DiversifYA: Seabrooke Leckie

SeabrookeToday, Seabrooke Leckie joins us to talk about something I’d personally never heard of before (yay for learning new things): dysphonia.

Seabrooke writes thrilling and awesome YA, and her future-NYC assassin story is absolutely amazing! She’s represented by Rachael Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary Services, and can be found on Twitter and on her blog.

1. How do you identify yourself?

In the context of this blog… I, um, don’t. I’ve lived with this vocal condition for approaching ten years now, and that whole time I’ve simply referred to it as “my voice”. Which perhaps says something about how I see it – it is not a difference I usually spend much time thinking about; it just is, the same as my blonde hair or the fact I wear glasses. I only finally looked up the official term when I sat down to do this interview: I have dysphonia.

2. What did it feel like growing up with dysphonia?

Like many of the interviewees here, I didn’t grow up with this identity. My dysphonia is the byproduct of throat surgery I had when I was 23, well out of my “growing-up” years. The surgery was to remove a section of my airway that had, for some still-unknown reason, started closing in with scar tissue. The healing process involved a plastic tube placed inside the airway to protect and support the joined ends while they healed; this held my vocal chords open for the two months it was in, and ended up damaging them (a common though unavoidable consequence). I have never been bitter about this – I’m just glad to be alive, and able to breathe.

That said, I have absolutely no doubt that had this happened when I was younger and in public school, it would have been terrible. It’s the sort of obvious defect that makes a really good bully-target; and as I was shy and nerdy, with thick glasses, I was already low in the pecking order.

It did have some temporary effects on my self-esteem. I broke up with my boyfriend of the time a few months after the surgery (not cause-and-effect, though), and I felt convinced that no guy was going to be attracted to a girl who could only whisper hoarsly. (My now-husband asked me to dinner just a few months later, proving me quite wrong… but I wasn’t to know that at the time.) I’d taken my voice for granted, growing up (just like I’d taken breathing for granted, until I struggled with it), and abruptly losing this piece of myself was hard.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

In day-to-day living, bumming around the house with my husband, I pretty much never think about my voice. My husband says the same – he forgets that my voice is different; it’s just my voice. But there are definitely times where I’m sorely conscious of it and the challenges it presents.

It sounds like I have permanent laryngitis. (Alternatively, I’ve been told it sounds like a great phone sex voice, which is useful should I ever need to switch careers.) Over the years I’ve gotten more tone back, but it’s still raspy. Of course, anyone who doesn’t know me usually assumes I’m suffering from a bad cold. I try to be good-humoured about this, too (see note above re: being alive), but as I currently work in retail, after the tenth or fifteenth person in a day commenting on my ‘cold’ it can get a bit old. I’ve deliberately avoided any job in the food service industry because I don’t want the customers to be thinking I’m breathing germs all over their food.

If I haven’t used my voice in a while, the vocal chords tighten up, and it gets *really* raspy. (Conversely, if I’ve been speaking for a while, they loosen up and my tone gets clearer and smoother.) I’m still a little self-conscious about my voice around strangers (it’s one thing for me to be squeaky and uneven to my husband or family; but different when the person doesn’t know it’s my normal voice), so if I’m going to be talking to someone I don’t know I usually try to warm up my chords a bit first. Which is fine, as long as I have warning about it – but if someone comes to the door or phones unexpectedly, or stops me while I’m out with the dogs, I can sometimes sound really rough and I usually feel a little embarassed and self-conscious.

Besides just the rough tone, I am unable to raise my voice much. Public-speaking is a problem (though it hasn’t stopped me from doing it; I just speak to small groups, or use a microphone). I can’t call after anyone to get their attention – I have to whistle, or get someone else to yell for me. I can’t call to my husband at the other end of the house, or call to the dogs when they dash off after something. I can’t scream. I also can’t hum, or sing (well, I could sing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’, but can’t sing along to the radio, for instance) – and I’m surprised by how much I miss that. I whistle to myself now, instead, but it’s not quite the same.

I don’t do drive-thrus unless I have a passenger with me because the order-taker has trouble hearing me clearly over the engine. I hardly ever eat at sit-down restaurants anymore, because the ambient noise is usually too loud for me to be heard unless the person I’m talking to is right beside me. Clubs/concerts would be out of the question (or if I do go, I go with the understanding that I won’t be doing any talking). I can’t have a conversation with someone in a car with the windows down. If I’m in a group of many chatty people, I’m usually silent, because I can’t raise my voice enough to join in; I usually just get talked over. (All of these situations can be incredibly frustrating, because I *want* to say something, but I can’t, and I feel so helplessly angry at my voice.)

I wouldn’t say there are many perks to dysphonia. I have been told on occasion by customers (usually women, oddly) that they love my voice and find it sexy. These make my day.

4. What do you wish people knew about having dysphonia?

Just that it exists! I’ve only had a couple people come into the store, see my tracheotomy scar, and know that my voice was the result of surgery without me having to tell them; in both cases, they were people with a relative who’d gone through something similar. There are many causes of dysphonia; my surgery story is just one. Bumps or nodules on the vocal chords can be another, or trauma/damage to the chords or voice box.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Dysphonia is such an obscure condition that I’ve rarely seen examples of it in pop culture, and certainly not often enough for stereotypes to develop. But… I guess the closest thing would be “smoker’s voice” – I’m far too young for people to think that’s what I have, but I could see as I age that people might start assuming I’m a heavy smoker, because there’s that stereotype for heavy smokers to have raspy voices (eg. Patty and Selma on The Simpsons).

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

People are always people first. A person’s minority characteristic informs who they are, but it does not define who they are. A woman uses a different public washroom than a man, her body does different things than a man’s body; and yet when we write male and female characters we don’t treat them as “us” and “other”, nor do we focus in on the things that make the opposite sex different from ourselves. We certainly don’t rely on the stereotypes for each sex. Writing diverse characters should be no different. They are just like you, but with different upbringings / beliefs / abilities / sexual orientations that affect some of their decisions and behaviours. Write your character as a person with needs / desires / hopes / goals who is influenced by their personal background the way you are influenced by your own. And remember that we’re all individuals; just as being white or a woman doesn’t mean two white women are the same, neither are minority characters all alike.

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2 Responses to DiversifYA: Seabrooke Leckie

  1. Great interview! As you know, I’m firmly in the “love your voice” camp, even though I’ve only heard it in a couple videos. 🙂 And I never would have considered what customers would say when you’re in a retail or foodservice position. Really interesting.

    • Aw, thanks, Maggie! I really appreciate hearing that from people; I normally try to avoid hearing recordings of myself (like when I leave a message on the answering machine) because I sound so much more normal in my head than I do in reality, and it’s disappointing. So it’s nice to hear positive things from others. 🙂