(This post does not contain plot specific spoilers, beyond a very broad overview of the concept behind the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the characterization of Sookie Stackhouse.)
I’ve loved the Sookie Stackhouse novels ever since a friend put one of them into my hot little hands because, well, it was hot and I was far from home and I was fussing and I was totally overstimulated and I just wanted to go hide, and my friend kindly said “here, take my book and go hang out in the park for a few hours, we will grab you when you are ready.” And I wasn’t ready until I finished that book, and then I went and found some more, because I just loved them that much.
The Sookie Stackhouse novels, for those not familiar, feature a telepathic waitress living in Louisiana, in an alternate United States where vampires have “come out of the coffin” because they can survive on synthetic blood. As the series unfolds, we learn about all sorts of interesting supernatural folks or “Supes” as they’re called, and we follow the title character on a series of wild adventures. The books appealed so much to Alan Ball, creative genius behind Six Feet Under, that they inspired the hit HBO series True Blood.
They’re fluff. Let’s get that on the table right now. They are fluffy and silly and they are not meant to be deep and introspective. They’re mass market paperbacks, and that is what they are. They’ve got a healthy heaping of steamy sex scenes and racy double entendres, and sometimes the descriptions of Sookie’s wardrobe get a little boring, but, you know, they’re the kind of books which I read as brain candy, when I can’t focus on things, when I just want to escape for a while.
I value escapist literature, because I think it’s a necessary and great thing. The ability to be consumed by an alternate world helps me settle my brain, whether I’m having a tough day, or I’ve just been reading a lot of dense, heavy material and I feel like I’m filling with cobwebs.
And what I really like about the Sookie novels is the characterization of the main character. As discussed above, Sookie is telepathic, but in the books, she specifically identifies as disabled, repeatedly and clearly, and insists that she is not supernatural. Her self labeling is a really important part of the books for me, because it makes me identify with her, as a character. I like seeing someone like me as a heroine. (Uhm, I’m not telepathic, just in case you were wondering.)
Sookie is also, in many ways, a very feminist heroine; she’s strong, opinionated, she knows her own will, and she exerts it. She doesn’t appreciate being told what to do, she’s not afraid to tell people to mind their own business, and she very much exercises her bodily autonomy. I think that the books trip up sometimes; she’s not a perfect heroine, but she’s a better example than the leads in a lot of other books of this kind.
Telepathy actually has a bit of a history of being treated as a disability in fiction, because, well, there are a lot of things about it which are disabling. In books featuring worlds in which traits like telepathy are recognized and valued, it’s sometimes treated as a disabling trait because it’s hard to be inside people’s heads all the time. It can be stressful and grinding and it can expose you to ugly, scary things. And, of course, other characters may want to use characters with telepathy to accomplish their own goals, which has some parallels with our world, in which people with disabilities are used for learning experiences, as plucky little mascots, or as targets of abuse and torment. Characters with telepathy are also sometimes cast within the framework of neuroatypicality. Even when their power is valued, they are also feared, and they have trouble relating to other people because their brains work so very differently.
Sound familiar? It does to me.
In novels where magic and supernatural powers are not recognized by the world the characters inhabit, telepathy is often treated as mental illness, because other characters refuse to recognize what is going on. Telepathic characters may be hated and feared by others, and they’re institutionalized, medicated, and isolated because other characters view them as mentally ill. In the Sookie Stackhouse novels, we see that Sookie feels isolated from other people because of her telepathy; it’s a barrier to social interactions, it makes her feel like she can’t seek intimacy, even in cases where she can tell people about it and be believed (especially so, sometimes). These are both things which come up in a mental illness context, and in the context of neuroatypicality.
That’s why I love and connect with Sookie. She does not view herself as supernatural, even as other supernatural folks try to label her that way. She views herself as disabled, and she explicitly and clearly identifies that way. She struggles with many of the same things that I do, and I like that Charlaine Harris has managed to create a complex, fully realized, rich character with disabilities.