course naturally, I have had to deal with racism and all of the “fun” micro-aggressions that come along with it.  My favorite one being, ”Why do you talk like a white girl?”  Because as we all know, pronouncing your words and having a clear idea of what you have to say is for white people only.  

Then I have to deal with sexism.  Being told that you shouldn’t do something because you’re a girl or because said thing is for boys only, is pretty much part of the course growing up as a girl.  Now being a disabled girl, I also had to deal with the notion of, ”you’re disabled.  You’re too fragile and you might get yourself hurt.”  I remember during the mid 90’s when I was obsessed with Venus and Serena Williams and all I wanted to do was to play tennis.  So my Mom bought me a racket and some tennis balls.  She also bought me a pair of goggles.  My doctors were afraid that I might hurt my eyes while playing tennis!  I kid you not.  So I went outside with my goggles on and I tried to play tennis, but I couldn’t.  I felt like everyone could see my goggles and I just couldn’t play the way that I wanted to.  I started to believe deep in my heart that maybe I was fragile and that I should just try something else out.  This is still something that I’m trying to get over.  A lot of times, I want to try new things, but I end up convincing myself that I’m too fragile.

 

What inspired you to become an author?  

My love for reading inspired me to become an author.  As time passed, I began to read more books.  Some of the books that I read were wonderful, like Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.”  After I read “Matilda” in the fifth grade, I felt so inspired.  Mostly because I could relate to Matilda.  I was a very quiet kid and I kept to myself.  I liked how Matilda could do whatever she set her mind to.  That set off a spark inside of me and I decided that I wanted to write my own stories.  I didn’t have a particular genre in mind or a certain setting.  I just remember this journal that I kept and every day I would write this story about a girl.  She was going on this adventure and every day I would change things up a bit.  I wish I could remember what I wrote down.  But at that time, I was so fearless.  I wrote because I wanted to and I wasn’t afraid of what people might think about my story.  Sometimes I wish I could recapture that fearlessness.

Some of the books that I had read were not that great.  I read books that were littered with clichés, terrible dialogue, outdated references, unlikeable characters, and they had ugly looking covers.  I don’t know how many times I came across a book that met not one but all the traits that I just mentioned.  Reading books that had these traits drove me crazy.  Like any sane and normal person, I tried to figure out why such a book existed in the first place.  Why would a publishing company look at a book that had the traits that I mentioned earlier and actually approve it for publishing?  I use to spend so much of my time wishing that the publishing companies would stop publishing these types of books and make the kind of books with the kind of characters that I would like.  But I came to the conclusion that the publishing companies are going to publish and put out whatever is popular at the moment.  They don’t care about someone like me – a black disabled girl who’s sick and tired of reading books with main characters that looked nothing like me or sounded like me.  So I decided that if I wanted to read the kind of books that would make me happy and have the kind of characters that I can relate to, then I would have to write them myself.

 

What’s the idea behind your book?  Why does this story matter?

On the surface, the idea behind my book is very simple.  My main character, Cosmo, is studying to be a space detective.  She’s a very smart and inquisitive young lady who loves to solve mysteries.  I think what makes my story important is the world that my characters live in.  My book has a very retro-future / 1950’s look to it.  You have people dressed in poodle skirts all while driving around in UFOs.

IMG_2267My characters also share the universe in which they coexist with martians.  However, there are a lot of people who feel uncomfortable around martians and they don’t want to live beside them.  So there are laws that have been set in place to keep harmony amongst humans and martians.  These laws are referred to as,”Divided Yet One.”  These laws dictate that both martians and humans must have separate seating arrangements, colonies, and schools.  The discrimination and hatred that’s directed towards martians I wanted to use as a way to talk about the discrimination that occurs towards Black people.  I feel like in this day in age where “All Lives Matter,” even though it’s painfully obvious that they don’t.  I want to provide a story that will maybe help to shed light on what oppressed people go through.

 

Tell us about your main character.  

My main character is a young African American woman.  Her full name is Cosmic Callisto Caprica.  Her friends call her Cosmo, for short.  Cosmo is very smart and incredible inquisitive.  Sometimes her inquisitive nature gets her in trouble and can land her in hot water because she has no problem placing herself in the middle of a sticky situation.  Cosmo is currently studying to be a space detective at the Lunar Federation Academy.

sophia chester commissionv5-2

 

You have several characters in the book who are disabled; tell us why creating such characters was important in your book.

As a disabled person, I think it would be very strange for me to not include a few disabled characters in my book.  The same way I would like to see Black representation in literature, I would like the same representation for disabled people.

I have several disabled characters in my story.  I’ll revealed two of them to you.  Cosmo’s father, Cedric, has to walk with a cane.  I’m not ready to reveal why has has the cane, but he relies on it greatly.  My second disabled character is a young Vietnamese girl name Phoung.  Phoung has a prosthetic arm.  She cheerfully refers to her prosthetic arm as her “club.”

 

What message do you want Black girls to get from reading your book, & learning about your character?

I hope that by reading my book, black girls will learn that they can be the hero too.  They don’t have to be the sassy sidekick or best friend that provides some sort of ghetto, weave shaking finger wagging morale support.  They can save the universe and not be labeled as the universal problem.

 

What’s a fun fact about you as an author we should know?  

Even though I’m writing a mystery novel, I’ve watched more mystery themed shows than I’ve read mystery themed books.  Go figure.

 

Are you thinking of writing a second book?  

I’m more so thinking about how I’m going to fund my next book.  I have a general idea and a theme for my next book picked out.  But I don’t know how I’m going to pay for editing and everything else – that’s what’s on my mind right now.

 

What successes have you had in turning your book from an idea into being?  

I’ve meet a lot of people online through my book project.  I’ve developed a few very nice friendships and I’ve meet some people who are writers and self-publishers like me.  I’ve also learned a lot about self-publishing and marketing.  

But the greatest success of all for me is my newfound confidence in myself.  I learned that I’m pretty amazing.  I wrote a book, I crowdfunded it, and I’ve managed the project all on my own.  It’s so much easier for me to believe that I can’t do something than for me to believe that I can.  Now I have proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m capable of accomplishing anything that I set my mind to.

 

What advice would you give aspiring disabled authors, especially disabled women of color authors?    

We are at the bottom of the social totem pole.  We’re Black, female, and disabled.  The stories that we have or want to tell aren’t exactly mainstream, especially if said story isn’t some sort of “you can achieve anything” disability feel good fluff piece that’s meant to make able-bodied people feel good about themselves.  My suggestion to you is to try as hard as you can to get your story out there.  It doesn’t matter if you’re taking the traditional route or if you’re self-publishing – just keep trying.  Never give up on your story that you want to present to the world.

 

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Final Thoughts

The great takeaway from Sophia’s interview was the self-empowerment she experienced from writing her book.  That kind of self-love and self-esteem from doing something simple as writing a story that matters to you is what makes literature so important to both us the readers and the authors.  Reading Sophia’s journey as a disabled Black woman and author motivates me to take charge of my story and write something meaningful this year.  

It is imperative that we support disabled authors, especially those of color and female.  Sophia’s book will be published in April 2016 through Smashwords.  If you sign up for Smashwords, you will be notified of when it is available for purchase and happy reading.  

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(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of Sophia Chester, & her illustrators Maya Kern, Catia Moreira, & Kristin Murphy.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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