Disability History Month: Dyscalculia in Yoon Ha Lee’s THE MACHINERIES OF EMPIRES by S.L. Dove Cooper



In some ways, representation is a funny thing because it depends so much on our expectations and our desires to be seen. I’m both asexual and dyscalculic. I grew up both without explicit representation for these, but also without words. Even had there been representation I wouldn’t have known to look for it, that I could look for it.

I’ve since learned how to find queer representation that resonates with me, but dyscalculic representation is still woefully lacking. When I was in school, not even maths teachers knew much about it, much less how to recognise it in their students, and so my issues with maths went largely accepted as a fact of life, apart from the one time a teacher told me he didn’t understand how I, diligent student that I was, kept failing. I was only a diligent student in that I frantically tried to copy the extended answer sheet so I had at least a vague chance of understanding what the hell I was supposed to be doing, and I remember being baffled by the comment.

I never expected to see myself in fiction, certainly not this part. Female-presenting people were increasingly supposed to be good at maths and other STEM courses in a drive for equality. Being bad at maths (and sight-reading and directions and telling time and and and) was… not exactly frowned upon, but certainly treated with some level of contempt from everywhere.

Occasionally I speak about it. It’s not representation I seek out because there is no representation to be found. One time when I did, friends recommended The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee because it had explicit dyscalculia representation. I scoffed. I’d read that, I said. It didn’t have dyscalculia representation, I concluded. But I trust my friends and they told me it was explicit and lo there it was in back and white: dyscalculia, mentioned by name and used as a major plot device.

And I’d missed it. In fairness, that is partially because I would have expected dyscalculia representation to look like my experiences. After all, without any other examples in my life, my own experience is all I have to go on. That’s one of the funny things about representation: when we have virtually none, we want the shreds we get to reflect us specifically. No broad strokes, no differing experiences. We want that character to be us, to be something we can point at and say “See? This is me. This is how I live and experience the world. I exist”. We may do this even if, intellectually, we know better.

One character cannot, could not ever, represent everyone. Nor should it because that way lies generalisations and stereotypes that reinforce the concept that there is one true way to experience our lives. Jedao is not me. I am not Jedao. The fact that our experiences overlap only in some ways, easily missed if you’re not paying attention, does not make Jedao terrible dyscalculia representation. Nor does it mean that my experiences are invalid just because an author didn’t root around in my brain and painted that aspect of me onto the page.

I want it, though. I want it badly because we have so little books and Jedao is easily the most well-known character among them and I just want to feel seen.

Jedao’s dyscalculia is subtle. Without the explicit reference to the fact that he has it, readers may miss it entirely. Some of that is simply because readers won’t know what to look for. A lot of that is because Jedao lives in a very maths-driven society and has learned to mask his disability in ways I couldn’t ever dream of doing. Not only that, but his mathematical skills are also influenced by Cheris’s mathematical abilities because Plot, as well as the general descriptions of the maths in the book. They’re elaborate and, to me, utterly incomprehensible. It is difficult to see how Jedao’s dyscalculia manifests in the maths heavy descriptions and approaches when you can’t even parse the basics, never mind the ways in which dyscalculia leads to different avenues and angles.

As such, The Machineries of Empire books hold a conflicting place in my heart. They’re the first time I ever saw the dyscalculic aspect of my life and experiences represented. But they were represented in such a way that I felt entirely disconnected from it. It feels like it wasn’t representation written for someone like me, who wanted to see themselves in a book, because it wasn’t written to account for the added layers I needed to parse and access the representation.

Stories like mine are why representation is so important. We all deserve books that make us feel seen, rather than even more invisible.

This article was brought to you by S.L. Dove Cooper in association with Promotions.

S.L. Dove Cooper (She/they) is a bi demi queer indie SFF author and independent researcher who is terrible at bios. In her “copious spare time”, she is making a valiant attempt at reading all the aspec literature out there and convincing people that aspec SFF features far more actually human aspec characters than stereotyped non-humans. If you’re looking for more dyscalculia rep, they especially recommend their novel A PROMISE BROKEN, which you can find here.  You can find more of their work via their website: https://dovelynnwriter.com/ and on twitter @dovelynnwriter

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