In the opening moments of Warrior Nun, Netflix’s adaptation of Ben Dunn’s comic book, Ava, the show’s kickass protagonist, muses, “My whole life, I’ve dreamed about being dead. I leave my body and I see myself from above, a normal girl. Just normal. I stare at her perfect normality until I wake up and realize I am still the freak I’ve been my whole life.”
Warrior Nun is a fantasy series and Ava wakes up in a morgue, so it’s fair to wonder what she means when she says “freak.” A vampire? A zombie? A ghost? A lich? A ringwraith? A Babadook? But no. What she means is she was a disabled human being, a quadriplegic wheelchair user. When she wakes up from the dead, she wonders if she’s in hell, but decides she doesn’t care, because at least she can use her legs. To emphasize the fact that she’s no longer “a freak,” she goes running along the beach and out dancing in a club and the editor works double-time to focus again and again, solely, on her legs.
A mysterious man, the leader of the Warrior Nuns, shows up looking for her at the orphanage where she lived, but the nuns have no idea where she could be or who she could even be with. Look, here’s her empty hospital wheelchair. And she was quadriplegic; obviously she had no friends. When the Warrior Nun leader finally does find Ava, he explains to her that she’s not quadriplegic (or dead) anymore because she’s got a divine artifact nested in her spine. She’s a Chosen One of the Order of the Cruciform Sword, and now that she’s no longer disabled, she can fight the demons the ancient order has been battling for centuries.
I dream about riding my bike every night. Sometimes I’m riding it here in New York City, dodging potholes and pedestrians and finally arriving at the East River, the smell of the ocean — seaweed and brine and sulfur and sunshine — on the edge of the breeze. Sometimes I’m back home in the north Georgia mountains, the crunch of red clay and fallen leaves under my tires. Sometimes I’m in Salt Lake City again, skirting drifts and the glorious sting of the world’s best snow on my face. Sometimes I’m a little kid, on my green Huffy with the spokey dokes or my Strawberry Shortcake banana seat bike with the white basket. I learned to ride on that Strawberry Shortcake bike. My dad got teary when he took off the training wheels, and I thought, “Now I’m free!” (I was four.)
These are the names of all the bikes I’ve ever owned: Strawberry. Pinky. Charlotte. She-Hulk. Smurfette. Ramoth. Bilbo. Minerva. Summitt (two Ts, not one; as in Pat, not a snow-covered mountain). Brisingr. Smoky Mountain Rain.
I used to ride my bike every day. It’s been eight months since I’ve been able to pedal even just a few blocks to the park. I got COVID in March, in the first terrible wave in New York City, and now I’m disabled. I’ve traded my bike for a variety of mobility aids, which I need to function on the rare times I’m able to leave my house. Sometimes a wheelchair, sometimes a walker, almost always a cane with a fold-out seat. I saved and saved and saved to be able to afford Smoky Mountain Rain. The nicest bike I’ve ever owned. A Specialized Sirrus Elite Carbon. These days I use it as a drying rack for my compression socks, which I need to wear all day every day to keep from passing out when I stand up.
In the months between my acute COVID infection subsiding and my diagnosis of Dysautonomia and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, I was basically unable to get out of bed. So I turned to the only other thing that has been as important and spirit-sustaining to me as biking throughout my life — fantasy stories.
The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Rage of Dragons. Star Wars. Star Trek. Buffy. Battlestar Galactica. Discworld. The Eye of the World. Ender’s World. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Kindred. The Kingkiller Chronicles. The Left Hand Of Darkness. The Graceling Trilogy. The Broken Earth Trilogy. The Parable of the Sower. The Sword of Shannara. The Sword in the Stone. Xena. Binti. Korra. She-Ra. The Dispossessed. Children of Blood and Bone.
Who knows how many times I’ve lost myself in those books and TV shows and movies. I’ve been doing it my whole life. My heroes make me feel like a hero. Their swords are my swords. Their spaceships are my spaceships. Their triumphs are my triumphs. I couldn’t revisit my favorite fantasy novels in those months. The brain fog and fatigue from my Dysautonomia were too intense. So I decided to try Warrior Nun, because so many queer people on social media were gushing about it.
Two of the main tropes writers use with disabled characters are Better Dead Than Disabled and Magical Cure. The outcome of each trope is the end of a person’s disability, either by ending their life or by applying science, a holy miracle, willpower, or literal magic to cure them — but both tropes are rooted in the same failure of imagination. Most writers are simply unable to imagine a world where people with disabilities live fulfilling, happy lives. The Magical Cure trope is especially prevalent in fantasy narratives, largely because fantasy writers can bend their worlds to do whatever they want them to do, and because fantasy arcs usually involve overcoming adversity — often with physical prowess — and receiving a reward for it.
This is all compounded, of course, by the ways that we, as a culture, talk about sickness. We fight off colds and viruses, we battle cancer. When Donald Trump inevitably contracted COVID in early October after parading around for months without a mask and in the company of countless other people who refused to wear masks, Americans were told he’d be just fine. Former Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “He’s a fighter.” His doctor praised his “strength and stamina.” When he left Walter Reed Medical Center, #TrumpStrong trended on Twitter and Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler tweeted a video manipulation of Trump tackling Vince McMahon, whose face had been replaced with the Center for Disease Control’s now infamous COVID illustration. Meanwhile, evangelical religious leaders invoked the language of spiritual warfare: “We know that Trump is under attack physically, spiritually, and politically — and we need to lift him up in prayer for protection and healing.”
So then, those who are mentally and physically strong overcome illness; and those who are weak stay sick. Those who are righteous are healed by God; and those who are wicked remain unwell. And most of all: We have control over what our bodies will and will not do. If we don’t prevail in our “battles” against illness, we must not have wanted it enough.
I am only eight months into having a disability, and oh, I have had some dark days. The pain, the nausea, the air hunger, the weakness, the cognitive dysfunction, the lead-in-my-limbs fatigue. The inability to just hop on my bike and pedal away my stress and anxiety, with nothing but freedom and wind in my hair. The adrenaline, the endorphins, the dopamine, the sunset over the river: all of it, just gone. The inability to make plans with my friends because I don’t know from day-to-day — or even hour-to-hour — what my body and brain will be able to tolerate. Sometimes I lose my words in mid-sentence. Sometimes I also lose the ability to sit up. Before, it would take me four hours to write a 1,500-word essay about TV. This one has taken me four days.
The hardest part, though, is the desperate, grasping feeling that I’m losing myself. I have always been the strong one. The tall one. The big one. The tough one. The overachieving one. The one who is still standing and still going when everyone else has lost the energy or willpower to “soldier on.” I have never, not even once, had a hard time imagining myself as the protagonist of whatever fantasy story I was lost in.
Warrior Nun came to me when I was more physically and mentally weak than I ever have been in my entire life, and it said, “Your inability to do the things ‘normal’ people do makes you a freak; heroes aren’t confined to their beds.” The message of the President of the United States and his followers came right after, and it said, “Strong people don’t stay sick in the face of COVID.” And the religion of my childhood followed with the declaration that God heals those who do right in his eyes.
There’s a scene in one of the final episodes of Steven Universe where the entire gang is facing down big bad Blue Diamond, and one-by-one, they’re all defeated by her. Her weapon is her ability to suck hope and happiness out of the people and gems fighting her. Even Garnet finally falls, on her wedding day! And that’s when Lapis Lazuli arrives. Lapis who’s been trapped in a toxic fusion at the bottom of the ocean. Lapis who’s been captured, interrogated, and imprisoned over and over by Homeworld. Lapis who’s been betrayed. Lapis who’s hurt the people she cares about most because she herself is hurting.
Blue Diamond casts her despair out over the entire group and they cower — except for Lapis. Shocked, Blue Diamond says, “What??” And Lapis flicks away her tears and says, “I’ve felt worse!”
Lapis doesn’t overcome her physical and mental pain; she fights with it, and because of it, and it’s the reason Steven & Co. defeat Blue Diamond in the end.
I keep writing that I lose myself in fantasy stories, the same way my mind clears and my body completely relaxes when I’m on my bike — but maybe that’s not really it.
Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories in order to live. N.K. Jemisin, three-time Hugo Award winner and the greatest living fantasy writer, took it a step further: “What a lot of people don’t get about fantasy is that one of its purposes is to mirror the self. Technically, all fiction does this! But fantasy in particular highlights the myths that undergird our culture and personal histories, as well as those that outline the agency we’re permitted. Basically, fantasy teaches us who can be a hero and how heroism actually works.”
My life is hard in different ways than it was before I got sick — but it was hard, in many ways, before too. I’ve lost things I love, and I’m struggling to redefine myself with my new limitations — but I’ve had new and wonderful experiences I never would have done if I hadn’t gotten sick. I’ve felt so much better — but I’ve also felt worse.
Warrior Nun gets fighting all wrong. Fighting isn’t a divine gift that manifests itself as easy and wholly able-bodied bliss. Fighting isn’t only the ability to stand up, to run, to do gymnastics and punch and kick.
Strong is fighting. It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it’s every day. It’s what we have to do. Buffy Summers said that. She also said she was a freak, which I guess makes me a freak too, but not because I need a wheelchair.