During April, I’ve had plenty of time for reflection but little chance of writing. After a lifetime of severe myopia, the beginnings of a cataract in my left eye gave an opportunity for lens replacement surgery on both eyes. The first eye was done in late March followed by a four-week gap awaiting the second op. During those weeks I had excellent distance vision and, for the first time ever, I could see delicate foliage and twigs (I always thought tree branches were just leafy blobs). Between ops, I tried and failed to grow longer arms so I could see normal-sized print but my out-of-balance eyes couldn’t focus to read, write or edit. Three days ago, I had the second operation and already my vision is improving.
Avoiding infection and pressure in my head is vital so the wound doesn’t rupture or cause the lens (which corrects astigmatism) to rotate out of position. So, housework is banned (what a shame!) as is hairwashing and dog walking because I mustn’t bend down to pick up Homer’s poo. It’s a small sacrifice as the world looks bright and shiny to me. I feel like I’ve stepped onto the set of the movie Heaven Can Wait – the one starring Warren Beatty where he ascends into a brilliant-white vision of heaven. Some people say colours look different after surgery but to me, the shades look the same. Purple’s still recognisably purple – but the tone is more vibrant and more saturated than I previously experienced.
Eye surgery brings risks, including the terrifying prospect of vision loss, and I’ll confess I was catastrophising worst case scenarios as the date of my first op approached. How would it be to have to adapt to sight loss and carve out new ways of working? I started thinking about authors who were visually impaired and the first name that came to mind was John Milton, probably because one of his most famous sonnets is called On Blindness. It begins:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide
And ends powerfully with:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Back in Milton's day (the seventeenth century), the printing press reigned supreme. Braille wasn’t invented until 1842. Far from waiting patiently, Milton cracked on with his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, composing, then memorising, verses and dictating them to his assistants.
More recent authors, who were partially-sighted or blind, include Sue Townend, famous as the creator of Adrian Mole. Sue lost her sight due to diabetes at the age of 55 and also suffered from kidney disease, receiving a transplant from her son. She continued to write using dictation or voice recognition software though the technologcy was less developed back then. I remember using early versions and it had to learn your voice and mistranscribed one word in three. It must have been frustrating for Sue and she was, understandably, less prolific. She died, aged 68, in 2014.
Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple (1982), lost the sight in her right eye as a child when her brother accidentally shot her with a BB gun. The accident occurred long before Alice’s writing career launched so it seems it wasn’t an obstacle to her success but it did have an impact on her appearance and self-image. She reflected on how it affected her life in an essay Beauty: When the Other Dance is the Self.
Distinguished authors with visual impairments include writer and neurologist, Oliver Sacks, who was blind in one eye from a cancerous tumour, and Jorge Luis Borges, who described his progressive sight loss as ‘slow nightfall’. Although totally blind by his mid-fifties, Borges continued to work and lecture.
In recent years, the quality of voice recognition software and audio books (not to mention AI) have massively improved. Visually-challenged authors now have a range of resources in their toolkits to draw on and should be able to continue working if disaster strikes
Now that I have bionic eyes, I’m hoping they’ll continue to serve me for years to come. I'm deeply grateful for the brilliance of medical science that makes these things possible. While recuperating, I’ve not been able to do much social media or marketing of my books so as ‘sight’ is the theme of April’s reflection, I’m giving a quick shoutout to my suspense thriller, Girl Out of Sight. This novel has dark and gritty themes of human trafficking but on a human scale. I’m passionate about contributing to the fight against this hideous crime and hope my book plays a small part in helping readers understand how easy it is for victims of modern slavery to be hidden in plain sight in our towns and cities. Not all trafficking victims are locked away. Many are out in the world doing real jobs in the fields and factories, in car washes and nailbars but they won’t personally be earning wages for their labours – their pay goes into the bank accounts of their traffickers. If we use our precious eyes, we might be able to spot the signs of modern slavery and turn a victim into a survivor.
You can report suspicious activities or signs of potential abuse to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.
Girl Out of Sight is available from Amazon at mybook.to/girloutofsight