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You Can’t See Numbers: Dyscalculia Representation in A Promise Broken
It’s a few weeks after a test and our teacher is handing out the results, so we can go over the correct answers in class. When he reaches my desk, he pauses a moment and says “I don’t understand how you failed. You always work so hard.” True enough, when I look at the mark I received, it’s another failure. For the next test, my teacher decided that he’ll spend almost all of the class leading up to it teaching me how to do one sum and painstakingly explains how teachers come up with them and how to ‘trick’ the sum into giving you the correct answer. His reasoning is that this sum will be on every test, so if I just master that one sum I will at least score a passing grade.
When the next test comes around, I fail again. Years later, I will run into this teacher again and, somehow, he remembers me, that young teen who struggled so much in his class. Somehow we end up talking about it and I tell him that, after his class, I discovered I had dyscalculia. “That makes so much sense,” he tells me. The validation that sentence gives me is ridiculously much for such a short sentence.
Growing up, I’d never heard of dyscalculia. There were no tests, for all that it was obvious this otherwise precocious child struggled only with maths. My parents, even, dismissed it, saying that “You can totally do basic arithmetic with aids, therefore nothing in maths should be difficult!”
How different my life would have been if I’d known about dyscalculia as a child, if the adults around me had known. When I wrote the draft for my first book, A Promise Broken, I wound up weaving in all my frustration with maths and numbers. I’d never heard of dyscalculia at the time. What I had was a classroom scene with a little girl determined to keep up with kids twice her age and struggling. I didn’t set out to write a scene so close to my own frustrations and feelings, but that’s what happened.
Between that draft and the revisions for publication, I learned about dyscalculia and rereading that scene was like a little cog in my brain falling into place. Though it doesn’t play a huge role or an overt role in the story – and why should it? Why can’t we just simply be neurodiverse? – dyscalculia is integral to Eiryn’s life. As it should be, given that it affects her.
When I published A Promise Broken in 2013, it was the only book I could name that had a protagonist with dyscalculia. There was no fiction I knew of that featured someone who had the same kind of struggles as I did when it came to this. The closest I knew of were Blake Charleton’s Spellwright books and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and both of those dealt with dyslexia rather than dyscalculia.
Both Charleton and Riordan went a route I didn’t take: they tied dyslexia (and ADHD in Riordan’s case) tightly to the narrative and made them overtly important to the plot. Later, Yoon Ha Lee’s science fiction trilogy Machineries of Empire would introduce a dyscalculic character and make a similar decision.
I didn’t choose to go down that route with A Promise Broken, in part because its narrative centres on a small child and has a far more domestic focus than those books. Largely, though, it’s because what I need, as a reader, is casual representation: representation that may be important to the characters, but isn’t intrinsically tied to the plot. Nothing plot-important that happens to Eiryn happens because she has dyscalculia. The narrative never mentions that she has it either, which is something that I occasionally regret and usually don’t mind. My relationship to labels is messy, but at heart what matters to me most isn’t the validation of seeing the word, it’s the recognition in the way the author shows us how and why this label applies. It’s the sense that, in some way, the author captures a part of your experiences in a way that feels authentic.
Eiryn’s dyscalculia comes up in bits and pieces, but, to me, it’s unmistakable.
Everyone groaned. Everyone but Eiryn. She hadn’t known they’d had homework and, anyway, she hated arithmetic. It was the one class she never paid much attention to because no matter how often Radèn tried to explain things to her it always went wrong. Listening to all the other children reciting their answers one by one was boring, but it made her feel a little better.
Eiryn focused most of her attention on the girls in front of her because she didn’t want to think about anything. Syla-minnai and Mery-minnai were passing notes to one another. Eiryn couldn’t read what they were writing, but it was at least more fun to guess at that than to hear people answer sums she hadn’t seen and couldn’t do anyway.
After some time, Orryn-minnaoi started to explain multiplication and Eiryn was utterly lost. Radèn-minnoi’s explanations always made a bit more sense. He always used things to show her which helped. The last time Radèn had tried to explain numbers, he hadn’t written things down for children to copy like Orryn-minnaoi did. He’d stolen a whole bag of raspberries from the kitchens and they’d wound up with their hands all sticky with juice. It was much more fun than what Orryn-minnaoi was doing and at least it felt like she understood that. (O’Connacht, 2013, ch 10)
This chapter is the first time that Eiryn’s dyscalculia truly comes up. The chapter as a whole deals with Eiryn’s return to school after a period of mourning and marks her return to participation in wider society. These three paragraphs, while not related directly to the plot, lead readers into imagining what the rest of her day is like as well as the kind of person Eiryn is.
And I made it as clear as I could, without using the word ‘dyscalculia’, that she has it. The paragraphs don’t dwell much on Eiryn’s problems, mostly focusing on her state of mind than anything else, but they also deliver an important note on how to help dyscalculic children learn how to deal with numbers and do sums: give them physical aids to help them visualise the numbers, give them something concrete to hold onto.
Later in the story, in chapter 15, her teacher, Orryn, notices the issue for the first time. The chapter itself deals with Eiryn’s discomfort at the way one of her classmates no longer shows up. Orryn’s solution is to take her aside privately and, being Orryn, ends up turning it into a lesson that involves writing and counting.
The combination there matters because it highlights the way one topic is easy for Eiryn while the other is difficult. The section on learning to read or write is largely brushed over in the narrative, confined to a quick summary of what happens. The section on learning to count, however, is easily almost a third of the chapter’s total length.
It’s that long because, firstly, in a book as focused on the growing pains of a small child as A Promise Broken is I have the room to expand on scenes like this. They’re an important part of Eiryn’s personality developing and maturing. It’s scenes like this one that teach her and hopefully the reader that it’s okay not to be good at everything and that struggling to understand something doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It’s a scene that explicitly goes against some of the messages bullying caused Eiryn to internalise and it’s a scene that highlights, for people without dyscalculia, how hard we struggle to make sense of it all.
To write it, I did more research into the ways that dyscalculia manifests itself in people. Unlike Eiryn, I can count to ten. Just don’t ask me to count far beyond about 30 because I will mess it up. It’s very annoying when you’re struggling with something that everyone else seems to take for granted as a thing you can do easily. The fact that she can’t recall the order of single digits may seem simply like a cute quirk on the surface, but it’s a thing that some small children with dyscalculia genuinely struggle with.
Though A Promise Broken leans heavily towards showing a dyscalculic character’s struggle with maths, its depiction, like dyscalculia itself, explores more than that. The representation in these two chapters is deliberately rather blunt because I didn’t want people to brush Eiryn’s dyscalculia off as something that she’s struggling with just because she’s young and this is new information to her. So is writing and she manages that just fine. The rest of the representation is more subtle, and we don’t get to see it from her perspective.
In chapter 11, Arèn, Eiryn’s uncle, finds her practice book of what are, in effect, magic spells. Magic in this world is thought to work through musical patterns that the kerisaoina start learning as soon as they can. The scene where Arèn sees what’s in the book is the one time in the narrative that Eiryn’s dyscalculia relates to the actual political plot happening in the background, and it does so almost tangentially.
One of the ways in which dyscalculia can manifest itself is trouble with formal music education. Or, put differently, some dyscalculic people have trouble reading and writing musical notation. Like me, Eiryn can’t read or write musical notation. Given that she’s four and only starting to learn, it’s easy to brush off her struggles as beginner’s issues. As such it mattered to me that the scene captured both the sense that she’s making the type of errors that one would expect of a child her age and skill level as well as ones that are more serious. From the perspective of someone who’s never heard of dyscalculia and wouldn’t recognise it, because why make it easy on myself.
Throughout the book, Eiryn has no trouble copying what she hears. She has, in fact, been reprimanded for making alterations to suit her voice type based solely on what she’s heard prior to this point. By the time the reader gets to chapter 15, they know that Eiryn is good even by the standard of a people who expect perfection because the narrative has built up the idea that she’s a prodigy.
And yet when the reader finally gets a look at how Eiryn studies the very thing she’s already known for, Arèn’s perception of her studying methods are… less than flattering and her notation is immediately pitched against her practical abilities.
Arèn’s perception is best summarised by the line “The small book was filled with faulty notations, symbols he didn’t understand at all and a scrawl that was only legible because he knew what it was supposed to say, but he could find no flaws in Eiryn’s voice, only smaller practice errors that any child would make.” because it highlights that juxtaposition between what Eiryn demonstrably can do and what her notation suggests she will do. Further, the scene goes to some length to point out that, notation aside, Eiryn has no other trouble with the spells. It even implies that she doesn’t rely on the notation to reproduce what she’s heard.
The only way the scene could have made it clearer that Eiryn struggles with formal notation would have been to include her trying to sight-read something she’d never heard before. Instead, it focuses on the way Eiryn copies the same motif in different ways and yet still recognises that these pieces refer to the same motif. It could almost certainly do with a bit more clarity on how long it takes Eiryn to work out that the motif is the same or why. The subtle hint that it takes long enough for Arèn to start aiming his niece’s attention in the right direction is easy enough to miss if readers aren’t looking for it.
I drew heavily on my own struggles with musical notation for that one scene because I wanted to show that dyscalculia affects more than just one’s ability to understand mathematical concepts. I didn’t want a story where dyscalculia meant I was in some way special because it isn’t, and wasn’t, the type of story that I needed. I needed something quieter, something that said “It exists and is a part of you, but it doesn’t have to define you”. To me, narratives like Charlton’s Spellwright, Riordan’s Percy Jackson and even Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire books all do that by making their plots hinge, in some way, on the disability representation. We need stories like that, don’t get me wrong. We desperately need stories that explicitly include disability in a way that counters harmful tropes or outright erasure.
But we need the stories where disabled characters simply get to live too. I needed stories where disabled characters get to have adventures that are affected by that disability but not, in turn, affect that disability in any way. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more narratives like that in future. That we’ll get a good mixture of different ways in which we can see ourselves, so all readers can get the type of representation they want or need at any given moment in time.
Preferably without first having to write it because there’s nothing there like I did.
 Kerisaoina society, I should note, is more than a little messed up.
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